PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ryan Fraser and Improving Arsenal

While many like to look at Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas or Nasri as some of Arsenal’s sales that have left a whole in the squad, Santi Cazorla is a hole they seemingly cannot replace. The Spaniard had one of the best debut seasons in the past decade, reaching double figures for both goals and assists. As Arsenal added expensive signings like Ozil, Sanchez and Xhaka, Cazorla remained to be their most important player. After the Arsenal medical staff failing to foresee the long term ankle injury (an injury that was noticed but not resolved until it was fatal), it left Cazorla in a terrible position, as well as Arsenal. While a midfield of Coquelin and Cazorla isn’t perfect, they balanced out each other and allowed them both to play to their strengths. Cazorla helped take pressure away from Ozil in the creativity department. In the 2015/16 season, Ozil was the best creator in Europe, making 4.2 key passes per game. The German was the only player who created more chances than Cazorla’s 2.5 key passes per game. It made Arsenal less predictable, ensuring that there was always one technically superb player on the pitch to assist the forwards. Cazorla was also influencial in transition, completing 2.5 dribbles per game. The Spaniard was arguably their best player during Wenger’s final years in charge.

So what does Cazorla have to do with a Scotsman who was sent out on loan to Ispwich while Arsenal were challenging for a title? Well with Arsenal in desperate need for creativity, thanks to Ozil seemingly falling out with Emery, it seems the Gunners will turn to Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser as the saviour. He could help give Arsenal extra creativity from the wide areas, so let’s find out if he is the man to help Arsenal challenge for top four.

Since breaking into Bournemouth’s first team back in the 2013/14 season, Fraser has found it difficult to find a place in the starting XI. While he did start 23 games in his first season in the Premier League, he was in a very poor Bournemouth side. However thanks to Eddie Howe building a much better attack, it gave all of his forwards a spark, and Fraser was by far the one who benefitted the most from the change. While Wilson finally seemed to be scoring the amount of goals we’ve all been waiting for him to reach, Fraser turned into one of the best creators in the league. The former Aberdeen winger formed a deadly partnership with Wilson, with the pair nearly breaking Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton’s record for most goal combinations between two players with 12. It highlights where Fraser strength has been in the final third. He is one of the best players in the league for making that final pass. It’s where he has become so vital for Bournemouth. His eye for an assist has turned him into the most important player for the Cherries. Fraser is the player the rest of the team look for. He is technically gifted and his passing is spectacular. his 2.4 key passes per game rank 4th in the league, with the likes of Maddison and Hazard ahead of him. His crossing is also an area to be admired. The Scottsman completes 2 crosses a game, the 2nd highest in the league. He is his side’s chief playmaker, and seems to embrace the responsibility entrusted in him by his manager.

So is there anything wrong with Fraser? There is actually a few things to note, starting with his dribbling. He isn’t exactly a good dribbler.  Fraser is completing less than a dribble a game. While Bournemouth rank 14th for dribbles per game, it’s an area of concern. The reason why Cazorla was spoken about so highly is because he is still a player they need to replace. His combination of high chance creation and expert transitional play made him an almost perfect Wenger player. If Fraser will be able to replicate Cazorla’s creativity, there is still a hole to be filled. This isn’t to complete diminish Fraser’s strengths. In fact, his lack of dribbling does highlight one of his better qualities. His ability to get into positions where he is able to cross for his team is what has made him such a threat for Bournemouth. He doesn’t have to dribble because there is no one to beat. It’s a concern for if he signs for Arsenal because it’s hard to know if he would be able to adapt in a way to suit what Emery might want. Arsenal have let Walcott, Sanchez, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlein go and haven’t replaced them in what they added to the team, being the ability to beat players an add that element of unpredictability, something Fraser might not be able to add.

I like Fraser a lot, and would suit a side like Southampton, one which is starved of creativity, but are full of players who are excellent dribblers. These are more of the players that Arsenal should be looking for. Players who amase high dribble numbers. While players like Januzaj, Thuram or Sarr might not offer the same amount of assists as Fraser, they will make Arsenal a much better side.

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PLAYER ANALYSIS: Daniel James and Improving Manchester United

Manchester United’s defence is always an area of discussion when it comes to improving the team, but the wide areas are definitely an area that has needed improving since Sir Alex Ferguson departed the club. While United have players like Martial, Rashford, Lingard and Mata, who can all play there, it isn’t their favoured position. They actually haven’t had a natural winger since Januzaj and Depay left the club. It has meant that United have been largely too predictable. Many of United’s best players are left sided, meaning if a team can just overload that area of the pitch, it massively limited United’s creativity. While a large 43% of United’s attacks go down the left side, they only attack the right side of the pitch 31% of the time, the lowest in the league. It’s understandable why United are like this. Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, the two players who usually play there, like to come inside, meaning Ashley Young is usually the only option on that side of the pitch. Young is simply not good and shouldn’t be relied on to this extent, and it’s a side of the pitch that needs better options. If recent reports are to be believed, United are in talks with Swansea City to sign 21 year old Daniel James for £15 million. Is he the player to solve this problem?

James has more of an involvement this season than anyone really expected. After an unsuccessful season loan at Shrewbury Town, and later deciding not to go on loan to league 2 side Yeovil Town, the Welshman remained at Swansea to fight for his place, and it’s safe to say he has made an impression. He originally caught the eyes of football fans for his incredible solo goal against Brentford in this year’s FA Cup, which saw him single-handedly run 80 yards, through 3 players and score a great solo goal. He also scored in Wales’s first game for the Euro 2020 qualifiers, dispossessing one of their defenders, thanks to his blistering pace, and putting the ball away to win the game for Wales. It is by far his strongest attribute. While it is quite straight forward, having such speed gives you a natural advantage over defenders. His pace is a factor helps with other parts of his game, one being his ability to press. It’s why Leeds were desperate to sign him. He constantly keeps pressure on opponents and can the speed to be able to cover a lot of ground for his side. His versatility also deserves praise. Graham Potter likes his players to be able to play in numerous positions, to help tactical flexibility and formation changes. James has been stand out in this regard. He’s played both as a left winger and on the right side, while also playing as a number 10 and as a striker. Potter has used him in very inventive ways, and has brought out unique qualities in him. When looking at his numbers, we will only be looking at his performances only as a left winger. This is because it’s the position where he has seen the most minutes, so there is more to look at. He has been taking 2.9 shots a game, with 2.1 shots coming from inside the box. James is showing himself to be an intelligent player, taking shots in very good positions. He’s been making 1.3 key passes a game, with all coming from a short range. One of the only areas of improvement for the 21 year old would be his dribbling. While completing 1.3 dribbles is pretty good for a player who isn’t involved heavily in transition, he is only completing half of his attempted dribbles. He should be aiming for at least completing 60% of his dribbles, but it isn’t a huge area of concern at the moment. One of the best parts of James’s game is his ability on the counter attack. The Welshman is so fast that he has more control over counter attacks than any other player. He is the player who his teammate’s first want to pick out. His viral goal against Brentford shows this. When he receives the ball in his own half, he first hits it forward to chase onto it, knowing he can outrun anyone he is up against. He beat 3 defenders to score a brilliant individual goal. It was by far his highlight of the season. Many will look at James and see a player who has only managed 4 goals and 7 assists in the league. While that is a relatively small number for a player who is being linked to a top 6 club, his numbers show a player who if given more time on the pitch, could add more goal contributions.

The stats are showing a player who is putting in the shots and creating the chances that you see from elite players. Even comparing his stats to other players in the United squad, he would rank 2nd for shots per 90, with only Pogba being ahead of him. James is far from a finished article, but his ability to press, his versatility and his pure electric pace, especially on counter attacks, gives United additional options in an area they are in desperate need of fixing.

Championship Play-offs: Who Will Earn Promotion?

The overall quality of the Championship has been improving every year, and it has been by far its most interesting this season. Fans attacking players, defenders going in goal, brawls on the pitch, manager meltdowns. It’s been a season where there has always been a headline. So with a playoffs approaching, and my own Championship knowledge not being as vast as I would like, let’s preview the biggest games of the season, to see which side will earn promotion into the Premier League.

Leeds United

While Marcelo Bielsa joining Leeds was a huge move at the time, I had my doubts. Bielsa has had a reputation of starting seasons very strongly, but eventually his sides tire and begin to show cracks near the end of the season. It occured with his most well known sides with Bilbao, Marseille and Lille all starting much better than they finish. Nevertheless, it was a positive move that showed the club at least had ambition to compete and were serious about promotion.

Leeds have been excellent this season, and it has by far been of Bielsa’s finest achievements in recent years. While Leeds don’t neccessarily have a bad side, it wasn’t a side that was tipped for promotion, with a midtable finish being expected for the Argentine’s debut season. With the Championship season being longer than any league he has managed in recently, it made sense. Bielsa’s system is one that demands a lot from its players, it seemed unlikely that they could play at their best for the whole season. While this has been true (we’ll touch on that late), it should not take away from just how good they have been all season. The team has bought into what Bielsa is asking of them, and has given new life to some of these players. The manager has built a team that doesn’t rely too heavily on certain players, with the key to the team being the system. Leeds move the ball up the field with great speed and intelligence, with players constantly moving to find space. It’s a system that needs extremely good centre backs, an intelligent striker and midfielders who can help exploit the space in the final third that is created from said striker. It’s meant that Leeds have been the best at creating goal scoring opportunites, with the Yorkshire side taking 17.2 shots a game, 1.8 more than winners Norwich. Their average the highest possession in the divison, and they face the least amount of shots per game in the league, with 9.4. To say that these players have flourished under Bielsa is an understatement. Leeds are putting in numbers that are reminiscent of all of Bielsa’s previous sides. They put in more tackles than any other side with 19.6 per game, and their high line means they catch more opponents offside than anyone else. They have stood out in so many departments that it explains why they were favourites for automatic promotion for a majority of the season.

There are a lot of players in this side that have truly stood out. Let’s start with the defenders, where Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson have been absolutely fantastic. Both defenders already possessed great athleticism and strength, which made them perfect for this system. Both have been putting in 2.3 interceptions per game, the most in the side. Out of the pair, Liam Cooper has been the stand out. The Scotsman has average more passes per game than any other player in the side, with 67, and ranks 3rd in the team for long balls. His range of passing has helped Leeds distribute effectively from the back, and has given a strong backline to a side so attack focused. Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich have been important attackers for the side, with the pair contributing to 22 goals between them. They have been a huge reason on why Leeds have kept so competitive, even with players suffering from injuries. However while both players have been important, no one has been more vital to the side than Kalvin Phillips. The 23 year old has been the most defensive out of the midfield. He has given freedom to both Hernandez and Klich to push on help the attack. Phillips is usually the player who drops deep to receive the ball and help start attacks, with the midfielder ranking 2nd in the squad for long balls a game, showing how he move Leeds up the pitch. He also ranks 1st in tackles, showing how important he is in recovering the ball and ensuring that Leeds remain dominant. Bielsa has also given opportunities to younger players in the squad, with Jack Clarke, Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts given runs in the team. Bielsa isn’t afraid to give less experienced players a chance, when he thinks they are ready.

With all of those positives, let’s look at some of the negative sides of the team, firstly being their convertion rate. While they take the most shots in the league, they are 5th for goals with 73, 20 behind Norwich’s 93. It could be due to a lack of a consistent striker, with both Roofe and Bamford suffering from injuries throughout the season. Norwich and Sheffield United’s main strikers Pukki and Sharp respectively started most of the season. It definitely had an effect on the side. The difference between Roofe and Bamford is clear. While Bamford is a good finisher, he doesn’t offer the same movement as Roofe, which means that Hernandez and Klich the same chances as they would with Roofe. It’s meant they haven’t had a consistent attack, and struggled in tough games where Bamford has started. They also suffered the usual Bielsa effect. They were favourites for promotion for most of the season, but in the final 10 games, they only managed to win 4 games, with defeats to Ipswich and Wigan putting a sour taste in the fans mouth.It’ll be interesting to see if they recover from this blip in form. Leeds have always been known as one of the nearly teams of the last 10 years. They always get so close and miss out near the end. They have already missed on automatic promotion and now have a real fight on their hands

West Bromwich Albion

This season was set to be a very romantic one for West Brom. They made some great business in the summer, with the side making many smart loan signings with the intention of bouncing straight back into the Premier League. Add that with a couple of experienced Championship players in Sam Johnstone and Kyle Bartley. They even gave Darren Moore job on a permanent basis, which was deserved after he managed to give a poor side a fighting chance at survival. It was all looking so promising, until the club decided to sack Moore, which is still rather baffling, arguably more baffling than appointing Alan Pardew. The club were desperate for automatic promotion, and as soon as that wasn’t possible, it was game over for the former West Brom player. It is a very unfair sacking. While they were humiliated by Leeds, losing 4-0 to their promotion rivals, they weren’t doing that badly, and had a good chance to make it through the playoffs.

West Brom play a counter attacking style of football, with their aerial dominant defenders winning the ball back. Using their good creators like Phillips and Johansen (since Barnes returned to Leicester) to help move the ball and create chances for Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. It has been very effectiveto say the least, with the pair scoring 45 goals between them, forming the best partnership in the league. The Baggies also take advantage of set pieces, ranking 3rd in the league for set piece goals and 2nd for penalties. While they haven’t been as fun to watch as other sides in the league, they have been very efficient in front of goal. Another part of their play I really like is their balance. In many teams, therw will always be certain side they will focus attacking down, usually the side with a team’s best creators, but West Brom are different. They rank midtable in frequency of attacks down the left side, the middle and the right side. It shows that they don’t rely on a certain player or side to attack, and instead can switch it up if neccessary. They are a balance side who are able to take advantage of dead ball situations, which can make them a massive threat against whoever they play.

Moving onto the stand out players in the side, the goalkeeper deserves a special mention. Sam Johnstone finally left Manchester United on a permanent deal, after loan spells at Aston Villa showing the clear promise he had. He’s played in every game for the Baggies, and has shown himself to be a very solid shot stopper. When looking at goalkeepers who have made over 30 appearances, Johnstone ranks first for saves per game with 3.2. He has been so important for his side and could be vital in the playoffs. One of my favourite things about this group of players is they have taken some massive risks. Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs, Kyle Bartley and even Gareth Barry. They’ve put a lot of faith in the squad they came down with, and has mostly worked well for them. One player who has stood out for West Brom has easily been Mason Holgate. The Everton loanee has really increased his reputation during this loan spell. The defender has ranks top of the squad for tackles per game with 2.6 and even ranks joint 1st for interceptions (1.6). Holgate is a player I never thought too highly of at Everton because I wasn’t sure what he was. He still doesn’t have the quality to be able to play as a full back, but has never looked too assurred of himself at centre back. However he has improved in both areas during his time in West Midlands.

There are still some things to be worried about for West Brom. The loss of Harvey Barnes was massive. The midfielder was a huge reason on why West Brom were so threatening in the final third, and while Johansen has done a good job in covering his absence, he has been missed. One other area in which the Baggies should be worried about is their finishing. While Rodriguez and Gayle have been fantastic, they have been games (their defeat to Derby comes to mind) where they had chances to win the game, but didn’t take it. They have to make sure to be more clinical in the playoffs, otherwise they could be punished for it.

Aston Villa 

Moving onto their Midlands rivals, Aston Villa are back in the playoffs once again, but this time it could be their best chance of finally rejoining the Premier League. After a truly terrible start under Steve Bruce, he was sacked and replaced with Dean Smith, who has clearly realised just how good his attackers and built a team around scoring goals, and it has worked very well. They had a lot of issues under Bruce, including an over reliance on Jack Grealish to perform miracles, and a defence that sat too deep. The championship is a league that has been taking steps towards playing a more modern style of football, in regards to higher defensive lines and less of an emphasis on long balls to their striker. Dean Smith implimented all of these things. He pushed Tuanzebe and Chester to the half way line. Both are intelligent defenders, and Tuanzebe especially is very comfortable on the ball and can keep possession. By pushing the centre backs further forward, it meant that there could be more players to help in the final third. It was no longer Grealish driving with the ball, but McGinn, Hourihane and El Ghazi all contributing to goals. While Villa rank bottom for both tackles and interceptions in the league, they make up for that by being one of the most possession heavy sides in the divison, ranking 6th with the side averaging 53% possession per game. They also rank 4th for highest pass accuracy, with Smith’s side averaging 79.5% pass accuracy per match, more than Bielsa’s Leeds. While those are all impressive, it’s in the attack where they truly shine. They’re 4th for shots per game with 14.3, and rank 3rd for shots in the 6 yard box, showing how they can create high quality chances. Just like their promotion rivals West Brom, they also get a lot of out set pieces, with the Villans ranking 1st with 24 goals from set piece situations. Only Norwich and West Brom have scored more than their 82. If they had Dean Smith from the beginning, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be much closer to Norwich. With their new found attacking style, this could be their best chance of earning promotion.

When talking about Aston Villa, there is only one player to begin with, and that’s Jack Grealish. The now English midfielder has arguably the best player in the division this season. Villa have a huge reliance on Grealish to perform and when they went on a difficult run during the winter period, a period in which Grealish missed 15 games, it showed just how much they need him. They only managed 2 wins in those 15 games, and it halted the good work they were doing. Looking at his numbers, it’s clear to see why they rely on him. He’s scored 6 and assisted 6 in 31 games, while not as impressive as other players in the league, what’s more important is how important he is when creating chances and driving his team up the pitch. He is the only player in the squad who is averaging over 2 key passes her game, and is second in the team for dribbles with 1.7. What’s most telling about his importance is how the opposition treat him. The winger is getting fouled 4.8 times per game. It’s also why they have been able to score so many goals from set pieces. Opposition players find him very difficult to contain, usually ending with Grealish giving his side a chance from a dead ball. He’s vital to how Villa play, and will need him to bring his best in the playoffs. Before moving on to arguably their second best player this season, a special mention deserves to go to John McGinn. The Scottish international has contributed to 15 goals from central midfield, and has been a similar threat as Grealish. he’s been taking 2.4 shots per game, and tops the side for dribbles completed. It has clearly helped that opposition players clearly have more focus on Grealish, giving McGinn more of an opportunity to get into goalscoring positions (similar to what Salah has done for Mane this season). One of the stars of the show has easily been Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea loanee had a difficult time at Swansea in the previous season, struggling with injury and playing in a side lacking any sort of creativity. Returning to the Championship was the right thing to do. He had a brilliant time with Bristol in the 16/17 season, scoring 23 goals. He’s done even better this season, scoring 25 goals and in 300 less minutes. While a lot is down to playing in a system that encourages attacking play, he has improved a lot from that successful loan spell with Bristol. His aerial duels won have gone from 2 to 2.9 and is now taking more shots. his chance creation has gone down, but there are plenty of players in this team who can do that, meaning it’s given more focus on Abraham to score goals, which he has done. At this point, It would be absurd for Chelsea not to even give him a chance in a team that can’t add any additional players. He has at least done enough to earn that.

So what is neccessarily wrong with Villa? For starters their goalkeeper situation throughout the season has been a problem. They haven’t been able to settle on one keeper, and have played 4 throughout the season. They seem uncertain on who their first choice even is. The last thing a backline needs is a position that important constantly being changed. At adds a level of doubt, that the other sides in the playoffs haven’t suffered from. Their rivals are fully away of who their first choice stopper is. While Leeds did change in January, it’s clear Castilla is their first choice now. It seems that Jack Steer is their starting goalkeeper, but having that doubt throughout the season isn’t great. The more obvious one is their over reliance on Jack Grealish. They’ve always struggled without him, and if an opposition completely nulifies his effect on the game, it could spell a lot of trouble for them. I do think they can go toe to toe with anyone, thanks to their attackers having stand out seasons.

Derby County

Last but not least, let’s look at Frank Lampard’s Derby. The Rams have been way better than I expected them to be in the ex-Chelsea midfielder’s first season. The team has an interesting combination of young players and experienced Championship players, and has made them an interesting side to watch. With Frank Lampard still being a novice when it comes to management, it’s meant that this side isn’t perfect, but there is a lot to like. Derby usually play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 and focus on overloading the middle of the park, thanks to having intelligent wingers. They aim to dominate games and use their good passers in midfield to create chances. His side to like build up play using the centre backs’s good distribution to start attacks. Richard Keogh and Fikayo Tomori have played a combined 90 games this season, showing how they have built the solid partnership. The pair are top of the team’s average passes per game, and are very important in how Derby play. Their fullbacks play an important role in how Lampard’s side attack. 18 year old Jayden Bogle, arguably one of the breakout stars of the season and the more experienced Scott Malone are responsible for giving the side width. They are one of the most possession heavy sides in the league, with the Rams placing 5th in the league for average possession, ahead of both West Brom and Aston Villa. They also take a respectable 13.5 shots a game, more than runner ups Sheffield United. Derby have been a team who have been looking at quick fixes for a long time, but have found a manager with a long term plan, and the fans have shown that they are behind Lampard.

Moving onto the stand out players, Mason Mount has to be the first to be praised. The young midfielder has had a great debut campaign in the Championship. He’s started 35 games, scoring 8 and assisting 4. Now transitioning to an attacking midfielder, Lampard has brought the best out of the Chelsea loanee. He’s had a season to be positive about, taking 2.6 shots a game, making the most key passes in the team with 1.9 and even been putting 1.4 tackles a game. He has been mature in possession and is a very good passer. his confidence has grown as the season has progressed, and we could see the best out of him in the play offs. Harry Wilson is another who has been great. Taking his fantastic free kicks out of it, he has been great from outwide (and has given me hope as a Wales fan). He is Derby’s top scorer this season with 15 goals. While his shot location is a mess to say the least, he has turned out to be a solid long range shooter, and while it can lead to wasting chances, it’s telling how good he is when he is able to score that many. He is an intelligent winger who is great finding pockets of space near the box to exploit. He is another who will have to turn up if Derby have a chance in the playoffs.

So what exactly is wrong with Lampard’s side so far? My biggest problem is a lack of a good striker. They’ve been very lucky so far that Mount, Lawrence and Wilson have brought the goals, otherwise I doubt they would have finished in the top 6. he originally started with Jack Marriot, but he wasn’t performing and doesn’t offer enough on the ball. Waghorn came into replace him, and while he has been an improvement, he isn’t as good as the other side’s forwards. It’ll leave them lacking a vocal point and make them arguably the worst side in the playoffs this year. This isn’t to discredit them. I think given another season and a summer window, they will be better equipped to face sides who are just better.

 

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Marcus Rashford and Fulfilling Potential

There’s always been a question on when do players hit their peak, but the problem is it’s a question with not a single answer. Certain players hit their peak at an extremely young age, similar to how Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are seen as players who never aged as well as many wished, but in reality were at their best in their early twenties. It can work the other way too, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic not showing his best until he was in his thirties. It’s not to say these players didn’t play a role before or after their best years, but they will be remembered for the days where they were unbeatable on the pitch.

In discussion of players hitting their peak, Marcus Rashford is the player who we will be looking at today. The Englishman has been a key member of United’s squad since his breakthrough back in 2016. In a season that consisted of a lack of goals, Rashford coming into the scoring with nearly every shot he was taking was just perfect to see, even if it was not sustainable. His time under Mourinho can be difficult to describe. Some of his strengths truly started to blossom. He showed himself to be a very versatile forward, being able to put in good performances playing on either wing or as a central striker. His strength and power were improving every week, and add that to player who already had pace to burn, it built a recipe for a player with the physique to succeed at the top. While his new found versatility was a good asset, it was seen as block to halt his progression. Mourinho’s lack of trust in Rashford to lead the line for his side meant his chances to play as the number 9 were very limited. He couldn’t learn how to play in his preferred position because he wasn’t as big as Zlatan and Lukaku. It meant that when he was one on one with the goalkeeper, multiple times he would make the wrong decision. The moment that springs to mind would be United’s 2-2 draw to Leicester in the 2017/18 season. It was Rashford up against Schmeichel, and seemed to not know what he wanted to do, and he ended up wasting a chance, taking too long to make a decision. When Mourinho’s United collapsed as expected, Rashford was one of the few players to keep any semblance of a good name, and he continued and even improved on that when Solskjaer arrived. Rashford finally started to fulfill that potential. In the first couple of months of Ole’s reign, Rashford seemed to go out on that pitch with a point to prove. The forward went out on that pitch with a point to prove, to show that he is ready to become the first choice. Rashford’s shot numbers finally started reaching elite levels, with the FA Cup winner hitting 5 shots in many games. His shot locations could definitely improve, but it’s showing a desire to score that he seemed to not have. He was the first player to truly get what Solskjaer was trying to implement, and showed the rest of the league what this United team could be. He combined that excellent finishing from his time under Louis Van Gaal, with the added physique from his time under Mourinho, to make a striker who finally showed just why his old Dutch manager put him in the first team. He’s now taking 3.1 shots per 90 (it would be much if his time under Mourinho was discounted) and is also creating 1.3 chances per 90. Rashford is on a respectable 10 goals in the league, but would be higher if he positive runs were rewarded. Rashford is great at finding space to exploit, and his first thought is always to attack.

However his good form was put to a halt thanks to an ankle injury against Manchester United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool. The forward hasn’t looked the same since, with that risk and energy not being an ever present. Even when looking at United’s historic comeback against PSG, Rashford had a bad game. While he did score the winning penalty, it was clear that he was still struggling with that injury, and it meant that United did miss some great chances to seal the game early. His decision making is still a bit of a concern. While he is fantastic at getting into goal scoring positions, he will occasionally make the incorrect decision. In the first couple of minutes at the Nou Camp, Rashford had a chance to put United back in the game, yet decided to try and lob the keeper, ending with the ball going over the crossbar. It’s very clear where he needs to improve, but those are elements he can improve on over time. Rashford has the blueprint to succeed at the top level, and for now he needs that brake over the summer, to get back to full fitness and show the world next season why Solskjaer trusted him so much at the beginning of his reign.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Aaron Ramsey and Running Down Contracts

One new development in football is players leaving their clubs for nothing. It’s always concerning why players didn’t do this more. From a player’s position, it’s nearly perfect. It means they can join whoever they think will benefit their career. Whether it’s Leon Goretzka joining Bayern Munich to ensure he wins a trophy, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining Manchester United to help build on his already impressive CV. You’ll see players doing this more often because of one simple event, that being Neymar’s record breaking transfer to PSG. This one transfer made many prices of players jump up, with Monaco going from asking £100m for Kylian Mbappe to £170m. The world found out that these clubs aren’t afraid to pay those monster fees anymore. What many clubs have done as a response to this is to ask for huge fees for players, making it very difficult for them to move. It’s meant a lot of player’s only response to this is to either let their contracts run out, or for clubs to be more reasonable when there is less than a year left on their contracts (Christian Pulisic moving to Chelsea is a good example of this). Players have more of a say on their contracts than ever before, and while it can have its downsides, it puts a lot of pressure on clubs to please their players.

One club that has made consistently poor decisions regarding players running down their contracts is Arsenal. The Gunners are famously run by owners with a serious lack of ambition, and their recent issues regarding contracts highlights this. While selling the Ox to Liverpool seemed to be good busines at the time, he was still allowed to run his contract down to its final year. Their two biggest disasters regarding contracts has to be Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Man City were offering £50m for Sanchez near the end of the summer 2017 window, and for some reason they didn’t want to sell, instead deciding to let him leave for nothing only a few months later. Ozil is different but sill just as bad. They are now paying him one of the highest wages in the league. This would be fine if he was playing but he isn’t. The World Cup winner is out of favour at the moment, and with his massive wage, it makes moving him on a very difficult proposition. The most recent player to do this is Aaron Ramsey, but this situation isn’t nearly as bad as want to make out, so let’s look at why.

Ramsey is a player, while useful, isn’t worth paying the £400,000 a week that Juventus are now paying him. He actually was a fantastic midfielder back in the 2013/14 season. It was by far his best season in club football and arguably his last season as a box to box midfielder. He was putting in 3.3 tackles a game, taking 2.2 shots and creating 1.4 chances. What’s changed so much for Ramsey since that brilliant season was his decision to seemingly stop defending. Those high tackle numbers have consistently dropped, with the Welshman now putting in 1.2 tackles per 90. Ramsey cannot play as a defensive midfielder or as a number 8. Many have just been assuming that Ramsey is this hardworking box to box midfielder, but he isn’t. He’s been at his best this season when appearing off the bench, where his attacking play flourishes against tired defences. Ramsey plays more as a goalscoring number 10, without the goals. He is very good at finding positions to shoot from in the box, similar to Dele Alli at his best. It’s possible that his countless injuries have really limited his ability to be able to do his defensive work, but it doesn’t change how he is a much less appealing signing than he was 5 years ago. Many of the English media have made Ramsey leaving seem to be the end of Arsenal, but in reality it is the right thing to do. Ramsey never truly had a place in this squad, and it’s important for Arsenal to move past players like him. I might have to talk about the absolute mess that is Juventus’s squad at some point, but right now I don’t understand why they need him. While they aren’t paying a transfer fee for the former Southampton player, he will eat that wage up even more than other more productive players in the squad are doing. Arsenal have dodged a bullet here. It’s about time they started to show a bit of a spine as a club, and not pander to players who are undeserving of it. Clubs now to be very ruthless if they wish to succeed, and it’s time for the gunners to make that step.

 

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Juan Mata and the Slow Decline of Number 10’s

Not so long ago, the number 10 was seen as one of the most valuable and sought after positions in world football. They were seen as the creative hubs of the side in charge of chance creation, but like many elements of football, it was just a trend. Thanks to managers either preferring the side to be more defensibly solid from every area of the pitch, it meant the once favoured attacking midfielder was replaced. Many players who were born to play as a number 10 had to adapt or be left behind, and many did so. Marek Hamsik turned into a goalscoring number 8 for Sarri, Dries Mertens turned into one of the best poachers in Serie A, and Di Maria already turned into a very good winger. While these are some of many players who succeeded in transitioning into another position, there are still some players who aren’t having a similar success. Oscar left Chelsea thanks to not being able to have a role in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, Mesut Ozil seems to not be wanted at Emery’s Arsenal and James Rodriguez looks to be struggling for Bayern, even with his good performances. It’s a shame that these players are struggling, but it’s just how football works. It’s a sport that goes through trends and right now it’s a position that isn’t favoured.

The player who we’ll be talking about, regarding this decline in the desire for an attacking midfielder is Juan Mata. He arrived in England in 2011, when he was signed by Chelsea for £26m from Valencia, and was truly loved at Stamford Bridge. He won the player of the season twice in both of his full campaigns, and truly lit up the league. His departure from Chelsea is still seen as rather baffling. Mourinho let him go because he didn’t think he did enough defensively to start over Oscar. After their relationship soured, he joined Manchester United for £37m. While many do not like Mourinho, me included, he was right on this. It became even more apparent when Louis Van Gaal joined the club in the summer of 2014. He originally found game time difficult, with record signing Di Maria slotting right in at the beginning of the season, however he did eventually find a space on the right side of a 4-1-4-1. While his numbers were never spectacular, he still contributed under Van Gaal with some important goals and kept the side moving the ball in the final third. He played in every Premier League game in the Dutchman’s final season, and his numbers showed this to an extent. He completed 47 passes a game, the second highest in his United career, was taking 1.5 shots and rarely was getting dispossessed. His chance creation was low at 1.4 but that’s more of a problem with Van Gaal’s incredibly pragmatic system. The problems that Mata was suffering from during his time at United were struggling to fit his skill set in a side that didn’t have the space for it. Players like Jesse Lingard and Henrik Mkhitaryan offered more off the ball and were quicker. Mata couldn’t play in the middle because he didn’t have enough defensively to play as a number 8 in a 4-3-3, and couldn’t play outwide because he didn’t have the pace and dribbing. While Mourinho did use him more than any expected him to, the issues didn’t get better as he aged. His disadvantages have became even more apparent under Solsjkaer. The former United striker wanted to impliment a pressing style in the side. While this did bring the best out of the likes of Rashford, Lingard and Herrera, Mata is a play who has not had the same boost. Mata just doesn’t have the same speed and energy as Lingard, and whenever he replaced his teammate, it just showed how out of his depth Mata seems to be in this sort of system. Mata is and always will be one of the most technically gifted footballers United have seen in the last 10 years. His reading of the game, combined with his ability at finding space in the final third make him a useful player, but not in the team that United aspire to be.

It’s discussions like this that make football sound harsher than it can be; adapt or be left behind. While this usually happens with managers, Mata highlights just how prominent it can be with players. This isn’t to say that number 10’s are prehistoric, but at this moment they are just out of trend. It means players, like Mata just have to try and find a way to continue to perform at the top level. Many players have figured this out, but unfortunately some can’t, and must wish they were born earlier, so they could truly have the great career they deserve.