Are Napoli Favourites for Serie A?

While Madrid is spending a fortune on talent, the Neymar transfer saga and Bayern Munich looking to future proof their squad, it seems Serie A has been left in the dust. It’s strange considering Italy is by far at its most intriguing since Allegri joined Juventus back in 2014. There has been a lot of managerial turnover in the last couple of months. After having an underappreciated short time at Chelsea, he has arrived in Turin to give Juventus a more attractive style. While I have already spoken about how I think this move doesn’t make much sense, you can at least admire the optimism. Both Milan clubs have also seen changes in managers, with Conte replacing Spaletti after his struggles in taking Inter to that next stage, and Milan bringing in Marco Giampaolo who saw success with Sampdoria through developing their younger talents. Roma are the final top side to see a change in their coach. After Monchi and Di Francesco failed in the capital, former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Paulo Fonseca who has been a top target for many other top clubs for a while. It means many of these clubs are in a state of instability, with their new coaches needing time to adjust with a new group of players and employing their preferred systems. It means only three clubs are not going through a transitional period, being Atalanta, Lazio and Napoli. Gasperini has done miracles in finally getting his side into the top four, securing Champions League football for Atalanta for the first time in their history after coming close on numerous occasions. They could be a threat once again next season but are unlikely to challenge for the title. Initially, it seemed Juventus have chased Lazio for Simone Inzaghi, but they were unwilling to their manager leave for the most hated club in the league. Le Aquile are in a similar position to Gasperini side. They will not be challenging for Serie A but could be a problem for the other top clubs with their attacking approach to games. It leaves Napoli has the most secure side in the league, so let’s look to see if they are capable to finally ending Juventus’s dominance in Italy.

Ancelotti’s appointment last year made a lot of sense. His predecessor built a team playing arguably the best football seen in Italy since, coincidently, Ancelloti’s Milan side full of elite playmakers. This was easily Napoli’s best side for a long time and needed a combination of elite talent and a coach to get that talent performing to its potential. Ancelotti has had a history of getting the best out of teams full of talent with Italian being one of the very few managers who can handle the egos seen in the game today. He built an exciting side through deploying 4 playmakers in the same team with Kaka, Serginho, Rui Costa and Seedorf and finding success. He did similar work at Chelsea, where he brought the best out of Anelka, Malouda, Drogba and Anelka. His has seen success wherever he has gone but has come across issues in some of his most recent jobs, most notably Bayern Munich, which saw club legend Arjen Robben criticising some of Ancelotti’s methods for lacking intensity. It’s understandable why the players were having issues with Ancelotti. Bayern had appointed him right after Pep, arguably one of the most demanding managers in recent history. Ancelotti is excellent at getting the best out of sides packed with talent but might struggle in more demanding leagues. It’s why a return to Serie A for a team who have a core of players ready to start winning. While they were a pressing side, it wasn’t their main approach to games as you’d see at Liverpool or Salzburg, instead focusing on possession. This is a more suitable style for the former Madrid manager, enabling his current group of players to perform at the same level they were under Sarri.

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Ancelotti couldn’t possibly keep Napoli playing the exact same way, so how has he added his stamp on the side? He has substituted the slower build-up play into a more direct style, making transition much more fluid and attempting to make them less predictable. This can be seen by a couple of things, the first being the signings. Dani Ceballos, Fabian Ruiz and Giovani Lo Celso have all been developed into top talents by Real Betis. While Ceballos and Lo Celso have had struggles at bigger clubs, Ruiz has been a success. He was one of Ancelotti’s first signings when he was appointed and was a transformative signing. He perfectly summarises the contrasting styles between Sarri and his successor. Ruiz arrived as Jorginho’s replacement, yet couldn’t be more different. The Spaniard excelled as creative number 8 for Betis, combining fantastic dribbling, creativity and solid defensive work, while Jorginho possessed a tremendous pass, a good reading of the game and retained the ball well. Jorginho was immobile, but it worked thanks to Serie A not being as aggressive as the Premier League and the slower pace of the league has turned Ruiz from a knife into a sword. While he hasn’t started as many games as I would wish, he contributed to 9 goals from 20 starts, an impressive return for his first season with a Champions League-level club. The departure of Hamsik means that there are even more minutes to go around and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ruiz becomes a key player for Napoli next season

Replacing Jorginho with a more direct player was one way of changing how Napoli plays, but the other difference was the flexibility in formation. Ancelotti quickly released he didn’t need to set up his side in 4-3-3 because they didn’t need to build up possession in the same way without their Italian maestro. They quickly changed to a 4-4-2, and it was a genius move from Ancelotti. It was built on an energetic and powerful midfield duo of Ruiz and Allan. Both are great at ball recovery and fantastic in transition, with Allan being an elite dribbler and Ruiz, as previously mentioned, is an excellent creator from deep. It emphasises just how direct Napoli have become under their new manager, taking away the regista and inserting more physically threatening players. The strength in midfield is a benefit due to the change of formation, but the real boost has been in attack. It has (as expected) allowed Ancelotti to field an extra attacker, usually Milik playing alongside Mertens or Insigne. All have been given plenty of opportunities to play, with the three all starting over 20 games in Serie A.

Milik’s transformation to a critical member of the squad has been fantastic to watch. He arrived back in 2016 after the sale of Gonzalo Higuain for nearly £30 million to give that needed firepower. However his first season in Naples was cut short after suffering from a long term injury, which forced Sarri to deploy Dries Mertens as a false nine, which worked so well, in fact when Milik eventually came back, he couldn’t get back into the side. What made things even worse for the Polish international was a second long term injury suffered in his second season, forcing him to miss 29 games. What has been fascinating about him is he hasn’t stopped scoring. He played just under 1000 minutes under Sarri, yet managed 10 goals which is astounding considering he only started 10 games. His shot numbers are high, he is good from set pieces and is pretty creative for a striker. He isn’t a fantastic dribbler or excellent in the air, but Napoli plays to his strengths and has brought the best out of him. Milik has never necessarily struggled for Napoli but has finally finished a season without a serious injury.

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After going through the difference Ancelotti has made, let’s look at how he has done in his first season for Napoli, which is mostly positive. I thought they were again the best side in Serie A. With Juventus having an awful season in terms of entertainment value and quality and the Milan clubs showing their lack of direction on the pitch, it made it very easy for Napoli to stand out. They were one of the most dominant sides in possession, outshot all of their competition, including shots on target. They completed more passes than any other team in Serie A and were creating more chances than any other side. On paper, they were clearly better than their opposition, and expected goals show that, with understat.com showing them to have the highest xPTS in Italy, 2.57 ahead of Atalanta in 2nd. They slightly overperformed by 4 points, but that is nothing compared to the 19 points Juventus overperformed by.

Starting from the defence, they primarily defended through pressing. All of their players have the mobility and can cover large areas of the pitch. It’s why Zielinski and Callejon have mainly been the first choice wingers. They are energic players and are assisted by their teammates in pressing teams in the wide areas. It’s similar to how they were defending under Sarri, but the pressing, in general, has looked more aggressive and is using the fitness and energy of the whole team to their advantage.

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Napoli have stayed very similar in defence, but it’s in attack where it has looked interesting. In build-up play, Sarri’s side usually kept possession through the centre backs, fantastic passers Albiol and Koulibaly, and Jorginho, waiting for space to open up and play through the wide areas, with the other two midfielders pushing forward. Ancelotti has effectively taken the middle man out of that build-up, with the centre backs now quickly hit the ball into the channels for either the fullbacks or wide players to receive. While a small change, it has made Napoli much quicker in the build-up and has effectively adapted to attacking without their key midfielder. This change highlights Ancelotti at his best, being able to get the best out of what he has been given and making an effective attack.

One of Sarri’s most significant faults as a manager is his lack of rotation. It’s down to him preferring a very small group of players he likes, and will only change if faced with injuries or suspensions. This can be seen in his final season for Napoli, where only 13 players started over 10 games. With a team full of talent, it’s an issue Ancelotti has attempted to address. Ancelotti’s debut season saw 17 players play over 10 games, a vast improvement for the players. He turned Zielinski from a squad player into a vital member of the squad, with only Koulibaly playing more minutes than the former Empoli midfielder. He has been used effectively as a wide playmaker, with a substantial defensive contribution and 1.6 key passes per game have shown why he has been heavily favoured by his manager. It’s in the forward area where his squad rotation has been most impressive. As mentioned, Insigne, Mertens and Milik have played a similar amount of games. This was unimaginable at the beginning of the season.

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Insigne has been one of the best wingers in Europe for the past 4 years, and the idea of him taking a lesser role was insane to imagine, but it has worked for all players involved. Milik’s impressive form has made it nearly impossible to drop him, with the striker scoring 17 goals in 27 starts. Ancelotti has seemed to be more careful in how often he has deployed Dries Mertens. The Belgian international became a vital player for Sarri but has seen his game time decrease under his new manager. It’s thanks to Mertens now being 32 and is at an age where Ancelotti doesn’t want to rely on him too heavily. The Italian has also historically preferred to have a more traditional striker has his first choice, with Inzaghi, Benzema, Lewandowski and Drogba performing very well under him in the past. While Mertens did transform himself into a very good poacher, Milik is 7 years his junior and has the same energy and intelligence in the box as his teammate. It seems Ancelotti has attempted to push Mertens away from his importance to the side slowly, and put more emphasis on using Milik.

Before looking at if this side is ready to face Juventus for the title, we have to discuss the potential signing of James Rodriguez. The Colombian is my favourite number 10 in Europe and will go down as one of the underutilised players in the history of the modern game. He’s been fantastic whenever he has played, but managers have preferred other players over him, making it difficult for him to nail down a starting place. After a season that didn’t see enough game time for a player of his talents, there seems to be only one man that can fix that, and that’s Carlos Ancelotti. Rodriguez was fantastic in his debut season under Ancelotti and after his struggles under Zidane, went to join the Italian again at Bayern. He excelled again, with his chance creation being outstanding, even during his last season under Kovac, he was still Bayern’s creator. In only 13 starts in the Bundesliga, The former Monaco midfielder contributed to 10 goals, creating 2.6 chances which were the most for his side. He even showed a solid defensive work rate too, consistently tracking back in more pragmatic Bayern side. Napoli already possess gifted playmakers, but Rodriguez is a next level player and could fit in well in Ancelotti’s system. The Italian has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 before, which is perfect for James. The argument could be made that his arrival could limit Insigne’s game time, which is likely. However, as mentioned previously, Ancelotti has given a healthy amount of minutes to all of his forwards, and all seem pleased with the game time they are getting. James can play out wide as a playmaker if needed and can arguably play in a 4-3-3 as an advanced number 8. He has had a history of playing multiple positions at club level, so finding a place for such a quality player has to be done. He’s insanely gifted as a footballer and has one plenty of trophies, something he could bring to a group of players who have struggled to win in the past to earn the silverware.

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With the possibility of Juventus having a down year, there isn’t a better chance for Napoli to win Serie A. They have had a season to adapt to Ancelotti’s more direct style, they have a right blend of young, prime players and the more experienced and with the possible addition of James Rodriguez. It has given them that star quality that could finally break Juventus’s dominance. Ancelotti is at his best when given players who just need that extra push to succeed, and there isn’t a team that needed it more than Napoli.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Manchester United: A Perfect Pair

I’ve been a Manchester United fan my whole life and by far my favourite season to follow was the 2016/17 season. While I remember watching the club lift the Champions League in Moscow and failing to beat Barcelona a year later, I began losing interest in the sport for a few years. Thankfully that loss of interest occurred during the Moyes era, which is why that point of time doesn’t hurt as much as it hurts other fans. My fascination with football returned with Van Gaal’s arrival. It felt like a fresh start and a chance to return to the sport I, like many young kids, dreamed of playing.

Moyes was seen as a safe option when he was appointed. A manager who was successful with Everton in keeping them competitive for over a decade. He managed to get the best out of middling players who seen as not good enough for their previous club or too much of a risk for bigger clubs. He was Premier League proven and was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor, but a combination of issues led to the Scotsman being sacked after only 8 months in charge.

The mistakes in the summer of 2013 are well documented. United decided to give Moyes a six-year contract with the expectations being long term success. Moyes was indeed out of his depth at United. Home records broken, humiliating defeats by the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester City and a style of football that was seen as ineffective, to say the least. Moyes is predominately to blame for that horrendous season, but criticism has to be given to Sir Alex and the Chief Executive. Ferguson was desperate to win one more title before his impending retirement, which meant many short term decisions were made so he could achieve that. The signing of Robin Van Persie was essential to that 20th title. It gave United the best striker in the league during his best years, and it weakened a direct rival. While his signing was influential, it wasn’t as needed as many like to believe. Manchester City only managed to score 4 more goals than United in the previous season, it was in defence where United saw problems. Ferdinand and Vidic were still playing regularly during a time where they didn’t possess the speed to keep up with the best forwards in the league. Fergie was desperate for that final title, and history has proven that buying a striker is a much quicker route to success than buying a defender. Ferguson always looked at the future at United and always kept an eye on his players, to ensure they were moved on at the right time. So many of these players needed to be replaced years before Moyes’s arrival, but short term success was seen as more important.

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It brings us on to that infamous summer of 2013. This was Ed Woodward’s first summer in charge at Manchester United, and as mentioned regarding the age of some players, it was vital that it was done right. Woodward was looking to stamp his mark at the club through acquiring some immense talent. The six players who were heavily linked to the Red Devils were Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera, Sami Khedira and Leighton Baines. The likeliness of United even convincing Bale and Alcantara to join them was highly unlikely with the former destined to join Madrid and the latter wanting to play under Pep Guardiola. Woodward’s ambition can be credited, but realism was needed in this situation. It’s the first of so many examples of Woodward desperate for the big names, players who arrive from big clubs and could increase shirt sales, instead of choosing the more realistic offer. It meant that United’s disastrous summer ended with the signing of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini. He arrived with little fan fair and seemed to only be signed because United needed at least one signing. Fellaini struggled under Moyes because he was played usually as a defensive midfielder, a position he has never played before. It was the only place where he could play since Rooney, and Van Persie both cemented their place as the starting forwards. Fellaini’s strength is as a more direct option for the attack, working well off the bench and not as starting central midfielder, He doesn’t possess the mobility or the awareness to cover in that area. Juan Mata arrived in the following January, and while he is a very gifted player, his signing emphasised the scattergun approach Woodward was using. There isn’t a world where Juan Mata and Fellaini can play to both their strengths in the same system for the reason that the pair have contrasting styles. One is a small, intelligent playmaker while the other is a battering ram, a way to exploit oppositions who are weak in the air.

United ended the Moyes era by finishing seventh without a manager and with a squad full of players who needed to be replaced. The following summer saw Woodward do a lot of things right. Van Gaal was signed on the 19th of May, meaning there wouldn’t be any issues regarding the future of the club and could continue with preseason as usual. The signings from the summer of 2014 had some highlights. A number of players at the club like Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Hernandez, Welbeck, Cleverley all departed the club. This was long overdue and it was signalling the end of United’s dominance at the beginning of the century and a chance to move on. The Red Devils brought in Luke Shaw, arguably the most promising full back in the country for a record fee. Ander Herrera was brought after his transfer failing to be finalised the previous summer. Daily Blind arrived to give depth at both full back and central midfield and Rojo was a much-needed addition at centre half.

While they were seen as sensible moves, Woodward couldn’t resist his urge to make the headlines. United broke the British transfer record to bring Champions League winner Angel Di Maria to the club. The Argentine reached 3 finals that year with his performance in the Champions League final earning him the Man of the Match over the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. He is a fantastic player who would offer pace, creativity and elite dribbling who could push United closer the Manchester City and Chelsea. The other galactico who arrived that summer was Radamel Falcao. The Columbian was one of the deadliest forwards in Europe at the time of his arrival. He was signed on loan with an option to buy due to his injury record and would give United another option. United sold both Chicarito and Welbeck that summer, leaving them low on options with Van Persie struggling with consistent injuries and Rooney beginning to show his age. These were two big names that added on top of the solid bunch of signings that would improve the squad. 

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Ironically, the signings who succeeded were the players who didn’t have high expectations. Ander Herrera was fantastic whenever he played in midfield, giving United a player who could play that box to box role and contribute in the final third. In his debut season, Herrera scored 6 and assisted 4 in 19 starts, showing his value to the side. He also was second in the team for tackles per game with 3, with only Valencia ahead of him. He gave a lot to the side, which needed a player who could do a bit of everything. Throughout his career at United, he had the drive to succeed at the club, which other players didn’t. Di Maria was the most anticipated signing and while he did contribute to 13 goals for a side where the manager wasn’t selecting him at the tail end of the season. He ended his time at United after only a season, with his departure clouded with distaste from the fans after refusing to join the rest of the team for preseason. At least that fantastic goal against Leicester will be remembered fondly. Falcao was arguably more disappointing, with the Columbian only scoring 4 goals. He hadn’t looked the same player since an ACL injury that forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup.

After finishing 4th and looked particularly underwhelming in doing so, United looked to the transfer market to fix the problems. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Anthony Martial. While sensible signings, they weren’t the level of signings that United needed. The other clear issue was Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman is a descendant of the Cruyffian school of football. There are either two ways you can take Cruyff’s teachings, either taking pressing and free-flowing approach, as seen with Guardiola or Rijkaard, or you can take the more systemic and organised routes of the system and develop them further, think Arigo Saachi at Milan. Van Gaal took the latter, playing a brand of football that while protected a defence that still featured players who simply weren’t good enough, it made United lack any sort of spark and attacking flair. Five games finished 0-0 in Van Gaal’s final season just highlighting how United struggled to score goals throughout the season. It meant that arguably United’s most exciting signing from the 2015 summer window, Memphis Depay, was destined to fail. Van Gaal demands all of his players to track back and help on the defensive end, something that Depay isn’t good at doing. The winger’s strengths are in attack. He always wants the ball played to his feet, so he can cut inside on his stronger right foot. He is a player who feeds on confidence, and when he was consistently dropped after poor displays, it made it difficult for Depay to succeed.

United fans couldn’t stand watching Van Gaal’s United for another season, and while the Dutchman brought home an FA Cup, it wasn’t enough. A season where United scored only 49 goals, the second lowest in the top 10. Van Gaal’s restrictive football made it nearly impossible to deal with sides that played in a deep block. Rashford’s end season emergence helped in giving Van Gaal a fast and aggressive forward who was scoring with nearly every shot, but a season full of dire performances made it difficult to justify keeping the former Barcelona manager.

One might ask what does all of this have to do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The short term history of how United consistently struggled in the transfer market was to highlight just how significant of a signing Ibrahimovic was to United, and especially for Ed Woodward. His first summer was full of targets that didn’t want to join the club. His second was a mix of shirt sellers and squad players but was a mess in regards to where they all fitted in. The third summer was a failure in how those signings performed in their debut season, with Anthony Martial the only player even remotely a success. Woodward needed to smash his first summer transfer window with Jose Mourinho, with every signing being first team starters.

The summer of 2016 is still the only transfer window where I’d consider Woodward to be successful in recruitment. They fixed every glaring issue in the squad. They added a young promising defender in Eric Bailly who was capable of playing the ball out from the back and added much-needed pace in defence. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived for £27 million to add creativity in the final third. The Armenian was voted the player of the season in the Bundesliga and was an essential signing to boost United’s goals and chance creation. United even went a step further in putting their names on the headlines, with the record Premier League winners breaking the transfer record to bring Paul Pogba back to the club. The Frenchman could add an inventiveness to the midfield and offers a player with a unique skill set that is still hard to match. They were all great signings, but the icing on the cake was easily Zlatan’s arrival.

The Swedish forward was everything United needed on and off the pitch. He a huge personality and possesses the arrogance and hunger for that United have been in itching for since Sir Alex’s departure. From a young age, Zlatan has always had an ego the size of a mountain. From refusing to do auditions for Arsene Wenger at youth level to only agreeing to remain in Paris if the club built him a statue. He is a man who demanded your attention, which younger players could look towards as a role model for the player they should be thriving to be. While many United fans were excited to see a world class forward arrive at the club, opposition fans had their doubts. “He’s only scored in a farmers league” or “he’s past it.” We all heard these criticisms against Ibrahimovic, but both the player and manager weren’t worried. “Zlatan needs no introduction. The statistics speak for themselves,” said Mourinho on his arrival, and he was right. Ibrahimovic had arrived at United after a fantastic final season with Paris Saint-Germain, in which he scored 50 goals in 51 games, 38 of those in Ligue 1, a club record. It was the first time United signed a European superstar striker since Van Nistelrooy, a fantastic poacher but wasn’t effective in linking others into play. Ibrahimovic was the opposite of the Dutchman, with the Swede constantly dropping deep to play as a number nine and a half. His arrogance and personality were personified in how often he didn’t like to remain in a forward position, preferably moving to where the cameras were focused. Ibrahimovic was one of the very few superstars playing in the game, a quality he showed very early on in his United career. His first appearance for the club was in a preseason game against Galatasaray, in which he scored an overhead kick in the 4th minute of the game. While it wasn’t a vintage goal, with the forward’s connection with the ball being imperfect, to say the least, however, the ambition is worth praise.

Zlatan began his United career by showing all of his best qualities. He scored a last minute header against Leicester to win the Community Shield for the club, towering over Wes Morgan, one of the best defenders in the previous season, with ease. His giant character was both literal and metaphorical in this case. He didn’t have the constant effect many expected him to have, but he still managed to appear for the most critical moments. While his first competitive game showed his love for the big moments, his second showed his star quality. United were on track for a straightforward win away to Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth with goals from Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, the game was sealed through the long strike from Ibrahimovic. He simply picked up the ball and scored from a distance United fans were not used to seeing a goal out of nothing like that. It wasn’t the same structured and planned attacks we were used to seeing under Van Gaal. It was the first change of ideas, from Van Gaal’s Cruyffian roots to a more individualistic approach to scoring goals, and Zlatan was the centrepiece. Ibrahimovic went on to score 10 in his first 20 games, an impressive return for his first season in English football and for a side who were still in transition.

Ibrahimovic was a shot machine during his time for United. This isn’t exactly a quality that is stand out for a United player to possess, with Rooney, Ronaldo and Van Persie all taking a lot of shots during their spells at the club. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the Swede was a terrifying forward to face. He was taking over 4 shots a game, an amount no other United player has managed to beat since his only full season at the club. Any player can take a high volume of shots, but Ibrahimovic showed himself to be a lethal finisher from wherever he was shooting from. His xG showed this, and according to Understat, he overperformed his expected goals by 3, and when going through his goals again, it shows. His fantastic chip against Everton that so nearly didn’t go over the line, his low ranged strikes finding their way past the keeper and some fortunate strikes through deflections, his goal threat was undeniable. Ibrahimovic’s knack for scoring goals from everywhere shows from his dominance in the air. Out of the 17 goals he scored in the Premier League, 4 were headers. His strength will always be with the ball at his feet, but his aerial threat was arguably the most threatening of a striker in the league.

While his image has a selfish and arrogant player were well known, he sure didn’t show it on the pitch. Ibrahimovic was an excellent link man for the rest of the players in the team. It was an important inclusion in his skillset. Like his time at Paris Saint-Germain, he helped bring other talented attackers into the fray. In France, it was Cavani, Lavezzi, Di Maria and Lucas Moura and at United, he had Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan. While not being given the same experienced scorers as he had in Paris, there were still fantastic talents at the club that needed space to get the goals. Zlatan was an excellent creator throughout his time at United, assisting some of the vital goals during Mourinho’s debut season, with the highlight being a magnificent cross for Mkhitaryan to finish with a spectacular scorpion kick (even though the Armenian was offside). He liked to find space on the right side and for a good reason. United would usually play either Mata, Lingard or Mkhitaryan on that side, with the three players preferring to come inside due to their history as number 10’s. Ibrahimovic would find space on the far side to help keep the width and use his excellent eye for a pass to find his teammates in the box. His drive to contribute to goals, whether scoring or assisting, was what made him such a lethal player.

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The player he sparked the best on and off the pitch relationship with was easily Paul Pogba. The Frenchman arrived for a record fee, and the pressure on him was indescribable. Every single thing Pogba did was going to be scrutinised, and it made it very difficult for him to play his game to the same effect as he did at Juventus. While his relationship with Jesse Lingard was always strong, he grew to form a formidable partnership with Ibrahimovic. While one was 11 years older than the other, they were both so similar, prominent personalities with love for entertainment through their talents. Pogba was continually looking to send long balls for Ibrahimovic to run to and regularly resulted in goals. In a tight game at Selhurst Park, it took United’s two most prominent players to find the victory. During the final minutes of the match, Pogba had the composure to send a delightful ball to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who scored with a powerful shot into the side-netting. The highlight of their relationship was an FA Cup game against Blackburn Rovers. United were left with the possibility of facing a replay in the competition until Mourinho decided to play his aces. Pogba and Ibrahimovic came on as second-half substitutes and their class shined, with Pogba sending a ball through the Blackburn defence, to give his teammate a simple finish. It was by far Pogba’s best season for United, and it was thanks to Ibrahimovic being his perfect partner in attack.

By far his best performance for United came in the EFL Cup final. It was the club’s first chance to win some silverware under Mourinho (not including the Community Shield) and it was a game defined by a brilliant performance from United’s superstar. Ibrahimovic scored a free kick in the first half, before putting United back in the lead right in the dying minutes of the game, with a fine header from a Herrera cross. This was a game truly won by the former Milan forward and he seemed to cherish the responsibility on the pitch. This was one of the reasons why he was brought to the club, to perform on the biggest stage and push United over the line when they needed a shove.

While the good cannot be argued, he still managed to attract plenty of controversy during his short stint in England. The most infamous being his confrontation with Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings. It was an aggressive game for United in their second fixture against the Cherries. Mings was tightly marking Ibrahimovic throughout the game which seemed to frustrate United’s star striker, to the point where Ibrahimovic was seen throwing Mings to the ground in a show of anger. Things became more heated when Mings stepped on Zlatan’s head, resulting in Zlatan lashing out for a final time, by elbowing Mings during a United corner. With the pair failing to be appropriately booked for their behaviour, The FA quickly punished them, with Ibrahimovic facing a 3 match ban and Mings facing 4. While a moment of madness can sometimes be excused, the childish manner in which Ibrahimovic acted was inexcusable.

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It does move on to another problem with the Swede, being his finishing. I did recently compliment his ability to score from anywhere, and while that is still true, there were a lot of chances Ibrahimovic should have put away yet failed to do so. Out of all forwards in the Premier League, no one missed more chances than the current LA Galaxy forward with 18. This isn’t to diminish his ability as a forward at all. One of the players behind is Sergio Aguero, who is seen as one of the best forwards in the history of the league, yet missed 13 big chances. The issue arises when looking at the chances in isolation and seeing how frustrating he was at times. A penalty miss against Bournemouth, a huge miss at Anfield after a lovely pass from Paul Pogba and a powerful shot aimed directly at Heaton during United’s 0-0 draw at home to Burnley are the few stand out chances he failed to convert.

His United career was cut short after a serious injury suffered in the Europa League quarter-final second leg against Anderlecht, after landing awkwardly on his knee. It was a painful way to end a fantastic debut season. It meant United were to do without their star Swede for the remainder of the season, missing the rest of United’s winning Europa League campaign and some key clashes with Tottenham and Arsenal. While United were a lesser side without him, with Rashford playing as the starting striker, it did highlight one other flaw with playing Ibrahimovic. United couldn’t be as tactically flexible with him in the side. Ironically, United’s most impressive performances during that season, a 2-0 home win over champions Chelsea and a tactical masterclass in the Europa League final, helping United secure a 2-0 win over a young Ajax side. Both games saw Mourinho at his best, using Herrera to man-mark Hazard throughout the game, never leaving the Belgian’s side during the game. While that is a task that could have been achieved with Ibrahimovic, the performance of Marcus Rashford was something that couldn’t have been replicated. Rashford’s raw pace and ability to run the channels made it difficult to see Zlatan do the same thing. United’s young prospect kept constant pressure on Chelsea’s back line and made it difficult for them to effectively build from the back. Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitution, displaying how he was not needed for this victory. Their win over Ajax in the Europa League final was even more impressive, with United playing an extremely direct style, using Fellaini to help quickly transition the ball into the final. The Belgian won 14 aerial duels in this game, showing his importance to United’s first Europa League trophy.

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Unfortunately, Ibrahimovic’s time at United didn’t end with the same shining spotlight as it began. He was allowed to remain at the club for the treatment of his injury and was given a new contract at the end of August. It was made clear Mourinho was not going to use him as frequently as he was used during his first season, with Lukaku giving a younger and pacier forward for a large sum of money. It meant we only saw Ibrahimovic briefly during his final few months at the club, with the spotlight now on Lukaku. One of his most memorable performances was in a disappointing draw at home to Burnley. Ibrahimovic was taken off at halftime for Jesse Lingard, who scored both goals for United. Ibrahimovic couldn’t play with Lukaku in the same team. Both were not mobile enough and it meant a lack of pressure from the forwards. It was the last notable games that Zlatan played for United, until his departure for LA Galaxy in the following January, where he has gone on to score bundles of goals. It was his chance to spread his name to a country that was still in need of quality in the league.

It was a sad way to end such a perfect match. Since Woodward arrived, he was desperate to bring in a true superstar, a player who could sell shirts and show how United were still a European force. After failed attempts to get a marquee signing in his first summer and failing with Di Maria and Falcao in his second, it seemed as if Woodward wasn’t going to get that big name he wanted. Ibrahimovic was the perfect player for Woodward.  A player to show United’s ambitions and the club he wanted them to be. A name known across Europe and could be the push United needed on the short term, similar to when Cantona arrived. He is arguably United’s greatest signing of the decade but it’s just a shame we couldn’t see more of him.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ibrahim Sangare and The Best of Ligue 1 #2

After discussing Kenny Lala and his importance to Strasbourg, let’s look at Toulouse midfielder Ibrahim Sangaré. A player I’ve already discussed on more than one occasion, let’s look at why I rate him so highly among the young midfielders across Europe.

Toulouse have been a side surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth. In the last 5 seasons, they have finished no higher than 13th. It’s crazy to see a side which has produced some exciting talents in the last few years, with the likes of Ben Yedder, Issa Diop, Serge Aurier and Alban Lafont all developing for the southern French side. They always seem to trust their younger players with a high amount of responsibility, in a circumstance where clubs wouldn’t usually do so. While the signing of Max Gradel has given them that spark in the final third, it has been the breakout season of his compatriot that has been the most notable.

Calling last season Sangaré breakout season is incorrect to an extent. He did start 18 games in 17/18 and put in some very good numbers, but he took it to another level. While his tackle numbers have remained the same, it’s his ability on the ball that has seemingly been improving. His passes completed have gone from 40.4 to 54.1 per game. His shots, dribbles and long balls per game have all slightly increased and show a player who is developing. The Ivorian has played every game he can possibly play and has become an invaluable player to the team and it can be highlighted by how Toulouse played without him. During the 9 games Sangare missed, Toulouse only managed a single win and failing to earn victories over 2 relegated sides, drawing with Dijon and losing to Caen. Toulouse played 10 different formations last season, and he found a place in all of them. Whether playing as a single defensive midfielder or with a partner, he has shined wherever he has played.

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While looking at his insane defensive numbers show a player similar to a Ndidi or Kante, a player who specialises in breaking up play by tackling, Sangaré is more than that. He does put in an impressive 3.6 tackles per game, the most for his side, but he is great at reading the game as well. He will always look to position himself in front of the defence, to stop those dangerous passes to the strikers. However, it doesn’t change the fact that his tackling is by far his best attribute. Sangaré recovers the ball with ease when faces in one on one situations, never giving his opponent space to run beyond him. He rarely goes to ground and tries to stay on his feet, using his physicality as an advantage over smaller players. The Ivorian completes 75% of his attempted tackles, showing how he effectively recovers the ball for his side. One area that is rather disappointing would be his aerial duels. He wins 1.4 aerial duels per game but it could be down to long balls rarely landing in his direction.

Sangaré’s passing is another area which needs improvement. His pass accuracy has increased from 74% to 79% but it needs to be higher. The reason for his pass accuracy seemingly being low is his attempted long passes. He’s attempting 7.9 long balls per game, completing less than half of them. He constantly looks to quickly switch play and while he does fail a majority of the time, his ambition is notable.

He’s defensively solid, but his dribbling takes his skill set to another level. Sangaré’s completing over 70% of his dribbles. His strength and height give him a boost in this aspect, making it difficult for opposition players to dispossess him, with the Ivorian only losing the ball 1.2 times per game. For a player attempting so many, it’s impressive how little he is dispossessed. What makes his dribbling so impressive is his speed. Sangaré isn’t very quick, yet is beating players with ease. It shows how he doesn’t rely on pace to beat players and uses his ability on the ball instead.

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There are a lot of clubs that should be keeping tabs on Sangaré, with Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham already showing interest in the 21-year-old. While those are all destination in which he will start regularly, they are not the club I think he should join. If Atletico Madrid do end up selling Thomas Partey this summer, Sangaré would be the sensible replacement. Both players are strong physically, while the pair excel in recovering the ball and using their dribbling to help move the ball into the final third. While Partey has been a reliable player for Simeone, Sangaré would be an upgrade. He is 4 years younger, much taller, a better dribbler and does more defensive work. Partey is a better passer, his shot locations are awful. Sangaré also takes a majority of his shots from outside of the box, but it isn’t as bad as Partey, who out of his 1.1 shots per game, he is taking just 0.2 from inside the box. While the Ghanian has scored some beautiful goals this season from outside the box, a majority of them are wasting possession for his side.

Sangaré is a player who deserves to be playing at a better, and will hopefully be another Toulouse player to succeed in Europe, alongside the likes of Ben Yedder and Lafont, instead of ending up like Braithwaite or Gradel.

Where Do Atletico Madrid Go From Here?

While most of the transfer news this summer is focused on Real Madrid, it seems we’ve all forgotten about their local rivals. Last summer, Atletico spent a huge £141 million in an attempt to overtake a defensive Barcelona side and a Madrid side who lost their top scorer. This high spending included £63 million on Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, who could add some creativity from the wide areas they desperately needed. When adding these extra additions on top of the established players, it seemed this was one of Atletico’s best chances of reclaiming La Liga.

This season has not turned out as expected for Atletico. While finishing behind a Barcelona side that continues to be dragged by arguably the best player to ever play the game is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s more in the manner of the finish. They spent so much money on improving an attack that became slightly predictable, relying heavily on Antoine Griezmann to drag them through a lot of games. Nothing seems to have changed in that regard. Griezmann was their top scorer with 15, as expected, but when looking at who is behind him is troubling. Morata is second with 6, and behind the Spaniard is Saul, Correa and Godin. It’s been a consistent issue we will cover later. They’ve scored fewer goals (55) compared to last season (58), and there have been a lot of games where their lack of attack has let them down. Their start to the season displays this perfectly, with a lacklustre draw to Valencia and a poor showing against Celta showing Los Rojiblancos beginning to decline.

Let’s look at the team, piece by piece, to see where it has all gone wrong for Simeone’s side, starting with the defence. The beginning of the season saw the departure of Sime Vrsaljko. While he had a fantastic World Cup with Croatia, he didn’t show the same quality at club level and in hindsight, seemed wise letting him leave. This brought the arrival of Colombian right-back Santiago Arias from PSV. The defender has shown himself to be a good defender while also being a great attacking option with solid chance creation and decent dribble numbers. He arrived for a fair price of £9 million and would hopefully replace Juanfran. While Arias has started 20 games, 2 more than his Spanish teammate, it should be higher.

This nicely leads on to the biggest problem with Atletico Madrid, being the game time to the senior players. Simeone is by far one of the best defensive coaches in Europe. He has built a side that hasn’t conceded over 30 goals in the league since the 2012/13 season. That’s 6 seasons of a nearly imperious defence. This backline has remained consistent with Godin, Juanfran and Luis all being part of the same squad that won the league 5 years ago. While they have aged relatively well, this season has highlighted how they aren’t the same players. Atletico have slowly been facing more shots per game each year. This season, they faced 11.4 shots per game, a slight increase from last season where they faced 11.7, the season in which they changed grounds which would take time to adjust. During the defence’s peak years (2014-16) they were facing less than 10 shots per game, never allowing their opponents to get in good positions thanks to their wide players overloading the central areas and making chance creation very difficult. Atletico have been getting worse defensively, and it is mostly down to the defenders ageing. The three players mentioned earlier are all now over 33. They are so far past their prime that is has hurt the rest of the team. While Luis and Juanfran were never fantastic attackers, they at least gave the side width in the final third, but they cannot do that anymore. They aren’t able to cover the same ground as they once could. They have had to be protected and has resulted in the rest of the team suffering. I can sympathise with Lucas Hernandez suffering from knee injuries all season, but when you allow Jonny Otto and Theo Hernandez all to leave in the last 2 seasons then that same sympathy turns into criticism.

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Their midfield has been very good thanks to the arrival of Rodri and Thomas Partey having an excellent season. While both are not as good in transitioning the ball as you see from Ndombele and Anguissa, they are great at recovering the ball and quickly moving it to the more talented attackers. Rodri has truly been fantastic. He arrived being defensively solid while possessing a great passing range and has brought this to Atletico. He has effectively replaced Gabi while keeping the same aggression and bite he gave to Atleti during his best years. However, they are facing a massive problem being both players are likely to leave this summer. Bayern Munich and Manchester City are both looking to sign Rodri this summer with his release clause making him available for €60 million. Partey is available for a reasonable price, with his £43.5 million buyout clause making him a prime target for Arsenal and Manchester United. It would leave the club without their starting two midfielders, players who formed a solid partnership in midfield.

While their defence has been getting worse, it’s their attack that is by far the biggest problem. To say that Simeone has struggled with pacey players who rely on good dribbling and flair to contribute in attack, is an understatement. When looking at some of the players he has signed in the past, guys who arrived with high expectations but immediately were dropped in favour of more disciplined and less exciting players. Yannick Carrasco, Nico Gaitan, Gelson Martins and Diogo Jota all have left the club in recent years and it does highlight how unwilling Simeone is in changing how his side play in the future. He’s always preferred playing central midfielders in wide areas like Saul, Turan, Koke and Augusto Fernandez. While this approach did work earlier on in Simeone’s time at the club, it has made them far less threatening than they could be. Atleti have had some good talent arrive at their club, but Simeone has always been unwilling to use them. Thomas Lemar is the latest to suffer due to the manager’s lack of ambition. While the Frenchman has dropped off since that title-winning season for Monaco, it’s easy to see that he is struggling in such a pragmatic system. His chance creation and dribbling has reached a career low, and only managed to contribute to 6 goals in 29 appearances in La Liga, not the output you expect from a player who was brought in for over £60 million. While Lemar’s struggles could be down to the player, Gelson Martins suffered even more by the hands of Simeone. The Portuguese international only started a single game in the league for Atletico. This was a talented player who was brought in at a cut-price due the off the field antics that took place at his former club. He was an added bonus on top of a summer which saw improvements in the squad. Simeone instantly deemed him insufficient and Martins departed in January, where he had a good end of the season with Monaco. With Carrasco falling out with the manager and Gaitan rarely being given opportunities, it displays a destination that any winger should avoid unless they want their career to stagnate.

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At the beginning of the season, their centre forward options were a problem. While Griezmann remained productive as ever, it was his striking partner that was the issue. Diego Costa’s return to Madrid will go down as one of the worst signings of the decade. They signed an ageing forward for £60 million, who has been awful. This season, he has been taking 1 shot per game, less than Partey and Saul. He’s creating less than a chance and winning far less aerial duels than he should be. His shambolic form resulted in Morata’s arrival. It’s Los Rojiblancos third attempt at signing a Spanish forward from Chelsea, and so far it’s their most successful attempt. Morata has been superb since his return to Madrid, scoring 6 in 13 starts. He’s adding that aggression and aerial dominance that Simeone has been desperate for since Mandzukic’s departure back in 2015.

While Morata was a bright spark, another player who seems to be struggling is Angel Correa. The Argentine has been a promising player since his arrival from San Lorenzo back in 2014. He has always been a very good dribbler who could cover multiple positions but has failed to establish himself as a regular starter. While he did play 36 games last season, he only started 20 games. Considering the lack of pace in the side, you’d expect him to start more. When he’s started, he’s been very good, completing 3 dribbles per 90 and taking 1.5 shots from the right midfield. These numbers are really promising and show a player too good to be sitting on the bench. It was rumoured back in May the forward has offers on the table and he should leave the club. Correa is 24-years-old and isn’t a prospect anymore. He should be moving to a club that will start him regularly, so he doesn’t waste the best years of his career.

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With Griezmann, Godin, Juanfran, Felipe Luis, Hernandez, Rodri, Partey and Correa all having futures certainly or potentially away from the club, it leaves a massive rebuilding job for Atletico. While this defensive style has been renowned and praised since Simeone’s arrival, it seems many forgot what won Atletico the league back in 2014, goals. Last season they conceded the most goals since that memorable title win, but the difference was they scored 77 goals, a number that still hasn’t been beaten since Griezmann’s arrival, arguably their best forward this decade. As the players Simeone loved and trusted all began leaving the club, he seemed to sacrifice goals in an attempt to prevent conceding them. Simeone needs to stop setting his team up in such a pragmatic way. Scoring 50 goals isn’t enough to win a league dominated by attacking sides. It’s worrying that there is a possibility that his legacy at this club could be tarnished thanks to this defensive first football. His side has always been defensive, but they used to be able to score goals and play a good style of football. Even with all of the talent leaving this summer, I trust the club to adequately replace them but the same trust cannot be placed with Simeone in pushing them forward to finally reclaim the title they’ve been desperate for.

Maurizio Sarri to Juventus: A Good Move?

With Allegri leaving the club at the end of the season, Juventus are in a place of difficulty. They spent a lot of money on players who were at their peak to win the Champions League. First, it was Higuain. The Argentine arrived for over £75 million. He scored a record 36 goals in the league and was seen as their best chance at finally winning the trophy at eluded the team for so long. While they did reach a Champions League final in 2017, they were truly outclassed by a better Real Madrid side. After succumbing to defeat by the hands of the European Champions again, it left Juventus in a difficult place, of where to take this team next.

The Old Lady decided to sign the same player who was consistently stopping them from winning the Champions League, signing a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo for £100 million. At the time it was arguably the best move for all parties involved. Real Madrid managed to get a colossal amount for a player who was coming to the end of their career, allowing them (in theory) to find a long-term replacement for the forward. Ronaldo was given a chance to win another league title and prove he is the solution for a team’s hope of winning in Europe. Juventus were given the best player in the competition’s history. This was their best short-term solution to winning the Champions League.

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However, it did not turn out as expected. Ronaldo wasn’t nearly as effective as many were hoping he would be. While he did win Juventus the tie against Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side, that was mainly thanks to Simeone making some huge mistakes in the game and allowed Juventus to score those goals. Juventus spent a lot of money on a player who failed to win the golden boot in the league and on the continental stage. Messi scored twice the goals Ronaldo did in Europe, while veteran forward Quagliarella and journeyman Duvan Zapata all finished ahead of him in Serie A. It isn’t to say Ronaldo has been bad but spending so much on a player for short term success should give you more goals than this.

What has been worse for Juventus is the effect that the Balon d’Or winner has had on the rest of the squad. Higuain and Caldara left in a swap deal with AC Milan, to bring Bonucci back to Turin. It’s similar to the situation the LA Lakers were in when LeBron James joined them last year, They had to bring in a bunch of older players, guys who were at the same stage as LeBron, who didn’t need any time to develop and were ready for success. Juventus lost one of the most promising Italian defenders around in favour of bringing back a player who left for disagreements with Allegri. It’s also meant that Rugani’s game time has diminished, going from starting 22 games before Bonucci’s arrival to now starting 15. Juventus making moves for these older players will make players like Rugani and Caldara leave, meaning the club have no players to succeed their experienced ones when they depart or retire.

Dybala is another who was massively affected by the arrival of Ronaldo. The Argentine was seen as the heir to Del Piero, wearing his famous number 10 shirt. He had been fantastic for Juventus since his arrival and was easily the jewel of their crown. Soon as Ronaldo arrived, Dybala’s future was in doubt. He couldn’t play in the same attacking midfield role in a 4-2-3-1 as he did when Higuain was in front of him. He was excellent at covering a lot of ground and linked well with Dybala. Ronaldo has never done that, meaning he couldn’t play in that free role he performed so well in, because Ronaldo was to have that role. Allegri seemed unsure with what to do with Dybala and it has now led to speculation on whether their superstar will remain at the club.

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After failing to win a domestic double and crashing out to a talented Ajax side, it has left Juventus with having arguably their worst season under Allegri. He was tactically beaten by Erik ten Hag and were the worst side in both legs. Their performances in the league weren’t good, with the effect of Ronaldo making them predictable and uninspiring in attack. He’s a player who you have to build your whole attack around if you wish to get the best out of him. Atalanta were taking more shots and Napoli were playing a better style of football. Juventus were playing football similar to the Milan clubs, who have been criticised all season for being lacklustre. The most troubling thing for Juventus is how xG shows just how poor they have been. According to xPTS (expected points), Juventus would have finished 4th, behind the clubs mentioned.  This Ronaldo move has ended in calamity, and it could be worse if their younger players are to leave.

With Allegri now gone, Juventus have turned their attention to Maurizio Sarri. The Italian has had a slow road to the top, not managing in Serie A until he was 55. He managed to save a good Empoli side, which earned him a move to Napoli in 2015. This was seen as a strange appointment at the time and after only gaining 2 points in his first 3 games, doubts were raised. Napoli legend Diego Maradona even stating they should have kept Benitez. However, these doubts were erased quickly. By November 2015, they were only 2 points from the top, with Higuain scoring 9 in 12.

Sarri transformed a defensive side under Benitez to one of the most attractive sides in the history of the game. He changed the defensive 4-2-3-1 to a free-flowing 4-3-3. He changed Jorginho from a rotation player to their most important midfielder. Allan arrived from Udinese to add a defensively solid player who could help transition the ball. Pepe Reina arrived from Bayern Munich. While past his prime, he offered experience and is a solid distributor. These signings helped turn Napoli into an aggressive, pressing side off the ball, and a patient, possession side when with the ball. They are a side gifted with technical players all over the pitch, allowing Napoli to make quick passes to expose the opposition defenders. Their full-backs offered great width, with Hysaj and Ghoulam comfortable attacking in the final third. Jorginho is a fantastic passer who helped the side keep the ball, while Hamsik and Allan were better in attack with the pair pushing forward to support the forwards. Lorenzo Insigne was by far the best player in the team. He was the player who could add that spark and brilliance in the final third. His teammates were always looking to get the ball to him. fully aware of how he could break through the tough defences in Serie A.

What made Sarri’s Napoli so impressive is how they improved every season. They achieved 82 points in their first season, 86 in their second and 91 in their final season. It was Sarri’s last season which saw Napoli at their best. While playing at a high level for 2 years, they took it to another level. Napoli went viral. Their goals beginning with defenders and finished with the precision of their forwards. They were gifted with players who could play in between the lines and expose those difficult sides, and overload the wide areas to find weaknesses. They were the side the whole of Europe were hoping and praying to take the Scudetto from the Old Lady, but failed thanks to falling off right at the end. While failing to win a trophy that season, it was a side made many fans remember how football could be played in Italy.

With Sarri’s contract expired, he moved to Chelsea. While bringing Jorginho with him to help implement his style with the hardest role to play, it didn’t turn out as successful as Chelsea would have hoped. While a 3rd place finish and a Europa League (the viral clip of Sarri admiring his medal was arguably one of the purest moments of football this year) does seem good on paper, many problems with his Chelsea side were identified.

The first being the midfield. The sight of Kovacic, Jorginho and Kante in midfield before the season began was terrifying for opponents, but as the season progressed, it didn’t have the same impact as Sarri’s midfield at Napoli. While Kante is a fantastic destroyer and a good passer, he isn’t nearly as good as Allan with his impact in the final third. Kante completed 0.9 dribbles per game, while Allan completed 2.1 per game during his final season for Sarri. Kante is one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, but he played in a role he has not quite adjusted to yet. Kovacic was another who didn’t offer enough. Hamsik was scoring goals from midfield, positioning himself outside of the box to give an option to the forwards and find space to take a shot from distance. He was taking 2.3 shots per game, while Kovacic was taking less than a shot per game. Kovacic is another great player, but he wasn’t accustomed to playing this role. He arguably would have suited playing in the role that Kante was occupying. The Croatian has great tackle numbers while being a great dribbler. Hamsik wasn’t afraid to take risks to push his side further up the pitch, while Kovacic just isn’t as good in attack as Sarri arguably wanted him to be. Finally, let’s talk about the player who has been criticised the most out of the trio. What I think about regarding the issues many have had with Jorginho is out of ignorance. When Rio Ferdinand blasted the Italian for not getting assists, it underlines an issue of expectation. Jorginho has never been a creator in the final third, with his highest return for Sarri previously being 4. His tackles and interceptions have stayed similar and his passing has been strong as ever. Kante cannot play at the base of the midfield because Jorginho isn’t as athletic as the Frenchman. Jorginho works at the base of the midfield because he is an intelligent player who can set the tempo of the attack. I’m not completely defensive of Jorginho, because he has been far from flawless. Teams have targetted him in big games and he hasn’t made it difficult for them. Jorginho is a player who is quite immobile. He has struggled to adjust to the speed of the Premier League and struggled through the tougher periods of the season.

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The attack has been a major issue for Sarri. It’s been very reminiscent of watching Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal. When approaching the final third, there was a lack of movement, making it difficult for his United side to score goals.  It’s similar to what is happening for Sarri. While Hazard has a similar skillset to Insigne and is a better player than him, the rest of the team doesn’t match the same quality that Napoli had. The midfielders do not contribute enough in the final third, the full backs don’t offer the same attacking prowess and defensive strength and the strikers do not possess the same intelligent movement as Mertens does.

To say that Sarri has had a problem with his forwards is an understatement. He began the season with Morata. While the Spaniard did link well with his teammates, he was frustrating in front of goal, scoring 5 in 16 appearances. Higuain came in as Sarri’s choice. The Argentine had his best season in club football under the Chelsea manager and it seemed like a safe choice, but Higuain has been getting worse since that record-breaking season. He had fitness concerns at Milan and his sharpness is not nearly as good as it once was. He’s been very disappointing for Chelsea, as expected. The work rate he was famed for is not nearly as good as it once was, and the team has generally looked worse since his arrival. While Morata wasn’t great in front of goal, he at least was a presence in the air and linked well with Hazard. Higuain’s poor form meant that Giroud was given a consistent run in the team. The World Cup winner is a selfless forward and brought back the best side of Hazard but is far from a long term solution.

Chelsea were fantastic for the first couple of months in the season, but teams began targetting Jorginho and effectively making them predictable and easy to defend. Their form plummeted during the winter and a 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth highlighted some of the problems with the side. Chelsea did improve as the season went along, with Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek playing a vital role for their club in the final stages of the season. Hudson-Odoi offered a more inventive and exciting forward on the right, while Loftus-Cheek finally added that goal threat from midfield that Chelsea were craving. Their injuries were massive losses for Sarri because those two players were a big reason why Chelsea seemed back on track at the end of the season.

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So what are Sarri’s strengths? He is capable of building a side that have an identity, a style of play which would be unique to the club and enable them to stand out. He is able to work with what he has, getting the best out of older players like David Luiz, Giroud, Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina. He will generally improve the attackers given to him and enable them to flourish in an attacking system. Sarri-ball is arguably the closest some teams will get to playing the football seen under Pep Guardiola, a style that every fan wants at their club.

Sarri generally has a lot of weaknesses. The first being his lack of squad rotation. Sarri doesn’t care what players, fans and owners want. If a player is good enough to him, he will start. His Napoli side, while fantastic, rarely ever gave the rotation players in his squad a chance. Highly rated players like Diawara, Zielinksi and Marco Rog only managed to start 19 games between them. It’s been one of his biggest issues at Chelsea. Fans were desperate to see Hudson-Odoi start consistently well before Sarri began doing it, but he didn’t deem him ready. If you want your younger players to come through and break into the first team, Sarri is one of the worst managers for doing that. He wants to find eleven players who can play a majority of the games, not wanting to change that. His desire to find a small group of players to rely on is seen by Gary Cahill’s dismay of Sarri. The former England international has been hugely frustrated in how he has been treated, but he isn’t good enough anymore and Sarri knows that. You could deem the Italian old fashioned, but it has worked in building a good side. Sarri also needs extremely technically gifted players for his system to work. His buildup player revolves around players knowing how to effectively distribute the ball under pressure, and quick passes and intelligent movement is vital in how Sarri wants his sides to play. These are problems that simply have to be resolved through the transfer market. Some players just cannot play the system Sarri desires.

Would Sarri be the right fit for Juventus? the short answer is no. While the squad does have players that Sarri would definitely like, with Sandro, Cancelo, Dybala and Cuadrado all being players the Chelsea manager would favour, however, the signing of Ronaldo has made this move impossible. Ronaldo will not press from the front or offer enough off the ball to fit what Sarri would want to do. Juventus have spent a lot of money on the forward and cannot afford to have him placed on the bench. What Juventus need is a short term solution in someone similar to Allegri, to allow them to begin turning over the older players in the side. Sarri’s system takes at least 2 years to fully implement, depending on the personnel at his disposal. Sarri would be a better fit once the older players in the side are moved on. If Juventus never signed Ronaldo, this move would make much more sense.

 

The Netherlands vs England – UEFA Nations League Semi-Final Preview

While there was plenty to discuss regarding the clash between Switzerland and Portugal, it is this fixture that is by far the most exciting. Both teams here escaped groups that were seen as a challenge. It’s a surprise for them to even be here, yet they fully deserve it.

Let’s start with The Netherlands. It can be difficult to argue just how important the Dutch have been for football. Their innovations during the early 70s with Total Football, a brand of football which changed how the game was played. Rinus Michels, the manager of Ajax during this revolutionary period, wanted the pitch as small as possible when the opposition had the ball, and to make the pitch as big as possible when his side had the ball. It’s a system that encouraged pressing and movement. Players were coached to cover multiple roles throughout the team. It was an evolution from the famous Hungary side that humiliated England in 1953. It was how football was meant to be played and the achievement of a club with a plan.

Their history on the international front has been fascinating. In 1986, Michels came back to manage the national team, leading them to win their first international tournament, Euro 88. While they had some success during the 90s, reaching the semi-finals at Euro 96, they failed to stay the dominant side they were in the previous decade. Their golden generation, which included many from that famous Ajax side who lifted the Champions League in 1997, failed to win anything on the international front.

The 2010s have been a forgettable decade to the say the least for the Dutch. While they reached the World Cup final in South Africa, they sacrificed 40 years of a Total Football style in favour of kicking Spain, a side who were the embodiment of what Cruyff and Michels taught so long ago. After failing to qualify for the last 3 international tournaments, the Dutch seemed lost. But like the success of the national team in the past, you can always look to Ajax for a boost. With generational talents in Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt, it has given them the boost they’ve needed. A solid base to build the rest of the team around, and to find success in the future.

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I’m not Koeman’s biggest fan, but the impact he has made on his national team is hard to argue. He’s built a team that has balance throughout the squad. The experienced and young, the technically gifted and hard-working. But what persists throughout the side is what the Dutch are known for, players who can fill multiple roles. Daily Blind, Memphis Depay, Frenkie De Jong, Quincy Promes. These are players have played in different positions throughout their career. They’ve added fluidity to the side, making them unpredictable in the final third. Koeman has added more unfavoured players to the squad, with Martin De Roon being the most notable. The Atalanta midfielder, while offering zero in the final third, is great defensively and allows the more expressive players to push forward. Koeman has been gifted with by far the most talented players since the end of their golden generation, but he deserves credit for making this group of players function as a team.

The Netherlands were placed in a very tough group, facing the former World Cup winners Germany and current holders France. Both of their opponents have arguably some of the best talents in the world to choose from. While their first game ended in defeat, losing 2-1 to the World Champions, it was their next game against Germany back in the Johan Cruyff Arena that showed they were ready to compete. They humiliated the Germans with an emphatic 3-0 victory. It was the game in which Koeman brought in De Roon, which made a huge difference. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions in this game, giving them a defensive presence in midfield. It allowed Frenkie to play a less restrictive role, constantly looking to get on the ball and keep possession from a dangerous German side. The Netherlands then went on to beat France and showed a lot of fight to come back and earn a valuable point against Germany. It sealed their place in the semi-finals, the most deserving result for a national team which has finally shown the quality they have always been known for.

While Van Dijk, De Ligt, De Jong and Wijnaldum are all going to play a role in this game, Depay is by far the Dutch’s most important player. After his poor stint in England, he moved to Lyon to revive his career and return to the form he showed for PSV. In a Lyon side which includes Fekir, Aouar, Ndombele and Dembele, Depay has emerged as their most important player. He thrives in a role where importance is placed upon him and was the sole reason why Lyon remained competitive at the beginning of the season. His goal contributions were near non-existent after the new year, but his numbers remained high. He leads the line effectively for Koeman. His flexibility as a striker makes him very difficult to deal with. He has the pace the reach those long balls usually played into the channels by the centre-backs, the strength to hold the ball for his teammates and the confidence to take on an entire team on his own. He adds that star quality to a forward line which has lacked it since the retirement of Van Persie. His impact will be hard for England to suppress.

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Let’s move onto their opponents. After their defeat to Iceland in 2016, it highlighted a consistent problem that had been failing England for a long time, being their focus on players over the system. One reason why England won the World Cup back in 1966 was because of the balance in that side. Charlton and Ball were able to produce in the attacking end because they had Manchester United’s defensive midfielder Nobby Stiles protecting the back four. It has been a simple concept of building a team that England have seemingly forgotten how to do since that triumph. The constant debate regarding Lampard and Gerrard in midfield, forcing Scholes out wide and persisting with a 4-4-2 when the system was far outdated, with managers choosing an extra midfielder to help keep possession. England had star power, but managers who seemed too afraid to make the right decisions, that were best for the team. You simply cannot play Gerrard and Lampard together without a defensive midfielder (it made Carrick’s consistent absence baffling)

They made these same mistakes at Euro 2016. While Hodgson has been an important coach in his earlier years, introducing pressing in Sweden, he seemed to succumb to the same pressure as managers in the past have. He played a strange midfield including Alli, Rooney and Dier. An odd choice considering Alli had never played in that position before. His choice to play Sturridge as a winger was even more baffling, a player who has never been a dribbler or creator throughout his career. Hodgson resigned after their embarrassing defeat to Iceland, an end to an era which produced the same mistakes as previous managers.

Southgate’s appointment was an uninspiring choice, to say the least. It seemed like the safest choice for England to make. A coach who failed to take a talented group of players out of the group stages in the European Under-21s Championships, relegation with Middlesborough and lacked any charisma that made the former England international fail to stand out.

England were placed in a safe qualification group, while they never truly stood out, it did give Southgate time to experiment. Nobody knew how the Three Lions were going to line up in Russia until their friendly against Costa Rica. It was the first time England started with a back three and the first time England looked to have a plan. It gave them enough numbers in defence while allowing their attacking players to flourish.

While they never played the same attractive football we saw from Belgium and France, they were efficient and were playing to their strengths. Southgate made a lot of smart decisions to get the best out of the players in his possession. He played a back three containing Maguire, Stones and Walker. All three possess strength and athleticism, allowing them to cover a lot of ground. Walker and Maguire would consistently push up to help give options to the midfielders, and most importantly to make sure that Trippier and Young could push up without the same space they leave at club level. Southgate ensured his side took advantage of set pieces. While simple, set pieces are a chance to score, and with his side still not fully accustomed to the system, they were good opportunities to get a goal. They reached the semi-finals, but some of their weaknesses were exposed. They lacked pace in the side, which meant England lacked bite and couldn’t trouble a Croatia side which contained a lot of older players.

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However, in hindsight, it was a short term solution for the purpose of showing the country what this side can do. They inspired their fans for the first time in 20 years, to give hope for a team that was still growing. Many players who featured heavily in Russia would not remain as key figures for Euro 2020. They needed to evolve and turn into a side which could play a more attractive style of football. Trippier, Young, Lingard and Walker would all not be started with such frequency.

The Nations League was the first time we could see what Southgate had changed since their success in Russia. He changed from a defensive 3-5-2 to a more standard 4-3-3, which enabled his side to attack with more unpredictability down the wide areas. A lot of players benefited from this change. Sterling was placed in a role where he could play to his strengths instead of playing as a second striker. Marcus Rashford was given a more important role in the setup, instead of merely being Kane’s backup. They impressed in their win over Spain and fought hard to come back against Croatia. The future seems clear from Southgate and is looking more positive.

There are still concerns, however. I mentioned how some of the players who featured in the world cup will begin to be faced out, but Southgate hasn’t done that yet. Trippier and Walker are still included in the setup. It’s frustrating when Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka have been fantastic, but aren’t being given a chance in the XI. While Declan Rice was given a chance, there are so many talented young players who could have a future in the setup. Abraham, Maddison, Mount and Barnes all deserve a chance for their country.

Sterling has been by far England’s best player since the World Cup. He has reached a point where he should be in the conversation for one of the best players in Europe. He’s a great dribbler, intelligent and a solid creator. While he was always promising, it was the arrival of Pep Guardiola that changed Sterling. He took away that overthinking. When he would receive the ball, Sterling would usually take a few touches before making his next move. Pep took that out of his game and made him so much more direct. Sterling is now far less predictable. With Kane still recovering from another injury, England will put their faith in Sterling to help score the goals.

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If The Netherlands wish to progress to the final, they have to win the battle in midfield. England only possesses a couple of players I would consider real central midfielders, being Delph, Henderson and Rice (Dier is better as a centre back). Koeman has one of the top 3 young central midfielders around in De Jong. The now Barcelona midfielder is so versatile in how he can be played. He’s very reminiscent to Luka Modric, in how he is a great creator while being one of the best players at transitioning the ball into the final third. His best performance was in Ajax’s 1-1 draw against Juventus. Allegri attempted to place Bentancur on him to limit his effectiveness. De Jong just kept dropping between the centre backs and dragging Bentancur into places he did not want to go. The Dutchman is an intelligent player and can avoid pressure easily. England tried to stop Spain from building play by aggressively pressing Busquets. While effective on an ageing midfielder, this will not work on De Jong. The Netherlands need to get their maestro on the ball as much as possible if they wish to beat a tough England side.

If England wishes to come out victorious, they have to focus on the wide areas. The Dutch usually start Dumfries and Blind as their fullbacks. It’s an area where England can exploit. They have a lot of pace in the team, with Sterling, Rashford and Sancho offering a threat against their defenders. Blind has never been quick throughout his career and Dumfries has been exposed for being positionally poor. He is great as an attacking outlet, but space can be found behind him. It’s why Sterling could be so important. Not many fullbacks in Europe have been able to deal with the winger. He is the key to unlocking the backline.

While England will be a threat, I think the Dutch will be the side to progress. Their weaknesses aren’t nearly as obvious as England’s. The Three Lions are likely to play without Kane. He has been so important for his country, offering a great range of passing and a forward who can do nearly anything. While Rashford has improved a lot this season, he isn’t nearly as his good as his teammate. The Netherlands are in incredible form right now and seem unstoppable.

 

Portugal vs Switzerland – UEFA Nations League 2019 Semi-Final Preview

With my focus recently being on improving teams throughout Europe and bringing attention to players who have had stand out seasons, it can be easy to forget that the UEFA Nations League games were taking place this week. I have been a massive advocate for the idea of the Nations League. they have brought purpose to those pesky international breaks that would stop the flow of the club football, at a time where looking away from your television was impossible. UEFA seemed to introduce this new competition to give hope to smaller nations in qualifying for Euro 2020 and future tournaments. I’ve spoken to many fans regarding the Nations League, and a majority are very supportive of it. While slightly confusing, it has added a reason to care about these breaks. The standards of the games have increased because these teams are playing for something, instead of just preparation. We’ll be previewing the two big semi-final games and the final, to see which team will come out with the trophy, starting with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and a solid Switzerland side.

Starting with Portugal, who will go into this tie as the favourites. Their World Cup outing wasn’t as impressive as many hoped. While they progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten, they only managed to win a single game. They were beaten by a poor Uruguay side thanks to a brilliant performance by Edinson Cavani but it was a tournament that ended with more questions than answers for Portugal. They’ve had to continuously rely on their older players in defence with the lack of defensive prospects coming through their youth set-up. While that is an issue that Fernando Santos cannot do much about, it is his team selection in attack where my issues begin to surface. He was playing players in the wrong positions throughout the tournament. Bruno Fernandes, one of the best young attacking midfielders around, was forced out onto the left side. After one game, in which he was poor, he went on to not start a game for Portugal in Russia again. Gonzalo Guedes was another to suffer thanks to Santos. He had a fantastic season prior to the World Cup, playing on the left of a 4-4-2. However, he was playing up front with Ronaldo for his national team. I can understand why he was playing there. He was there to do the off the ball work that Ronaldo has never done throughout his career. He had to sacrifice his own game for the sake of the team, and he suffered for it.

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In the end, Portugal’s issues always seem to come back to their biggest strength, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’ve seen the sacrifices Juventus have had to make to accommodate one of the best talents of his generation. Dybala looks to be leaving the club after Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus have generally looked worse this season. When you have Ronaldo, all of your chance creation is solely for him. You begin crossing the ball more and playing a less attractive, but more effective style of football. Portugal needs to start thinking about the future of this side once their greatest ever player retires.

They have already briefly shown what life could be like without Ronaldo. In their 3-2 victory over Poland earlier in the season, they played a 4-1-4-1, with Andre Silva leading the line. They generally played with a lot of speed, with a lot of quick exchanges between players. They had a lot of pace in players like Rafa Silva and Cancelo while having technically superb players in Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves to keep possession while under pressure. A team should never rely on individuals, and it’s a stage Portugal need to move past. However, with the inclusion of Sousa from Braga, replacing Andre Silva in the squad, it paints a picture of a side who are looking more at the short term, instead of choosing players who will have a future for the national side.

Portugal’s biggest threat in the game, excluding Ronaldo, has to be Bernardo Silva. While the race for the PFA player of the year was primarily between Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk, Bernardo Silva was the best player in the Premier League. He went from a good winger into a fantastic central midfielder. He filled that De Bruyne-shaped gap that was left while adding more defensive work and a player who leads the press for his side. While I think he great on the ball, it’s his engine that is most impressive. During their title-defining 2-1 victory over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva was everywhere. He covered 13.7 kilometres, at that point a record for most distance covered by a player last season. He was halting Liverpool constantly, through interceptions and smartly placed fouls. Bernardo is one of my favourite players in the league. A midfielder who possess such intelligence and ability, yet is comfortable in doing all the off the ball work that one of the most demanding systems require. His chance creation for Portugal has been key. He ranks top of the team for key passes with 2.3 in the Nations League. Portugal will constantly get him on the ball. Silva is fantastic at retaining the ball and helps them transition the ball. He has even been showing the same work rate and defensive work he offers for his club. Silva is third in the side for tackles per game with 1.7. While Portugal are most likely include Ronaldo in these games, Bernardo will remain vital for his side in defence and attack.

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Their opponents, however, are no walk in the park. Switzerland is a nation who have surfaced as one of the best teams in Europe throughout the decade. They rank 8th in the FIFA world rankings and looking at the talent in their squad, are likely to improve. Their showing in the World Cup was solid, but nothing exceptional. They finished 2nd in a difficult group containing Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. While they weren’t the best to watch, they were solid in defence and were efficient in attack. Their defeat to Sweden in the round of 16, however, showed their weaknesses. They lack many players with pace and relied heavily upon Shaqiri. Since he was playing out on the right wing, he was left isolated throughout their defeat. While he did create 4 chances, he failed to get a single shot on target. Petkovic regularly deployed Behrami and Xhaka together. Both lack energy and drive in midfield. While Xhaka is an elite passer and Behrami puts in a lot of defensive work, they cannot play together without someone who can play that box to box role.

While they did struggle to reach their potential in Russia, their Nations League qualifying campaign was a massive success. They scored 14 goals in 4 games, 9 more than they managed at the World Cup. There are a handful of reasons for why they saw such an improvement. Starting with their midfield, Behrami was replaced by Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria. The young midfielder still gave that defensive presence in the midfielder, as his former teammate did, while adding that little bit extra in the final third. He was creating 1.3 chances per game, while also taking 1.8 shots. He was making those runs into the box, to help give his teammates extra options. Xhaka still remains to be the player who keeps things ticking in midfield, completing 90 passes per game, but he has been given a partner who is able to cover the distance in midfield while also aiding in attack.

The Shaqiri problem was also resolved, simply by moving him into attacking midfield. This fixed two major problems. Shaqiri wasn’t left so isolated anymore and neither was Seferovic. He’s now taking more shots, creating more chances and is getting on the ball more than he has ever been before for his country. It also makes Switzerland less predictable. Shaqiri will drift across the pitch to involve himself in the game, and it has made his side more difficult to deal with. Shaqiri has taken his game to another level and will key in this semi-final.

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Their midfield and attack have both improved, but their defence also deserves a mention. Petkovic has changed his personnel, with Lichsteiner and Djourou being replaced by the likes of Elvedi and Mbabu. They still remain solid at the back. Akanji and Elvedi are great passers, while Mbabu and Rodriguez are full backs who are able to cover large areas of the pitch, while also helping their team on the attacking front. While their defenders aren’t on the same level as the likes of France or Netherlands, they could form a very good defensive unit with time on their side.

While Shaqiri and Xhaka have already been mentioned when looking at key players for the side, Haris Seferovic will be important. The forward has struggled to establish himself at the top level, playing for Fiorentina, Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt and now Benfica, where he has arguably been the most successful. In 29 appearances in Liga NOS, he has scored 23 goals and assisted 5. In a season in which has seen Jonas struggle for minutes, Seferovic stepped up for Benfica. While he did impress at club level, it was during the Nations League group stages where he arguably put in his best performances. He scored 5 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. He’s good at finding space in the box, which was perfect against a Belgium side which aren’t exactly organised. He links up with Shaqiri well and he’s taking 3.5 shots per game, a solid number for a striker. He excels when the team are using him as the focal point. Petkovic has gotten the best out of the striker and will need him if Switzerland hopes to progress to the final.

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If Portugal wish to reach the final, they will need to take advantage of two things. The first being Granit Xhaka. He is a great passer of the ball but lacks the mobility to be an effective central midfielder. He is poor defensively, with teams throughout the Premier League noticing how bad he is at tracking runners. I’d personally deploy Bernardo Silva in midfield to deal with Xhaka. He can keep pressure on him, while his intelligent movement will help him find space behind the Arsenal midfielder.

If Switzerland want to progress to the final, they will need to target the centre backs. Shaqiri and Seferovic need to be smart and look to drag the defenders in areas they will feel most uncomfortable. One of Pepe or Fonte will play, who are both over 33. Diego Costa had a fantastic game against Portugal last summer, with Pepe unable to deal with him. Seferovic needs to look at what Costa was doing, and try and replicate the damage the Spaniard was causing.

It’ll be a close game, but I think Switzerland will progress. While Portugal have a lot of talented players, their reliance on Ronaldo and their weakness at the back can leave them to be both predictable and vulnerable. The Swiss have balance throughout the side, and Petkovic has taken the steps in the right direction for transitioning this side to its next generation. This could be the tournament where the rest of Europe sees this.

 

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Kenny Lala and The Best of Ligue 1 #1

As I have reiterated, Ligue 1 sides contain some talents that big clubs should be keeping an eye on. With Marcus Thuram already covered, we’ll move on to another player who has had a standout season, that being Kenny Lala. Strasbourg have been one of many historical clubs to suffer in the 21st century. A club that saw success in the sixties, beating Nantes to win the Coupe de la Ligue in 1966. After years of unremarkable league finishes, relegation and financial trouble, it left the club facing liquidation in 2011. They were eventually reinstated into the 5th tier of French football.

Their rise back to the top has been nothing short of astounding. They returned to Ligue 1 in 2017, where they have remained ever since. After their debut season which saw them survive by the smallest of margins, it was last season which saw them take a step into the right direction. They finished in 11th, fixing their defensive issues while also adding more goals in attack. While xG claims they overachieved in attack, they still deserved to stay up. Their mid-table finish in the league looked even better after their victory over Guingamp in the Coupe de la France, their 4th victory in the competition. A great season for a club who have fought so hard over the years to get to such a point.

Lala was instrumental in this success. The 27-year-old is by no means a prospect and has been playing for different sides in Ligue 2, including Paris FC, Valenciennes and Lens. Strasbourg picked him up after his contract expired with Lens, signing him on a 2-year deal. He has been superb for the side. After his debut season for the Blues, which saw him contribute to 7 goals from right back, showing himself to be a good dribbler and solid defensively, he truly stepped up his game last season.

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Strasbourg have been lining up with a variety of formation, with the consistent theme being a back three being deployed in a majority of the systems used. Lala has been playing as the right wingback. He has been their primary source of creativity and is by far his best quality as a player. The Frenchman is averaging 1.8 key passes per game, the most in the side. He will always look to receive the ball as wide as possible. It shows during Strasbourg’s buildup. Lala will usually wait on the halfway line, to give his team an option when attacking. He is the heartbeat of this side. No other player averages more crosses and key passes than Lala. It’s where he excels. He has a fantastic range of passing, enabling him to quickly switch the ball when under pressure. The reliance placed on him can be shown when looking at how his numbers have changed from his debut season. His dribbling has dropped from 2 to 1.1 dribbles per game and defensive work has plummeted from 4.2 to 3.1 tackles and interceptions per game. It shows how his role has changed last season, moving from a regular full back you’d see in the modern game, to the creative hub we see today. He tops the side for assists with 9 and while xG shows how he has massively overachieved in this area, he has assisted some goals that should usually be saved (the opening goal in their 2-1 win over Monaco is a perfect example). It shouldn’t diminish his achievements, however, since he has still been a great creator for his side. His crosses are pinpoint and consistently finds his teammates in the box.

Lala is a player who possesses one enormous strength but features some shortcomings. The first is how he fairs defensively. While he can perform well in a back four, it would lead to losing that creativity he offers from the wide areas. His 3.1 tackles and interceptions aren’t low, but it’s when viewing him you can see how often he can be exposed. Wingers have loved to target his side. He can be easy to dispossess, which will lead to the right side exposed. He isn’t as pacey as Kyle Walker or Roussillon, meaning he can’t make those recovery runs other players can easily make. He is also not great in the air. He only wins 44% of his aerial duels, and considering he only attempts 1.8 per game, it isn’t a good sign to see a player struggle in the little number of duels he attempts. While he helps his team a lot in the final third, Lala can leave Strasbourg vulnerable defensively.

From the way I’ve described his strengths and weaknesses, he is very reminiscent of Kieran Trippier. Both are gifted passers but struggle defensively when under pressure. The difference between the two is that Lala is being played to his strengths, and is relied on heavily by his teammates. Trippier, on the other hand, has struggled this season, partly due to the injuries and lack of midfielders available for Tottenham. Lala has been allowed to excel and while he has his weaknesses, he has been vital in the steps forward that Strasbourg have taken this season.

 

 

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Marcus Thuram and Safe Risks for Big Clubs

One matter regarding the big clubs in Europe that can be frustrating is the lack of risks some of them rarely ever take. When there are so many young talents performing well and available for a cut-price, they are rarely ever taken by the bigger clubs. It’s why the rumours of United chasing Daniel James and Tottenham looking at Jack Clarke were so interesting. These are players available for less than £20 million, with little risk, yet are never signed. If they work out, you have at least a squad player, with potential to grow and if it fails, they can be sold without drastic loss. Juventus are a club who have understood the benefits of doing this. Players in the mould of Zaza, Stuararo and Caldara. Domestic talents they can sign and profit from. It’s one factor to how the club has consistently been able to afford some of the top talents in Europe. It was one of my many criticisms of PSG after their humiliating defeat to Manchester United. While Ligue 1 constantly earns critique for its lack of talent compared to the other top five leagues, I will still stand by the statement that there is an interesting talent in every team in the league. To prove this point, let’s look at a player who plays for the worst team in Ligue 1, yet is still attracting interest from across Europe.

Guingamp, like many sides at the bottom of the table, were the furthest from inspiring. They only managed to score 28 goals and conceded 68, the worst in the league in both departments. It makes the idea of any player standing out quite difficult to believe, but Marcus Thuram has done that. Famously the son of World Cup winning defender Lillian Thuram, Marcus ended the season with 9 goals and an assist, meaning he contributed to more than a third of Guingamp’s goals.

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The young Frenchman, like his father, is a real physical presence. He matches centre backs, like Jan Vertonghen and Harry Maguire in strength and it works well alongside his pace. Many full-backs have struggled to deal with Thuram this season. He is hard to dispossess because players cannot simply push him off the ball. He is given an advantage over many other wingers. His size has given him the edge in the air. The winger has been winning 3.5 aerial duels per game, the third-highest in the squad. He has been a focal point for Guingamp in attack. The goalkeeper Caillard (or Johnsson) will constantly use Thuram to quickly transition the ball from defence to attack. Since he is matched up against full backs, it makes it easier for him to win the ball. Against Lyon and Marseille, he was using this aerial dominance to cause their right backs trouble throughout the game. In their 4-0 defeat to Marseille, he won a ridiculous 8 aerial duels, the most on the pitch.

In this same game, he also completed 9 dribbles. It’s surprising just how good he is at dribbling. It’s usually the smaller players who excel in this area, thanks to their low centre of gravity, but Thuram stands out. He’s good technically, can quickly evade pressure when opponent attempt to retrieve the ball and most importantly, his size and power make it so difficult for players to even get near him. Thuram usually likes to receive in the wide areas, drive with the ball and looking for space to shoot in the box. The Frenchman can have a serious case of tunnel vision. When receiving the ball, his first thought is always to go straight on the front foot (as cliche as it is) and try and help his team score.

One of the most encouraging signs of Thuram is his performances in the bigger games. Some of his best performances this season have come against the top sides in the league. While all of your displays should never be judged based on a small number of games, it’s promising for any top side who would consider signing him (we’ll get to that) to know he can play well against better opposition. He scored a brace against Lyon, put away the winning penalty against PSG in the Coupe de France and scored against 4th place St Etienne on the opening day of the season. While young, he has shown how he can perform on the big stages.

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Playing for a poor side, especially a side who mostly play without the ball means as a forward you will be tracking back. Thuram does this constantly. He isn’t afraid to do the hard yards for his side. With the added benefit of having a player so physically gifted, it makes it a role he is ideal to play. The 21-year-old has been putting in 1.4 tackles per game, a high amount for a forward. It’s a promising sign for clubs to see. A lot of coaches want their players to defend in all areas and Thuram is comfortable doing this.

While I’ve complimented his physicality and his dribbling, it’s his shot locations that are most impressive. Thuram is taking 1.9 shots per game, with 1.6 coming into the penalty area. I’ve criticised plenty of players in the past for poor shot locations. Ziyech, Maddison and Milinkovic-Savic have all been frustrating for how often they’ll take shots from bad areas. Thuram isn’t as wasteful as his peers. It could be an effect of playing for a side who need to take their chances if they want any chance of survival, but he’s showing a lot of maturity at his age. Being such a good dribbler, it makes it easy for him to find space in the box to take those shots. The last trait a bigger club wants to see is a player give the ball away needlessly.

With taking all of his strengths to account, being his size, speed, dribbling, work rate and shot location, which side should sign him? The first club that comes to mind is Arsenal. The Gunners have a lack of pace and adequate dribblers in the wide areas, with Iwobi being the only natural winger I’d consider them to have. They are in desperate need of reinforcements in that area of the pitch. We’ve discussed Ryan Fraser in the past, and came to the conclusion he is not the player Arsenal should be looking at. Thuram definitely fits the type of player they’re looking for. Guingamp have stated they’re asking for roughly €20 million for their prospect. With Arsenal lacking funds, it could be one of their best options in the market for them. He improves that squad. While they’re questions on whether he would start, he is a great option to have in the team. He is a must signing for the red side of North London this summer.