While the transfer market has its enjoyment, it ultimately does take away from the reasons we all love football, to watch the game itself. The summer window is full of twists and turns, from players turning their backs on their respective clubs, to owners desperate to improve their teams. The area we will be discussing today is clubs who recruit in the wrong areas, and why it is so frustrating.
When talking about this problem, it comes back to one of the best managers to ever grace the game, Valeriy Lobanovskyi. His influence on the game cannot be underestimated. From introducing statistics and the power of science to the game, he also had one belief that should be embraced by all clubs, being the weak link. The legendary Dynamo Kyiv coach believed that a team’s success was primarily down to which side made the least amount of mistakes. Lobanovskyi famously said, “a team that commits errors in no more than 15 to 18 per cent of its actions is unbeatable.” It isn’t the number of superstars you have in attack that wins you titles, it’s how good or bad those lesser players are.
This belief has been tested throughout history, but no one pushed it further than Florentino Perez with his infamous Galacticos project. The idea of overloading your side with the best attackers was something never believed to be possible, and for a good reason. There isn’t a world where you can afford players of that world-class level and keep them all happy while keeping the side defensively solid. This turned out to be partly right. While one La Liga and a dramatic Champions League win in 2002 can be considered successful, it just wasn’t enough for the insane amount of money spent. The team was imbalanced to put it lightly, with Claude Makelele’s role in that team vital in doing all of the defensive work in midfield. You look at the signings during Perez’s first tenure. This included Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, R9, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Walter Samuel, Sergio Ramos and finally Robinho. While these aren’t all the signings Real Madrid made between 2000 and 2006, they were the most expensive. It’s clear where Perez was prioritising his finances, on selling shirts with the most attacking players in Europe. Only two of them I would consider being defensive signings. Los Blanchos’s team was built so irresponsibly, that it was no wonder the project was considered a failure.
I thought that Perez’s failed project meant that no other side would ever try and win similarly, yet I was wrong. While Barcelona haven’t gone as crazy as their rivals in terms of signing everyone available, their recent signings in the market scream a lack of planning. The signing of Griezmann shows how Barca are continuing to ignore the more pressing issues in their squad. Busquets, Pique and Suarez still remain without a worthy successor. They are blessed to have the greatest player of all time, yet seem to ignore the other parts of the side despite Messi now reaching the twilight of his career.
While these examples are on a grander scale, we still see clubs signing a player for a hefty fee without any idea of what to do with them. United signing Alexis Sanchez, even though Rashford and Martial were in fantastic form before his arrival. Everton brought three number 10’s in the summer of 2017, and it begs the question of why they needed to bring those players in when they failed to add pace in the wide areas. Even Arsenal signing Aubamayeng for a club-record fee can be seen as quite reckless considering the weaknesses that side had in midfield and defence.
The point remains. The clubs who succeed in football prioritise fixing their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths. It isn’t a surprise that Manchester City and Liverpool are the two best sides in Europe. In recent years, the pair have always addressed their most significant issues first. The Reds did overspend on Alisson, but he solved their most significant problem; the lack of a commanding presence in goal. Manchester City’s first signing of the current window was Rodri, the Fernandinho replacement they were in desperate need for at specific points last season. It’s why they are miles ahead of their Premier League opposition. Their intelligent recruitment and desire to stay away from a messier side of the transfer market.
Even Manchester United, a club ridiculed for its inability to recruit adequately in the market, have begun moving towards signing players in their weakest positions. The arguments can be made for how much they are spending on the likes of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There are premiums they are forced to pay for players with quality that can be questioned in certain areas. It’s vital that instead of spending an insane amount of money on Bruno Fernandes, they have stayed away in pursuit of a defender.
These points had to be made due to potential moves possibly being made in this transfer window, primarily Neymar. Barcelona might perhaps form the most fearsome frontline in world football, but in reality, Neymar might only improve Barcelona by around 5%, with their attack already the best in the division. Adding to that position is needless when other areas on the pitch need addressing. Studies have been made in the past that show the importance of clean sheets over goals. While goals to win you games, you realistically can score 2 goals and become the favourites to win the game. What’s essential is not throwing away those leads due to ageing stars in defence. If Barcelona invested a potential £200 million in resolving their right-back and centre half issues, it would make them a much better team than resigning Neymar. There is no need to continuously allow your weak points to increase, in favour of slightly improving your strengths.
Los Blancos’ Return
We’ll keep this one nice and short since I’ve discussed Real Madrid on multiple occasions. After arguably their worst season in the current century, Real Madrid were left in desperate need for surgery in crucial areas. Perez failed to replace Ronaldo adequately and left the side without the 40 goals that Ronaldo was giving the side every season. Entrusting Bale and Benzema to double their goal tally at their age is unrealistic. They were embarrassed by Ajax in the Champions League and were left so far from their closest rivals, signalling the time for a rebuild.
Madrid were insanely quick in acting upon their need for players. Eder Militao was signed back in March for over £50 million. The Brazilian was fantastic for Porto, comfortably playing at both full-back and centre half. He is one of the most promising defenders in Europe, and his signing makes perfect sense with Ramos and Nacho getting old. He wasn’t the only defensive signing, with Ferland Mendy arriving for £47 million. Mendy is an excellent full-back and can give a similar attacking output as Marcelo while not being nearly as error-prone as his new Brazilian teammate. Madrid’s defence now looks in much better shape. Ramos and Varane are still fantastic and now with Eder and Mendy, have long term replacement for their ageing stars.Embed from Getty Images
Eden Hazard was by far the biggest signing of the summer. The Belgian has wanted to leave Chelsea for a long time and has finally achieved his dream move to the Spanish capital. While he is far from value for money, Madrid are getting a player who has come off the back of his best season in his career. Hazard was the best player at the 2018 World Cup, and he finally showed how well he could perform under an attacking coach. Chelsea had their problems under Sarri, but Hazard’s form was by far the most significant strength from his time in London. Hazard will be fantastic for Zidane, but I doubt he will reach a similar goal tally as Ronaldo. He will be much more creative than Ronaldo ever was under Zidane, and should contribute to at least 30 goals.
The icing on top of the attacking cake is Serbian striker Luka Jovic, who was one of the breakout stars of last season. Jovic is a forward who can score all types of goals, who relishes constant chances in the box to pounce. He is two-footed and can score headed goals. It’s what made him stand out for Frankfurt; his elite finishing and getting into excellent scoring positions. His shot map last season was a pleasure to see. The former Benfica striker is a lethal finisher and is the goal threat that Madrid were craving for last season. Benzema, while scoring a lot of goals for Madrid last season, is far past his best and shouldn’t be relied on as the primary goal threat anymore. Jovic couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive.
All of these signings and the current experience they possess, have instantly made them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They have fixed their most prominent issues in both defence and attack. The only issue that remains is the midfield. The midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro is not a midfield you can play consistently anymore. Modric is very old now, and Kroos has never been a mobile player. What makes it so worrying is the sales of Llorente, Kovacic and potentially Ceballos. All offer more defensive work off the ball than Kroos and Modric and give the midfield some energy to help Madrid in tougher games. I fear that midfield will lack the energy against sides like Liverpool or Tottenham. If Madrid can bring in one of Pogba or Eriksen, there wouldn’t be an issue, but it is looking improbable.
Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back
Valencia had a bizarre 18/19 season, having a miserable start to the season but managing to finish in the top 4 deservedly. Marcelino is one of the best defensive managers in Europe and managed to turn Valencia into a tough side to face. He gave stability to the club after barely surviving relegation in 2016. After a very positive 17/18 season which saw all of their strikers run hot all year, it got them back into the top 4 and allowed them to return to Europe’s elite once again. He managed to get a lot out of players who failed at their previous clubs, with Garay, Gabriel, Kondogbia and Neto all standing out in their debut season.
Their disastrous start to last season is one of the strangest occurrences I’ve witnessed since following football. They only managed a single victory up until the middle of November. At first glance that looks bad, but when looking at the numbers, they should never have been in such a drought. What’s even more baffling about this is they only managed one defeat before November, meaning they drew all but 2 games. The defence remained solid as ever, but it was in attack where they couldn’t catch a break. I mentioned before that their strikers were all running incredibly hot in terms of form. What made this so unfortunate was Mina and Rodrigo both hit a dry patch at the same time. It meant many games at the beginning of the season ended in draws due poor finishing. Marcelino faced a dilemma, and while he did manage to rally his players in the second half of the season, taking advantage of Sevilla dropping off a cliff, it still painted a very mixed season. Valencia’s top scorer that season was midfielder Dani Parejo with 9. It’s easy to see where Valencia needed to improve.Embed from Getty Images
They acted in sorting their issue with the signing of Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo in an odd deal which saw both Santi Mina leave permanently and young defender Saenz on loan. They have brought in a player, while I think he lacks in finding good shot locations, he is one of the best aerial forwards in La Liga and could help bring more goals out of both Guedes and Rodrigo. Let’s hope that they do not begin next season with the same bad luck.
Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League
It has been a long time coming, but Atalanta have finally reached the Champions League after a couple of years of getting close. La Dea have been a club producing talent for clubs ranging from Juventus down to clubs in Serie C. Chelsea are a club who garnered a reputation for having an obscene number of players out on loan, but Atalanta takes that to another level, with 76 players out on last season. Context is important here, with players like Petagna and Kessie virtually signing for their new clubs, but the fee not being paid till this summer. They have been a selling club for Italy’s biggest clubs for years with a youth system unlike no other.
Their success last season came down to getting every ounce of talent out of a trio of ageing forwards in Josep Illicic, Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata. With Gomez already captaining the side, Illicic and Zapata arrived for a combined £17 million and all have flourished. They are on the older side, with the trio all over 28 but Serie A has blossomed thanks to its reputation for allowing older players to play slower-paced league. Gomez has been one of my favourite players in Europe for the last couple of years. He’s caused so many defenders issues with his elite dribbling and can carry the attack on his own. Both Gomez and Illicic have practically been given free roles under Gasperini in terms of positioning, looking to create for Zapata. He has been the centrepiece for the side, scoring more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Dries Mertens last season. It’s his highest goal return since playing in Serie A and has excelled due to the high chance creation in the side. His shot map shows a player taking shots in fantastic positions. He’s been blessed with a team full of creation throughout the side. Out of his 118 shots in Serie A last season, 89% were taking from inside the penalty area. The Colombian is a poacher at heart and feeds off chances. It’s been similar to all of the top scorers in Serie A and while Quagliarella scoring over 25 goals in his late thirties is impressive, getting 23 goals out of a journeyman like Zapata has been nothing short of genius from Gasperini.Embed from Getty Images
It’s strange to see a club rooted with youth success having a squad full of older players, but the model is working. Atalanta have even added another Serie A veteran in Luis Muriel to their ranks, to add to that incredible frontline. The Nerazzurri are one of my teams to watch in the Champions League next season. They’ve managed to reach the biggest competition in Europe with a squad full of players who weren’t good enough for the usual big sides. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them cause a massive upset next season.
Barca’s Ageing Squad
Most clubs discussed so far have all been making positive moves and showing long term thinking, but Barcelona are far from that. The La Liga champions were underwhelming for the whole of last season. They managed to make by far the most comfortable title win their recent history look more complicated than it needed to be. It makes the consistently disappointing performances in the Champions League, more concerning with the way the squad is going. They have spent an insane amount of money on a host of attacking talent but have failed to address some of their critical areas in the squad, primarily left-back and centre-back. They are seemingly desperate to sign even more attacking talent and are failing even to consider finding long term replacements in defence.
Let’s start with left-back. I disliked Jordi Alba for years, and while he was an excellent attacking option, he was such a liability in defence that I thought he was an area that needed addressing for a long time. However, Valverde’s pragmatic system did finally manage to get the best out of the Spaniard. He has been fantastic for Barca over the last couple of seasons, but the club’s laziness in not signing another left-back left them in such an awkward position. It forced them to give Alba a high earning, long term contract because he was fully aware of how desperate they were to keep him. Alba is turning 31 next season and as we’ve recently seen with Tottenham, is usually far past the expiry date of a modern-day full-back. If Alba begins to drop off similarly to Marcelo or suffers a long term injury, it could derail Barcelona’s whole season and what makes it even worse is Barcelona aren’t linked to anyone in that position. Their whole seasons rests on the form of Alba staying healthy.
The centre-back problem is almost as clear as the same issues as left-back. As soon as Frenkie De Jong signed for the club, it seemed apparent to see De Ligt play alongside his teammate at the Nou Camp. However, it didn’t happen. Valverde has issues with Umtiti and Pique’s age is becoming more noticeable per season. Pique’s success has been quite fascinating. A player who has lacked pace throughout his career being able to play a high line successfully is to his credit, but we’ve seen in the past how when certain players age (Steven Gerrard and Diego Godin), their awareness seems to diminish. Pique has mostly been fantastic under Valverde but has had moments where you have to question if he is the same player he once was. What is becoming more worrying for Pique is the likely departure of Umtiti. While the Frenchman has struggled with injury, his ability to rush out of defence made him an ideal partner for someone incapable of doing that successfully. If Pique is forced to play over 30 games in the league once again, it could make his decline extremely painful to watch.
I cannot stress this enough, but I can’t stand the signing of Antoine Griezmann and the potential return of Neymar. Barcelona have just spent over £100 million on an ageing forward who isn’t even guaranteed to start. I love Griezmann as a player, but anyone who signed him was going to suffer. Spending that much money on a player who wasn’t essential is just baffling. Real Madrid signing Hazard made sense because they were desperate for a player who could fire them right back to the top and fill in a position they were in desperate need for since the departure of Ronaldo. Griezmann doesn’t possess that same urgency that Hazard did, making his signing stink of panic. Real Madrid acted swiftly in bringing in Jovic, another player who seemed destined to sign for the Blaugrana. Barca didn’t have a plan B and have waited too long to bring in Griezmann. The Frenchman feels like an expensive stop-gap in their future pursuit of Kylian Mbappe, which isn’t worth the money for a club who are already full of financial difficulties.Embed from Getty Images
Neymar’s rumoured return might be even worse than Griezmann’s signing. The Brazilian has been a massive failure, and while his performances on the pitch have been the second-best in the Paris side, he has missed many games through injury, most notably both round of 16 clashes with Manchester United. The reason why Paris signed Neymar was to make their chances of winning the Champions League increase dramatically. He has failed to do so and with his awful attitude off the pitch, it makes it extremely difficult in justifying keeping the forward any longer. Barcelona made a strange yet enticing offer of £90 million and 2 players. I understand why PSG want the money they paid back, but taking two of Dembele, Malcolm, Coutinho, Umtiti, Rakitic or Semedo would help fix some significant issues in the squad and makes them a much better team without their Brazilian superstar. Barcelona’s constant search for more attacking talent baffles me. They have the best player ever to play the game and continues to carry that side more than ever. If you have Messi, your attack is going to function well. They need to focus on fixing the defence and adding some younger talent.
Wolfsburg Taking a Risk
Let’s end this list where we began, with the Bundesliga. The effects Austrian football has had on the Bundesliga in recent years has been vital in its development into becoming the breeding ground for young coaches. When discussing this effect, the Red Bull clubs are usually the first link that comes to mind. It was Salzburg who have been responsible for the rise of Marco Rose, Ralph Hassenhuttl, Roger Schmidt and Adi Hutter. It’s not only coaches too, with Naby Keita, Amadou Haidara, Marcel Sabitzer and most recently Stefan Lainer. The Austrian Bundesliga contains a pool of talent that Germany takes full advantage of and it seems other leagues are finally seeing the perks of looking at a historical footballing nation for players.
However, in this case, we are not looking at a manager who has had previous relations with the Red Bull machine. Oliver Glasner arrives after a very successful 4-year spell at former club, LASK Linz. He took them from fighting for promotion the Austrian top flight, to qualifying for the Europa League. This success is primarily down to Glasner, who’s fascinating system got the best out of players at his disposal. While I’m not an avid viewer of the Austrian Bundesliga, but from what I can gather, Glasner is a forward-thinking coach who follows in the footsteps of Rose and Hassenhuttl in creating a physically demanding pressing system. It’s an appointment that makes much sense for Wolfsburg. After suffering from the Bundesliga drop off, nearly facing relegation in 2016/17, they managed to bring themselves back into the conversation at the top of the table, with a direct style of football revolving around star striker Weghorst, an aerial-dominant forward who became the focal point of his side. Wolfsburg began looking for players they could acquire for less money than their evaluation. Signings like Jerome Roussillon and now Kevin Mbabu for a combined £10 million is the kind of genius business that have turned Wolfsburg from that struggling side to one of the best teams in the division.Embed from Getty Images
Glasner’s appointment shows ambition from the club, to establish a style that will allow them to get back into the Champions League spots. Wolfsburg’s positive appointment is another reason why the Bundesliga is the league to watch next season. The clubs are not obsessed with big stars in a similar fashion to the Premier League and La Liga. They do not get nearly the same amount of money as those leagues and need to stand out. It’s why these clubs are run so well and can sign players for so much less money than you expect them to be. I suggested Arsenal should sign Marcus Thuram, expecting his valuation to be around the £15 million mark, yet Borussia Monchengladbach have just picked up the Frenchman for £8 million. The Bundesliga is a league I have such respect for, and I hope it reaches the high bar I have set the sides this season.
These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.
Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.
What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.
Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.
Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.
If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.
If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.
What a fascinating week of football. Some huge upsets, big victories and frankly terrible performances. Let’s get straight into it.
Dortmund extend their lead
This was by far the biggest clash of the week. League leaders Dortmund face a lesser, yet strong Bayern side. It delivered exactly what we all expected, with Dortmund winning the game 3-2, thanks to a late winner from Alcacer. This was a huge game for both. Dortmund have been excellent, but there was an element of if they have been a bit lucky. Plenty of times this season they have won thanks to a late goal, or by a singular goal margin. While they do deserve to be at the top, this could just be a side in red hot form, instead of a side ready to keep it up for a whole 34 game season.
Bayern on the other hand have been a bit frustrating. Dortmund have blossomed in squad rotation, while Bayern haven’t. Kovac seems unable to find a team and formation to stick with, and it’s easy to understand why. He lost both Coman and Tolisso, two players who definitely would have been important this season. They failed to fix the midfield. With Vidal and Rudy both leaving, and Goretzka not playing much at all, it leaves Kovac with an injury prone Alcantara and an immobile Javi Martinez. There have been positives. Lewandowski has finally hit some form, Hummels has looked solid and Gnabry has been excellent since filling in for Robben. It’s about time their wide areas are being replaced.
The away side started the game excellently, thanks to an early header from Lewandowski. He scored a good header, thanks to a peach cross from Gnabry. Lewandowski did well against his former side. Before the game, he had scored 12 goals against Dortmund since moving to Munich, with 3 coming at the Westfalenstadion. He reminded Dortmund fans why he was so loved by them so long ago. Bayern only created 3 goal scoring chances, and Lewandowski scored 2 of them. He also created 2 chances and won 3 aerial duels.
One player who was incredibly wasteful for Bayern was Thomas Muller. To say the German hasn’t been at his true best for a while now is an understatement. This season has seen him at his worse, when he’s at an age where he is in his prime years. He didn’t create a chance, have a shot on target, complete a dribble or have a real involvement in the game. Muller is one of the players at Bayern who has plenty of influence in the dressing room, and at this point does not deserve it.
Now onto the victors, who while did have less of the ball, created the better chances. They had 5 shots on target compared to Bayern’s 3. It isn’t a huge margin, but it was definitely decisive. While Dortmund were good, Bayern’s mistakes really helped. Neuer gave away the penalty for coming out of his box too slowly, intercepting Reus and giving them the equaliser. While Reus’s second was a class finish from a class player, there was a clear issue from a Bayern perspective. Javi Martinez let him run free and didn’t even attempt to keep up with him. It was pure laziness that allowed Dortmund to spring a comeback. Their last goal was brilliant. Thanks to quick interplay between Sancho and Reus, it allowed them to counter incredibly quickly and allow Witzel to play a lovely ball to Alcacer, who chipped Neuer like he was ordinary. Dortmund now have a 7 point lead on their rivals, leaving them in a comfortable place to win their first league title for 7 years.
Their man of the match was Marco Reus, and justifiably. Ever since Favre moved him into a number 10 position, he has absolutely flourished. It means he doesn’t have to move as much as he would outwide, meaning he can save his energy more in the final third. It has reinvigorated Reus, and he has been one of the hottest players in the continent. He was responsible for Dortmund’s first 2 goals, and was a real driving force for their victory. He had 4 shots on target, completed 3 dribbles and made 4 tackles. He was the deciding factor in this game. He’s been so unlucky over the years, and deserved the success he gets.
While Reus was the best player on the pitch, one of their defenders certainly deserves some praise. I loved Dortmund’s defensive signings over the summer. Akanji, Diallo and Hakimi all were brilliant additions to a defense that was slowly aging. One of their signings, Dan-Axel Zagadou, went under the radar, and has established himself already as an important player in the team. The 19 year old was one of their best players on the day. While Piszczek was also brilliant, Zagadou really caught my eye. He Frenchman made 2 tackles, an interception, 8 clearances and won 7 aerial duels. He helped keep Bayern mostly quiet. For someone of his age to perform that well in the biggest game in German football, deserves a lot of credit. His ability on the ball cannot be disputed either. In this game, Zagadou completed the most passes for his side. While Akanji is the superior passer out of Dortmund’s centre backs, seeing a 19 year old complete 8 long balls against the champions is ridiculous.
As said before, Dortmund are now 7 points clear of their Der Klassiker rivals. They seem to be the best side in the division. While other sides might have a better attack or defense, Dortmund play with such confidence and swagger, that it is hard to not want them to finally crush Bayern’s domination. As for Bayern, they are now in 5th. The teams around them have been excellent this season, and it is the deserved punishment for a side full of players who seem to have down tooled just because they aren’t a fan of the manager after a short time. While I do blame their board for the failings this season, for lacking ambition, Kovac still deserves criticism. His constant changes to the side have made it difficult for any player to get a run of form together. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bayern do win the Bundesliga again, but hopefully it will be a wake up call for the entire club, to step up their game.
Frankfurt pummel Schalke
Now onto the team just above Bayern Munich, Frankfurt cruised past an underperforming Schalke side with a 3-0 victory. After a relatively successful season last season, with current Bayern manager Niko Kovac guiding Frankfurt to a DFB-Pokal victory over Bayern. They seem to have built on that this season, with the winners sitting in 4th, equal points to Bayern but with a +13 goal difference. They chose Adi Hütter has Kovac’s replacement. The Austrian found plenty of success last season with Young Boys, who he helped break Basel’s dominance over Swiss football. His appointment was a risk, but has so far paid off. They have scored the second most goals from open play, with 19. However to call them lucky is a massive understatement. Thanks to their massage 7-1 victory over Dusseldorf, it has swayed their stats and numbers to look better than they really are. They take 4.5 shots a game, the 5th worse in the division, with Hoffenheim leading the Bundesliga 6.8. It’s crazy how one game can change how an entire side is perceived, but that is exactly what’s happened here.
Let’s discuss the game in question. Frankfurt created more chances and their opponents, 14 to 5. However while they did dominate, it did take a while for the deadlock to be broken. The first half was very uneventful to say the least. Frankfurt did have the better of the chances, with Luka Jovic taking many shots. However he wasn’t taking his shots from good positions, and was just trying more than thinking. The second half was definitely where the game began. Frankfurt scored twice in 11 minutes to give them a deserved advantage. Frankfurt are very good at creating good chances for both of their forwards, Haller and Jovic. Their shot numbers are low, but having 2 forwards will always make those chances mean so much more. Haller is excellent in the air and Jovic is great at taking shots in the box. They are a classic big man little man combo and are working so well. XG had this game at 2.62 to Frankfurt and 0.82 to Schalke. It shows how good Frankfurt are at creating goal scoring opportunities for their forwards.
Let’s talk about the forwards, and especially Luka Jovic. But before we discuss the young Croatian now leading the Bundesliga’s goal scorers, let’s talk about his partner in crime, Sebastian Haller. While Jovic has had plenty of the headlines, let’s not forget that Haller is currently only a single goal behind him, and even has 3 more assists. The Frenchman has been excellent this season, winning a crazy 4.9 aerial duels and creating 1.3 chances a game. He is a perfect partner to a forward like Jovic. He is able to create space for others and give a real vocal point to his side. He is overachieving XG, with him only projected to have 6 goals and 2 assists. That would still be a healthy return and shows just how good he has been. In this game, he wasn’t incredible, but was effective. He only managed 2 shots, created 1 chance, and won 2 aerial duels. It wasn’t his best game, but still managed to score.
Now let’s move onto Jovic. The Benfica loanee (which I didn’t even know until I looked him up on transfermarkt) has started the season in absolutely amazing form. His 5 goals against Dusseldorf has given him an arguably unjust position as the top scorer in the Bundesliga. After seeing those 5 goals, there is a player who has potential to have a good career at the top. However I had doubts, thanks to Dusseldorf just being terrible in a defensive sense. After seeing his performance against Schalke, it proves there is a young player who should be watched by all around Europe. Teams like Spurs, Manchester United, Marseille and even Bayern Munich should all be looking at him. I’ll explain why now. His performance against Schalke was elite. He had 7 shots, 3 on target and scored a brace. He was comfortably the man of the match in this game. This game continued his already incredible start to the season. He takes 3.3 shots per game, which is incredible for a player for his age. What is most impressive is the fact he takes 93% of his shots in the box. He is getting into great position that you don’t see from a player who’s career is still only in its infancy. His stats are so good, but what I love the most is the power in his shots. It’s a small thing, but every time he gets the ball in a goal scoring position, he hits it as if he’s trying to break down a brick wall. It reminds me of Aguero, who I’ve seen hit the net off the ground with his power. Jovic shoots to kill in the box, and it shows what a talent he is.
Barcelona’s home record ruined
While there were 4 games I could have easily spoken about, this one was a guaranteed talking point. While Barcelona have always been a relatively attractive team to watch (as previously mentioned when discussing the 2011 Champions League), I love seeing them lose. They are a club I have a dislike towards. Whether it’s their questionable deals in the past with Qatar airways, to the sheer arrogance of their fans, they are an incredibly easy team to hate. They lost at home to Real Betis by 4 goals to 3. It was a truly embarrassing display from the Champions, and was the defeat that they finally deserved to receive. After some luck against Sevilla and Vallecano, it was about time that their opponents got their own bit of luck.
Let’s start with Betis, who are and have been a very good side now since January. Signings like Lo Celso and Carvalho did drastically improve their midfield, and dominate games as well as the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have been in lackluster form recently, with their win over Barcelona their first win in five matches. While a defeat to Atletico Madrid is understandable, they should not be losing to Getafe and Valladolid. I highlighted how well I thought they played in their last game against Celta Vigo, and they carried it on in this game. They had more shots on target in this game, 8 to the home side’s 5, and deserved the lead they had. They took advantage of a poor Barcelona side on the day and showed why they have been such an interesting this year.
While Lo Celso continued on from his fine display against Celta, Betis’s best player on the pitch was Junior Firpo. The young full back was Betis’s best attacking threat on the day, completing 2 dribbles, creating 2 chances, scoring and assisting against the Champions. He’s primarily been used as a full back and excellent in that role, completing 3 tackles and interceptions a match and creating a chance a game. He gets into very good positions for a player of his age, while also not leaving his defensive work behind. It does seem strange seeing him moved into a more advanced position, with his dribble and shot numbers not exactly spectacular. Quique Setièn must have moved him thanks to his recent goal and assists for his side, and hoped he would replicate that against the best side in the league, and he definitely did.
One player definitely showed his former employers what they are missing, and that is Mark Batra. The Spaniard joined Betis in January from Borussia Dortmund, and has been the catalyst for all the good that has came to that club. He was just the perfect fit for the 3-5-2 system being played by Betis, and turned them into one of the best defensive sides in La Liga. He was a wall in this game, making 7 tackles, 5 interceptions, 6 clearances and 4 aerial duels. No other player on the pitch managed that many defensive actions. It was truly an elite performance from a player who has blossomed in this system.
Now onto Barcelona, who as mentioned before, did deserve to lose this game. While XG did give it Barcelona, with 4.08 to the home side and 2.37 to Betis, I do think they deserved to lose based on how poorly they defended through out this game. Firpo got the best of Roberto and eased past him to score the first. It has to be made clear that Roberto is terrible defensively. He might put a few tackles, but it’s more of awareness and positioning that lets him down. He should have allowed Firpo to come inside the way he did. The second goal was strange to say the least. After the ball was played inside, it was deflected into the path of Joaquin, who had not a single player near him, allowing a free shot on goal. Lo Celso’s goal should never have been allowed to score the third, with Ter Stegan not putting a strong enough hand forward to stop the shot. The problem with Valverde is when his defence performs this badly, it makes it hard for the fans to get behind him. He is a pragmatic coach by nature, and relies on the solidarity of his backline to win games. It is clear that Umtiti is heavily missed. The Frenchman is one of the best defenders around and his athleticism and quality on the ball is unrivalled in Europe. But Lenglet and Pique should be enough to deal with a side who only managed to score 8 goals before this game. It’s a terrible performance that already puts pressure on Valverde, who already gets enough criticism from the fans. They face Atletico Madrid after this game, which will not be pretty if they defend the same way.
Sevilla take on in form Espanyol
While this game wasn’t as dramatic as the Madrid club’s games, it was an interesting one never the less. Sevilla took on Espanyol, who sat in 2nd before this game. It was a chance for Sevilla to get back into 2nd place, and keep pressure on Barcelona.
The game ended 2-1 to Sevilla, who deservedly won this game. They had 23 shots compared to Espanyol’s 14, and deserved to win based on the better chances they made. Sevilla have been able to carry on scoring at an insane rate, with only Barcelona scoring more goals than their 24. It has largely been down to how well their attack has performed this season. Silva has managed 7, while Ben Yedder has managed 6 in only 6 starts, having a goal contribution every 63 minutes. Both are in fine form and showed it in this game. Silva managed 9 shots with 4 on target, while Ben Yedder, who only played 45 minutes, managed 3 shots and completed 2 dribbles.
While their attack is always effective, a special mention needs to be given to Jesus Navas. He was always I couldn’t stand at Man City, mainly due to how wasteful he was at times. To say he’s flourished since playing as wing back is an understatement. It’s became common to see old fashioned wingers, like Navas, Young, Antonio Valencia Kostic and Milner playing as full backs in the past. They focus on stretching a defense and attempting a cross, instead of cutting inside. It’s what many managers want from their full backs and Navas provides that. His defensive work is non existent, but he’s not there for that. He completed 7 of his 10 crosses, and created 6 chances. He’s arguably been one of the surprising players of the season. He was once a player I thought was finished, but he’s proving he still has life next to him.
Onto Espanyol, who have had a very good season so far. While they have been relatively reliant on Iglesias, they have been solid at the back. They have only conceded 10 goals, only Atletico Madrid have conceded less with 8. They are ranked 3rd with tackles, the same as Atletico Madrid. They are an aggressive side who win the ball back and attack quickly, quite similar to Simeone’s side. While they are relatively middle of the road with their amount of shots, they are 3rd in shots on target, making them a very clinical side. One of the players who have been hugely responsible in their goals is Borja Iglesias. The Spaniard doesn’t seem to be getting the credit he deserves. Andre Silva has been on everyone’s lips, but Iglesias has arguably been better. While his shot numbers are slightly lower, 2.7 to Silva’s 3. However he wins more aerial duels, creates more chances and has now scored the same amount as Andre Silva and added an extra assist. He scored against Sevilla, had 3 shots, won 2 aerial duels and made 2 tackles. He came in to replace Moreno and has done an excellent job.
Both sides are definitely taking advantage of taking of advantage of Madrid and Valencia dropping off. Sevilla are relying more on outscoring their opponents, based on their crazy line up and the goals they score. The only problem will be if a side attacks them in the same way. Barcelona did the same thing to them and scored 4. They flourish against defensive sides, but it’ll be interesting to see how they handle Barcelona and Real Madrid again. I’m unsure if Espanyol will keep this up. While Iglesias has performed accurate to XG, the side have been very clinical, and eventually that will ware off.
Paris put pressure on Henry
Monaco are in arguably the worst position in recent time. After their 4-0 humiliation to Club Brugge (check out Heroes and Zeroes from game week 4 to find out more), the last side they would want to play is PSG, a side who broke the record for most consecutive wins at the start of the season. They have won every game this season, and were playing a Monaco side who have only won a single game all season. I would get straight into complimenting the winning side, but I think they get enough praise from me and other critics so let’s look at the losing side and see what is going wrong.
Let’s start with the defense, which was by far one of the worst performances from a defence I’ve seen this season. It may sound harsh but it seemed as if the players were being lazy. The first goal was Sidibe not playing the high line properly and put Cavani on side. The second involved Sidibe again, where he didn’t seem to realise Diaby was making a run right behind him, which let Cavani score again. The third goal was a magnificent goal, but the players just stood there. They were all ball watching and just allowed PSG to play their way. That is not how you defend against players like this. Liverpool proved the way to take a game to them is to be aggressive. Many of these players are relatively soft. They will complain to the referee constantly to get their way, and you have to keep being aggressive. Make the players lose focus on actually playing. Instead there was no sort of pressure from the midfield or the defense. I think what summed up this performance from Monaco was the amount of tackles being put in. When your on the back foot for the majority of the game, winning the ball back at any means necessary should be priority, but not for this side. PSG actually put in more tackles than their opponent, 15 to Monaco’s 14. PSG had nearly twice the possession too. They had no need to make that many challenges, yet they did.
At the end of the day, the ones who should get the blame are the Monaco board and Thierry Henry himself. Why it was ever a good idea to hire a man who’s only known coaching experience was under one of the worst defensive coaches in the world is beyond me. Monaco had one of the best managers in Europe in Leonardo Jardim. A man who knew how to deal with squad turnover and bringing the most out of the players he had. I do think Jardim was right in leaving. He was left with a completely new squad, with players who weren’t nearly as good as players he was given in the past. The board were so focused on selling, they clearly forgot to sign good players. Signings that helped them win a league title only 2 seasons ago. Now onto Henry, I can understand wanting to take a job of this calibre. It was a top level job and it would show of his managerial skills to the world, if it was successful. My problem with Henry is his sheer arrogance. Players who played during his time were smart about their choices. Patrick Viera, a player he knows very well, started out in MLS, a league that would show generosity to him, before going to Europe. He now manages Nice and has done a fine job so far. Even Frank Lampard, who was criticised for not taking a lower league job, took over Derby and has given the fans something to be excited about. Henry should have learnt from Gary Neville, and why you shouldn’t take jobs for their size, and especially for the amount of pressure you’d be be under. Monaco are a mess, and deserve the situation they’re in based on the bad decisions they’ve made.
Depay’s dazzling display
Onto a more positive note, let’s talk about Memphis Depay. I’ve brought up before how much I love Depay as a player. His versatility and flexibility in how he plays, being able to create and score is so impressive. Last season he went quite under the radar with his incredible displays, scoring 19 and assisting 13 in 36 games. He is a sensational footballer who thrives for Lyon, thanks to the reliance and confidence put into him.
This season has been a similar story. He already has 10 goal contributions (5 goals and 5 assists) in only 11 games. What has impressed me so much is his versatility. He’s usually seen as a left winger, but he’s played as wide attacking midfielder, a striker, a number 10 and a winger. He’s just so good as an attacking threat wherever he plays. He’s one of the leading players in Europe for chance creation, with the Dutchman creating 3.2 chances per game. Only Dimitri Payet is ahead of him in Ligue 1 with 3.7. I’ve mentioned before but I think one of the top European clubs should seriously have their eyes on him, mostly Real Madrid. He’s on the verge of a breakout season.
Let’s talk about the game in hand, where Depay scored 2 and assisted 2 for Lyon against relegation struggles Guingamp. He played as a second striker in this game, playing just behind Moussa Dembele. When Lyon went a goal down thanks to a lovely header from Thuram, it was Depay who found space and played Aouar through for the equaliser. His goals were absolute individual brilliant. His first was a stunning effort from outside the box, and the second was an amazing free kick that seemed unsavable. This game showcased everything good about Depay. His creative ability, his individual brilliance and goalscoring. He is just the perfect player to have lead your team in the front line. Let’s hope he gets another chance to play for a big side.
The Manchester Derby
I never have seen such a divide between the two sides like this in my lifetime. I grew up seeing United as the dominant side and City as the struggles. Ever since Ferguson left, the gap just got bigger and bigger. That season was the last time the red side of Manchester finished about their rivals. Ever since it has just been complete dominance from City. This game was the biggest difference on quality I’ve seen.
Let’s start with the champions, who were absolutely superb. They played the game very professionally, playing way more reserved after their first goal. They knew how to manage games, a real sign of a good team. United usually wake up when they go behind, so Manchester City decided to just retain the ball, to make sure they couldn’t attack at all. While simple, not many players have the ability to do that, making it very difficult to initiate. They only allowed United a single shot on target, and that was a penalty. A perfect big game display from arguably the best team around.
While David Silva and Fernandinho were brilliant, City’s stand out man was Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese winger has covered so effectively for De Bruyne in midfield. He retains possession so well and can truly pick out a pass. He was the player who helped transition the midfield into the attack so well. It was his ball into the box that set up David Silva. He was a creative hub in this game, creating 6 chances, completed 2 dribbles and got 2 assists. While those stats are amazing for a midfielder, what impressed me the most was his defensive work. He made 3 tackles in this game. With Silva originally being a right winger, it was good to see that he’s even putting in the defensive to the midfield role. He’s a player who has really impressed me this season. While he did make the most appearances for City season, he didn’t truly blow me away. He started a lot of games, but because of the form of Sterling and Sane, he just didn’t have the same monsterous effect as them. He’s blossomed in midfield however, where his lack of pace and strength aren’t relevant. He’s been brilliant this season and it will be a shame if his place is taken once De Bruyne returns.
Now onto Manchester United, who were outclassed in every area. While the defense is usually the area that gets the most criticism, it was actually the midfield that underwhelmed the most. Fellaini is excluded here. The Belgian was solid defensively and he shouldn’t have been expected to contribute as much as the other two in attack. Herrera was very poor against City. He was dispossessed in very dangerous areas, and was one of the key reasons why United lacked any control or threat from midfield. Herrera was once the perfect partner for Paul Pogba. Back in José’s first season, he was an industrious midfielder who aggressively won the ball back and really helped protect Pogba’s defensive issues. The problem since then, and most of United’s problems, is Matic. Whenever these two play together, they are unable to contribute anything in the final third. It really baffles me because Herrera used to be a good number 10 under Bielsa, but seems to have all of his old creative spark. He offered nothing in attack in this game, and didn’t do as much defensive work as his midfield partners (Fellaini and Matic both made 5 defensive actions). Pogba was a huge loss in this game. United lacked that arrogance, flair and spark in the middle of the park. It’s why United lost this game. They couldn’t get the ball to the forwards, and lacked the mobility to keep up with them.
It leaves both clubs in complete contrasting positions. City are comfortably the favourites for me. They have the squad and have by far the best manager. United now sit in eighth. While things are not good right now, there is a possibility it will get good again. Their Champions League fixtures are much easier now that Juventus are out of the way. They also have had 2 of the toughest away games they could have had. While Liverpool and Arsenal could be very difficult. It will leave their next few fixtures with a high chance of winning. Let’s hope they make the top 4 race interesting.
Wolves continue run against Top 6
Wolves have been one of my surprise packages of the season. While I can gladly question their goalscoring, what cannot be faulted is how disciplined the players are in this system. They function so well and are so difficult to break down, yet are still able to create good chances. They’ve already done relatively well against the Top 6. The were able to get draws against both Manchester clubs, and now Arsenal, which is the game we’ll be discussing.
Let’s begin with the newly promoted side, who were easily the better side. They only had 28% possession, yet managed more shots than their opponent (13 to 10). They took advantage of the highline Arsenal usually play, and used Costa, Cavaleiro and Jimenez to counter. It worked even better thanks to the incredible range of passing that Neves and Moutinho possess. It caused Arsenal plenty of problems and it is why they were the more deserving side of the 3 points.
While their midfield is incredibly dominant and solid, it’s their wing backs that remain to be their most impressive players. The sale of Barry Douglas in the summer was confusing. He was great in the Championship and I would have presumed would have continued to play in the Premier League. However their replacement has been excellent to say the least. Jonny arrived from Atletico Madrid and has been absolutely great. In this game he made 11 tackles and interception and kept Bellerin and Iwobi very quite (they only managed a key pass between them). However the man of the match was Wolves’s other wing back, Matt Doherty. The Irishman also did his share of defensive work, making 5 interceptions and 5 clearances. But what set him apart from his Spanish teammate was his offensive work. Doherty created 3 chances, the most in the game. Both have to be seen as the most inform full backs in Europe at the moment. Just incredible from the pair.
Onto Arsenal. This game was another example of the luck that Arsenal have had this season. This is the 3rd time of note where Arsenal probably should have lost the game, with Everton and West Ham recently being games where they won and can call themselves fortunate. They dominated this game, but created less chances than a side who had 28% possession. What usually helps them through all games is their incredible attack. Ozil, Lacazette and Aubamayeng are incredible talents and have plenty of magic to help them in tougher fixtures. Emery has done a great job so far. He’s mostly fixed their midfield, got Granit Xhaka functioning in a midfield and finally made their defense better. Not a huge improvement, but any organisation is an improvement over last season. Looking at XG, it is clear to see that Arsenal have actually been the most fortunate side in the Premier League. XG has them down to be on only 16 points, 8 less than they are on now. While the improvement is definitely there, there is still plenty of work to do for Unai Emery.
Inter looked to be on trackin recent weeks. Big wins over Genoa and Lazio reminded us all why we thought they were going to challenge Juventus this season. But their 4-1 defeat to Atalanta this week has really put massive question marks over their long term ability to challenge Juventus.
Let’s start with the victors, who have quietly went about their business in Serie a since their impressive 4th finish in the 2016/17 season. They finished in a very respectable 6th. What has kept Atalanta going strong is two key elements. The first is Gian Piero Gasperini. His side are excellent to watch. They take the 3rd most shots in Serie A, with only Juventus and Napoli amassing more shots. They attack relentlessly with the talent they have. Speaking of talent, it’s actually their transfer activity that’s mostly impressive. Whether it’s selling young talent like Kessie, Conti and Gagliardini, to buying players many would deem as average, and turning them into very useful players. Martin De Roon epitomises this. The Dutchman was signed from Middlesbrough last year, and has been a brilliant defensive shield for the backline. He’s been arguably the best defensive midfielder in Serie A. He makes 5.7 tackles and interceptions this season, and creates a chance a game. Very good numbers for a defensive midfielder. He got an assist against Inter, and created 2 chances. His defensive work wasn’t there but Inter’s terrible display justifies that.
The real talking point however from an Atalanta point of view is that front three. Zapata, Illicic and Gomez. I’ve been a huge fan of Papau Gomez for a few years now. He’s a versatile, skillful and a brilliant all rounder. This game showed this. He scored an absolute stunning goal to seal the win, but he also was excellent in a creative sense, creating 6 chances. Another display to show just how good he is for a side that truly loves him. While Illicic has only started 4 games, he’s scored 3 and assisted 3. His numbers are truly outrageous. He takes 3.1 shots, makes 2.6 key passes and completing 2.1 dribbles. He’s truly went under the radar since signing from Fiorentina, and is playing out of this world. He was incredible game. He ended the game with 2 assists, and completed 7 dribbles. He was the best out of the three, but that isn’t to take credit away from Zapata. The Columbian completed 6 dribbles, won 2 aerial duels and took 4 shots. The huge amount of dribbles just shows how interchangable they are. They work so well together and are in hot form right now.
Now onto Inter, who were truly terrible on the day. Each goal was scored because of the mistakes made by the players. Asamoah let Hateboer run completely free and score the first. The second and third were thanks to poor marking at set pieces, with Skriniar and Icardi both at fault. The fourth was a moment of magic from Gomez, so players cannot be blamed there.
The midfield was also weak. Throughout the game, both Illicic and Gomez were constantly allowed to run through the middle. I usually view Vecino as a defensive midfielder, yet he only made a single tackle all game. There was a complete lack of intensity all over the park, and it all resulted in Inter’s humiliation.
Goals goals goals! This week contained many big scorelines, so let’s get into the usual detail of the leagues, and see what’s new.
Hoffenheim walk over Leverkusen
By far one of the most interesting matches of the weekend was Hoffenheim’s comfortable victory over Leverkusen. Originally Hoffenheim were seen as a quite defensive side under Nagelsmann when he took over. However in the last couple of seasons, the young German tactician had turned his side into an extremely direct side that attack with incredible speed. This game just highlights the ferocity of Hoffenheim.
While Leverkusen outshot and dominated the game (it was their home game after all), they failed to capitalise on their dominance. Julien Brandt had a very good chance to get Leverkusen back in the game, but hit his shot wide.
What won Hoffenheim the game was how clinical they were in front of goal. While Leverkusen have been poor this season, they are still a side full of talent. Hoffenheim needed to take their chances if they wanted the three points, and they definitely did so.
Expected goals had this game 1.89 to Leverkusen and 1.93 to Hoffenheim. While it doesn’t show the final result, it highlights how well Hoffenheim finished on the day. The forward two of Reiss Nelson and Joelinton worked so well together. Both scored on the day, including Joelinton scoring a brace and Nelson scoring an excellent finish near the beginning of the game. While the Brazilian did score 2, Nelson was very impressive. The Arsenal loanee created 2 chances, scored, and even made a tackle and an interception. It was a very well rounded performances from a player who is still so young.
With Sancho getting many of the headlines, it’s good to see another Englishman in Germany doing so well. Not only does it show how good these players are, but also about the league and the coaching. Both Sancho and Nelson are performing so well because of the coaches they are playing under. Many ignorant pundits say it’s about going abroad to show off quality, when it isn’t. It’s about joining a club that is willing to put faith in your ability and teach you a different system. While fullbacks are arguably the most important position in football, it’s young attackers who are getting chances because they usually do not require as much discipline and knowledge of the game defensively. It allows them to blossom and that I hope they continue to do.
Freiburg surprise again.
Onto a more surprising match, Freiburg actually did carry on from their surprise victory over Mönchengladbach, by getting a point at the Allianz against the reigning Champions.
I said after their win over Mönchengladbach, that they will have to hope that they give the same performance and hope to surprise the Bundesliga, and they did. After the game being goaless for a large majority of it, it was Gnabry who broke the deadlock. But thanks to a very late goal from Höler, Freiburg earned a very good point.
Their goalscorer, Lucas Höler was excellent on the day. The German was part of a side that were resilient and held off a very average Bayern side. Höler scored his only shot on target, created 2 chances, completed 2 dribbles and most impressively, made 4 tackles. It just shows how the entire fought so hard in this game, to take advantage of an out of form Bayern side.
Speaking of Bayern, this really wasn’t the performance that Kovac would want to see. I do sympathise with him in some way. He lost both Tolisso and Coman to injury. Both Frenchman would have seriously helped him in the situation he is in. Tolisso was arguably Bayern’s best midfielder last season, and Coman is extremely talented, but injuries seem to keep holding him back. It means he has to rely heavily on both Robben and Ribery, two players who should be on their way out, yet remain to be key players in the side.
Bayern have had the same problems since their last champions league win. Ever since Dortmund dropped off, they had no challenge and by the time the crunch champions league games arrived, the players struggled because of the sudden step up. This is the first time where Bayern are finally challenged, they seem to be unable to keep up. The lack of challenge over the years is the reason why Robben, Ribery and Rafinha are still key players in the side. Bayern would have realised back in 2016 that these players cannot keep starting as many games. They let Douglas Costa go because he was unhappy with his place in the side. Bayern have cruised the Bundesliga for too long, and are finally being punished for it.
Barcelona had an incredible week last week. They disposed of Inter without Messi, and cruised past Real Madrid with way too much ease, without Messi. Their players have seriously stepped up since their best player received a relatively short injury. However against Vallecano, they can call themselves fortunate to say the least.
At one point, Real Vallecano were 2-1 and minutes away from getting the 3 points, however thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, the Blaugrana got the win they might have not deserved. Let’s talk about the home side first, who really impressed against the Champions. While Barcelona dominated as everyone expects, they might have used to it as well as they should. Vallecano had more shots and completed twice as many dribbles. That could been because without Messi, who takes a majority of their shots and completes and an incredible amount of dribbles, but you still expect them to be better.
For Vallecano, their stand out player was arguably Adrian Embarba. The Spaniard was excellent on the day, creating 3 chances and completing 4 dribbles. He was a driving force for his side on the day. Alejandro Gálvez was another who held strong in the game. He completed the most defensive actions in the game, including 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 clearances. He was one of the key reasons why they were so close to winning the game.
Now let’s start about how Barca failed to win this game comfortably. I believe it’s the fault of their wide players, Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha, were just below average on the day. Valverde will continue to confuse for the rest of his time as manager, but choosing to play Rafinha, a guy he tried to sell in the summer over Ousmane Dembele will never seise to confuse me. Rafinha and Coutinho are just not wingers. They both do not have the pace and drive to be able to stretch a defense.
I called Rafinha one of the heroes after his solid performance against Inter Milan, but I thought that would be a one off game. He has continued to start, despite looking worse in every game I see of him. Coutinho is a very good creator. His ability to find that killer ball to break open a defense makes him one of the most useful players in Europe. While he did play as a winger under Klopp because of how interchangable that front three were, it worked. But more is desired from him under Valverde, and he just shouldn’t be playing there. I have no idea how many times I have to say this but Dembele really should be starting every game for Barcelona. At the beginning of the season, I said he was the most impressive players in La Liga. He started the season off on fire, and yet after winning so many games for Barca, Valverde still doesn’t start him or seem to trust him. His speed, trickery and raw power would put him into any side in Europe, yet he can’t start over two players who are out of position. Decisions like this are why many Barcelona fans really do not like Valverde at all, and I can understand that. He needs to realise that to win games, risks have to be taken as a player. If you limit a player, like Dembele who relies heavily on his natural ability at beating opponents and creating chances for his side, it will make the team weaker and predictable. Barcelona will have to step up if they wish to win the Champions League, because let’s face it, that’s what they really want.
Betis and Celta Vigo play a memorable draw
This next match infuriated me, because I decided to watch AC Milan scrape a victory than watch this goal fest. The game in question is the entertaining draw between Real Betis and Celta Vigo, which ended 3-3.
Both sides have turned into real entertaining sides in La Liga, and two I usually keep an eye out when looking at upcoming fixtures. Both have quality players, making this fixture even more exciting (and even more puzzling on why I chose Milan over this). This was very close, with both sides having a similar amount of shots (14 to Betis and 15 to Celta) and XG putting this game at 1.73 to Betis and 1.69 to Celta. It shows there wasn’t much separating the sides. A huge surprise of this was who stood out. Both teams have experienced players who guarantee consistency. However it wasn’t players like Aspas, Carvalho, Mallo and Bartra who stood out, in fact it was the younger players, being Lo Celso, Firpo, Méndez and Beltrán.
Let’s begin with Betis’s young stars. Lo Celso was absolutely superb in the game. The Argentine has slowly turned into one of my favourite players in Europe at the moment. He came to light when he was selected to start for Paris against Madrid in the Champions League. It was the first time I ever heard his name, and he stared in the defensive role, playing as a destroyer alongside Verratti. He was strangely unused at the world, thanks to Sampaoli’s incompetence in charge. He is now being commonly selected because of his versatility and energy. I’ve been more accustomed to seeing him as a defensive midfielder, but in this game he played as a wide attacking midfielder, and he remained excellent. He took 4 shots, created two chances, completed 2 dribbles, made 3 tackles and got an assist. He is still only 22 and is showing amazing versatility and maturity. It’s crazy how Tuchel let him go out on loan. Another Betis player who shone in this game was young wing back Júnior Firpo. While his attacking output wasn’t there in this game, that can be explained by the player he was playing against later. Firpo’s defensive work in this game was definitely there. He put in 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 4 clearances. He helped Betis remain the defensive wall that they are, on a day where they needed it.
Now onto the young stars of Celta. Let’s start with Brais Méndez, who by far the best player who started the game for Celta. The Spaniard is only 21 years old, and gave a real top class performance against a solid defensive side. He was playing against Firpo, and while he did well in keeping Mallo and Méndez quiet, it didn’t stop Méndez from having an excellent performance. He had 4 shots, 2 on target, made 2 key passes and won 2 aerial duels. Celta have been known recently for finding talent and helping them flourish, with Aspas, Sisto and Mor coming to mind. Méndez seems to be another player who seriously looks impressive at a young age.
Another who performed well on the day was Fran Beltrán. The midfielder is 19 had a great game against one of the best teams in La Liga. He made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and a key pass. He made more defensive actions than any other midfielder on the pitch, and credit needs to be given to him for doing this at such a young age. He hasn’t exactly been incredible this season at all, with his creative play needing plenty of work. But that doesn’t matter. At this age, what is important is that he is playing games at the highest level. Eventually he will become more adventurous in his play. Right now he players as a pretty effective destroyer. Celta could have a player on their hands if he continues to play games. He’s already started 10 games this season, so they must have a lot of faith in him. He was signed from Vallecano in the summer, and it could possibly be one of the bargains of the season.
While I don’t expect both of these teams be challenging for top 4 or anything, I do hope they earn success, whether it’s Betis doing well in the Europa League, or Celta upsetting some of the bigger sides. Let’s hope they can continue on this and earn even more plaudits for their style and flare.
Montpellier walk over Marseille
Let’s start with by far the most satisfying victory of the weekend. Montpellier continued their good start by comfortably disposing of big guns Marseille. Not long ago, we all thought Marseille were back thanks to their excellent run the Europa League last season, and finishing in the top 4 back again. It seems they are back to underperforming.
Let’s not take credit away from the victors however, because after their 3-0 win over Marseille, they now sit in 2nd. Thanks to PSG beating their closest competitior Lille, Montpellier now are above them on goal difference. While the title race is already over, Montpellier have now swept aside one of the harder games of the season, leaving them full of confidence. They outshot their opponent, put in more challenges and created better challenges. They really showed why they are in 2nd place in the league, with them attacking fast taking their chances well.
The man of the match was comfortably Paul Lasne. Montpellier lined up in a 3-4-3. This was genius from Zakarian. This formation is perfect in dealing with a 4-3-3. It allows the wing backs to press the opposition full backs, and completely nullify any wide talent. This worked brilliantly, with Lasne and Aguilar putting in a combined 11 tackles. It was a showing on how important wing backs are, and Lasne was the epitome of this. The Frenchman put in 7 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. He also made a key pass and scored the final goal to seal it. A great performance in a game where they needed a top quality performance.
Now onto Marseille. Saying they had an off day is an understatement, because this isn’t the first time this season where they have failed to show up. I’m slowly becoming tired of constantly criticising their strikers, so let’s criticise their defenders instead. Adel Rami was pretty bad on the day. The Frenchman can go down as one of the worst players to ever win a world cup, and this game isn’t changing my mind. He was at fault for the first goal, not marking Laborde and gifting him a free header. He also didn’t put in a single tackle or interception in the game, showing how easily he was exposed by opposition in this game. Marseille have now conceding 21 goals in Ligue 1, the second worst total in the division.
Another who was quite disappointing was Florian Thauvin. I have expressed my fondness for his player on numerous occasions, but today wasn’t his game. While he did have 3 shots and complete 3 dribbles, he was disposed 7 times and had a 65% pass accuracy. He was completely neutralised in this game, and summed Marseille’s attack on the day. They failed to created chances, and out of the 11 shots they had, only 2 were on target. Thauvin an extremely talented player, but he is just not thriving in this side at the moment. It doesn’t help with the constant changes being made to the side. He has tried different formations and moved player in numerous positions, even trying Payet as some false 9 last week. Questions marks have to start be asked about how Garcia is managing this side. They have been terrible this season. If it wasn’t for how quickly Monaco fell of a cliff, so much more pressure would be Marseille
St Etienne and Angers play a classic
While La Liga and the Bundesliga had plenty of goals, Ligue 1 might just out do both of them. Nantes were victorious over Guingamp with a 5-0 win, and Nîmes getting a 4-0 away win over Dijon. However the match that outshined both of these was St Etienne’s 4-3 win over Angers. This game was very tight, and had everything. Late goals, own goals, good finishes and was an overall entertaining spectacle for the neutral. St Etienne dominated the game, but that’s mainly due to the fact they were playing at home, and were chasing the game for a majority of it. St Etienne did deserve to win the game, based on them creating better chances, with the home side having less shots outside the box, and more in the penalty area.
However while St Etienne did deserve the win, it was an Angers player who stood, and that’s Flavien Tait. While Reine-Adédaïde stood out with his 6 dribbles completed, he just wasn’t as effective in the final third as his teammate. Tait was indeed excellent on the day. He put all of his shots on target, made 2 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was in fact only one of two players in this game to get 2 goal contributions, with the other being the centre half Pavlovic. He was the best player on the pitch and it’s a shame he was on the losing side.
St Etienne still had some stand out players. By far their best player was Newcastle flop Remy Cabella. He is one of many players who just wasn’t suited for the Premier League, and is back in France and finally flourishing again. He played just behind Wabhi Khazri in this game, and was excellent. His very lean frame helps him slide and turn on the ball with such speed. He is a good creator who can also beat his man. This game showed both of those. He created 4 chances and completed 2 dribbles. He also got an assist for his work and was a key reason on why St Etienne got the 3 points.
St Etienne could actually finish in the top four this season. With Marseille, Lyon and Monaco all looking below par, it could leave an opening for teams to take their place. St Etienne have quality players in midfield with Khazri and Cabella, and players like Subotic, Perrin and Debuchy are reliable in defense. It could be a very important season for a club with such history in France.
Manchester City do it again
What I mean when I say do it again is another 5 goal thriller from the Champions. This is fourth time this season they have beaten someone by a 5 goal margin. The team on the end of their beating was Mark Hughes’s Southampton.
I’d like to add just how terrible Southampton are and I’m dying to know what happened to them. They used to be a side who found talent in places no one else was looking, like signing Mané, Tadic and Van Dijk from clubs and leagues no one was paying attention to. They hired good coaches, like Pochettino, Koeman and Puel. They were developing players at a good pace and getting insane profit on them (just look at Liverpool’s entire side). Mark Hughes is truly a terrible manager and I’m tired of seeing being given good jobs based on a reputation made of sand. He will ruin any club’s defense, and relies heavily on individual talent in the forward lines. He is also incredibly frustrating to watch in interviews. Statements like we gave them too much respect mean absolutely nothing. They are statements said to fill space and make it sound like Hughes is being insightful. I hope Southampton sort themselves out. I was so fond of them and now they have turned into your usual short term club with no idea what to do after survival.
Now onto Manchester City, who were absolutely sensational on the day again. While Raheem Sterling will get all the plaudits, and justifiably so, it’s Sergio Aguero who stood out for me. The Argentine will go down as one of the top 5 strikers in Premier League history. His consistency is unrivalled and the way he’s been able to evolve his game at a stage in his career when that’s usually difficult deserves so much credit. This game showcased this step up in the way he plays. Aguero was always a poacher, but he seems to have turned into a perfect all rounder. He scored and got 2 assists. He had 4 shots, completed 4 dribbles and created 4 chances. These are stats we’re never used to seeing Sergio Aguero put up. What Pep has done with him is short of incredible. He turned an already world class finisher into a world class player.
This leaves City in an incredible position. They are comfortably ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool when discussing goal difference. They have a big squad and even without their best midfielder, are still walking over opposition. The Manchester Derby is next, and this is a chance to put on a show against their biggest rivals. This could really show how far ahead they really are.
Overachieving Bournemouth halted
Bournemouth have always frustrated me. While I do think it’s impressive they are still in the division, they seem to avoid criticism just because of their size. Last season they were terrible. Only Stoke conceded less goals, and they put in the least amount of tackles and interceptions in the league. They almost allowed opposition to score past them. Nathan Ake was the player of the month 3 times for them. If that doesn’t sum up their story, I don’t know what will.
However it seems to be different this season. When I saw where they were sitting in the Premier League, I just assumed they were overachieving and eventually they would hit reality. However looking at XG, it does seem they are performing as they are expected to. They aren’t lucky in attack or defense, and are performing at their level. So what has changed? Well firstly it’s penalties. The Bournemouth are the second most fouled team in the division, and it’s shown with how many they’ve scored from penalties. They have scored 5, more than any other side. They take the chances that are gifted to them. They have also changed the way they play. They’ve turned from a wannabe possession side, into a really good counter attacking side. They have incredibly fast players with King, Wilson and Frazer being able to move the ball so quickly. They now soak up pressure so well and attack so quickly. They seem have finally fixed their biggest problems.
Looking at this game however, Bournemouth should have been further ahead than they were. They had a few chances at the beginning of the game, that if they took them, would have comfortably won the game. They took the early lead thanks to Calum Wilson, who now is the only English player in the league to have 10 goal contributions. While Wilson was good, Fraser continued his brilliant form into this game. He had 2 shots on target and created 3 chances. He has by far the surprise package of the season.
Now onto United, who were absolutely terrible in the first 20 minutes, but thanks to a usual turn around in the second half, managed to get the 3 points. Many said that Lerma absolutely pocketed Paul Pogba. When it couldn’t be further from the truth. If he truly did, then how did Pogba maneged to have 3 shots, create 4 chances (the most in the match), and completed 2 dribbles. I’m just assuming the old school pundits want to push the narrative because of their dislike towards the Frenchman. United created a lot of chances in this game and were better than Bournemouth in the full 90 minutes. XG put this game at 1.89 to Bournemouth and 2.98 to the Red Devils. Maybe it can be said that United probably should have won by more.
After another nothing performance from Nemanja Matic, it asks the valid question of should he be dropped? And he definitely should. United’s defense is terrible, but their forward line is very good. In an ideal world, United would start with a midfield of Pogba, Herrera and Fred. Pogba is a creative hub and can drive your midfield so effectively. Fred is an energetic player who keeps the ball pretty well, and wins the ball well. The Brazilian won 5 tackles against Bournemouth, the most out of any United player. Herrera is personal favourite of mine. He has a lot of bite and is great at winning the ball. United should focus on outscoring the opposition, instead of trying to sit deep.
While Pogba was great in this game, Anthony Martial was the man of the match. While I criticise the Manchester United board for a lot of things, but stopping Jose from selling Martial was by far their best decision ever. He is in fine form this season, and thanks to the heroics of the Frenchman, United claimed the 3 points. The goal was his 5th in 4 games, the first time he’s scored in 4 consecutive games. He’s been fabulous since his Newcastle, and continued this against Bournemouth. He had 4 shots, created 2 chances and scored the equaliser. He’s just reminded Jose how good he is.
Inter hit five
Another league, another goal fest. This time it is Inter Milan. Who absolutely walked over Genoa in this game. Inter now haven’t lost since the 15th of September. Before this game, they absolutely smashed Lazio 3-0. They are in super form right now and seem ready to take 2nd off Napoli. They won 5-0. While that is impressive, what is the best part is Icardi didn’t even score. Inter have been incredible at creating chances for Icardi, and they became incredibly over reliant on him. Spaletti rested Icardi for this game, with assumption of the importance of the Barcelona game being priority.
New signing Lautaro Martinez started this game, and he wasn’t exactly impressive. He had 5 shots, but didn’t manage one on target. He is still 21, so wastefulness in front of goal is still expected. He’s the understudy of the best striker in Europe at the moment, and will definitely improve over time. While he wasn’t great in front of goal, Roberto Gagliardini was. The Italian scored his first brace in Italian football, and showed why he is one of the most promising players in Italian football. He scored both of his shots on target and created 3 chances. Let’s hope he can put a stamp onto this side.
The man of the match was quite comfortably Jõao Mario. The Portuguese has been a bit of joke in recent years. His time at Inter started so badly, that he had to join West ham on loan for a short period to regain form. This game showed why Inter bought him in the first place. He created 4 chances and ended the game with a goal and 2 assists. An improvement from a player who seemed to be on the way out.
Let’s take a quick second to point out just how bad Genoa were defensively. For every goal they seemed to just make the wrong decision. They gifted Nainggolan for a free header, they stepped out too late, allowing Politano to finish his chance pretty easily. If Martinez and Perisic finished their chances, it would have been 7. It actually blows me away how this side were able to take points away from Juventus and then put in a terrible performance like this. Inter still deserve plenty of credit, but this was a shambles from Genoa.
Torino show Sampdoria reality
While Lazio and Napoli also put up amazing wins, Torino are the ones I’m highlighting here. It’s been difficult for Turin based side since their 2016/17 season, where Andrea Belotti went supernova and scored 26 goals. He definitely overachieved but because of the board’s happiness in his season, they were asking for an absurd €100m for the Italian. It was an example of player who should have been sold, because it was the first time Belotti ever got those numbers in the league. United and Chelsea were interested, but instead went for Morata and Lukaku respectively, who were cheaper than what Torino were asking. They ended keeping their star forward, and to say last season was underwhelming is an understatement. He played three less games than his stand out season, yet managed less than half of the goals. He could be down to the team, but it is still disappointed considering he was being spoken as a triple figure player. He now has 4 goals in 10, and is looking better than last season already.
The reason I bring this up is because of the performance he put in against Sampdoria. Torino can be called lucky to have won this comfortably. The game ended 4-1 to Torino, and performed well against a good Sampdoria side in their back yard. XG had this game at 2.24 to Sampdoria, and 1.93 to Torino. Torino won this game thanks to their excellent finishing and the very good chances they created.
Belotti really gave a performance reminiscent of his break out season, scoring a header and a penalty that he won. Headers were something he specialises in. The rooster is excellent in the air, winning 5 aerial duels in this game alone. His height and incredible jump make him a difficult player to deal with. He also has 5 shots on got 3 on target. It was a very good game from a player who I hope goes back to his best.
As mentioned before, Sampdoria should probably feel hard done by to some extent. They created good chances and could have got back into this game. When mentioning teams who were surprising their league, I said while Sampdoria are doing well, eventually this will stop. It seems to have happened earlier than expected. They have no lost 2 on the bounce and not won since the start of October. They now sit in 11th, which is where about you expect them to finish.
One player who seriously stood out for them was Albin Ekdal. The Swede was a real presence in midfield for his side. Lucas Torreira was a massive loss for Sampdoria. The Uruguayan was excellent at ball recovery, while also doing at transition and distribution. Ekdal filled all of these roles. He completed 4 dribbles, while also making 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. He had a great game considering the result.
Both of these teams aren’t expecting to open Serie a wide open or anything, but sometimes it’s good to put the spotlight on sides who have a good week, when others might not. Let’s hope these teams continue to have solid seasons.
What a week of football. Big sides falling behind and the usual superstars scoring for fun. Let’s get into the Top 5 League Talking Points for the weekend that has just passed.
Bundesliga – Monchengladbach lose on the road. Leverkusen’s huge win
Let’s take focus away from Dortmund and Bayern this week, and focus on two teams underneath them. Let’s start with Mönchengladbach, who have started the season in amazing form, lost 3-1 to Freiburg. It was only their second defeat of the season, but still leaves them in a position where a Champions League finish could still be possible. However if they wish to finish in the top four, they must make sure not to perform in this manner again. Freiburg were simply better than them on the day, with the home side registering more shots on target than their opponent. Mönchengladbach have started the season so well because of their attacking players, mainly due to Hazard and Alassane Pléa performing very well. However it wasn’t the best of days for Frenchman, who only managed a single shot, had a 66% pass accuracy and only managed 24 touches. He only played the first half because how little he effected the game. Freiburg aren’t exactly going to be fighting for a high finish, with the club currently sitting in 11th. This win was only their third of the season. It was a surprise victory and it will be interesting if they can perform any more upsets in the Bundesliga. One of their star performers against Mönchengladbach was Janik Haberer. He did a lot to help his side get the three points, with the German making 5 key passes in the game, which was the same as the entire Mönchengladbach side put together. He also wasn’t afraid to help defend their lead, with Haberer making 4 tackles in the game, the most for his side. It was an excellent performance and he was key in their surprise victory. Both of these sides have very contrasting games this weekend, with Freiburg visiting Bayern Munich, and Mönchengladbach playing Dusseldorf (arguably the worst side in the league) at home. Let’s see how both respond to this game.
After losing their first 3 games, Leverkusen seem to be back on track. It was a difficult start for them, with Bayern, Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach all beating them. Now Leverkusen haven’t lost since the end of September, and their 6-2 win over high flying Werder Bremen was by far their best performance. This was actually a huge upset. Bremen haven’t lost at home for almost a year before this game, and with the home side currently sitting in 4th, it should have been a simple win for Bremen on paper. While Leverkusen have underperformed this season, they still have excellent attacking players. Thanks to Kevin Volland’s early strike, it gave Leverkusen the ease of sitting back and playing on the counter attack. It is what won them the game, with Bellarabi, Volland, Brandt and Havertz all playing great on the counter. It gave Leverkusen a 3-0 lead going into half time. While Bremen did get two back, thanks to Pizarro and Osako, Leverkusen did make sure there was no comeback, and scoring 3 more to ensure they had the 3 points. Arguably the man of the match of this game goes to Bellarabi or Volland. Bellarabi was a key reason why his side got the victory. 44% of their attacks came down the German’s side. He was given the freedom of the pitch to exploit, and did so with ease. Kevin Volland was another who performed very well on the day. The forward scored and assisted 2. Volland managed 2 shots on target, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. Leverkusen have so many talented players, and should be much higher on the table based on the quality they have. They’ve played most of the tougher sides, so it’s now their chance to gain some momentum and to climb the table.
La Liga – El Classico. Alaves in second
The big fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid was of course the most anticipated fixture of the weekend, and to say it lived it up to it could be very subjective but it was what I was expecting. Barca were without Messi for this game, but it didn’t change the fact that Madrid have been so bad, and it was going to be a simple win for them. While I did expect Barcelona to win it, I didn’t expect to see it in the fashion as it happened. It ended 5-1 to the Blaugrana, thanks to a hat trick from Luiz Suarez and goals from Coutinho and Arturo Vidal. It was the definition of a comfortable victory for the Champions, and it just highlighted how poor Madrid are at the moment. However credit does have to be given to Barcelona, and especially Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan really turned up against their rivals, on the day they needed him the most. He scored a hat trick, being the first Barcelona player to do it since Romario. He truly had a field day against Madrid’s awful defense, having 4 shots on target, making 2 key passes and completing a dribble. Sergi Roberto was another who was excellent on the day, making 4 key passes and getting 2 assists. Now onto Madrid, with possibly their worst performance of the season. They lost the game because of how poorly they defended the first 3 goals. After that, they tried to get back in the game, and because of how far they were advancing, it left them wide open for the last 2 goals. For Coutinho’s goal, Nacho left too much space outwide for Alba to receive the ball. Coutinho was able to make a late run into the box because neither Casemiro nor Kroos decided to track him. Coutinho was left with arguably the easiest goal to score in his career. The second goal was given thanks to a very stupid error from Varane. The Frenchman has looked a shadow of himself this season, with this not even being his first error this season. While many have pointed the finger at Bale, Modric and Isco for performing poorly this season, Varane has comfortably been their worst player. Not long after this poor performance, Lopategui was confirmed to have been sacked by Perez. While he does deserve a lot of criticism for how he has set up side, with an incredibly high line that has left them open in many games (Sevilla and most recently Barcelona), he was given an incredibly hard job. They lost a player who scored 50 goals for them, and didn’t bring in a suitable replacement. It was even revealed that Lopategui wasn’t Perez’s first choice, with Pochettino, Conte and Sarri all being linked. They were all unavailable and he decided to go with the Spaniard. It just puzzles me why Perez didn’t at least try and sign Hazard, Dybala or a player in that superstar mold. They needed an instant success. He was only given Mariano, a player who simply isn’t good enough to start for Madrid. I have to feel for Lopategui, and Perez deserves a majority of the criticism here.
Now onto a more positive note, Alaves are now surprisingly sitting in 2nd. After their 3-0 defeat to Barcelona, they haven’t lost a game since, with their best performances being a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, and a 5-1 victory over Real Vallecano. There are certain departments where they have excelled, and one of them is set pieces. Aberlardo Fernandez has made sure his side take advantage of those previous goal giving opportunities, and they take them well. They have scored 7 goals from set pieces, the most in the league. However that is only half of their entire goals scored this season. They manage the 5th least amount of shots in La Liga, the least amount of dribbles in the whole division. To say they have been lucky is an understatement. Most of their wins have been thanks to a single goal margin, when they have usually had less shots and possession. They rely heavily on their set piece prowess. While it will do them well on the short term, eventually their luck will catch up to them. Let’s look at their latest win against Villarreal, and see what they are doing right. Villarreal have been a consistently solid side for the past few seasons. After quite a few easy games, it was a test to see if they are able to keep up their great start to the season. The game ended 2-1, and it was a deserved victory for Alaves. After conceding an early goal to Gerard Moreno, they eventually equalised from a set piece (what else). They then won the game thanks to a late winner from Swansea flip Borja Baston. Alaves were very good in the game. They created many chances for their forwards, and while their forwards didn’t take them very well, with Sobrino and Calleri taking 9 shots and only getting 2 on target. Their best player however was Jony. The winger had a very productive game, managing 2 shots on target, a key pass and completing 2 dribbles. He also got the assist for the equaliser. They only allowed the Yellow Submarine to have 2 shots on target out of 10. They need nullified their opposition completely. While I really don’t think Alaves can keep this up, it’s good to see another name in the Top 4.
Ligue 1 – PSG equal record. Depay looking ready.
Another predictable week in Ligue 1. Let’s start with the league leaders Paris, who just equalled a nearly 60 year record of most consecutive wins at the start of the season. The record is currently 11 (held by Spurs out of all people) and if Paris win just one more game, their dominance in Ligue 1 will not be more easily presentable than this record. To equal the record, they beat fierce rivals Marseille 2-0 away from home. The game was relatively close, with Paris getting 13 shots, one more than Marseille’s 12. Possession was cut relatively in the middle. However PSG’s quality was showcased when looking at shots on target, where they had triple of what Marseille managed, with 6. It does help that one side can bring on Kylian Mbappe, the most inform player in Europe, while the other has two strikers who have failed to impress me all season. Mbappe has proven to be arguably his team’s most important player. He now has 13 goals in 11 games, and is Europe’s top goal scorer at the moment. It’s crazy to think he isn’t even 21 yet. Tuchel has kept the Champions as superhuman as ever, but it’s in the Champions League he will be tested. He is already left with a hurdle, thanks the board not giving him the targets he requested. The German wanted new full backs, with Alves, Meunier and Kurzawa all deemed not good enough. While I do agree with him to an extent, there are limit amount of top quality full backs in Europe. Tuchel will have to be smart if he wishes to fix his problem areas, and look maybe more outside the box. PSG are the only top level club in Paris, meaning they have their pick of young players from one of the most prestigious cities when finding football talent. Tuchel will improve this side, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can show it in Europe.
Onto Lyon, who beat Angers 2-1, thanks to goals from Aouar and Depay. Lyon haven’t lost to Angers since 2015, meaning they are a side they have enjoyed facing over the last couple of years. However it wasn’t exactly a comfortable victory for the away side. While they did dominate possession, with 69% going in Lyon’s favour, Angers still managed more shots and only one less on target than Lyon. Chiek Ndoye was great on the day. The 32 year old put in a real all round solid performance in midfield. He had 3 shots, made 3 key passes, 2 tackles and 1 interception. He also got the assist for the consolation goal. It was the heroics of Memphis Depay that won the game for Lyon. He was only on the pitch for roughly 35 minutes, and set up Aouar for the first goal, and was gifted an open net by Dembele for the second. He has really turned into a key player for Lyon. His ability to create, score and play across the front three has came in handy for Bruno Génésio. After his poor spell in England, Depay might be ready for another elite level club. With his former club United, Chelsea, Madrid all looking for younger talent outwide, Depay could be the perfect solution.
Premier League – Man City favourites. United scrape by Everton
The Premier League title race is at its best for a long, long time. With Liverpool at the top of the table on Monday, it left a lot of pressure on Man City to continue their winning ways against one of their top 5 opponents, Tottenham. They overcome the pressure and beat Spurs at a very unprofessional Wembley, thanks to a single goal from Riyad Mahrez. It was a game where City definitely should have won by more, with Aguero and Silva having great chances to put the game to bed. However while their attacking side wasn’t perfect, they were mostly defensively sound. While Mendy does leave a lot to be desired on a defensive side, their centre back pairing of Laporte and Stones looks perfect. Laporte is your perfect modern centre back. His defensive numbers aren’t important because of the side he plays for. Possession sides usually keep hold of the ball so much, that their defenders don’t actually need to defend per say. Laporte is an excellent reader of the game, and senses danger at such a young age for a defender. He’s showing qualities of a 30 year old Leo Bonucci at only 24. The Frenchman’s ability on the ball is nearly unrivalled in Europe, with him completing 4.8 long balls in the Premier League, and having a crazy 92.3% pass accuracy. Both him and Stones can form arguably the most promising centre half partnership in Europe. Laporte was excellent in the game against Spurs, making 3 interceptions, 7 clearances and winning 2 aerial duels. The fact that spurs only had 4 touches in City’s box, just shows how good they were defensively. Spurs are in a strange place right now. While this is still their best ever start to a Premier League season, there is an unnerving air in North London. After failing to sign a player in the summer, it left them at a disadvantage. Now with some of their key players suffering injuries, it left them starting a very makeshift midfield of Sissoko, Dembele and Dier. While Sissoko actually had a pretty effective game, constantly running through the middle of the park, Dier and Dembele were poor on the day. Dembele didn’t make a single key pass, or a single defensive action. The Belgian’s numbers have been dropping for the last couple of years. He was the player they desperately needed to replace, yet they failed to do that. I still think City will cruise this season. They have a better squad than anyone in Europe, and still look so good even without KDB in midfield. It won’t be long until they’ll be clear of all their opponents.
Onto City’s red rivals, United scraped by Everton thanks to goals from Paul Pogba and a lovely finish from Anthony Martial. United did not look great on the day. Matic showed his usual lack of quality, with the Serbian shown to be out muscled by Gylfi Sigurddsson out of all people. Even Pogba had a very typical performance. At one moment he shows his world class quality on the ball, and another he gives the ball away to Gueye thanks to his showboating. Martial was easily the best player on the pitch. Every good attack went through him, and whenever United looked threatening, it was thanks to Martial. One of the big talking points of the game was Mourinho’s decision to bench Lukaku, and start Rashford. While it was the right call, bringing him on at all was wrong one. Fergie famously used to give his key players, like Ronaldo and Rooney, a couple weeks off to keep them fresh for the important games. Lukaku never had a pre season, and even came back from his vacation early thanks to Mourinho whining. Lukaku needs more than an hour off, he needs weeks if United want to see the best from their big Belgian.
Another week, another great round of Champions League fixtures. Let’s get straight into who has done well this week, and who has failed.
Hero – Edin Dzeko
I don’t know how controversial it is to say this, but Dzeko has been one of the best players in the Champions League since last season. He was excellent in Roma’s surprise semi final finish, scoring 8 in 12 for his side. He has continued his form into the new season, with the ex Manchester City forward already scoring 5 goals in only 3 games. His stats just show how brilliant he has been. In the Champions League, Edin Dzeko has been taking 5 shots, making 1.7 key passes and winning 3.3 aerial duels per game. What make his shot numbers even better are the fact he’s taking 4 of them inside the penalty area, and 0.7 in the 6 yard box. He is getting in very good positions and the chances he is getting are good chances. However my critical side knows that he has played very inferior opponents. I just can’t take that away from him however. A brilliant start for a guy who just doesn’t get enough credit for all the work he does for that side.
Zero – Nemanja Matic
Instead of watching any other game, I decided to support my team and watch our game against our first real European elite since Bayern Munich in 2014. It was a huge test for United and it was a chance to see how much they have developed since that season under Moyes. If referring to how United are under Mourinho, it was a perfect representation. There was a lack of attacking structure, midfielders not given clear roles and instructions, and no sort of plan from Mourinho. While Jose has fallen out publicly with a handful of players, the two players he seems to most get along with, Lukaku and Matic, have been terrible this season. I sympathise with Lukaku. Mourinho just uses him in the wrong way. He isn’t a target man, like Dzeko or Costa, but a poacher (Chicarito with a gym membership would be the best way to describe him). United should build their entire system to give him the ball in the box as much as possible. But because of the pragmatic system that is deployed under Mourinho, Lukaku has to drop deep to receive the ball, to get any involvement in the game. I have no sympathy for Matic however. The Serbian doesn’t offer enough to justify starting him in every single game. The game against Juventus shows this just perfectly. While stats might make it out like he did a good defensive job (he made four tackles in the game), he did not. Many criticised Pogba for being out of position and not giving the defense effective cover. People forget that it was Matic who let Dybala through for the first goal, and failed to track him effectively through out. Every time Matic received the ball, United’s attacks would halt to a stand still, and any motion made, would be gone soon as he would put his foot on the ball. He is the one guy who is holding United back, giving them a weakness in a position that by now, should not be a problem. Matic is by far the biggest loser this week.
Hero – Rafinha
Rafinha was a player I thought I would never see in a Barcelona shirt ever again. That’s not to say he is not a good player. In fact he has shown plenty of promise whenever he has played. However it’s injuries that have held him back. It is the reason why Barca were so adamant to sell him, but no one could agree with their pricing of the Brazilian. He remains and after starting over world cup winner Ousmane Dembele, he has a lot to show, and he did. Rafinha scored the opening goal for Barca against his former side. He played as more of an inverted winger, drifting inside, while Roberto would give the width. He did this excellently, taking 3 shots and getting all of them on target. He also had a 94% pass accuracy , and completed a key pass. He caused Inter plenty of problems in the absence of Messi. I still think Rafinha should be sold, because he isn’t worth the hassle he puts on a side that still has some deadweight, and needs to add players that aren’t plagued with injuries.
Zero – Hugo Lloris
Oh Lloris. I still think nothing highlights Lloris better than captaining his side in the world cup final, to then make a horrible mistake to give Mandzukic a simple finish. I like Lloris and the criticism he’s getting (Henry Winter and Jermaine Jenas I’m referring to) from pundits is a little harsh. While I really do not think he is at the level of De Gea, Ter Stegan or Ederson. He is still a competent goalkeeper, and plays in a position that is very hard to find a replacement for. However I cannot defend what he did against PSV Eindhoven. His sprint outside of the box to intercept the ball, went horribly wrong, and ended with the captain getting his marching orders. What makes this worse is this the second time this season that Lloris has been sent off for the same sort of challenge. It baffles me why he keeps trying these incredible risky challenges. Lloris is the loser for simply not learning from his mistakes, and causing more dilemmas for Pochettino, regarding his goalkeeper situation.
Hero – Fabinho
I wanted Fabinho at United before they signed Matic, but it seemed he would stay at Monaco for another year before joining Liverpool the following summer. I have been an admirer of the Brazilian since his permanent signing at Monaco, where he originally played as a right back. He excelled in that position, but Jardim still decided to move him into midfield, and it was a genius move. Last season, Fabinho was a highlight in an otherwise average Monaco side, putting in incredible tackle and interception numbers, and being arguably one of the best players in Europe at winning aerial duels. Liverpool signed the 25 year old for a bargain £40m, but since his arrival he hasn’t started a game. This is mainly due to the excellent form of Milner, Keita, Henderson and Wijnaldum. This game against Red Star was his first start for the reds, and to say he took it was an understatement. Fabinho was perfect in this game. He won 9 tackles, more than any other player on the pitch, 6 aerial duels (only Van Dijk won more) and was very good on the ball. He completed 80 passes with a 90% accuracy, higher than anyone else on his side. He showed exactly why Liverpool bought him, and has given even more questions for Jürgen Klopp.
Zero – Valencia
With Manchester United losing their fixture against Juventus, Valencia needed to get 3 points against Young Boys if they had any chance of getting out of the group, and making United’s horrible match in Turin even worse for them. Young Boys are the worst side in this group (as seen from José’s United breaking them down easy), but they still seem to have an attack that is threatening. Against Valencia, they did show this, they managed 7 shots on target, bettering Valencia’s 2. What was most impressive was their shot zones. They took 72% of their shots in the 18 yard box, showing that they created very good chances. It was a game where Young Boys deserves all the points, but just couldn’t put the game to bed. Valencia have been so poor this season. While they have remained good defensively, their attack has fallen off a cliff. Valencia were overachieving massively last season when scoring goals. Their three top scorers, Zaza, Mina and Rodrigo, scored 41, but were only expected to score 32. Their numbers seem to have come back to earth this season, with Mina, Rodrigo and Batshuayi (who came in to replace Zaza) have only managed 2 between them. They have all struggled and not having that excellent start, like they did last season, just hasn’t given them a leg to stand on. They are the losers for making an interesting group on paper seem so much more predictable.
Hero – Viewers of Hoffenheim vs Lyon
This was by far the game of the week, with the game ending 3-3. It had everything in an attacking sense. Hoffenheim played their usual extremely direct football, with Szalai winning the second ball, and the players around him receiving it. Lyon played with their incredible young talent, and moved with pace and speed to get in behind a very weak defense. While I’d love to compliment Hoffenheim, their defending in this game was poor beyond description, with Baumann, Vogt and Akpoguma all making mistakes in the three goals they conceded. If it wasn’t for these amateur moments, Hoffenheim would have easily came out of this game as victors, but they only have themselves to blame. Now onto their attack, which was excellent. Their wing backs, Schulz and Kaderabek, advance incredibly high up the pitch, and in this game they made it count. Schulz managed 2 key passes, while Kaderabek managed 6. Kramaric was arguably the man of the match in this game, after his 2 great strikes to give Hoffenheim the lead, and back in the game. Lyon can definitely call themselves lucky. They were falsely denied a penalty, after Denayer’s clear hand ball, and Vogt missed a very good chance to seal it. After Memphis Depay scored what Lyon thought what would be the winner, Joelinton came off the bench and scored the equaliser that got them back in the game, which made this game arguably one of the best games
Zero – Atletico Madrid
While I did say Matic is the loser of the week, Diego Simeone’s side come incredibly close. They lost 4-0 away from home to high flying Borussia Dortmund. The Westfalenstadion is a very difficult ground to visit, with Real Madrid going there back in 2013 and being humiliated. This was actually Atletico Madrid biggest defeat under Diego Simeone, and they definitely deserved to lose this one. It might sound relatively basic, but the effort and energy just wasn’t there from Madrid. Atletico usually put in a high amount of tackles in a game, with them averaging the 3rd most tackles in La Liga this season. However it was Dortmund who put in the most tackles in this game, and Piszczek getting the most with 6. It was the little things like this that made it look like Dortmund wanted it more. The average positioning of Simeone’s side just didn’t make sense either. Koke was the furthest back out of the midfielders, yet started quite advanced. Another thing that was obvious was some of Atletico’s aging squad might be starting to show. 52% of Dortmund’s attacks were down the left side, the same side as Koke, who didn’t help defend that side at all, and Juanfran, who is definitely past the point of playing at the top level. Both Hakimi and Larsson couldn’t be dealt with. Speaking of Hakimi, he was great on the night, finishing the match with 3 assists. His defensive work was next to nothing, but he didn’t have to defend. Juanfran wasn’t offering what he did 5 years ago, and Koke spent the entire game in a central area. He had the freedom of the left side to himself. A great performance from the Real Madrid loanee. It puts Dortmund at a point where they could seriously surprise people in this competition, while Atletico need to get their problems sorted quickly, if they wish to make that huge spending count.
It was a very eventful week in European football. Big teams failing, and some real stand out performers. Let’s get straight into it.
Bundesliga – Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 4-0 wins.
The Bundesliga was by far the most interesting league to discuss this week. Because I usually stick to just two matches (to not stretch the content too long and to add some consistency), it left me unable to even bring up Luka Jovic scoring 5 goals, Bayern back to winning ways, Schalke back to losing ways and Bayer Leverkusen getting a late equaliser. But let’s stick with the league leaders here, with both Dortmund and Mönchengladbach securing 4-0 victories. Let’s start with Dortmund, who earned a relatively comfortable victory over Stuttgart. This game seemed to just highlight how good Dortmund have been this season. While it is still early, it does seem that they are finally ready to challenge Bayern, with the champions underachieving massively. Dortmund did an excellent job in this game of ending any chance of their opponents of winning the game, with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer scoring in the first half an hour. Dortmund only managed 4 shots on target in this game, but were able to put their chances away, an element of their game I have not been impressed with in recent years. Favre has turned this side into a pretty multi functional one. They are able to play a possession style, while also being able to play on the counter attack (Dortmund have scored the most goals from counter attacks, with 4). While I did criticise the signings of Delaney and Witzel at the time, I cannot deny how well they have performed this season. Delaney was very good in this game, making 7 interceptions, 2 tackles and 5 accurate long balls. Witzel continued his very good start to the season, with the Belgian completing the most passes, and making 2 key passes. Both have given a very solid base in midfield, and it has given their forward players even more freedom, because of how well both have retained possession this season, resulting in more forward moving from the attacking players. It will be interesting to see how Dortmund will fair when they play both Bayern and Mönchengladbach, but they currently sit at the top, with the best attack in the league.
Speaking of Mönchengladbach, they secured a 4-0 win over Mainz. While Dortmund’s was more of a clinical performance, the second placed side in Germany produced a much more dominant performance. They out shot and had more possession than their opponent, and were fully deserving of their victory. While Hoffman will earn all the headlines for his brilliant performance, it was Thorgan Hazard who stole the show. The Belgian has lived in the shadow of his brother for a long time, but is a very, very good footballer. He is a great dribbler, like his brother, and is much more versatile, using his incredible movement to case defenses problems no matter where he plays. While Plea has been one of the signings of the season, Hazard has arguably been the player of the season so far. He has already scored 4 and assisted 3 for his side. He was the reason why Hoffman was able to get a hat trick. Hazard’s ball across for his second goal was brilliant, even though Mueller should have came out earlier to receive the ball. Hazard’s goal was superb, with the forward volleying the ball right into the top of the goal to seal the win for Mönchengladbach. It now leaves Mönchengladbach in a good position. They play Freiburg next, a team in the bottom half of the table. If they secure this win, it leaves plenty of pressure on both Bayern and Dortmund to keep getting results.
La Liga – Barca and Sevilla thriller, Madrid lose another.
La Liga is at his most competitive in years. The top teams are probably at their weakest in a long time, which left Sevilla at the top of the table. They travelled to the Nou Camp, in a tie between the top two sides, and to say it was entertaining is an understatement. The game ended in Barcelona’s favour, with the now league leaders beating their opponents 4-2. It was a marvelous display of attacking football from both sides, with there being a combined 42 shots in this game. Sevilla have had much success this season, by playing attacking players throughout their side, with their midfield persistent solely of number 10s. It is one of the main reasons why they have been so fun this season. However Barcelona did deserve the win here. They created the better chances, and definitely took them. Messi was key for the early lead, with the Argentine setting up Coutinho and scoring the second. However he came off due to injury, which now puts Barcelona at a huge disadvantage for the classico this weekend. It was still smooth sailing for Barca, with Semedo having a particularly good game. The Portuguese has been in rotation with Roberto since arriving, and definitely shown why he is such an alternative to the Spaniard. Semedo is much more direct, and might have less ability when it comes to controlling the game, but is a much better dribbler and uses his pace to cover more ground. As mentioned, he was very good in this game, in an attacking sense mostly. 42% of Barcelona’s attacks came down that right side, with Semedo having the joint most touches of the ball. While his defensive work was mostly non existent, he completed 3 dribbles and made a key pass. Both him and Alba were real driving forces on the flanks. However it was Ter Stegan who was comfortably the man of the match. He made 5 saves in the game, with one in particular being an absolutely impossible save for most keepers. I have always said De Gea is comfortably the best keeper around, and while I still believe that, Ter Stegan is comfortably the second best. It leaves Barcelona leading the pack, and with the classico coming up, it could leave their rivals without a chance.
Speaking of their rivals, Real Madrid lost another game. It leaves them with their worst start in 16 years, and has put an incredible amount of pressure on Julien Lopategui. The rumours are already circling that it could be the end for the Spaniard, and it wouldn’t be the worst decision. While I do not like the idea of him constantly wanting a high line, when they should start to grind out games instead of leaving themselves so exposed. I can sympathize with him. Florentino Perez did not back him in any way in the summer. Madrid only bought in another goalkeeper, a back up right back and bringing back Mariano Diaz, a player who isn’t good enough to start for them. I can respect putting faith in Bale and Benzema, two players who have shown in the past that they can perform at a high level. I just do not understand why Madrid didn’t make that Galactico signing. They were linked to Hazard, Icardi, Mbappe, Neymar, Dybala, yet didn’t move for any of them. Bale, Benzema and the rest of the team could add more goals, but not enough to fill in for all the work Ronaldo did. Ronaldo didn’t only score goals, but he was excellent in taking shots in really good areas, and giving Madrid a vocal point. Madrid do have a lot of shots, but are just so much more wasteful. This game might be a bad example, because they were chasing the game for 75 minutes, meaning there was definitely an element of desperation. Madrid under Zidane might have been poor defensively, but they were so good at creating good chances, and especially scoring them. Lopategui does deserve plenty of blame, but Perez is by far the biggest culprit to why Madrid are failing. It was made so clear in the summer that Lopategui was not his first choice, but it doesn’t give him a reason to throw him in a job where he would never succeed. It perfectly captures why Madrid can burn managers out. They need to fix this, otherwise attracting top talent might not seem as easy, with the club in such a mess.
Ligue 1 – Lucky Marseille, Montpellier sit in 3rd
Ligue 1 has not been great to look into this season. Paris are walking the league already, after another 5-0 victory, and Lille are closest team towards them. They do not look near equipped enough to challenge for a title. Let’s look at Marseille, who can call themselves fortunate to beat Nice. The home side had more shots on target, created more chances and dominated the game. However thanks to a brilliant ball from Sarr, Morgan Sanson put Marseille ahead and held their own throughout. While Nice did have chances to get back in the game, credit has to be given to the away side, who thanks to very good performances from Mandanda, Sarr and Amavi. Amavi had the most touches of the ball for Marseille, and put in 4 tackles and 2 interceptions. A very defensive display from a more attacking player. Nice may have deserved more out of this game, with Balotelli and Saint-Maximin having very good games. Balotelli had 4 shots, and 2 on target, whilst Saint-Maximin completed a crazy 8 dribbles. Nice have lost many of their best players since that 3rd place finish. However if they keep up playing the way they do, it will improve over time. Viera has done a very good job so far for Nice, considering it is his first job in a top five league. Marseille face PSG this weekend. If they show the same resilience they showed here, there do have a chance, but it is still very minimal.
Let’s quickly talk about Montpellier, who are currently sitting in 3rd in Ligue 1. While they haven’t been spectacular by any standards (like Ligue 1 itself), but they have been very good this season. Ever since their surprise title win back in 2012, Montpellier have been trying to get back to those glory days. They finished in 10th last season, while their 9 defeats were less than the five teams above them, they ended the season with 18 draws, struggling to turn those draws into wins. While there are elements of that not changing this season, they are unbeaten since their defeat on the opening day to Dijon. They have struggled to retain their leads, but have still been very impressive. Defensively they are one of the best sides in the division, facing the 4th least amount of shots in the league. They remain organised in their system. They are really hard to beat, and use their two forwards Laborde and Delort to do the business on the other end. Out of the pair, Delort has definitely been the standout player. He has 4 goals and 1 assist to his name this season, the most for his side. He has been a huge vocal point for Montpellier, with his 4.2 aerial duels the highest in the side. He does so much off the ball work and is still able to offer so much in the final third. Expected goals shows how this has not been a fluke, with him expected to get 4.50 goals this season. He is performing to his level. While Lille have been the real surprise package, Montpellier do deserve a mention.
Premier League – Chelsea’s equaliser, High five for City
The Premier League title race is really starting to heat up, with Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea all looking good at the top of the table. While I still think City are comfortably the best side in the league (we’ll get to them), the sides around them are still excellent sides. Let’s start with Chelsea, who fought back against Manchester United to retain their unbeaten record against the red devils at home. This was a game that many had written off for United, because of their awful start to the season and just how good Chelsea have looked this season. However United did surprise everyone here. While they did not exactly deserve to win the game, credit is due for their impressive comeback, thanks to great work from both Rashford, Mata and Martial. They were all amazing on the day and really helped United salvage a point. Chelsea were definitely the better side. Both Kante and Jorginho were brilliant in the middle of the park. Kante completed 4 tackles and 2 interceptions, while Jorginho completed 3 and 1, while also making 2 key passes. I do think Chelsea were quite lucky in this game. I do not think there should have been nearly as much injury time as was given, and on another day, United would have won that game. This does not excuse just how terrible United were on set pieces, with both Lindelof and Pogba being at fault for the first goal. The second goal was just a chaotic mess, with Chelsea players lining up for the finishing blow. It leaves Chelsea still in a very strong position, with them looking like the better side now against 3 of their rivals. United are a mess, and should not even be in the discussion for top 4.
Manchester City’s 5-0 win over Burnley is just another reason on why there is a high chance they will retain their title. This is the 3rd time they have scored more than 5 goals this season. While many critics will say the teams they are beating are not at a high level, they are still absolutely destroying these sides, showing so much ruthlessness in games. It’s Pep wanting the most out of his players, and wanting them to treat every game like it’s a cup final. Pep actually rested a few players for this game, with Sterling, arguably their best player this season, not even coming off the bench. This game actually highlighted one player’s huge influence after the absence of another, and that is Bernardo Silva. Funnily enough, Silva made the most appearances for City last season, with 53. It was crazy to find that out, because he seemed like such a bit part player through most of the season. He has really excelled as a number 8 in De Bruyne’s absence. So far this season, he has made 1.7 key passes, taken 1.3 shots, made 1.3 tackles and has scored 3 and assisted 1. It does seem Pep has really favoured him since his arrival, and De Bruyne’s injury might be a blessing in disguise for Silva. The reason why I say that City still look like the favourites is because of games like this. While they have the occasional slip in the big games, you just can’t see a team below 5th having any chance of stopping them. They are just relentless and so difficult to break up. They could go down as the best side in the league’s history of they keep this up.
Serie A – Juventus drop points, Milan Derby
Let’s start with arguably the most interesting talking point this week in Serie A, being Juventus dropped their first points of the season. The old lady were held to a 1-1 draw at home against Genoa. While Juventus did manage 21 shots in this game, only 3 were on target, and they were all Ronaldo. The 5x Champions League winner had a handful of chances to really put the game to bed. While criticising him for not scoring every chance he gets is quite unfair, I’m putting more blame on his teammates. When Ronaldo plays, the main attacking strategy is to create as many chances for him as possible. While there is still a lot of pressure for him to score the goals, he usually delivers. But when he has a day where some of his chances aren’t getting out away, the others around him as still need to contribute. Mandzukic for example. The Croatian didn’t manage a single shot or key pass in this game. And while Cuadrado did manage 3 key passes, he didn’t manage a single shot on target. His teammates cannot rely on him constantly, and need to still contribute. One player did seriously deliver in this game was Alex Sandro. The Brazilian didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year, after falling out with the board, but seems to be back on track. He had 120 touches, and was the only player to manage over 100 touches. He had a 92.5% pass accuracy and managed 5 key passes. He is one of the best full backs in Europe for a reason, because of his incredible contribution. He really showed that against Genoa. While Piatek didn’t score in this game, to continue his run of scoring in every game, he still managed to win 7 aerial duels, showing how scoring isn’t his only contribution in games. Juventus are still comfortable favourites, but it is good to see they are human.
The big game of the whole weekend was the Milan Derby, and it didn’t disappoint. The Milan Derby is a game I never miss, because of the sheer emotion felt by both teams. Inter won the derby, thanks to a late goal from their captain, Mauro Icardi. It was a deserved win. Their captain was his usual best in this game. In only 16 touches, he managed 3 shots, 2 on target and 3 key passes. Icardi is easily my favourite striker in Europe right now. His great consistency, his ability to take shots in great areas and his ability to get involved in build up play is only improving. Icardi is a rare breed of striker that barely every touches the ball, doesn’t shoot as much as others. But because of how good he is of getting on the end of chances, it makes him the most clinical striker in Europe. Last year, he scored a hat trick to win the game for Inter, has won it again. However his fellow countryman, Higuain, didn’t do so well. He seriously struggled to get into the game. He only managed 2 shots, and both were off target. What sums his bad game was he only managed 10 passes. He barely had an involvement in a game. Suso has been the best player in Serie A this season, yet he struggled to really show it today. While he did manage 4 shots, he was only player to get a shot on target for the Rossoneri. His goalscoring isn’t his best feature, it’s it’s chance creation. He only managed a single key pass in this game. While it isn’t all his fault, his wasn’t his best performance. It leaves the Milan clubs in very different positions. Inter are now looking like they are ready to finish in the Champions League spots again, while Milan still have a long way to go.
After the international break becoming baron when discussing relevent football, let’s talk about matches from the past. Games that will never be forgotten in the minds of the fans who watched. Let’s start with a game that I even remember watching at a younger age. The second encounter in two years between Sir Alex’s United, and Pep’s treble winning Barcelona. Both sides previously played each other in the 2009 champions league final, also remembered as Ronaldo’s final game for the club. The game was quite close, but incredible games from both Xavi and Messi put Barcelona over the line. This game was the rematch, which would hopefully see Fergie finally land the victory over Pep. But we all know that is not what happened. So let’s get into it.
United’s great first 10 minutes
Let’s start with by far United’s best moment. Ferguson’s plan was to use both Park and Valencia to deal with the full backs and midfielders. Park would drop deep to stop Alves from making any as advancing runs. Valencia and Park are both incredibly good at tracking back and helping their full backs. It was a classic Ferguson move. He always liked to play players, like Park, in these big games to help nullify the opponent. United played a classic 4-4-2, with Giggs and Carrick in midfield. Their other approach to deal with their midfield disadvantage was to bring one of the wingers inside depending on which side Barcelona were playing. For example, if the ball was on the side of Pedro and Abidal, Valencia would put pressure on them, while Park would come into midfield to limit the effect of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Both Rooney and Hernandez had very important roles. Rooney had to keep on Busquets. The defensive midfielder is so important in how Barcelona build up play. He is one is able to receive the ball and pick out a further advanced player, to help with possession. Rooney at times helped with this (we’ll get to why it didn’t work later) and Hernandez kept pressure on the back two of Pique and Mascherano. This worked so well for the first 10-15 minutes, but we will now get to why this didn’t exactly work.
A Xavi Masterclass
I constantly love to compliment midfielders. Whether it has been my constant defense of Paul Pogba, my praise for Luka Modric, my love for Vidal’s all round excellence, or the many memories I have of Paul Scholes. Xavi is better than all of the above. I fondly remember watching him, and his Barcelona teammates majestically move around the pitch and win 3 international trophies back to back. I do not think there will ever be a better player than Xavi in the middle of the park. His incredible ability at transitioning play, finding space and retaining possession will never be beaten. He was at his mesmerising best in this game. When Busquets was having a limited effect in the first half, Xavi would drop incredibly deep to receive the ball. He would usually then recycle the ball back to the centre halves, until there was space available to advance play. When Xavi dropped this deep, it left Rooney and Hernandez with a difficult decision, either stick with their role, and leave Xavi to retain possession, or try and deal with Xavi, but not full commit to the game plan. It left United chasing the game, because they failed to deal with the change that one player made. Xavi is the one who won the game for Barcelona. His dismantling of United’s plan is the reason why they cruised the game. He was recieving the ball all over the field, and he was just so good at helping Barcelona get the ball in dangerous areas. It was easily one of the best midfield performances you will ever see.
Messi at his best
If Xavi was the captain of the destruction of United’s approach, Messi was the first mate. Messi as a player as evolved dramatically since his long haired teenaged days at the Camp Nou. He began as a right winger, using his pace and dribbling ability to assist Eto’o and Ronaldinho in their dazzling displays in the final third. However Pep saw something else in him, being his ability at finding space. Messi under Pep was easily one of the hardest players to deal with when defending. If the centre backs chose to track him, it would leave space wide open in the back for one of Villa or Pedro to exploit. But if a midfielder chose to track him, it would leave the midfield disjointed. United had this similar problem. It seemed Carrick was the one with the responsibility to deal with Messi. Like the rest of the side, it was fine for the first 10 minutes. Messi didn’t have much of an involvement near the start of the game. But then the Argentine just dropped deeper and deeper, until Carrick couldn’t follow. That was the point where Messi was at his most deadliest. While many will call Messi an excellent dribbler and goal scorer. His best attribute will always be his ability to find space to receive the ball, which would bring the rest of the team into play. There is a reason why Pep told Messi to never receive the ball in the 18 yard box, because he knew exactly how good of a false nine Messi was. Throughout the game you would see Messi drop near enough in his own half, receive the ball, and just run at United. It worked so often and he was untouchable throughout the game. What helped massively was United’s inability to keep up with Barcelona. Their tireless running, aggression and high energy game was really taking its effect as the game went on, by the hour mark, United had zero legs to stand. Barcelona had that much control of the game, that United would never be able to get back into it. Messi and Barcelona were excellent in just waiting for this moment, and really made them suffer.
To conclude, this game was a huge turning point. It was the first time Sir Alex would look at a game and even admit that there was nothing he could do. While their first encounter in Rome was closer in pure ability of the players on the pitch, the rematch was not. United didn’t have the furocious front line of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney anymore. Fergie’s magic still brought the best of the aging and average talent throughout the squad, but there was a limit to this. Pep’s team and squad was of such a high standard that any line up Fergie put out on the day, would not have won the game. It was the first time I ever saw Sir Alex get completely outclassed on a tactical level.
It was a high point for his opponent however. This victory ensured that this team of players would go down as one of the best teams to ever play the game (and the best in my opinion). Every player in that team was at their peak, and worked so well together to produce a team that few were ever able to beat. It’s still the team that Pep is trying to equal in achievement and style. A game where the old was beaten by the new, in such a dominant display, and that is why this is a memorable match.