2020 Ballon D’or Winner? My Bundesliga Team of the Season 19/20

The Bundesliga was the first league to finish. German football looked its best for the first time since the fierce rivalries of Klopp’s Dortmund and Heynckes Bayern. Not only were Bayern and Dortmund facing each other neck and neck for the title, but RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach also remained on their tails for large parts of the season. The season did end with Bayern comfortably winning the title as expected, but for the first six months of the season, it felt like it was anyone’s for the taking. With that said, let’s look at some of the players who have stood out throughout the season. It’s very top five heavy team, but that’s expected considering the gulf in quality between them and the rest of the league.

GK — Yann Sommer

Not even a debate for who finds themselves in goal. Sommer once again proved why he is one of the best. Not only was the Swiss international fantastic in terms of shot-stopping (he stopped 7.3 post xG last season, by far the biggest overperformance in the league), but his ability on the ball really showed. Sommer never looked out of place when receiving a pass from a teammate, and gave Gladbach a massive aid in build-up play. Gladbach’s defence was league average on the whole, but Sommer singlehandedly made Gladbach look like one of the best defences in the league. 

My honourable mention goes to Manuel Neuer, who recovered from his awful 18/19 season by looking a lot more like himself. Nubel might find very hard to displace in the World Cup winner from the starting eleven. 

RB — Achraf Hakimi

It’s hard to call Hakimi’s two years in Dortmund anything more than a success. The Moroccan might play as a full-back, but his incredible attacking output makes him a perfect wing-back, which explains why Inter Milan spent over £30 million on the defender. Hakimi was a real driving force on the right side. While he had a habit of making the occasional poor decision in the penalty area, his speed alone made those famous diagonal runs into the box so dangerous. Full-backs and centre-backs just couldn’t contain him and became one of Dortmund’s best attacking threats. Hakimi was everywhere on the pitch. At one moment he’d be playing a vital pass to one of his attackers, and at the next sprinting back to help his defence. He ended the season with double figures in assists, and was a key contributor in final third passes, pressures, passes into the penalty area and ball carries. I have no idea how Dortmund will replace Hakimi’s incredible output. Meunier is a decent attacking contributor but doesn’t have the bags of energy and speed as the now Inter Milan defender. 

Honourable mention here goes to Nordi Mukiele, who for a player playing out of position, looked very comfortable at right-back. The Frenchman keeps getting better each year.

RCB — Mats Hummels

I made it clear I was never a fan of Dortmund selling young French defender Abdou Diallo and buying ex-captain Mats Hummels for £30 million. I did understand their thinking. Dortmund’s big issue in 18/19 was their collapse in the second half of the season, so having a player of Hummels’ experience to help guide the younger players through the challenges of a title race was a good idea. I still like Hummels, but it was the price that troubled me the most, considering they won’t get their money back unless a title comes their way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny Hummels has been excellent in his first season back playing in the Westfalenstadion. Dortmund seemed to improve massively on set pieces since Hummels was again commanding the team’s shape (an xG per shot against in 18/19 of 0.13 from set-pieces went to 0.08 last season). He topped the team for passes into the final third, showing how his ability on the ball is yet to diminish. My worry for Hummels is how long he’ll be at his best. Last season, Hummels’ tackle success rate against dribbles was at a pretty poor 43%; the worst out of the players to play at centre-back for Dortmund. Teams are really taking advantage of his lack of speed, and I worry for that as he approaches his twilight years.

Honourable mention goes to Dayot Upamecano. He would have easily started here had he played more. Upamecano has all the attributes to play at the highest level. He just needs to have a full season without suffering any serious injuries before making that huge step up.

LCB — David Alaba

Bayern’s mister reliable once again showed why he’s great to have in the squad. Due to injuries to Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez, Alaba was forced to play at centre-back for a majority of the season. This isn’t the first time Alaba has had to move positions. Under Pep, Alaba was regularly deployed at centre-back due to injuries to Boateng and Benatia. While I do like Alaba as a left-back, he looks so good in the centre of defence. Having played so far up the pitch for most of his career, he’s used to receiving the ball under pressure. Bayern plays an incredibly high-line to help dominate games and press effectively. Alaba looks so reassured when receiving the ball in dangerous areas and is one of Bayern’s best players for progressing the ball. The Austrian international topped not only his team and league for passes into the final third, but the whole of Europe. Any team would love to have a player of Alaba’s versatility, experience, intelligence and passing ability in their side. 

Honourable mention goes to Nico Elvedi, who fitted in seamlessly into Marco Rose’s defence. Credit has to be given to a young defender for not looking out of place in a very difficult defensive system to play in. 

LB — Alphonso Davies

The Bundesliga’s breakout star had a fantastic debut season in Bavaria. Davies hasn’t looked out of place since starting at left-back to facilitate David Alaba at centre-back. Davies has looked confident on the ball and isn’t too reckless in possession. He tops the team for successful dribbles per 90 with 3.63 and tackles with 3.00. Davies has struggled during defensive transitions, but that’s expected from a young player who isn’t playing in his favoured position. He’s been an absolute joy to watch whenever he’s on the pitch and goes down as one of Bayern’s smartest acquisitions in recent memory. 

Honourable mention goes to Raphael Guerreiro. The Portuguese international was by far the biggest beneficiary from the change in formation, allowing him to push forward and contribute a lot more in goals and assists. 

RDM — Joshua Kimmich

One of Thiago or Kimmich was going to be here. Kimmich beats out his teammate due to game time and output. I love Thiago and feel he’s been one of the most underappreciated Bundesliga players since his arrival, but Kimmich has just had a better season. The German international’s success in midfield this season goes down to Bayern signing Benjamin Pavard to play at right-back. The Frenchman isn’t a superstar or anything, but his arrival has allowed Kimmich to play in his favoured position and has had his best season for Bayern. Kimmich is an excellent option alongside Thiago. Both are great progressors of the ball, but Kimmich offers that grit, work-rate and energy that Thiago simply can’t provide. Kimmich playing centrally has allowed him to take up more positions outside the opposition penalty area without sacrificing the team’s width. After years of struggling to find the right midfield balance, it seems Bayern have finally found one that works. 

Honourable mention goes to Thiago Alcantara, who’s progressive passing, intelligence and silky movements with the ball are one of the highlights of watching Bayern under Flick. 

LDM — Konrad Laimer

I’ve already gone into great detail and why Laimer was so great last season. But to summarise, Laimer somehow managed to help facilitate the immense attacking talent of RB Leipzig, while being a good progressor and attacking contributor himself. It took a while, but Laimer has finally cemented himself as a starter instead of a role-player to help cover for other guys in the squad.

Honourable mention goes to Denis Zakaria. The Swiss international has had his best season to date, becoming a dominating figure on the ball and hardworking without it. 

RM — Jadon Sancho 

There just seems to be no ceiling for Sancho. The former Manchester City youth player took a step up from his incredible 18/19 season, contributing to 17 goals and 16 assists for his side. Sancho continues to show astonishing maturity and decision making in the final third, while also being an excellent finisher in himself. Sancho is one big reason to why Dortmund have been such a threat on the counter-attack. He’s able to break through defences on his own, with so many opponents yet to figure out how to silence the England winger. Sancho is the best young talent Dortmund have had since Mario Gotze was in his prime. Sancho’s future is still up in the air, but what’s been made clear is that he doesn’t mind staying at Dortmund for another year. It’s a win-win scenario. If they sell, they have plenty of money to find an adequate replacement. But if he stays, it gives them another chance to challenge Bayern at the top. 

Honourable mention goes to Filip Kostic. The Serbian attacker took on a lot of responsibility after the departures of Haller, Jovic and Rebic. Kostic brings that quality to a side that struggled in attack for a large part of the season. 

AM — Thomas Muller

It seems no one is talking about the incredible season Muller has had. After Kovac’s sacking, Flick put Muller straight back into the starting XI, and Muller repaid that faith with his best season to date. Muller’s 21 assists now mean he holds the record for the most in a single season. It’s more in a season than anyone in the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A. I’m not saying that Muller is a better player than Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, but this is a crazy achievement for the World Cup winner. I’m not Muller’s biggest fan as a personality, but it’s hard to deny how good he is for Bayern.

Honourable mention goes to Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old was exceptional yet again for Leverkusen and continues to be their driving force in attack. Let’s hope for the rest of the league that he stays and continues to be a joy to watch.

LM — Timo Werner

Werner’s decision to stay another year in Leipzig turned out to be the best for both parties. Leipzig managed to get a massive fee for the German international, while Werner went on to further prove himself as one of Europe’s finest attackers. While he is seen as a striker, I’ve placed him on the left because he flourishes as a second striker, with someone beside him to help open up space. Werner 28 goals and 8 assists gave him his best tally in his career so far. Not only was his finishing excellent as ever, but managed to create a lot for the players around him. Werner was awarded the man of the match 10 times, more than any other player in the league. It helps solidify Werner’s importance to the club that helped push him to the next level. 

Honourable mention goes to Marcus Thuram. Borussia Monchengladbach’s player of the season arrived in Germany with a bang. Not only is he improving with the enormous minutes he’s getting but is helping Gladbach get back to the top of the Bundesliga

ST — Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski seems to just get better with age. Poland’s top goal scorer had his best season to date, scoring a ridiculous 34 goals. The way he manages to not only find space for himself but opens the game up for others is a sign of a real world-class striker. No striker in the past five years comes close to matching Lewandowski’s goals, creativity and link-up play. He should be the front runner for the Balon d’Or this year. While Messi, De Bruyne and Benzema are others who’ve had incredible seasons, Lewandowski has played a substantial part in winning his side games and trophies and doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. 

Honourable mention goes to Erling Haaland. While the Norwegian did arrive halfway through the season, his immediate impact on Dortmund cannot be underestimated. Just like Lewandowski, Dortmund has another superstar leading the line, and are likely to sell him on for a considerable profit.

Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

This is actually the first time I’ve closely paid attention to the Bundesliga from the start to the end. While I plan to pay more attention to teams outside of the title race in the future, let’s focus on that for now. From comparing today’s table to the ones of previous seasons, this was easily the most thrilling title race in years. Just going back to the start of February, only three points were separating first and fourth. The season did eventually end with Bayern Munich winning comfortably. But it gives me hope that this league can remain competitive in the future, and if it can remain entertaining with multiple teams fighting for the Meisterschale, it could attract even more fans to German football. But instead of looking at the future, let’s look back on the season that’s just finished, and grade each team that finished in the top four.

Bayern Munich — A

I mean the winners can’t get anything less than the highest mark right? Bayern did have a shaky start under Nico Kovac, with the champions struggling to find their feet for the first few months of the season. Kovac was never going to last in charge. The Croatian never really fit the profile for a Bayern Munich manager, with his style of play leaning more on the defensive side. This was never going to work with a group of players still accustomed to the style of Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. 

Kovac isn’t the only culprit to Bayern’s poor start. The club spent the whole summer looking for replacements for Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben; two players who defined Bayern Munich in the 2010s. After looking at Timo Werner, Ousmane Dembele and Leroy Sane, they ended up settling with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic on loan for the season. Both were talented players, and alongside Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and youngster Alphonso Davies still left Bayern with a formidable selection of wide talent. The problem is the board knew this moment was coming. Robben and Ribery had been struggling with injuries for years and needed long term successors ready for the day they left. I like both Coman and Gnabry, but with Coman’s injuries and Gnabry unlikely to reach that world-class level, it instantly left Bayern lighter on the attacking end. 

Bayern’s Hinrunde is defined by Kovac’s sacking and the appointment of former national team assistant coach; Hansi Flick. As soon as Flick was appointed, the Bayern team looked transformed. Flick’s first game saw his team deliver their usual humiliation to arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, with a comfortable 4–0 win at home. From here on, Bayern was playing their best football since Heynckes and only went on to lose two games. Those defeats were definitely anomalies. Bayer Leverkusen managed to beat the champions through some fantastic counter-attacking and resolute defending. While Borussia Monchengladbach did so through some massive luck. Both losses came in November, and from then on, Bayern only dropped points on one occasion. Super Bayern returned with a bang and managed to make the most exciting Bundesliga title race end with their usual comfortable lead at the top. 

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When excluding Lewandowski (we’ll get to him in the future), no other player looked better for Bayern than Thomas Muller. The World Cup winner fell out of favour with Kovac last season, struggling for consistent minutes. This wasn’t only due to their toxic relationship, but down to the form of Coutinho, who looked absolutely fantastic under Kovac. However, when Flick was appointed and seemed to get Bayern playing as they did under Heynckes, it meant Muller had to start. Coutinho definitely has that x-factor that Muller has never possessed in his career. However, Muller is still one of the best for chance creation and finding space, as well as maintaining the superior defensive work-rate. This is the happiest Muller has looked playing for his club in years, and his relationship with Lewandowski is still telepathic. In the 23 games Muller played under Flick, the German forward contributed to 24 goals. Muller has proved once again why he is indispensable to Bayern Munich. 

If we were just looking at Bayern under Flick, they’d get an A++, but we can’t ignore those first 10 games under Kovac. Bayern could indeed continue their stranglehold over the rest of the league if they adequately rebuild this team. Lewandowski, Muller, Neuer, Boateng and Martinez are all over 30, and there’s a chance Thiago could leave in the summer. They still need to sign additional wide players and hope Hernandez and Sule come back from their injuries without a drop-off. Bayern has to ensure they have a plan in place to continue their dominance in the league; otherwise, their competition could overtake them. 

RB Leipzig — B

Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have had a better first season for his new club. RB Leipzig has taken a step forward in terms of their play on the pitch. Before Nagelsmann’s arrival, the East German club was known as a counter-pressing side, able to hurt teams quickly with their youthful and athletic attackers. While Leipzig still excels in this area, they’ve changed their style to be a lot more effective in possession. They averaged 54.1% possession, a 4.6% increase to 18/19’s average. Their shots per game have slightly increased, as well as their pass accuracy. This change in approach did make Leipzig easily the second best-attacking team in the league. They still remained as direct and vertical as seen by previous Leipzig teams but are now taking advantage of the great ball players the team possesses. Leipzig has one of the most promising groups of defenders in Europe, with players who’ve been with the team since their promotion and some up and coming talent that has the potential to become the best in their position. Nagelsmann has enabled his centre-backs to have more of an involvement in possession. Take Dayot Upamecano has a prime example. In 18/19, the young Frenchman was averaging 41.8 passes per 90. Last season that went up to 67.4. When you discount Bayern Munich players, no one has made more passes into the final third than Upamecano. Nagelsmann is taking advantage of the talent at his disposal. We already knew all of Leipzig’s defenders were comfortable on the ball, but now we know they can aid in transition, as well as in defence. 

Until Flick arrived and changed Bayern for the better, it was becoming difficult to argue against Leipzig being the best-attacking team in the league. Nagelsmann has always enhanced every attacker he’s worked with. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann deployed such an attacking system to help the rather average forwards he had to work with at times. In 18/19, his Hoffenheim team were second in the league for shots per game with 18 but were quite unlucky when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net. The 32-year-old is now working with some of the best-attacking talents in Europe, which included Timo Werner. Werner’s final season in Germany turned out to be his best. His coolness in front of goal and creativity made him one of the deadliest forwards in the world. Christopher Nkunku had a real breakout season, assisting the most goals in the team and excels at finding space between the lines. Even Patrick Schick, a player who’s struggled for form since leaving Sampdoria, had his most productive season to date and became Werner’s preferred strike partner. 

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Nagelsmann having the number of talented defenders to choose from alongside one of the best holding midfielders in the league in Konrad Laimer, allowed him to play an extra attacker in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer has been outstanding in midfield. His physicality, drive on the ball and creativity gave the team an extra boost when playing against those deep blocks, while also having the work-rate to help his team when needed. Sabitzer has gone back to being a real goal threat too, scoring 9 and assisting 7. He might not make the headlines like some of his teammates, but his importance cannot be underestimated.

I’ve talked highly of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, so why are they only getting a B? I guess it goes down to my own expectations. I wasn’t expecting them to win the Bundesliga, but I was at least hoping for Leipzig to stay on Bayern’s tail for a lot longer than they did. The problem seems to be how vulnerable they can leave themselves at times. There have been multiple occasions where Leipzig deservedly drop points. A four-game stretch which included defeats to Freiburg and Schalke, where Leipzig was beaten in the quality of chances created by two teams who don’t possess the same elite attackers. The way Leipzig overload the opposition with players pushing forward can leave them vulnerable to teams who can counter them through fast, vertical balls ahead. Their young crop of defenders doesn’t yet possess the in-game intelligence as some older defenders, which will come as they develop.

Next season will be huge for Leipzig. It’ll be their first season in the Bundesliga without Werner leading the line, and it puts a lot more pressure on the other players to deliver the goals. I fully expect Leipzig to spend that money as wisely as ever, but an apparent drop-off is expected when you lose a player of Werner’s ability. Nagelsmann is used to losing his best players, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Leipzig does remain as competitive as they were last season. 

Borussia Dortmund — D

Borussia Dortmund’s window for winning a title is becoming even smaller. BVB have spent a lot of money on players who will help right now as well as the future. Mats Hummels returned to the club, adding some needed experience to a backline which collapsed when facing an immense amount of pressure. Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt arrived for decent fees to give Reus and Sancho even more support in the final third. There were of course questions in how you fit all of these players together, but the number of options Dortmund had at their disposal instantly made them title challengers again. Sancho was only going to get better, Hakimi was still there for another year, and Reus just came off his most productive season in years. Bayern was at their weakest, and no other team possessed the same level of talent as Dortmund. 

It made my expectations of Dortmund a lot higher. They’re getting desperate, and it’s showing. Anything below a title challenge or a cup final should automatically mean the season is a failure. Still, their performances in the second half of the season do offer some encouragement, especially with how inconsistent they were during the hinrunde. Dortmund stuck with their 4–2–3–1, but looked so slow and were lacking that speed which made them surprise challengers in 18/19. Brandt wasn’t starting enough, and the number nine position still seemed so uncertain, with Paco Alcacer looking better off the bench. Dortmund wasn’t winning against teams they usually steamroll. Paderborn, Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Union Berlin all managed to stop Dortmund picking up three points. 

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January was the big turning point for Dortmund, and not all of it is down to Erling Halaand’s arrival. Lucien Favre opted to change from the shaky 4–2–3–1 to 3–4–3. The system benefitted a lot of players in the team. The full-backs, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi turned into deadly attacking options. Hakimi was back playing on the right, and became a driving force with his incredible speed and dribbling to breeze past opposition defenders. Guerreiro became an excellent goal threat, ending the season with an impressive 8 goals and 2 assists. The centre-backs also benefitted from this change in formation. Dortmund usually uses their centre-backs to play line-breaking passes through midfield. Issues began arising when these passes were being intercepted, leaving Dortmund very vulnerable. Having someone of Piszczek’s experience in the backline really helped, especially when Akanji was as bad as he was at times. The attack, of course, benefitted from with an extra man in defence. It allowed Sancho and Hazard to play more like second strikers than typical wingers, and Brandt was given the freedom to move all over the pitch to find pockets of space to exploit. 

Halaand was a massive difference-maker in the number nine position. Not only due to his age, but how good he is right now. Halaand, similar to Zion Williamson in the NBA, looks as if he was born in a laboratory. The former Salzburg forward is fast, strong, incredible in the air and can score all types of goals. It makes him the perfect number nine right now, with the only major drawback being his lack of defensive work rate and chance creation. But the system seems to be built for their new superstar. Dortmund isn’t a team that defends through pressing from the front (they’re 9th in the league for passes allowed per defensive action with 11.70). BVB primarily win the ball back through counter-pressing in midfield and quickly playing it to their talented attackers. Halaand is also surrounded by some of the best creators in Europe. Sancho, Hazard and Hakimi all reached double figures for assists, allowing Halaand to play more as a poacher. 

If you just look at their results from the new year onwards, Dortmund would be second, but the season still resulted in zero silverware and more question marks on where Dortmund are actually going. Dortmund has spent a lot of money on players to help the team win now. Axel Witzel, Matts Hummels, Thomas Delaney, Thorgan Hazard and Emre Can alongside some of the veterans already in the side, meaning they have to make the most of the talent they currently have. I’m more optimistic about Leipzig’s future than I am Dortmund’s. Leipzig has a young and innovative manager with a group of young players who still have room for improvement. Dortmund’s team right now doesn’t look like it’ll be together for much longer. Hakimi’s loan has expired, Sancho is likely to move on, and I have no idea if Hummels can remain a starter for another season, with his physical abilities declining. Massive question marks loom over the manager. Lucien Favre has done a lot better than I ever expected of him, but next season could be his last. This is their last chance to win the title again before the team completely collapsed either through sales or age. 

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

When Marco Rose was announced as Gladbach’s new coach after the departure of Dieter Hecking, it was hard for me to contain my excitement. Gladbach had come off another season where they failed to show consistency from beginning to end, looking certain for top four in December but dropping down the table as the season progressed. Rose’s arrival felt like a real sign of intent, even when last summer included the sales of Thorgan Hazard and Michael Cuisance. The former being the team’s best scorer and creator while the latter a potential star in the making, leaving the club to join arch-rivals Bayern Munich. 

Gladbach spent the money from these sales wisely, while taking some risks in young attacking players. Ramy Bensebaini and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose at Salzburg) added some much-needed creativity and drive from full-back. Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo arrived to effectively replace Thorgan Hazard’s output. Both were gambles in different ways. Thuram had only played for one of the worst sides in Ligue 1, so transitioning to a bigger and better team could have been a challenge. Embolo had already played in the Bundesliga since 2016 for Schalke. However, the Swiss attacker has struggled for form and injuries. A change of scenery could have helped Embolo, but he’s a player you don’t want to rely on throughout the season. Both have had great seasons. Thuram contributed to 18 goals in his debut season in Germany while Embolo contributed to 13 and played over 1500 minutes, the first time he’s done that in his career. 

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Last season was the most consistent Gladbach have looked for a long time, and a lot of that goes down to how Marco Rose has improved the players and the style. What made Rose at Gladbach so enticing was the number of talented players he was working with. You have some of the younger talents in Denis Zakaria, Florian Neuhaus, Laszlo Benes and the previously mentioned Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo. All have either been highly touted for years or have shown glimpses of brilliance. The squad also contains some older talents. Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl, Yann Sommer and Christoph Kramer were there to help give the side some needed experience and leadership. Rose managed to get incredible output out of many of these players. Denis Zakaria finally started to look like the elite talent we all knew he could be. Patrick Herrmann contributed to 12 goals, the most he’s provided since the 14/15 season. What was most impressive was the way the team still managed to remain consistent even when missing key players. For the last few games of the season, Zakaria, Thuram and Plea were all unavailable, meaning Rose had to deploy a front line including Jonas Hoffman, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann. A lineup which would’ve been scrutinised had it been under any other manager. 

Rose’s Gladbach is actually pretty similar to Nagelsmann’s teams in a sense. Both focus on transitioning the ball as quickly as possible. The Foals do it through the full-backs, especially Lainer. The Austrian defender plays more akin to a winger than a defender, topping the team for shot assists, passes into the penalty area, successful crosses and progressive passes. Lainer has been a creative hub for the team, and while I have my issues with him regarding speed and defensive effort, it’s hard to deny he has been a success. Thuram is the other significant addition who gave Gladbach another dimension. The team went from averaging 13.2 aerial duels per game in 18/19 to 16.7 last season. Thuram is a very unique winger. He has the acceleration to flourish against full-backs while having the size and strength to cause matchup problems. The team loved sending those long diagonal balls straight to Thuram. The Frenchman is a very efficient attacker and formed a deadly partnership with Alassane Plea. Gladbach didn’t score the same crazy amount of goals as Leipzig, Bayern and Dortmund. Still, considering the difference in talent, credit has to be given the coach and players for being able to keep up with such fierce competition. 

The only area where I worry for Rose’s team is defence. Monchengladbach faced 13.7 shots per game, putting them at about league average. They had the 3rd best defensive record in the league, conceding 40 and only bettered by Leipzig and Bayern. However, when you look at the post-shot xG, Gladbach starts to come off as very fortunate. They should have conceded around 47 goals based on the chances they were giving away, which is extremely rare. This miraculous record can all be credited to Yann Sommer being the best keeper in Europe. When ranking goalkeeper seasons in the last decade, David De Gea (17/18), Lucasz Fabianski (18/19) and Alisson Becker (17/18) all spring to mind as some of the best goalkeeper seasons in recent history. Yann Sommer is another to add to that list. If it weren’t for some of his heroic performances, I doubt Gladbach would be playing in Europe’s elite competition next season. 

Gladbach is the team I’m the most optimistic for next season. The team was gradually improving throughout the season, so I expect Rose and his players to match the big three throughout the rest of next season. The younger players are only going to improve, and the more experienced guys are still at an age where they aren’t on the decline. There’s the possibility of Zakaria or Thuram being moved on for massive profits, which wouldn’t be the worst idea if a suitable replacement is already brought in. 

Florian Neuhaus — A Vital Piece for Marco Rose

Borussia Monchengladbach going from one of the more inconsistent teams in the top of half of the table to title challengers for a large part of the season was quite a story, and Marco Rose has a lot to do with this. The former RB Salzburg coach came into a team who lost their best player in Thorgan Hazard and replaced him with Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo; two players, while promising, needed some refinement to turn them into players as productive as the Belgian forward. While Embolo is yet to find his feet for his new club, Thuram has turned into a star. Two full-back acquisitions in Ramy Bensebaini on the left and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose in Salzburg) on the right also gave the team a lot more creativity down the flanks.

One of Rose’s goals was to oversee the development of the team’s younger players. It’s a job familiar to the 43-year-old, who helped his former club develop the likes of Hannes Wolf, Xaver Schlager and Takumi Minamino; who’ve all left RB Salzburg to join clubs in the top five leagues. Gladbach currently has some great young players. The already mentioned Embolo and Thuram, as well as Nico Elvedi, Dennis Zakaria, Laszlo Benes and the player we’ll be discussing today: Florian Neuhaus.

Neuhaus is a player who’s potential has been apparent since his teenage years. Neuhaus, when playing for 1860 Munich’s youth team, scored the winner in the German youth cup final with an 89th-minute winner from the halfway line in a 2–1 win over Borussia Dortmund. After making his first appearance for the senior team in 2016, Gladbach swooped in and signed the promising young midfielder the following year. Neuhaus was loaned out to Dusseldorf, where his standout performances helped the club earn promotion to the Bundesliga. Neuhaus has been one of the brightest midfield talents in Germany and was excellent during the first half of the 2018/19 season. Neuhaus topped the team for assists with seven by Christmas and looked ready to be playing at the highest level, week in week out. However, he was another player who’s form dropped off after the winter break, only going on to assist another goal.

I was intrigued to see what Rose could do with the 23-year-old, and for the first few months of the season, he underwhelmed. It wasn’t to say I thought Neuhaus was playing poorly. The former 1860 Munich midfielder was still creating a lot of chances and showing a lot of maturity and intelligence in possession. But other players quickly took the spotlight away from him. Dennis Zakaria is as good as Neuhaus on the ball while being able to offer superior physicality and defensive actions. Christoph Kramer is the most defensive-minded player out of the team’s midfielders and gives the younger players less defensive responsibility. Laszlo Benes had a real breakout season before suddenly falling down the pecking order, offering great movement and technical ability.

When the Bundesliga returned after Germany’s lockdown was lightened, Neuhaus had a chance to stake a claim on starting every week. Dennis Zakaria suffered a knee injury at the start of March, and Neuhaus was the clear first choice to fill in for him.

The 23-year-old’s performances have been excellent since the return, but before discussing why, let’s first talk about how he plays. Gladbach primarily attacks through their full-backs. Stefan Lainer is one of the team’s most constant creators at full-back, with the defender given full licence to push forward and create for the forwards. Because of creativity shouldered by other players, it provides Neuhaus with two crucial roles. The first is giving the ball to the full-backs. Gladbach looks to transition the ball as quickly as possible, either through long balls to one of the strikers, or waiting for Lainer to make one his usual darting runs forward. Neuhaus does play a part in this. The German midfielder rarely ever holds onto the ball for too long. His vision and awareness enable him to see his passing options before he even receives the ball. He’ll always look to play the ball first time into the path of Bensebaini or Wendt to help drive the ball forward. The urgency in his passing makes him challenging to press. Not only does Neuhaus play these quick balls that cause many issues for opposition midfielders, but he’s also able to dribble through players effortlessly, giving him another effective method of ball progression. Neuhaus has been one of Gladbach’s best dribblers this season, attempting 2.54 dribbles per 90 with a 73.4 success rate; only Zakaria averages the same high amount with a similar success rate.

Neuhaus’s biggest strengths are all on the side of ball progression. But he isn’t afraid to help his team in the opponent’s penalty area. Neuhaus is third in the squad for passes into the penalty area with 28, only behind Steffan Lainer and Alassane Plea. The former 1860 Munich midfielder is an adept passer who is willing to take risks if it aids in giving his team a goal. Yet, it’s the way he helps his team off the ball I find more interesting. If Gladbach needs a goal, Neuhaus will offer support in the box, through late runs to give one of the full-backs another option, or to open up space for one of the attacking players.

One area in which Neuhaus excels in is counter-attacks. When Gladbach is on the break, it brings out one of Neuhaus’s best qualities; his awareness of what’s around him. Neuhaus likes to drive the ball with speed, dragging defenders towards him and opening up space for his teammates. He did this fantastically in Borussia Monchengladbach’s 3–1 victory over Paderborn. After recovering the ball and beginning a counter-attack, Neuhaus receives the ball and quickly dashes towards the opposition box. None of the Paderborn players wanted to make a challenge since it resulted in a Gladbach set-piece. Multiple players surrounded the young German midfielder and instead of shooting, chose to play the ball to Patrick Herrmann, who had acres of room due to Neuhaus’s run. While Herrmann did waste the chance, it perfectly showed just how good of a decision-maker Neuhaus is, able to make the right choice under tough circumstances.

It’s clear Neuhaus excels during the attacking phase, but how does he perform on the defensive end? I wouldn’t say Neuhaus is terrible defensively, but he isn’t excellent either. He’s competent enough not to be a consistent liability, but doesn’t do enough to make his defensive work have any potential positive effect on selection or transfers. Neuhaus does work in the system Rose prefers. The 23-year-old plays on the left of a midfield two or three. He is very disciplined and never strays too far from his midfield partner, and usually attempts to stay on his feet and rarely rush in with a big challenge. Neuhaus puts up a respectable 19.6 pressures per 90, showing that most of his defensive actions have come through attempting to force his opponent to make mistakes. There is one specific issue with Neuhaus defensively, being ball-watching. When defending against teams who dominate the ball, Neuhaus struggles when dealing with dangerous runs from midfielders. Their recent defeat to Bayern Munich highlighted this error, where Neuhaus failed to intercept the switch-ball to the Bayern wide-player, and then allowed Goretzka to score the winning goal.

I like Florian Neuhaus a lot. He offers a unique skill set at such a young age for a midfielder, showing a lot of maturity and excellent decision making on and off the ball. I highly doubt Neuhaus will be going anywhere this summer. It’ll give him a chance to develop his strengths while also improving on the defensive side. Neuhaus has the potential to be a key player for not only his club but his national team in the future.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Konrad Laimer and Midfielders in Pressing Systems

A lot of the talk surrounding RB Leipzig has mostly been around the tactics of Julian Nagelsmann, the goals of Timo Werner and the talent in their defence; primarily Nordi Mukiele and Dayot Upamecano. But the player that has gone under the radar, while also showing the most prominent signs of improvement is Austrian midfielder Konrad Laimer.

Before properly watching Leipzig this season, the impression Laimer left was of a player liked by his managers for his intensity and versatility but didn’t have the same high ceiling as his teammates. Rangnick was especially a huge fan of Laimer. The former RB Salzburg midfielder played every minute in the Europa League group stages in 18/19, while also playing around 1800 minutes in the league, a massive spike from the 1300 minutes he played in 17/18.

The main area in which Laimer has stood out from day one in Germany has always been defensive actions. In the league, Laimer was winning 2.18 tackles per 90 last season, only placing him behind the captain and well-known tough tackler, Diego Demme. However, the real takeaway from this is where he was attempting these tackles. Laimer was attempting 0.91 tackles in the opposition third, far and away the most in the Leipzig squad (if you’re curious, Tyler Adams was second with 0.50). I presumed, before looking at his numbers this season, that he was attempting so many tackles in the final third because he was playing as a makeshift right-back. However, this isn’t the case. This season, Laimer has played entirely as a defensive midfielder but has still managed to attempt the same high amount of tackles as under Rangnick. Laimer is attempting 0.79 tackles in the opposition third, the most for any regular in the squad.

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Captain Diego Demme’s sale in January only went to further prove the importance Nagelsmann had placed upon Laimer as his primary defensive midfielder. RB Leipzig usually switches between alternative versions of 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, and Laimer is generally placed alongside a more attack-minded midfielder in Marcel Sabitzer or Emile Forsberg. I do think the pair do deserve credit for being able to adapt to a less attacking role and into a more supportive one, but it does further show just how good Laimer has been for Nagelsmann. Leipzig is fundamentally a pressing team, meaning during opposition build-up play. They will usually attempt to win the ball through pushing their attackers far up the pitch and cutting their opponent’s passing lanes; winning the ball back with a well-timed interception. Laimer is usually left on his own in the middle of the park, with Sabitzer regularly doing the more ball-dominant work. Yet, it makes Laimer’s role in the team that more vital. Laimer’s role in this team is to get the ball back as quick as possible, and play the football to the attackers; usually through vertical passes. It makes Laimer sound like your typical, old-school ball winner, but he is a lot more than that.

Firstly, having a job like this in such a press-heavy team is one a majority of midfielders in Europe would struggle with. You have to possess high energy levels to cover a lot of ground; as well as having the intelligence to position yourself in the right place. The amount of work Laimer does is actually incredible. He attempts a ridiculous 37 pressures per 90 (Important context; 22 is an impressive amount of pressures, so anything higher is worth heaps of praise). Laimer, as expected, is right at the top of the squad for tackles and interceptions, with the 22-year-old completing 4.2 tackles and interceptions per 90 for his side.

Talking about Laimer purely from a defensive point of view does to him a level of a disservice. I doubt Laimer would even be a regular in the team if he wasn’t at least adequate on the ball. Earlier, I did make Laimer’s role on the ball sound rather simplistic, but he can do a lot more than merely playing the ball long to the attackers. Laimer doesn’t look threatened when opponents attempt to dispossess him. Laimer is in the top twenty in the league for passes made while under pressure. One thing Laimer consistently does is make darting runs into the opposition third. It’s a very effective method to cause havoc since it’s unlikely your opponent is picking up the single defensive midfielder. Laimer is a very capable dribbler and takes advantage of the overloads he creates. This is perfectly showcased during RB Leipzig’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, where Laimer managed to win his side the decisive penalty through receiving the ball in Tottenham’s box.

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Defensive midfielders for top clubs are rare, especially those in the mould of Laimer. Tottenham and Manchester United are two clubs who look desperate for a real defensive midfielder. Tottenham may have Ndombele and Lo Celso, two genuinely elite midfield talents, but both would rather be doing the more glamorous midfield work. Manchester United are in the same boat. McTominay and Fred might be able to a bit of defensive work, but their best qualities are in the final third, whether it’s passing or making darting runs into the opposition box. If one of these clubs could sign Laimer, they could close that gap to the top a lot faster.

Why Bundesliga Clubs Have Looked So Good in the Champions League

The Champions League has returned with a bang, but not for the same reasons as usual. We regularly see Spain’s top two teams and the English teams stroll through the first round of the knockout stage, but this year is different. Barcelona looked poor against Napoli; Juventus failed to have a shot on target against Lyon, and data lovers’ favourite team, Atalanta, absolutely walked over Valencia. The holders Liverpool managed to lose their first leg against Atletico Madrid; while Pep Guardiola managed to completely out-smart Zidane to take his Manchester City side into the second leg with a 2-1 advantage.

Manchester City’s victory was unbelievable, considering the XI that was selected. But for now, we’ll stick to the most interesting talking point which came out of the first group of games, being the impressive performances by the German teams. RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all won their matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, with a combination of the right tactics and player quality.

We’ll start with Bayern Munich, who disposed of Chelsea in such a comfortable fashion. When comparing the line-ups and the players available, it’s hard to even call this a challenge for the Bundesliga champions. Chelsea was missing their best midfielder in Kante, their best winger in Pulisic and Tammy Abraham wasn’t fully fit. Even though Bayern was still playing Alaba at centre-half, since Sule is out with a long term injury and Hernandez isn’t at 100%, the rest of Bayern’s team were first-choice.

Bayern took a straightforward route in this game, with the forward four very close together and was waiting from quick, long balls from the midfield. Thiago and Kimmich would consistently drop between the defenders and send a long ball straight to Lewandowski or Muller, with Coman and Gnabry close by to support them. This worked so well because Chelsea looked so disorganised, and Bayern playing quickly forced them to consistently make the wrong decisions. Coman’s early chance manifested thanks to Barkley losing the ball in midfield, and as soon as Coman receives the ball, Rudiger and Christiansen quickly run towards him, opening a one-two between the Frenchman and Muller.

Muller was by far the best player on the night. Repeatedly, he would look to receive the ball around the 18-yard box, to drag players towards him and open up space for Gnabry or Coman. The German ended the game with the most shot assists (5) and had some of Bayern’s best chances to increase that lead.

The other reason for Bayern’s dominant performance was their quick counter-attacks. Whenever Thiago or Kimmich would retrieve the ball in midfield, their first thought would be to look up for one of their teammates in space or making a forward run. If not, they’d play it back to the defenders and wait for the opportunity to arise. Bayern’s first two goals came from these same scenarios. Thiago recovers the ball and quickly plays the ball to a running Gnabry, who spots Lewandowski making a run into the channel. Gnabry passes the ball, but instead of shooting, Lewandowski smartly plays the ball back into Gnabry path, ultimately catching the Chelsea defence off-guard.

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As mentioned, Chelsea did play a weak line-up, and Bayern benefitted from that. Mount, Barkey and Giroud were occupying the same spaces throughout the game and made life so easy for Bayern’s defenders. Giroud did have some moments that did trouble an old Boateng and Alaba. But Chelsea’s lack of width enabled them to stay very tight and force Chelsea to create low-quality chances. It was reminiscent of the number of times Bayern played Arsenal and effortlessly beat them. Bayern loves playing London-based teams.

Let’s move onto Rasenballsport Leipzig and their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. This was Germany’s most infamous club’s first game in the round of sixteen and demonstrated why they should be playing at this level every year.

Going into the game, some of the pundits made comments on the nickname Nagelsmann received when he broke onto the managerial scene; ‘Mini Mourinho.’ I still don’t know how he got this nickname, but I’m not too fond of it. Nagelsmann is the complete opposite of Mourinho in how football is played. Mourinho is completely reactive; aiming to neutralise the opposition and relying on his attacking players to figure it out for themselves. Nagelsmann looks to win the ball higher up the pitch, catching his opponent at their most vulnerable. There’s a lot of consistent patterns you’ll see in his teams. His Leipzig team is direct and able to attack with speed. The German tactician prefers the use of diagonal long balls since they can cause dysfunction with their unpredictability. Nagelsmann ensures his players know their roles in the team.

Leipzig was outstanding against Tottenham, but they shouldn’t have been allowed to be that good. The first half was a story of Tottenham giving Leipzig the time to transition at their own pace, with Ampadu having the time and space to send long balls into the wingers and full-backs to quickly move the ball into the final third. The only time I even noticed Tottenham try to press was when you’d see one of the wide central-midfielders run to quickly close down Angelino or Mukiele, which cause problems too. It left one of the forward players open to receive a through ball or a quick pass to their feet. It was a very classic Mourinho performance in a knockout game; begging that opposition wouldn’t punish them for their passive defending, and hope their forwards could do something to win the game.

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I can sympathise with Mourinho with the number of players he was missing with injuries, but Nagelsmann faced issues as well. Granted, they weren’t as high-profile as missing the likes of Kane or Son; however, any team missing Upamecano, Konate and Orban, Leipzig’s starting centre-halves, was going to be weaker. Nagelsmann had to play Klostermann and Halstenburg, two full-backs, in a back-three alongside Welsh youngster Ethan Ampadu, who’s barely kicked a ball on loan at Leipzig.

What was most problematic for Tottenham was the speed in which Leipzig was transitioning. Nagelsmann’s players were hitting the ball quickly into the front three, or using Sabitzer and Angelino’s excellent dribbling ability to take advantage of the space a defensive Tottenham team were giving. It was the most dominant 1-0 victories in recent memory, with Leipzig arguably deserve more than the single goal they bring back to Germany. Werner had an excellent chance in the first half, while Schick had a couple of fantastic opportunities to sink any hope Tottenham had of advancing to the next stage.

Part of me did expect Leipzig to struggle in this game. They’ve been second best in most of their top of the table clashes on the domestic scene. They did face a lot more shots in this game than expected, but that was because they had their away goal. They weakened their press in the final half-hour of the game, with stakes in the league remaining. My worry for Leipzig in the second leg is how they’ll approach it. Mourinho has nothing to lose in this game, meaning Tottenham have to attack away from home. Does Leipzig allow them to and hit them on the break once space appears, or bring the game to them again? It’ll be fascinating to see.

And last but certainly not least; Borussia Dortmund managed an imposing 2-1 victory over one of the favourites, Paris Saint-Germain. Lucien Favre nailed his game plan for this season-defining fixture. He attempted to thwart Tuchel’s ambitions for the season through attacking down their flanks, which are covered by the defensively poor Larvin Kurzawa on the left, and Thomas Meunier on the right. Dortmund was pressing high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball and counter-attack exceptionally quickly, putting PSG in uncomfortable positions. Dortmund was helped by the sheer quality of their forward line, with Sancho finding space all around the opposition third and Haland’s speed and power being too much for the PSG defenders to handle at times.

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You could easily write off Bayern and Leipzig’s wins to inferior opposition; teams who were missing key personnel and were always going to struggle. But Dortmund’s win was different and helped prove a point to why the German clubs have been the most impressive. One area that PSG will always get criticised for is their mentality. Why do they always look so good in Ligue 1 and in the group stage, but ultimately falter when facing teams in the knockout rounds? This same point was brought up yet again after this game. Dortmund was prepared and stuck to their game plan, while PSG looked overreliant on their attacking stars to bail them out of trouble again. A lot of this goes down to the newly found competitive nature of the Bundesliga this season. Last season, Dortmund did manage to take Bayern pretty far into the season, but that was because Bayern’s misfortune, instead of Dortmund deserving it. Dortmund responded to their second-place finish through adding experienced guys like Hummels, Brandt and Hazard; and extra additions in Haland and Can arriving in the winter. Not only have Dortmund had to go up against Bayern in the league, as per usual. But RB Leipzig took steps forward in challenging for a title; Borussia Monchengladbach had a solid start to the season, and Bayer Leverkusen have even stayed pretty close to the top of the table. Dortmund had struggled in December, which forced a change to the 3-4-2-1, to help keep the team less vulnerable at the back, while getting the best out of Hakimi, Hummels and Sancho.

The more significant point is Dortmund had to make critical acquisitions and changes to their system to improve the team, and they wouldn’t have noticed those issues had their domestic opponents not exposed them. PSG do not have that kind of luxury. They are so far ahead of their domestic opponents in every regard that it can be challenging to have systems and new ideas adequately tested, to know if they would work against better opponents.

This is the main reason to why the three Bundesliga clubs have looked so good in this year’s competition. The overall improvement in the opposition they face has forced German teams to improve in every regard on the pitch. There are more games where the big teams have to extensively prepare for, to certify their credentials for the title. Dortmund’s expensive pursuit for the title; Leipzig and Gladbach picking up the most promising coaching talents in Europe, and Bayern going back to what made them so good is not only good for themselves, but it keeps their opponents on their toes.

Good Business in January? A Review of the 2020 January Transfer Window

Travelling back to 2018, where it finally seemed like the January transfer window wouldn’t be the same dull affair. This window saw huge money signings in Philippe Coutinho, Virgil Van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte, as well as the transfer saga surrounding Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund, and whether they could keep their star strikers. It remained eventful throughout and felt like a change in how transfers would be conducted in the future.

However, I guess context is vital for some of these moves. Van Dijk and Coutinho’s moves to Liverpool and Barcelona respectively were always going to happen in January, considering they weren’t completed in the summer before their transfers. The two clubs also ended up spending more than initially intended, just to have their new players earlier. The transfer merry-go-round of Aubameyang’s move to Arsenal could only happen if the Gunners could offload Giroud. With Dortmund interested in Batshuayi, it made sense for Chelsea to pick up Giroud, as another option alongside Morata. Even Arsenal ended up overspending on Aubameyang. He is an extremely talented forward, but spending £50 million on a 29-year-old, wholly reliant on pace, wasn’t wise from a club who weren’t high spenders like their rivals.

My point is, is the only reason that that January window was so exciting was because of the big names moving. Yet most were either supposed to move the previous summer or part of another deal. Usually, the only clubs who buy in January are the ones sitting at the bottom of the table, who are looking to add someone to save them from the drop. Most clubs don’t want to deal in January because they don’t want to overspend on players when they can get them cheaper only six months later. The other reason is how long it can take players to settle at their new club. Whether it’s tactically or socially, you won’t see these players at their best until the following season.

Let’s look at some of the most significant moves during the window, and judge whether these signings will work out:

The Chase for Bruno

The Red Devils have a thin squad, to say the least, especially with the injury to their most valuable player, Marcus Rashford. Midfield additions were needed, which made the links to Bruno Fernandes quite strange. It’s clear that Fernandes is talented, but Liga NOS has always been difficult for judging talent. The fact that United was willing to spend over €50 million on the Sporting playmaker is baffling, mainly because they give this impression of a club not willing to spend. Why pay so much money on a huge gamble, when there are so many gaps in the team?

The January window is a gold mine for outcasts of big clubs. We’ve already seen Diego Demme move to Napoli, adding some steel to a rather defensively-weak midfield and Emre Can return to Germany, joining Dortmund to replace Julien Weigl. Both of these players were signed for less than €25 million. My point with United is there’s definitely value in the market, but the club seemingly has tunnel vision. Once they set their sights on one target, they won’t stop their pursuit until the deal is done, or when there is no chance, it will happen.

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The fact that United decided to sign anyone in January did surprise me. However, they’ve clearly resolved the wrong position. United needed an elite number ten, but they currently have players who can occupy that position. It was way more important to fix their striker problem or their lack of midfielders. I think the Bruno Fernandes deal was going to happen no matter what. This team looks exhausted, and defensive midfield reinforcements could help them at least remain competitive in a season where top four is still possible.

Tottenham’s Refresh

While United remained a talking point throughout the window due to how long the Fernandes deal took to finalise, Tottenham arguably had more to do. Kane is suffering from a long term injury, as well as the injuries to Sissoko and Ndombele meant arrivals were needed, just to give them bodies. This was vital considering the eventual departures of Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose. Tottenham used to have the most stable squad in the league, but now they are the biggest mess.

The striker situation was vital since Spurs have zero first-team strikers if Kane isn’t available. Tottenham was heavily linked to two forwards, being Islam Slimani and Krzysztof Piątek. Both were more old fashioned forwards, guys who flourish when the ball is given to them in the box. Piątek offers next to nothing excluding his shots, while Slimani can be an aerial threat. Signing any of these guys just seemed so unlikely to me, and as usual, it’s because of Kane. Every forward joining the club will know they aren’t guaranteed consistent minutes, something Tottenham can’t offer because of Kane’s role. If he’s fit, he’ll always play.

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Instead of going for a striker, they decided to add another wide player, bringing in PSV’s Steven Bergwijn. The Dutchman is a very exciting forward, able to create, dribble and score. It’s the type of winger Mourinho loves to have. A pacey winger with a broad skill set, similar to Willian or Di Maria. The best part about this deal is how it enables them to play Son as the number nine, while not losing their pace and penetration from the wings. When Son has performed as the focal point, there’s always been a lot of pressure on Moura to be the primary threat out wide, something he has failed to do. Bergwijn adds much-needed competition, while indirectly fixing a big problem when Kane doesn’t play.

Signing Lo Celso on a permanent deal was Tottenham’s best bit of business. The Argentine has finally started playing consistently and has looked fantastic over the last month. I knew he was going to be good, but not this good. Gedson Fernandes adds the same depth Sissoko offers, but that deal stinks of Jorge Mendes. I doubt Tottenham will make it permanent.

The sales might be problematic if more injuries hit this team. Both Rose and Walker-Peters wanted to leave for different reasons, but allowing both to move, leaving Aurier and Davies as the only recognised full-backs is crazy. Tottenham managed to fix a significant hole while opening up another in the process. We’ll touch on the Eriksen deal later. Overall an exciting window for Tottenham, but I do worry about them on the short term.

The Scudetto Race

Inter were by far the most active team in the transfer market. The fact they’ve managed to stay this close to Juventus, with such an inferior squad in critical areas, is quite astounding. The wing-back positions did need added competition. Conte has a reputation for placing the most average of players as his wide options. They offer the main width for the team, while still needing to be hardworking to help out defensively. The arrivals of English veteran Ashley Young and Premier League winner under Conte, Victor Moses, excellently show the type of players Inter want. Young and Moses have primarily been utility players over the last few years. Young is still a pretty good crosser, able to play on both sides of the pitch, while Moses has the strength and dynamism to be a threat consistently. Both signings will keep them competitive this season and possibly next season. Biraghi has been slightly underwhelming, Candreva is clearly past it, and Asamoah is still struggling with injuries. These signings keep them stacked in arguably their weakest positions.

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Christian Eriksen’s move to the San Siro was by far the most significant in Italy and made a lot of sense. There’s no debating that Eriksen’s performances dropped dramatically over the last couple of seasons. This is clearly down to the player wanting to leave, probably because of the lower wages Tottenham offer. It is a shame that the fans did turn on him, after the level of performances he put in between 2015 and 2018, but he needed to leave that club. Inter have required a genuinely elite trequartista to keep Lukaku and Martinez firing. Brozovic is more of a deep-lying playmaker, Barella plays more as an advanced eight, and Sensi prefers late runs into the box than linking attack and midfield. Eriksen is still a fantastic passer, able to progress the ball at an elite level while creating a high amount of chances for the players in front of him. A less aggressive league might be better for the Danish playmaker, allowing him to exploit more pockets of space. Inter now arguably have a starting forward line as threating as Juventus and Lazio, which could be enough to clinch the title.

Dortmund Staying Competitive

When discussing the business done by Bundesliga clubs, Dortmund is the only place to go. They were the club who managed to sign the most wanted prospect in Europe, Erling-Braut Haland. While it did involve the sale of superhuman sub Paco Alcacer, they now have a player perfect for the way Dortmund want to play. They primarily score and create chances through their incredible talent out wide and in the number ten position. Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt, Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho are some of the best players in their respective positions. It means Dortmund don’t necessarily need some world-class, well-rounded striker. All they need is a guy who is going to consistently put the ball in the back of the net.

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Erling-Braut Haland fits this role perfectly. As of February 2nd, Haland is on 7 goals in just 3 appearances, which has made him the quickest player to reach 7 goals in Bundesliga history. Haland has an unrivalled size, speed and match intelligence at such an early age. His finishing has been the part of his game which has stood out. Haland, during his short career, can put away all kinds of chances. Whether a first time finish, a simple tap in, a scrappy goal or from the tightest of angles, Haland will find a way to put his name on the scoresheet.

Emre Can was another big signing for Dortmund. Mainly down to the sale of Julian Weigl to Benfica, Dortmund needed another body in midfield and managed to find the perfect player for that. Unsurprisingly, Can struggled for game-time under Sarri, and failed to make his Champions League squad for the season. Can is a massive improvement over Weigl in terms of what Favre wants from his midfielders. A solid passer, an excellent ball-winner, hardworking and versatile; Can will help give Dortmund some needed depth in midfield, allowing them to stay competitive throughout the season.

 

The Bundesliga is More Competitive Than Ever, But Can These Teams Challenge for the Title?

The Bundesliga has been a mess but in a complimentary way. There have been a lot teams either over-performing, under-performing, playing well or straight-up bad. Let’s go through the top teams in the Bundesliga, and see who is capable of challenging Bayern at the top of the table.

Borussia Monchengladbach

I’ve covered Gladbach enough that my opinion on them has been made very clear. Still, their incredibly impressive form is quite surprising. Marco Rose took a sensible yet exciting move to Gladbach. Die Fohlen (a nickname given for their swashbuckling style of football during their heyday) have been one of the most inconsistent teams during the 2010s. During 18/19 under Dieter Hecking, Gladbach had a fantastic start to the season. They ended Hinrunde in third, three points behind Bayern Munich. The problem, like most seasons for Monchengladbach, was the drop of form during the second half of the season. They had the tenth-best record and saw a lot of their best players drop off in form. Thorgan Hazard’s goal contributions were at their worst, with the Belgian going from scoring and assisting 15 goals in the first 17 games, to only contributing to 5 in the final 17 games. Plea, Neuhaus, Hoffman and Herrmann were others who fell off a cliff. It was clear these players are talented, but either down to system or the manager himself, they weren’t at their best. Hecking never did a bad job, but he left this impression of another coach could have done better.

Gladbach have been transformed under Rose. The improved attacking structure and balance throughout the team has made Gladbach not only a better team but a lot more enjoyable to watch. They’ve primarily switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-1-2, but have looked a lot better in the former. They mainly create through two outlets: midfield and full-backs. You’ll usually see the centre-backs look to find Lainer on the right and Bensebaini/Wendt on the left. Lainer especially is a great creator from wide positions, currently topping the team with 1.7 open play key passes per game. The midfield is also responsible for a majority of the ball progression, with Zakaria and Neuhaus completing the most dribbles with 2.2 and 1.9 respectively. The pair are high-quality technical players, extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet, with the confidence and ability to take on other players.

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Rose seems to have finally found the best way to utilise his best assets. Benes has moved to playing as a creative 10, finding space in between the lines and trying to get the ball to the forwards. Zakaria has actually been blossoming as the more advanced midfielder in the pivot. While Christoph Kramer isn’t nearly as good as he used to be, it has allowed his Swiss teammate to focus more on ball progression. Zakaria has this habit of being able to dribble through the most narrow of spaces. He keeps the ball close to his feet and has the size, speed and technical ability to be a real nuisance. Thuram is another who has excelled. The Frenchman, signing for the low fee of £10 million, was a massive risk considering he only had one full season of first-team football under his belt. But so far, Thuram has been a glaring success. As the weeks have passed, Thuram just seems to keep getting better. The son of Lillian Thuram is one of scariest players to face in a one-v-one, being so quick, so strong and having high-level close control. The 21-year-old has been a constant aerial threat, using his superior frame to give Gladbach a more direct option, compared to Plea or Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, he has been great whenever he’s played. Per 90, he’s taking 2.7 shots, with 2.4 coming from inside the box. It does help that Lainer has been a sensational signing, giving so much creativity from the right-flank, and has enabled Herrmann to go and find more space inside the box. He consistently makes himself available for his teammates in good positions.

I think Gladbach are likely to finish in the top four, but there have still been some worrying signs. They are facing 15.7 shots per game, the third-lowest in the division. While the chances they’re giving up aren’t of incredibly high quality, it’s still a worrying sign to see a team competing for the title right now giving up so many. There have been a few games so far this season where they’ve won, but gifted a lot of opportunities in the process. Werder Bremen had 16 shots against, and Frankfurt outshot them 15 to 11. Their 2-1 victory over Leverkusen, while a massive three points, was a game where they were outshined by their opponents. However, Gladbach managed to create two fantastic opportunities and won the game. 

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Gladbach have been great this season. Still, there has been a reliance on Plea and Thuram to continually produce in the final third, which they have been doing. I’m still quite unsure if they can go all the way. They deserve their place at the top of the table right now, but they have been lucky throughout many games this season. If that luck dries out, Rose and his players could lose their place to one of the teams so close behind them.

RB Leipzig 

I’ve spent some time talking about just how great Nagelsmann and Leipzig are. While some obstacles have come their way, they are still far ahead of their competition in terms of finishing in the Champions League spots. The Bundesliga’s most controversial club had a fantastic start to the season, with huge wins over Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach and a draw against Bayern in their first five games, putting them at the top of the table. It wasn’t just results, but their numbers were absolutely frightening. They were creating numerous high-quality chances, with the forwards looking fantastic during the early stages, especially Werner and Sabizter, who were both having elite starts to the season. I wrote a piece about this blistering start, but as soon I posted it, Leipzig suddenly went winless in four, losing to Schalke and Freiburg. You can argue that they deserved to win both games, but that shouldn’t make up for how bad they were in both fixtures, especially against Freiburg. The Bundesliga’s current overachievers, while conceding 24 shots to Leipzig, only faced a handful of good chances. Werner had a decent shot saved, Cunha missed an excellent opportunity as well as Willi Orban. Yet, some of these chances only came at the end of the game, so for 80 minutes, Freiburg kept them very quiet.

Now after 13 games, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, while not yet reaching their massive ceiling, have built a team with a clear idea in how they want to play. No matter what formation they play, they primarily defend in a 4-4-2 and press very high. Werner, Poulsen, Sabitzer and Nkunku/Forsberg attempt to close down and isolate the opposition defenders. This has worked against a lot of teams, especially the weaker teams. The problem has been how it’s been pretty ineffective against technical opponents. Bayern, for a majority of their 1-1 with Nagelsmann’s side, just played right through it, with Kimmich and Alcantara being well known for their intelligence in possession.

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Defensively, Leipzig have been one of the best in the league, only conceding 9 goals from open play and face 10.8 shots per game, only behind Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen. While they have looked somewhat vulnerable at times, whether through set-pieces or counter-attacks, that is down to the rather gung ho approach they take in games. Nagelsmann has tried to protect his defenders through deploying a very solid, if unspectacular, pivot of Diego Demme and Konrad Laimer. Two midfielders who specialise in ball recovery and not much else. It does allow Klostermann and Halstenburg to push forward, while Nkunku and Sabitzer have the freedom to create for the strikers, either through linking up with Werner or with the full-backs. Nkunku and Sabitzer have been absolutely sensational, Nkunku in particular, contributing to 8 goals and only being behind Werner in Expected Assists per 90. It makes his decision to leave PSG and choose Leipzig over the Arsenal even better.

Speaking of Timo Werner, let’s talk about the second-best striker in Germany right now. When Nagelsmann arrived, almost everyone was excited to see what he would do to Werner. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann was left with mediocre forwards but still managed to get over 10 goals out of players like Mark Uth and Ishak Belfodil. Werner has been one of Germany’s best prospects for years, and since his first season in the Bundesliga with Leipzig, has established himself as one of the best forwards in Germany. Werner has always been a lethal finisher, while also possessing the pace and creativity to be just as effective on the wing. Werner is already on 14 goals, which includes two hat-tricks: the first against Gladbach and the other in an 8-0 victory over Mainz. It’s not only in the goals where Werner has shined but in chance creation. Werner is creating 2 chances per game, more than Nkunku and only behind Sabitzer. His expected assists per 90 is at a freakishly high 0.43; the highest in the team. His non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 is the highest in the Bundesliga (out of players to play over 500 minutes) with 1.29, higher than Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho. Werner has looked better than ever. His runs are timed to perfection, he is always finding good areas in the box and is making his teammates better as a result of his creativity. When Werner eventually leaves, it will create such a hole in that team, that I ponder how Leipzig will find a player to fill his boots.

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I think the prospect of seeing Nagelsmann win the Bundesliga in his first season is still likely. But give this team another year to grow, and they could be clear favourites, but it hugely depends on keeping Werner. If their German marksman does decide to stay, then it could finally be their year.

Schalke

Moving onto Schalke, who have been a massive surprise in how quickly they’ve improved this season. After nearly suffering relegation and succumbing to an embarrassing defeat to Manchester City in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, it led to the sacking of Domenico Tedesco. With the club having their worst season in recent memory, a big statement needed to be made. Die Knappen decided on David Wagner. A manager who miraculously got Huddersfield promoted into the Premier League and kept them in the division; a massive achievement for one of the worst teams the league has ever seen. It was clear that given a better group of players, Wagner could do an even better job.

Schalke have truly impressed me in just how competitive they’ve managed to remain even with better competition around them. A lot of it should go down to how Wagner has made Schalke solid in defence and flexible in attack. Wagner has his side playing a high press, a familiar sight for those who watched Huddersfield in the Championship. Whether Schalke are playing 4-3-2-1, 4-1-3-2 or 4-4-2, you’ll usually see his players pushing very far forward. They consistently put pressure on the opposition, rushing them into playing the ball forward, which regularly results in a loss of possession. This press is Schalke’s best defence and offence. When their opponents lose the ball, Wagner’s side are quick to recover it, consistently attacking opposition teams when their opponents are vulnerable. Take their game against Dortmund for example. Weigl was highlighted as a weakness in that Dortmund team, with the German playing in an unfamiliar centre-back position. Burgstaller and Matondo were quick to press him, which he struggled to deal with. The numbers also show Schalke to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Understat have them as the third-best defensive team in Germany for expected goals against, with their 15.17 only bettered by Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg. They’re seventh for shots faced, and while their young captain Alexander Nubel has saved them in a few games, they’ve stood out in keeping their opponents quiet.

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While they’ve remained German in how they’ve used a press, their attack is a lot more varied. When Schalke attack, they’ll primarily play through their full-backs: Everton loanee Jonjoe Kenny and Bastian Oczipka. Both players give Schalke something different on each side. Kenny is very direct, boasting bags of pace and the desire to run at opposition defenders, while Oczipka is a fantastic crosser, completing 1.8 crosses per game, the most in the side. His creativity is, by far his biggest strength. You’ll regularly see the defenders and Nubel in goal look to find Kenny and Oczipka far up the pitch. If they’re struggling, former Frankfurt defender Omar Mascarell will drop between the centre-backs, to give another option and free up space in midfield.

However, if the full-backs are struggling to get involved in the game, as seen in their 0-0 draw against Borussia Dortmund, Schalke aren’t afraid to play more directly. Schalke usually play Mark Uth or Rabbi Matondo. Both players offer something different. Matondo uses his pace to try and isolate opposition defenders, while Uth is a more direct option, using his physicality to match defenders. They play well with the hardworking Guido Burgstaller, who is a willing runner and ready to harass defenders. All three forwards are willing to run into the channels, to give their teammates an option for when the full-backs are taken out of the game. Wagner has turned into a real pragmatic coach but in a good way. Wagner isn’t interested in how pretty his side are to watch and priorities efficiency.

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The biggest problem regarding Schalke’s start to the season is easily their worrying lack of goals. While I did credit their attack for being versatile and their forwards for offering different qualities up front, they have all struggled in front of goal. Burgstaller actually tops the team for xG per 90 with 0.35 but is yet to score a single goal. Amine Harit is their top scorer with 6, but many of those strikes have come from outside the box. It’s unlikely that Harit will turn into a consistent goalscorer, even with his fantastic start. Matondo has very much looked like the raw talent he currently is, lacking key decision making during decisive moments. Mark Uth has failed to recover from the Nagelsmann effect and remains allergic to goals in Gelsenkirchen. A lot of Schalke fans are desperate to see 19-year-old forward Ahmed Kutucu play. During his limited minutes last season, Kutucu showed a lot of promise and could be the solution Wagner is desperately searching for. This lack of goals in the side will hold them back. Whether it’s through the transfer market or from within, it’s hard to picture Schalke in the Champions League next season without a clinical forward in their ranks, never mind a title push.

Borussia Dortmund 

Coming into the season, one would expect Borussia Dortmund to be Bayern’s biggest threat. Lucien Favre’s side, for most of 18/19, were keeping the Bundesliga open and competitive. As mentioned in another post, Bayern were very unfortunate throughout the first half of last season, while Dortmund were very lucky. They overperformed their expected goals by a massive 16.01, with Leipzig and Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim having better attacks than last’s year’s runners up. Favre did what he does best; set his team up in a low block and rely heavily on individual talents to carry the attack. Dortmund garnered a reputation under Klopp and Tuchel for being one of the most aggressive, intelligent pressing sides in Europe, but Favre has seemingly scraped that. Passes allowed per defensive action is a metric that helps measure how aggressively a team presses. The less passes a team allows their opponent, the more aggressively they press. Last season, Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim were, on paper, the best pressing teams, allowing 8.16 and 8.72 respectively, while Dortmund allowed 13.42, placing them fourteenth. With experienced midfielders and inexperienced defenders arriving, Favre chose the more practical option, which worked, even if Dortmund weren’t excellent for most of the season.

The other area in which Favre was quite fortunate was Marco Reus. The German forward has been one of the best players in the 2010’s, is one of the best creators, dribblers and goal scorers in the Bundesliga. The problem with Reus has been his injuries. From 14/15 to 17/18, he only managed over 20 starts once, and his lowest being in 11 in the season before Favre’s arrival. He’s always performed, but it’s clear how much Reus is missed when he is unavailable. Luckily for Favre, Reus managed to stay fit for most of the season, only missing 7 games. However, due to the numerous injuries, Reus has had to make adjustments in the way he plays, changing from the elite playmaker to more of a second striker. He makes late runs into the box and using his incredible close control to move around defenders and find space for a shot.

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Favre was also lucky to have Jadon Sancho during his breakout season. Everyone knew that the young England winger had bags of potential, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact Sancho would have on that team. Sancho quickly went from a prospect to one of the most sought after players on the market. Favre could rely on Sancho for a lot of ball progression, as well as Real Madrid loanee Hakimi. He ended the 18/19 season with 12 goals and 14 assists, a fantastic, yet slightly unexpected return from a young player only in his second season of top-flight football. 

To beat Bayern to the title, aswell as keep off fierce competition from Leipzig, huge additions were needed. Mats Hummels added vital experience to a backline that looked so vulnerable from set-pieces (Dortmund conceded 13 from set-pieces last season, the worst record right behind Augsburg). Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt added exciting attackers, ready to produce now. Dortmund seem tired of being second best to Bayern every season. So when Bayern are at their weakest, it makes sense to take advantage, to bring in some of the leagues best players to help take them over the line. 

The team is arguably better than last season, but the performances do beg a differ. Even excluding their annual humiliation at the Allianz, there have been plenty of games where Dortmund have been awful. Dortmund have generally looked so slow and sluggish in the first half of games, with shocking performances in the opening 45 minutes against Cologne, Paderborn, Schalke, Union Berlin and Monchengladbach. A lack of concentration at the back and weak chance creation from the front (no clear cut chances against Schalke) have been ever-present throughout the season. 

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Dortmund have played a higher line compared to last season. They’ve gone from allowing their opponents 13.42 passes per defensive actions down to 10.05, a considerable change for a team consistently playing an ageing defender in Hummels. Hummels has never been a mobile defender. When you pair that with Weigl having to fill in at centre back and Piszczek remaining a key player at right-back, it’s a dream for any player with an extra yard of pace. Many of these players have struggled when facing opponents who can hit them hard on the break.

Dortmund’s have not only collapsed against counter-attacks but have struggled against teams who press aggressively. In the first half against Cologne, Anthony Modeste and Jhon Cordoba wouldn’t give Akanji a second to breathe. The Swiss defender has been below average throughout the season, still looking weak in the air with questionable decision making. They eventually managed to overcome Cologne, thanks to Brandt making a massive difference. 

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The problem with Favre’s Dortmund is they’re so reactive. While their dramatic comebacks have been great to watch, there will be some games where that fight will not materialise. I can’t see Favre’s side finishing in the top four, never mind challenging for the title. Without a clear style of play and fragility at the back, It’s challenging to defend Favre even remaining in the job. Dortmund used to be one of the best teams in Europe, with geganpressing at the forefront of their identity. Not only are they back to being their underwhelming self, but they also aren’t even fun to watch anymore. 

 

 

Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

The 5 Most Inform Midfielders in Europe

I attempt to make it no secrets that midfielders are my favourite type of players. It’s arguably the hardest position to play since midfielders usually go through different trends. From aggressive destroyers like Roy Keane or Patrick Viera to less physical pass masters in Xavi and Toni Kroos. It’s what makes the very best midfielders today so fantastic because you need to have a varied and balanced skillset to play for the best teams around. It’s why guys like Thiago Alcantara, Marco Verratti, Luka Modric, Fernandinho and Paul Pogba have been so good for the past 5 years. They can do a bit of everything; create, dribble, keep possession and do a lot off the ball. Yet, none of these players feature here, because we’ll be looking at one midfielder from each of the top five leagues who have been excellent and deserve heaps of praise.

Idrissa Gueye

The former Lille midfielder has changed my views on what players over the age of 30 can do. I’ve always thought investing a lot of money in older players is a bad idea, especially if there is someone younger available, but Gueye is different. I’ve always seen Gueye as a great destroyer. He was consistently putting up massive tackles and interception numbers throughout his time in the Premier League, being the reason why Everton’s midfield at least remained solid. In his last season at Goodison, Gueye was partnered with Andre Gomes, who I’ve never been a fan of. However, with Gomes being partnered with someone who can do most of the defensive actions, it allowed the Portuguese midfielder to focus on ball progression. This helped further create this image of Gueye simply being a destroyer, letting other players do all the ball progression. He was the sole reason why Gomes had a decent season in England. Gueye was fantastic for Everton but made it clear in January that he wanted to leave, with PSG heavily interested. This was his last chance to play for a Champions League club, a club which had a massive hole in midfield after Rabiot’s departure.

He has spectacularly filled that hole and showed the complete player that Gueye seemed to be. In a more dominant team, it meant Gueye would have to be more involved in possession and build-up play. The Senegalese midfielder was replacing Adrien Rabiot, one of the best midfielders in Europe, which meant he had to show he was good enough to play at this level. Gueye has had massive help from being partnered with Marco Verratti, the perfect modern midfielder, meaning Gueye was free to not only do his regular defensive work but even progress the ball.

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Gueye has not only continued with his high defensive output but added quality in possession and the ability to move the ball through the midfield which I never knew he had. I’ve watched PSG a handful of times this season, but it was their dominant performance against Real Madrid that really stood out. Gueye was one of many players to impress me that night. Playing against a team that did possess the best midfield three in Europe, Gueye completely outclassed them and had his best performance in a PSG shirt as of yet. He made 7 tackles and interceptions, more than anyone else on the pitch, created 3 chances, completed 2 dribbles and was third in the team for passes completed with 74 (Verratti managed a ridiculous 97). He was one of the reasons why Real Madrid couldn’t get a foot into the game, and Gueye just looked incredibly comfortable. Gueye arrived to add some steel to a midfield that was consistently being beaten in the round of 16, with their loss to Manchester United back in March the most embarrassing. Gueye has definitely added that. He still has a high work rate, continually putting pressure on opposition midfielders and being just as good defensively as we all expect from him at this point. He has been as good as any of the elite midfielders in Europe. His form has actually frustrated me slightly, because it feels like he was utterly wasted at Everton, only doing defensive work when he could have contributed with so much more.

Joshua Kimmich

Benjamin Pavard was a sensible signing for Bayern, and it was assumed he would be filling in at centre-back as he had done for Stuttgart, but has in fact been playing at right-back. This isn’t to say Pavard has been fantastic, but his move to right-back has allowed Joshua Kimmich to move back into midfield. Kimmich is an absolutely sensational attacking player, and even at right-back, has been Bayern’s best creator for years. His passing is by far his best quality, consistently able to pick out either Lewandowski or speedy wingers Gnabry and Coman. His move to midfield has not only given him more freedom to find more players but has fixed probably his biggest weakness. Kimmich isn’t as athletic as other right-backs in the Bundesliga, which meant he could be exposed rather easily if he was caught too far up the pitch. Now in the base of midfield and partnered with another perfect midfielder in Thiago Alcantara, it has given him the freedom to not only push forward and continue creating for his teammates, but it keeps Bayern much stronger defensively. Kimmich is more than just a creator. The Germany international is more than only an elite creator, but like his Spanish teammate, has this ability to avoid pressure with ease. Kimmich is a quick decision-maker, is always aware of his surroundings and is difficult to dispossess.

We saw this against RB Leipzig. This was a tough test for Bayern, facing an opposition with a superior coach and players to match their dominant team. But thanks to Kovac getting his tactics right and making the most out of his midfield, Bayern looked very comfortable, with Kimmich being a big part of that. Leipzig attempted to press him, but he easily avoided pressure and continued to transition the ball into the forwards with ease. This was the game that not only cemented Kimmich as a midfielder but as one of the best players in Europe. It’s strange even to imagine he once played as a full-back, with how comfortable he has looked in the middle of the park. Benjamin Pavard is now probably the best signing of the summer, for allowing Kimmich to play in his favoured position.

Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City might be quite fragile at the moment, but their attack is arguably better than it’s ever been. All of their attacking players are in fabulous form, and while it has come at the cost of keeping a line that is far too high considering they now lack Fernandinho in midfield, it has made them even better in the final third and gotten the best out of Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian had an injury-struck 18/19 season, featuring very little in another insane Manchester City season. He is now back and looking just as good as in their first title win under Pep. The team seems built around him, with De Bruyne’s accurate crosses City’s leading outlet for creating chances. The Champions usually start their attacks down the left, with De Bruyne drifting to the right. The ball will then be switched from left to right, looking to give the ball to the right-winger (usually Mahrez or Bernardo Silva) and playing a cut back to De Bruyne, who will then aim his crosses for the back post, where David Silva, Aguero, Sterling or Jesus will be there to tap it in. This kind of attack can only work with the best creative midfielder in the world, and luckily for City, they have him. Only Ashley Young has been putting in more accurate crosses per 90 minutes than De Bruyne’s 2.6, putting him ahead of Pascal Gros and James Maddison. The former Chelsea midfielder’s xA is currently at 0.83. If looking at players to rack up over 500 minutes, he leads the league far too comfortably, with Alexander-Arnold second for xA per 90 with 0.41. De Bruyne has been absolutely sensational, and it is no surprise to see him rack up 8 assists already. Part of me thinks he shouldn’t be included here mainly down to the Belgian primarily acting as a number 10 instead of an 8, but it’s hard to ignore one of the best players in Europe in the form of their lives.

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Marcelo Brozović

It seems like the common perception of Inter for years was how they were a one-man team, heavily reliant on Mauro Icardi to win games for them. This is true to an extent, mainly due to the team being built around creating chances for him, but after Spaletti arrived, Marcelo Brozović quickly became Inter’s most valuable player. Over the last 3 years, Brozović has become not only the best defensive midfielder in Italy but arguably in Europe. The Croatian’s skill set is varied, including a fantastic range of passing, the ability to control a game, elite decision making while doing a majority of the team’s defensive work. When Conte arrived, Brozović was the only player in that midfield that was simply undroppable. He kept Inter ticking in possession when the players he was partnered with were either inconsistent or average. Brozović, now under Antonio Conte, is even more irreplaceable than before. He fills that regista role perfectly. During build-up play, Brozović will continuously receive the ball, to either relieve pressure off his teammates through quick passes or play a long, diagonal ball into one of the wing-backs. Conte’s Inter primarily attack through their wing-backs, so having a player who can pick them out with so much ease makes it so easy for the attackers to push and create. His long balls are an essential part of his game, completing 8.6 long balls per game, ahead of every goalkeeper in Serie A.

There is more to Brozović than his importance in the build-up, with the 2018 World Cup finalist sniffing out and stopping danger through a well-timed challenge or a foul. Brozovic is similar to Fernandinho to using any means necessary to protect the back-line. Throughout his time in Milan, he has picked up 44 yellow cards, an astonishing amount for any player. This isn’t even a bad thing, and it shows how he will resort to the dirtier side of the game to ensure Inter win. After two fantastic seasons under Spaletti, it’s hard not to include him in the conversation for the best midfielder in Europe. Now under another manager, Brozović has proved his worth again, allowing Sensi and Barella more freedom and has so far played every minute of every game this season. He could be the reason why Inter could finally break Juventus’ Serie A dominance.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa

If it isn’t apparent by now, Most predictions I make usually don’t pan out. Whether it’s Witsel being a massive flop or Ronaldo being a good signing. I typically predict the wrong outcome. In this case, I was spot on. Zambo Anguissa is a player I’ve been obsessed with for the longest time. During the summer of 2018, I saw the then Marseille midfielder as a perfect option for Arsenal before they signed Lucas Torreira, but suddenly Anguissa signs for another London club, and not Chelsea or Spurs, but newly-promoted Fulham. It was a great signing in terms of adding an outstanding defensive midfielder, able to win the ball back while progressing it well through the centre of the park. However, like all of Fulham’s signing’s that summer, it just seemed not to work out. It wasn’t to say Anguissa was terrible. His numbers were nearly identical to those during his time in France, but the team, in general, was so unbalanced and cobbled together that it made it difficult for many of the new signings to adjust. The other problem Anguissa had was the lack of quality in front of him. While Mitrovic did have a strong start to the season and Babel did well for the six months he was there, there wasn’t an elite creator similar to Payet in front of him. It meant there was more pressure on him to add that creativity to his game, something he has never done throughout his career. Anguissa works best when focusing primarily on ball recoveries and progression, giving the ball to talented attackers in front of him.

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Luckily for Anguissa, he has that at Villarreal. Going into the season, the yellow submarine had Vincente Iborra and one of my favourite players of all time, Santi Cazorla as their starting midfielders, Both were over 30 while they clearly offered experience and mix of the old-school Spanish style and the style that won Spain the World Cup, they needed a younger, more mobile player alongside them. Anguissa fitted this mould perfectly, while still being comfortable in possession. As mentioned, Anguissa wasn’t bad at Fulham, with his national team’s staff not spotting any regression in his overall quality, making him a sensible loan signing for Villarreal. Anguissa has fitted seamlessly into their midfield, complimenting Iborra and Cazorla so well, while allowing his own skills to blossom. Both him and Iborra put in a lot of defensive work, but Anguissa offers that extra strength and mobility when moving the ball into the final third, with no other player for the yellow submarine completing more than Anguissa’s 2.9 dribbles per 90. With Cazorla ahead of him, Anguissa has a player who can shoulder the creative responsibilities, something the former Arsenal midfielder still excels at, even after a terrible ankle injury and now being 34. The 23-year-old is a tremendous defensive midfield talent, and when placed into a side where he only has to play to his strengths, he can become a valuable member to any team. Let’s hope he continues to succeed in Spain, so he can go back to playing at the level to show off his talents.

Just How Good are Borussia Monchengladbach?

The Bundesliga table is a mess, to put it bluntly. RB Leipzig, Schalke and Dortmund have all had relatively good starts to the season, yet find themselves outside of the top 4. The teams ahead of them, excluding Bayern Munich, are quite surprising, but at the same time fully deserve to be there. Freiburg are arguably the biggest surprise, with Christian Streich’s side having a strong, yet very fortunate start to the season. I doubt they’ll be able to keep it up and will eventually drop out of the Champions League places. Wolfsburg are a more exciting team. Oliver Glasner only arrived in the summer and has already turned a very ropey team into a solid one, only conceding 4 goals this season. However, the attack has been super reliant on Wout Weghorst, who has been sensational this season. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform once facing the likes of Bayern and Dortmund. Speaking of Bayern, the champions have been their usual fantastic selves, and I fully expect them to get back to that top spot.

Now let’s start about Marco Rose and Borussia Monchengladbach. There isn’t much I can say regarding Wolfsburg and Freiburg because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch them, but I have seen quite a bit from Gladbach, and they’ve been fantastic. Do they deserve to be top of the table, not quite, but definitely deserve their place in the top 4.

I have spoken about them before, but a lot has changed at Gladbach since the first couple of games. Rose has been experimenting with his players and still looking to find his best XI. In their first game against Schalke, Rose lined up his side in a 4-3-1-2 with this team:

Gladbach 1

Gladbach weren’t necessarily bad when sticking with Rose’s preferred formation, but it wasn’t getting the best out of his players. His full-backs were offering a majority of the width, and while Lainer did excel at doing this at Salzburg under Rose, it made Gladbach a lot more predictable. Neuhaus was the other problem. He is clearly a talented player, but he just wasn’t pushing up far enough to support his forwards.

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Neuheus (32) close to Zakaria, the deepest midfielder

When playing in centrally-dominant formation, your midfielders have to do a lot in the final third, either making those late runs into the box or pushing wide to offer width. Beres had the right idea here, moving close to Lainer and trying to provide support.

The forward three were the other problem, more specifically, Marcus Thuram. I like Thuram, and while there is a lot of rough edges around his game, he clearly works better starting on the left side. His strengths are his dribbling and using his size to his advantage. He will consistently outmuscle opposition full-backs and keeping him on the left side, will give Gladbach such a threat. He is still very young and could turn into a number 9, but his tireless work rate and confidence on the ball currently make him more of an asset on the wing. Schalke were playing quite a compact defence, and needed players to help stretch them open. Gladbach managed 16 shots in this game, yet only 4 were on target.

After some mixed results in this 4-3-1-2, with an embarrassing defeat to Wolfsberger in the Europa League showing there is still plenty of work needed to turn Gladbach into a consistent Champions League team. Rose actually changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 against Leipzig, with Johnson coming in for Benes. This didn’t work, with Leipzig truly showing their quality and creating some high-quality chances and exposing Gladbach’s somewhat immobile centre-backs. What was more worrying was how often Leipzig were attacking down Wendt’s side. It was something I had my reservations on, being the amount of game time the now 33-year-old would get this season.

Yet, Rose has addressed most of my early criticisms of his team already. Their hugely impressive 5-1 win over Augsburg was their best performance of the season and saw some of their players have their best games. After an excellent 0-3 away result against Hoffenheim, Rose made some significant changes, with Neuhaus, Wendt, Elvedi and Embolo all dropping to the bench, being replaced by Benes, Bensebaini, Jantschke and Herrmann respectively:

Gladbach 3
Rose went back to the 4-2-3-1, to take advantage of Augsburg defensively-poor full-backs of Max and Lichtsteiner. The former Arsenal defender had such a bad time against Thuram that he was replaced at half-time. The first two goals were largely down to Thuram beating Lichtsteiner with speed and power, and merely playing a ball across the box, first to Zakaria, and then to Herrmann. Rose made the right changes for this game, and the versatility both he and the players possess is starting to become quite prominent.

Having players start in wide areas not only exposed Augsburg but kept Gladbach organised defensively. It meant Lainer didn’t need to be the sole provider for width, and it allowed Bensebaini to focus on what he does best; defending. The former Rennes defender has never put up high dribble or chance creation numbers but has consistently shown himself to be a great ball winner. Playing him here, when the player in front of him not only works hard for the team but offers so much in attack, is perfect.

However, this huge win is not a reason to completely discard Rose’s preferred formation. The 4-3-1-2 has its place against teams with a weak midfield, where extra runners would cause a lot of problems. Gladbach have already shown themselves to be versatile and Rose to be as adaptable as I expected him to be.

The midfield has also seen much improvement since the start of the season. Zakaria is no longer the most defensive out of the midfielders and uses his fantastic dribbling to advance the ball and push forward. After a couple of years of looking like he could become elite, Zakaria has been absolutely fantastic. No other midfielder in the country has been as incredible as the Swiss international, with only Joshua Kimmich coming close. Christoph Kramer has taken the selfless task in protecting the back four and allowing Zakaria to contribute in attack. While he isn’t as active defensively as he was in 2014, it’s what he does for the rest of the team that is key, in allowing them to express themselves. Florian Neuhaus is a player who is yet to impress me this season, but is clearly talented. He actually possesses a similar skillset to Zakaria, being a great dribbler and actually can take set pieces, but Zakaria has that added benefit of size and power. It’s difficult to see how Benes, Zakaria and Neuhaus can all play together in the same midfield, considering they all don’t want to be the deepest midfielder, but all are young, and one of them could turn into that role.

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Lazslo Benes is a player who has intrigued me throughout the first couple of months of the season. He is clearly a talented player, able to effectively find space to receive a pass, while also putting in his fair share of defensive work. Benes can play as either an 8 or a 10. His stats have looked very good, but he has been Gladbach’s leading set-piece taker, meaning a majority of his key passes and shots have come from a dead ball situation. Yet, when you watch him play, you notice how he is a very positive player, always looking to move the ball forward and play some one-twos. He offers something different to Breel Embolo. The former Schalke forward is definitely more of a goalscorer than a natural number 10. Embolo’s strengths are in dribbling and goals. Benes offers an entirely different skillset in that position. The Slovakian midfielder is currently 22, so I hope this season becomes the year in which he turns into a top player. Rose has stressed before that Benes is a crucial player for him.

So I have been very impressed with Rose’s debut season as of yet, but I have my reservations, primarily the opponents they’ve faced. Schalke and Leipzig are probably the best opposition they’ve faced, who they failed to beat. Their first game after the international break is Borussia Dortmund, a team who could either walk all over them or not turn up. It’s their second big test to see if Gladbach can compete against the top sides. I still expect them to remain fighting for the Champions League places, but by May, it could be close.