FC Barcelona: Europe’s Cavaliers

While being a huge fan of European football, I’m also an avid viewer of the NBA. And something that’s becoming clear is the mismanagement of some organisations in both sports and their similarities. In this case, we’ll be looking at the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and how their stories will potentially intertwine. 

We’ll start with the Cavs. After leaving his hometown team in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James went on to win two rings in South Beach and cemented himself as the league’s best player. But the possibility of James returning to Cleveland remained in the air, and in 2014, King James came home, with the sole drive of finally winning Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. 

LeBron couldn’t do this on his own, so Cleveland paired him alongside Kyrie Irving, who had been the Cavs’ best player since being drafted first overall in 2011, and Kevin Love. The Cavs traded their number one pick in 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) and Anthony Bennett (the worst number one pick in the history of the league) for Love. This gave the Cavs their best chance of winning the championship in their history.

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The set-ups do differ in specific ways. Messi had never left Barcelona and won plenty of trophies for his team. However, in 13/14 can easily be seen as their worst. The team looked stale and ended the season with zero silverware. Tata Martino was replaced with Luis Enrique, who carried their important (yet incredibly pretentious) Barca DNA. Not only were the main core from their 2011 double success still there, but they also had Neymar alongside new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo and Andre Ter-Stegen. A majority of these players were ready to go now and didn’t need any time to develop. This was the first time Barcelona began stockpiling their team with older guys. During Pep Guardiola’s reign and even under Tito, Barcelona would have their experienced, elite talent in the first team (Henry, Eto, Xavi, Puyol for example). Yet, would have a combination of cheaper, versatile players and some La Masia graduates. It’s what made them pretty likeable at the start of the 2010s. However, innovators have the potential to become imitators. 

Neymar was the first colossal money signing, but his ceiling was huge and even looking back now, was worth the massive fee. Luis Suarez was arguably the best striker in the world when the club signed him and gave them a similar rawness and aggression I hadn’t seen in a Barca forward since Stoichkov. The issue with Barcelona since 2014 is their lack of patience. They do not want to give up their place at the top of Spanish football, even if it jeopardises the future of the first-team. 

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The Cavs ended up reaching the finals in LeBron’s first season back but were comfortably beaten by the Golden State Warriors, mainly down to injuries suffered to Irving and Love. It was the following season where they finally won the championship that had eluded LeBron and his legacy. Irving and Love were both healthy and, Irving especially played a huge part in their famous comeback. The Cavs were 3–1 down but managed to bring it back and win the series 4–3. LeBron was in tears, finally doing his hometown proud and fulfilling his promise. 

While Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 wasn’t as dramatic, it was one of the most dominant knockout round runs in Champions League history. Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Laurent Blanc star-studded Paris Saint-Germain and Pep’s Bayern were all champions in their respective leagues, yet Barcelona managed to outclass them with ease. Juventus were their final opponents, who just didn’t have enough to beat Barcelona and their superstar forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN as they were later nicknamed).

Both teams won the big prizes in different seasons, but their collapsed happened simultaneously. The Cavs were beaten yet again by the Warriors in the 2017 finals. This defeat resulted in Kyrie Irving demanding a trade away from the Cavaliers. Irving was tired of being second fiddle to LeBron James and wanted to be the main man in a title-winning team. Sound familiar? Well, it should because it’s what happened with Neymar and Barcelona. The Brazilian thought the best way to win the Balon d’Or and cement himself as the best player on the planet was to step away from Messi’s shadow and be the best player on another team. Messi was left with an ageing Luis Suarez, while James was left with Kevin Love, who was also on the decline. 

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The power that both players had at their respective teams was being to show itself. James embodied the Cavs and all of their decision making. The team would consistently make decisions to please his ego. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith were given big contracts because LeBron liked them. Tyronn Lue, an average coach at best, was there for so long because LeBron was friends with him. The Cavs’ team had zero squad cohesion. The team was incredibly old and couldn’t play defence, relying heavily upon LeBron to bail them out of every bad situation they found themselves in. 

Messi might not be as vocal of a figure as James, but his grip at the club remains as firm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived for an insane fee in 2009, but only lasted a season, with one of the reasons being that Messi felt like he wasn’t the main man anymore. Enrique was close to facing the sack after nearly falling out with Messi, and Valverde only remained at the club for as long as he did because Messi liked him. One anecdote that helped me understand Messi a lot more recently featured in The Athleticwhere Messi apparently wasn’t fond of Guardiola’s obsession with tactics, and just wanted to see the best players on the pitch. This might sound small, but it explains a lot on why Barcelona’s team is all over the place. Busquets still plays nearly every game, even when he’s physically falling off a cliff. Suarez plays every game even when he doesn’t have the same speed and bite from 2015. Realistically, the club should bring in players who could help Barcelona on the defensive side. They might not be as talented, but they could offer something different to help balance out the squad. Yet, that just isn’t going to happen. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Griezmann’s signing made zero sense, and the idea of Neymar returning to the club is a disaster waiting to happen. Messi seems to have zero consideration for the future of the club, only looking at the here and now. If selling Ansu Fati, their most talented young player I’ve seen in years would help bring Neymar back to the club, they wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Messi putting his ego aside and showing more of a consideration for what the team needs would be hugely beneficial.

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In summer 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time to join the LA Lakers; due to the team failing to provide him with adequate support and to follow his dreams of making movies. The Cavs have since gone back to being one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. Messi’s future could have similar, if not as extreme, consequences for Barcelona. They can give Messi what he wants now and overpay for older players on the possibility of winning the Champions League or actually start to plan for life without the Argentine. Messi is everything for that club. But he’s 33 and the club’s desperation to please him in every department could result in the team potentially falling far behind their rivals, domestically and on the continental stage. 

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.

Why So Many Crosses? Real Madrid vs Manchester City – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

The final battle of the round of sixteen, and it might be the best one. Real Madrid, the only team to win the competition three times in a row; against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the best attacking team in Europe. Will their attack be enough to overcome their defensive instabilities, or will Madrid return to the winning machine we saw during Zidane’s tenure. Let’s find out.

We’ll start with Los Blanchos, who have arguably been the best team in a rather weak La Liga season. Real Madrid are the second best defensive team in the league, only behind their city rivals for xG against. They’re second in the league for shots against, with the league’s surprise package of the season, Getafe, being the only side bettering their 9.2 shots against per game. Madrid restrict their opponents to poor shots, which is different to the defensive performances seen during Zidane’s final year. Madrid were heavily reliant on Ramos or Varane to bail them out of poor organisation. Now they’re more of a cohesive unit, able to surpress the best attacks in Spain.

What’s helped Madrid a lot is improvements in personnel. Ferland Mendy has become the starting left-back for the club and while he isn’t nearly as fun to watch going forward as Marcelo, he’s younger and has the pace to recover; something Marcelo simply doesn’t have anymore. Courtois has gone from a underwhelming to above average again, and Carvajal has returned to his best.

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It’s in midfield where personnel has been a factor, with the way Zidane has managed to make them functional deserving plaudits. I criticised Madrid for not buying a midfielder in the summer, while allowing both Kovacic and Ceballos to leave the club. It left the midfield without balance, and put even more pressure on Casemiro to do the hard yards for Kroos and Modric. I expected Zidane to keep playing the same midfield trio he did during those successful Champions League wins, even with Modric now 34 and far past his best. Yet, he’s surprised me again. Casemiro has been the best defensive midfielder in Europe this year, putting in an insane amount of defensive work for the team and even contributing in ball progression; with no one in the squad completing more through balls than Casemiro’s 6.

Casemiro has been sensational, but Fede Valverde’s involvement in the team was the balance needed to compliment Casemiro’s defensive work and Kroos’s ball progression. Valverde is obviously not the player Modric was four years ago, but he is exactly what Madrid need. He has the energy to cover the distance, and is the only player in midfield who can press. Valverde isn’t the flashiest, but is comfortable in possession and does the defensive work needed to help carry some of Casemiro’s load. The 21-year-old has played in a majority of the big games, and wouldn’t surprise to see him start against Manchester City.

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Real Madrid have always garnered a reputation for having some of the best attackers to ever grace the game. However under Zidane, it’s arguably been the most boring and unimpressive part of their game, even when Ronaldo was still there. Madrid’s main outlet for attacking is crosses. No other team in La Liga has completed more crosses than Zidane’s team. It’s always baffled me why they do it. Crossing is famously one of the most ineffective ways of scoring goals, and only works when you have a team of excellent passers. Madrid use their full-backs for a majority of creativity, with Carvajal and Ferland Mendy completing a combined 13 crosses into the penalty area in La Liga. It might not sound like a lot, but crossing is an unproductive use of possession. If looking at quantity over quality, Mendy and Carvajal have attempted roughly 122 crosses, which means they have around a 10% success rate.  (These have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve used fbref.com to find the crosses into the penalty area and whoscored.com to find the amount of crosses attempted. Nevertheless, the point still stands).

Their style of crossing can perfectly define their attack this season: quantity over quality. Madrid are top of the league for shots taken per game with 16.02, nearly 3 shots more Villarreal, who are in second with 13.42. Top teams should always be the ones racking up the most shots, since they’ll be dominating games and have more of an opportunity to do so. The volume is good, but the quality is not. Their non-penalty xG per shot is at 0.10, placing them seventh in La Liga and behind their classico rivals Barcelona with 0.13. Zidane has gone down the logic of if we create enough chances, no matter the quality, we’ll eventually score. This does work against inferior opposition, but without Ronaldo, this just isn’t as effective. Benzema has been great this season, but the question marks surrounding his finishing quality persist. Luka Jovic could be that guy, but right now it makes Madrid a team with all bark but still without the bite.

Let’s move onto Manchester City. It’s hard to talk about the champions without discussing their upcoming European Ban after constant Financial Fair Play problems. Unfortunately, this is an area where I don’t have a full opinion on, based on the fact I don’t know the full extent of the rules and the full story; it simply isn’t my area of expertise. We’ll stick to the football, where it’s the best in Europe at times, and frustrating at others.

Pep’s quest for creating the perfect attacking has reached a new peak this season. With Kevin De Bruyne back and fully fit, It gave City their best creator back. Bernardo Silva did a fantastic job in filling for De Bruyne, while adding that extra bit of energy in midfield, but lacked the same level of creativity his Belgian teammate could offer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better passer in the Premier League than De Bruyne. His vision and way he can hit a pass just perfect for one of the forwards to reach it in the box is pure magic. It’s not even on the eyes where De Bruyne blows me away, but in the numbers. He’s top of the league with passes into the penalty area and 11th for passes into the final third, showing just how influential he is for not only chance creation, but ball progression as well. He comfortably leads the league for assists with 17, making De Bruyne incredibly likely to beat Thiery Henry’s record of 20, by quite a margin.

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The most interesting part about Manchester City’s attack is, like Madrid, crossing. Even excluding De Bruyne, Manchester City do possess some of the best passers in the league, and have looked to beat teams through the elite passing ability of their players. City comfortably top the league for crosses attempted and completed. This has worked in a way.  Having De Bruyne sending the balls into the far post is cheating slightly, since he’s so good at it. I still don’t like crossing as a main method for scoring goals, but it’s hard to deny City have the talent to pull it off, even if they shouldn’t do it.

The Belgian playmaker’s success does dovetail quite nicely to why City have just been so far behind Liverpool in the league. Luck does definitely play a part in this. City have underperformed both in xG for and against. There have been some games (both games against Spurs are perfect examples) where City have dominated the game and created enough chances, but failed to score the decisive goal; mostly down to poor finishing.

However, it’s defensively where the issues are most apparent. Just starting with the backline, Manchester City have faced a massive injury crisis. Laporte suffered a long term injury; when combining that with Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones struggling to find form all season, it leaves City with a lot of uncertainties at the back. Fernandinho has had to cover there for most of the season. The Brazilian is very old now, and while he’s still great, his aggression and issues in the air become more apparent when playing further back.

Manchester City’s very long pursuit for a new defensive midfielder to replace Fernandinho took far too long, which ended up with them spending a lot of money on Rodri when they could have gotten him a year earlier for far cheaper. That’s another topic entirely, but the adaption period hasn’t been as smooth as expected. Rodri and Fernandinho are very different. Rodri is a better passer, more physically dominant and of course, younger. The issue is his lack of speed and just lacks the experience of his Brazilian teammate. City face a lot of counter-attacking opportunites and having someone with the in-game awareness of Fernandinho, massively helped in supressing any potential goals. He regularly put in a foul, just to stop any attacks materialising. Rodri does actually commit a lot of fouls, but not in same vital way that Fernandinho did, instead doing it out of desperation rather than reading the situation.

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Rodri wouldn’t be as much of a problem in midfield, if it wasn’t for the attacking dominance. As mentioned, Pep has sought to keep getting the attack better, even at the cost for defensive solidity. Their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at home epitimised the Champions at their worse. They consistently left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks; arguably Manchester United’s biggest strength in attack. It’s baffling because it seemed Pep was desperate to protect his team from counter-attacks, but has instead increasingly left them more open. Pep’s side has the joint worst xG per shot against in the league, alongside West Ham United. City give up the ball rarely, but when they do, they constantly give their opponents great scoring opportunities.

De Bruyne is a problem in this regard. Guardiola has tried to adjust his lineup, in an attempt to give De Bruyne a free role in attack, and cover for the space he opens up for his general lack of defensive work. Playing Rodri as a single pivot just doesn’t work against teams who can punish them with counter-attacks. Pep has switched to a 4-2-3-1 in a handful of games this season, playing Gundogan alongside Rodri, but this hasn’t lead to much success either. City will always be vulnerable to counter-attacks, but I’ve never seen a Pep team look this bad when caught out of possession.

This tie is so difficult to call because even after looking at both teams, I still don’t know who will go through. Madrid still have the experience of winning these knockout games and could take advantage of how poor Manchester City is in defence at times; but Benzema could have one of his off-days and not be decisive enough in front of goal. Man City have the best attack in Europe and could simply overwhelm Madrid. I’d probably back Madrid to win both legs, especially with how unlucky City have been at times this season.

Revenge for Bayern? Chelsea vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is another of the many tasty clashes in this year’s Champions League. Chelsea’s young and hungry side under Frank Lampard, against a weaker, yet still deadly Bayern Munich team under Hansi Flick. The last time these two met in Europe’s premium competition was back in 2012; a game where Bayern was outdone by an extremely defensive Chelsea. Will the result be the same; or will Bayern get their payback? Let’s find out.

This season for Chelsea was arguably their biggest since Roman Abramovich acquired the club at the turn of the millennium. The Blues were under a transfer ban for breaching UEFA’s rules of signing players under eighteen. It meant they couldn’t offer the near-unlimited pot of cash they’ve been able to offer every season. What made matters worse for Chelsea was the expected departure of Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, which left a massive creative void in their team from the get-go. The team already had apparent issues under Sarri. They only way to address their problems in defence, full-back and striker was from within.

It’s why Frank Lampard’s appointment was genius in a way. It had nothing to do with the football (which was far from perfect at Derby), but the effect it would have for the players, and especially the fans. Chelsea has always come across as having one of the most impatient sets of fans in the league. They weren’t willing to give Conte or Sarri the time needed to improve a group of players that weren’t nearly good enough to win a title. Lampard is a legend at that club, who would at least keep the fans on his side, no matter how bad the performances got. He also seemed willing to play the young players who were desperate to show they had something to offer. Chelsea’s academy had been seen as an afterthought for years, only there to make a profit on homegrown players. The higher-ups at the club always said they wanted to see the youngsters given a chance; which made the appointments of Sarri and Conte baffling. Both coaches who demanded support in the transfer market and who stuck to a small core of players. I just wanted to see Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and especially Tammy Abraham, given a chance in the first team. They all showed how they were good enough to play a full season in the Championship, and in Tammy and James’ case, be the best player on their team.

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The young players have been the story of the season and for good reason, but some of last season’s underperformers have really turned it around. At the beginning of the 18/19 season, a midfield three of Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho looked unstoppable. However, in practice, it didn’t live up the high expectations set by people like me. Originally it was about Kante. Many fans still saw Kante as that midfield destroyer which helped Leicester win the league in 2016. Kante proved he was an exceptional passer, with a high level of match intelligence in making runs into the penalty area. Sarri realised this and turned Kante into the player he was always meant to be. The problem was Jorginho, and especially Kovacic.

Jorginho was criticised for not getting enough goals and assists by many pundits, but that’s not what he does. Jorginho is one of the best in starting attacks. His xGBuildup has always been great, with the Italian top of the Chelsea squad with 11.15. The defensive side of the game was his issue. A lot of teams (Arsenal being the best example) aggressively marked him out of the game, and Jorginho just seemed to lack the ability to change his game and adjust, similar to what the likes of Thiago Alcantara or Kevin De Bruyne would do. Kovacic under Sarri can best be described as restricted; stuck in a system that didn’t allow him to show the best parts of his game. Kovacic is one of the best dribblers in the league but looked uncertain of what he was actually supposed to be doing in Sarri’s system. Lampard has reinvigorated both of these players; justifying the combined £100 million spent on the pair. They’re both playing to their strengths. Jorginho is still starting attacks, as well as putting in a lot of defensive work. Kovacic has looked the player we’ve all wanted to see in England, putting up an insane amount of dribbling and off the ball work. A real asset to the team.

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I’d say Chelsea have performed how I thought they would. They’re in the top four race; given a lot of their younger players minutes and been a joy to watch, especially during the first half of the season. This is where the problems lie for them now. The blues’ overall performances have dropped off a lot since their 2-1 defeat to Manchester City. Since then, the results have stopped coming, and their firm grip on fourth place has loosened. If it wasn’t for Tottenham and Manchester United underperforming, I doubt Chelsea would still be in the Champions League spots. Why exactly have they been a lot worse? Chelsea has had defensive issues all season, but a lot of that is down to the open style they play and Kepa Arrizabalaga being the worst goalkeeper in the league. These issues have been present since the first game of the season. The reason why Chelsea’s form has dropped off is down to their attack, or lack of it. Lampard has managed this team rather poorly in terms of the minutes being shared. It’s the same issue present under Sarri, but a lot worse. Abraham, Hudson-Odoi and Mount have been heavily relied upon through vast stretches of the season. These guys are still really young, and Lampard has looked close to burning them out. Abraham has struggled with slight knocks, which has made his level of performances drop as the match-days pass. Mason Mount started the season in fine form, but he’s looked exhausted over the last couple of months. I don’t want any of them to suffer the same fate as Rashford; a young player relied upon so heavily that his manager will do anything to have him on the pitch, even to jeopardise his future.

Let’s move onto Bayern Munich, who look unshackled under new manager Hansi Flick. The former Germany national team assistant has got this Bayern team pressing again, and the players look a lot happier than under Kovac. There have been some results where Bayern have been unlucky, their draw to Leipzig and defeats to Leverkusen Monchengladbach were games where Bayern had the better chances. It was a classic case where, on another day, Bayern would have left with the three points. Since November 9th, Flick’s first game, Bayern have undoubtedly been the best team in Germany. They’ve achieved the most points, have the best xG difference and are matching their xPTS. Their results are back to matching their high level of performances not seen since Heynckes’ final season.

Besides their increased intensity (they only allow 6.35 passes per defensive action), Flick has transformed some of the players in this squad; either back to or into world-beaters. Let’s start with Muller. The World Cup winner epitomised a great German attacker. He might not be as silky on the ball as Brandt; or as fun and dynamic as Leroy Sane, but it’s hard to argue against Muller being Germany’s most intelligent attacker. The way he finds perfect shooting opportunities in the box or picks his other attackers with a fantastic pass is nearly unrivalled. Muller has always performed, but previous managers simply didn’t know what to do with him. Muller doesn’t have the pace or trickery to play as a traditional winger but doesn’t play like a regular number ten. Flick simply solved this problem by playing him as a winger and a midfielder, depending on the opposition. Coutinho might be better than Muller at many things. But Muller’s pressing and work-rate, combined with his efficiency, making him a favourite of Flick’s. He’s already racked up 14 assists in the league this season and tops the team for shot assists.

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Alphonso Davies has arguably been the breakout star of the Bundesliga. There was an amount of uncertainty surrounding this move. It was interesting to see a prospect from MLS join one of Europe’s elite, in a squad severely lacking in wide talent. But funnily enough, Davies has mostly played as a left-back, allowing David Alaba to cover at centre-back. From performances alone, you couldn’t tell Davies was playing out of position. He’s putting in a lot of defensive work (over 6 tackles and interceptions) while still being a lot of fun in the final third. The Canadian international’s speed and skill have practically given Bayern another winger. Since he regularly starts Bayern’s attacks further away from the opposition half, his involvement in ball progression is apparent. He tops the team for xGBuildup with 13.03 (since Flick’s first game) and tops the team for completed crosses. I don’t think anyone expected Davies to look this good at only 19.

I struggle to see Chelsea advancing to the quarter-finals. Bayern is playing their best football since not seen since before Kovac, and Lewandowski has looked unstoppable. Lewandowski has unarguably been the best forward (that isn’t called Messi or Ronaldo) in the last 5 years. Lewandowski does everything you want from your striker. He takes a large number of shots, with many inside the penalty area, while holding the ball up well in the box. My favourite part of Pole’s game is how he has this art of playing the defensive line to perfection. Lewandowski has scored a lot of goals where you just have to question if he’s even onside; only to watch the replay and see his sharpness shine, always that extra yard faster than his opponents. There have been apparent comparisons between Lewandowski and Timo Werner; the two leading scorers in the Bundesliga. The big difference for me is Lewandowski makes the players around him better. Even when Lewandowski is having an off-day, you can trust him to drag defenders to open up space for his teammates.

If these teams were drawn together during the group stage, I think the match would have been a lot closer. However, Chelsea has gotten a lot worse in attack, while their defensive issues have remained ever-present. Bayern looks miles ahead of their last round of 16 game, being their spineless defeat to eventual champions Liverpool. I have no idea if Flick will remain at the club after this season, but he is an option that is at least worth considering.

 

 

 

Can Tottenham Compete Without Kane? Tottenham Hotspur vs Rasenballsport Leipzig – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

Next to Paris vs Dortmund and Real Madrid vs Manchester City, this tie is right up there with the games I’m most anticipating. Tottenham under new manager and Champions League winner Jose Mourinho, facing managerial prodigy Julian Nagelsmann and his young RB Leipzig side. This could be one of the closest ties in the competition.

I’ve already gone in-depth on Pochettino’s sacking, so let’s actually discuss whether they’ve actually improved under Mourinho. To simply put it, yes. This isn’t exactly a surprise. The players clearly didn’t want to play for Pochettino anymore. So a fresh face, eager to prove his doubters wrong was always going to improve the team. For the first few games, the players looked reinvigorated, ready to remind the league why they reached a Champions League final.

Since Mourinho and Pochettino have both managed the same amount of league games this season, now is the perfect time to compare their records. Mourinho has managed to earn 23 points, six more than the man he replaced. The defence has conceded fewer goals (15: four fewer goals), and the attack has been just as productive (22: one more goal). Looking in more depth, Tottenham’s xPTS under Mourinho is at 19.14 (overachieving by 3.86) while Pochettino’s was at 17.10. This highlights one of the apparent issues Tottenham were facing at the beginning of the season. It wasn’t just the fact that the results weren’t coming in, but the performances showed they didn’t even deserve to be higher in the table. There have been some games under Mourinho where they’ve been lucky (their 2-0 win over Manchester City instantly comes to mind), but at the same time, they’ve drawn a few where they deserved 3 points.

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On the pitch, Tottenham has already shown some of Mourinho’s apparent traits. He’s already ensured only one full-back pushes forward, while the other sits alongside the centre-backs; to stop potential counter-attacks. In past Mourinho teams, it’d be Marcelo, Maicon, Ashley Cole or Ashley Young. Now, it’s Serge Aurier. The former PSG defender has put up pretty good numbers. Over 5 tackles and interceptions, 1.3 key passes and 1.7 successful dribbles. But that’s mostly down to Aurier being given the freedom to push as far forward as he is. He could easily be improved upon, and actually think Trippier would’ve performed excellent in this system. The right side is a massive weakness for Tottenham, and it’ll be an area in which Leipzig will want to exploit, with Werner and Nkunku preferring to drift to that side.

Left-back has been a position they’ve struggled with since Mourinho’s arrival. Ben Davies was the best option to play there. The Welshman has always been a solid, if unspectacular player, who became more useful as Danny Rose began to pick up regular injuries back in 2016. What made Davies such a suitable option for this more defensive role was his experience there, playing as a third centre-back for his national team. Davies’ only game under Mourinho was in his first, a 3-2 win over West Ham. It was arguably Tottenham’s best performance under their new manager. Davies has the needed recovery pace that Vertonghen lacks whenever he’s played there, while still being a good defender with the necessary experience; qualities Sessegnon is yet to have. Tangana has actually performed pretty well as a left-back, but it’s not his favoured position, and I doubt Mourinho would trust him now Davies is back.

Kane’s injury is a massive loss for Tottenham, leaving them without a first-team number nine to play. The obvious answer is to play Son up-front, but this left another issue. Without Son, a lot of pressure was placed upon Lucas Moura to provide that same pace and danger in the box; something he’s failed to do all season regularly. This is why the signing of Steven Bergwijn was so important. It allowed them to play Son as a striker, without the drawbacks.

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Moving onto Leipzig, who have been very good in Nagelsmann’s debut season. I’ve spoken about Germany’s most hated club numerous times, for how impressive they’ve remained throughout the season. Nagelsmann kept what made Leipzig so enjoyable before, their speed in transition and counter-attacks, and built upon that by adding a possession game. The centre-backs, all at the top level in possession, could push forward and help in build-up play. Upamecano perfectly shows this. The Frenchman has completed the most paces into the final third in the squad with 120, 40 more than second-placed Sabitzer. Nagelsmann has been playing full-backs Klostermann and Halstenburg in defence, because of their speed and ability on the ball. Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim sides were always fun to watch but lacked the defensive personnel needed to play such an attacking style. Leipzig has three of France’s most promising defensive talents in Europe; Nordi Mukiele, Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano. They all possess an extreme level of athleticism for their age, which makes it less likely for them to be caught out through the numerous counter-attacking sides present in Germany.

There is a massive issue with Leipzig’s defence; inexperience. There is no denying that all of their young defenders are great now and potentially world-class later on, but their lack of experience is present. This is why they’ve struggled to get results against the teams besides them. In their first half against Bayern Munich at the beginning of the season, Leipzig was easily the weaker side. Bayern strolled through their press and scored thanks to Muller noticing the amount of space Lewandowski had, ending with the Pole scoring. This isn’t even the only example; Union Berlin, Borussia Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund all outperformed Leipzig in the first half, taking advantage of how slow they can be at the beginning of games. This will be the area Tottenham will be desperate to exploit.

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The main reason everyone was excited to see Nagelsmann manage RB Leipzig was to see what he could do with the forwards at his disposal, primarily Werner. We saw Belfodil, Gnabry and Uth all perform well above their talent level during their spells at Hoffenheim. Nagelsmann has taken Werner to another level. Not only has Werner been scoring more than usual, but his creativity is leaps and bounds ahead of any forward in Germany. This is down to Werner playing more as a second striker. It’s what many fans who don’t consistently watch the Bundesliga don’t realise. Werner either plays in a front two, alongside a more physical striker like Poulsen or Schick, or on the left side of a front three. Werner’s pace and intelligent decision making in and around the box make it sensible to have him less centrally. We saw at the World Cup how Werner struggles on his own, and it limits what he can do off the ball. Under Nagelsmann, Werner is given licence to drop deep, make runs into the channels or play as a natural winger. It makes him so difficult to stop.

Nagelsmann using his magic to turn Patrick Schick back into a goalscorer again does deserve a lot of credit But how Nkunku has become one of the best creators in Germany at only 22 is one of the stories of the season. Nkunku reminds me of the many playmakers Arsene Wenger signed during his last decade at Arsenal. The former PSG midfielder is mature in his decision making and space awareness, making him effective wherever you play him. Nagelsmann has played him in a midfield three, on the left side of midfield and as a number ten, but his performances have remained consistently high. No player in the Leipzig squad has completed more passes into the penalty area and through balls. He isn’t only creating chances, but he’s the best in a team full of talented players at doing it.

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This attack is Leipzig’s biggest strength. Even if they start slow, you can rely on Werner and co to drag the team over the finish line. It’s why I think RB Leipzig will be progressing to their first quarter-final appearance. Tottenham might have the edge in terms of knockout round experience and a winning manager to back it up, but Leipzig has the superior team in terms of style and personnel. There is no doubting this game will be a close one, but Tottenham are at a disadvantage in terms of players, but this could be a real classic.

The BEST Attacking Team in Europe? Atalanta vs Valencia – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is likely the least interesting tie for many neutrals, but there is still plenty to talk about. We’ll be seeing everyone’s new favourite hipster club; Atalanta, face off against one of La Liga’s most talked about clubs; Valencia. Both have a strong chance to reach the quarter finals, so let’s look at who will be advancing.

We’ll start with Atalanta, who I’ve anticipated to see in this competition for years. They were so close back in 2017, finishing fourth (finishing fourth meant Europa League back then, but was changed recently to allow four teams in Italy to qualify). They finally made it, after finishing 3rd and being the best attacking team in Italy, topping the league for shots, chances created and expected goals. Gasperini formed a team full of Serie A journeymen and small fee signings throughout Europe. The likes of Duvan Zapata and Josip Illicic have played throughout the decade, but are at their peak in terms out output, near the end of their careers.

As mentioned, Atalanta’s biggest strength is their attack. They top Serie A for xG, surprisingly ahead of Lazio (Atalanta have 55.7; Lazio have 45.1), who have the top scorer and assister in Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto respectively. La Dea also top the league for passes into the penalty area and shot assists. Gasperini as built a side that uses a three at the back formation different to how it’s usually intended. The Italian coach uses it to give his attackers as much freedom from defensive duties as possible. Zapata, Illicic and Gomez are the best forward line in Italy. Zapata has been fantastic since joining the Nerazzurri, scoring 23 goals in his debut season. He has gotten less minutes this season down to an injury he picked up on international duty (pointless friendlies strike again). Thankfully, Luis Muriel, a summer signing from Sevilla, has been a healthy contributor, scoring 12 goals and only behind Illicic for top scorer. Both Illicic and Gomez are easily the team’s most important players. Both are in the top five in Italy for passes into the penalty area and shot assists, with Gomez actually ahead of Alberto (granted by a single shot assist).

Martin De Roon still does a lot of work in terms of defensive actions, topping the team for tackles and interceptions, while Remo Freuler is a very good progressor of the ball, even if he’s dropped off slightly this season. The wing-backs offer a lot in terms of creativity as well. Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens don’t contribute many defensive actions, but give the side plenty of width, which further allows the forward three freedom to create and score.

Yet, while Atalanta’s domestic form is fantastic, their first Champions League campaign started in awful fashion. They lost their first three games, humiliated by Dynamo Zagreb and Manchester City and losing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. One of the best attacking teams in Europe only managed to score 2 goals and conceded 11. While some teams in Italy might be better than Zagreb and Shakhtar, their opposition have European experience in terms of preparation. The problem Atalanta had was how their opponents exposed their biggest weakness; dribbling. Gasperini deploys a man-marking system. This means when a player is beaten, the system falls apart. Atalanta’s players were beaten though dribbling more than any other team in the group stages. Dani Olmo, Bruno Petkovic, Marlos, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne all had their best performances in the competition when facing the Nerazzurri. A lot of teams in Serie A simply don’t have the players to take advantage of this weakness, but when playing European teams, three of which were league champions, make it easier to exploit.

Gasperini somehow managed to turn this whole disasterous campaign around with a massive 180. Atalanta went on to win two of their final three games, and thanks to Manchester City beating Dynamo Zagreb, Atalanta were able to qualify for the round of sixteen on the first try. Luck went their way, and their attack finally started to put their chances away. It’s good to see an objectively good team in the round of sixteen, one of which that could shock a lot of neutrals.

Let’s move on to Valencia, who are the worst team left in the competition. I doubt that will raise any eyebrows, considering the only other team left who are just as bad are Lyon or arguably Atletico Madrid.

Valencia had the most unfortunate season I can remember in 18/19. For the first four months of the season, they couldn’t buy themselves a win. By the end of November, Los Ches were fifteenth in the table, when xG shows they should have been in the top four. Their poor results were mainly down to their strikers running cold for months, drawing a lot of games where they should’ve gotten the three points. Marcelino, as well as their misfortune running out, got them back on track, eventually finishing in the top four and winning the Copa Del Rey.

Talking about results and performances is what I should be doing at this point, but it’s hard to talk about Valencia without discussing Marcelino’s sacking. The fact that the former Villarreal coach managed to take one of the worst run clubs in Spain to back to back fourth place finishes is a massive achievement. Yet, Marcelino was sacked at the beginning of September, after clear disagreements with the the owner, Peter Lim. Marcelino was well liked by the fans, so sacking so early in the season did not go down well, with #LimGoHome trending on Twitter. What made things even worse for Lim is when Marcelino revealed why he thought he was fired:

“I’m convinced the Copa del Rey was a trigger (for my sacking).”

Marcelino, the rest of the coaching staff and the players all wanted to fight for the copa, while Lim showed little interest in adding something to his club’s trophy cabinet. The Champions League was obviously the priority for Lim because of the money, but fans and players rarely win silverware in Spain unless you’re Barcelona or one of the Madrid Clubs. Winning a domestic cup, one that Barcelona have dominated for years, gave the Valencia fans and players something to celebrate.

Marcelino’s sacking not only annoyed the fans, but also the players. They refused to attend the pre match press conference before the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, to show their frustration towards the current situation. Valencia lack talent in their squad (which we’ll come onto), so angering the best coach you’ve had in years is a baffling move.

Back to the football, where there isn’t much good to say. Valencia haven’t been good this season, currently sitting in 7th but only two points behind Atletico Madrid in fourth. Similar to the Bundesliga, a race for top four has materialised from the established clubs underperforming, with two mid-table clubs (in this case Real Sociedad and Getafe) having closed the gap and given the top clubs some real competition for the Champions League places. The current state of this squad is incredibly underwhelming. Dani Parejo has still been fantastic as ever, but no one else is performing at his level. They only manage 9.4 shots per game and possess one of the worst xG differences in the league, with their -7.4 placing them in the bottom half of the table. The approach of relying on their goalkeeper to produce save after save, defend deep and supply their pretty talented forwards isn’t encouraging, when the teams ahead of them in the table have an effect way of playing, whether it’s Sociedad young, fun attack or Getafe with their insane organisation.

A lot of it can be blamed on misfortune. Gonçalo Guedes and Geoffrey Kondogbia, two of their best performers in their impressive 17/18 season, have missed a lot of football. They’ve missed 37 and 32 games respectively since the start of 18/19. Guedes has just came back from a lengthy ankle injury, while Kondogbia has missed a lot of football through recurrent hamstring problems. The pair just aren’t at the level they were two years ago, and couple that with Gameiro missing these game and Garay missing the rest of the season, then it’s pretty clear Valencia could be better.

You look at this fixture on paper and it’s pretty clear Atalanta should walk all over this Valencia team, but I have my reservations. Albert Celades’ side managed to escape the most competitive group, containing last year’s semi-finalists Ajax, Frank Lampard’s young Chelsea side and Ligue 1 runners-up Lille. I thought Ajax were comfortably the favourites, with the fight for second between Chelsea and Lille. Yet Valencia managed to progress. Their second place finish is primarily down to luck, but they still deserve some praise. They took advantage of Chelsea’s poor defending at set-pieces and managed to win at Stamford Bridge through a Rodrigo goal. Rodrigo was gifted another goal in a 0-1 win, this time in Amsterdam. Valencia’s league form is inconsistent to put it nicely, but their performances in Europe, especially away from home, do make it difficult to argue against them deserving to being here.

This will be their biggest advantage when facing Atalanta. Rodrigo’s pace and Maxi Gomez’s aerial threat give them some versatility upfront. Valencia play pretty direct, using Parejo’s vision from open play and set-pieces to pick out the forwards. He’s only attempted 32 passes less than 5 yards, showing his main role is moving the ball into the final third through riskier passes. The Valencia captain is actaully fourth in the whole of La Liga for passes into the final third.

I do think if Cillessen makes his usual amount of miracle saves and forwards convert the minimal chances they create, Valencia will have a shot at reaching the quarter finals. But when you consider their opponent have the best attack in Italy and only behind Manchester City in the whole of Europe, it’s hard not to back Le Dea. Valencia are likely to come back with something in the first leg, but I fully back Gasperini and his players to show the Spanish side exactly why everyone can’t stop raving about them.

 

The Thomas Tuchel Derby! Borussia Dortmund vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is one of the most exciting ties of the round of sixteen. Borussia Dortmund, possessing some of the most threatening forward options in the competition, facing PSG, who are arguably the favourites. This is a must-watch for every football fan. It’s guaranteed goals!

Let’s start with Dortmund, who I’ve covered extensively in the pastDuring the Hinrunde, Dortmund was still dominant against the weaker sides, but a few defensive slip-ups and a lack of a deadly striker did hold them back touching distance to Bayern, Gladbach and Leipzig.

But things have changed since then. The arrival of Erling-Braut Haland gave Dortmund the striker they were desperate for. Haland is a goal-machine, able to score all types of goals, and possesses the physical abilities to beat defenders through sheer strength or speed. While Alcacer was great in Germany, Haland is a potential superstar, not only able to win Dortmund some silverware but give them considerable profit.

Haland, as well as Dortmund, have been the best side in Germany since their return from the winter break. They’ve scored 15 goals in 3 games, and the attack has somehow taken another step-up. Sancho is back to his world-beating best, and a change to a 3-4-3, primarily down to a lack of personnel in midfield, has allowed Favre to play forward-three of Hazard/Reus, Haland and Sancho. It’s also enabled Brandt to play in the midfield two. I think Brandt hasn’t played nearly as much as he should be. He’s one of my favourite players to watch in the Bundesliga, and Dortmund always looks better when Brandt plays. His xGBuildup is 9.10, second in the squad and only behind Hakimi, and tops the team for passes into the penalty area with 40. Brandt can be frustrating at times (his mistake against Leipzig perfectly shows that), but overall, Dortmund needed to incorporate him in the XI and seemed to have finally found a way.

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The 3-4-3 also gave Dortmund a little more security at the back, moving Piszczek into the back three and playing Guerreiro and Hakimi as the wing-backs. Hakimi was immense when playing as a winger earlier in the season, so allowing him to push up as far as possible is the best thing for a player so talented. The player who is benefitting the most from this change of formation is Manuel Akanji. To put it bluntly, Akanji has been atrocious this season. A lot of my worries for Dortmund’s defence coming into the season was around their resigning of Matts Hummels. However, he’s actually been excellent, with the World Cup winner still retaining his elite passing and keeping that backline together. Akanji has looked so uncomfortable, with the defender consistently being a target for the opposition, seeking to isolate him in possession and continuously aim down his side. This isn’t even something I can prove through stats. It becomes apparent whenever you watch Dortmund. They’ve looked so shaky on numerous occasions; had it not been for their elite attack, they’d be a lot worse off.

I was initially going to talk about Marco Reus, but since a muscle injury he picked up earlier in the month, he will be missing both legs. This is a huge miss. Sancho, Haland, Hazard and Brandt might be great players in their own right, but Reus is more than that. The former Gladbach forward is not only the club captain but can always score that vital winner for his team. His experience and intelligence in the box is miles ahead of his teammates and will be a massive miss for this huge game. 

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Let’s move onto PSG, who next to Liverpool, have been the best team in Europe. Paris’s summer 2019 might be remembered mostly for the Neymar talks, but the business they conducted was some of the best on the continent. Idrissa Gueye arrived for a reasonable £30 million, while Sarabia and Herrera came in to add more depth in midfield. Diallo also arrived from their opponents Borussia Dortmund, giving them another excellent defender to choose. Icardi was their big-name arrival, replacing the ageing Cavani. I thought every big club should’ve stayed away from the circus that is Mauro Icardi, but Tuchel has gotten a lot out of the former Inter captain. He’s started to make more effort this season than any at Inter. Who knows, maybe leaving his comfort zone was necessary to reach that high level we all knew he could.

The forward line deserves a lot of praise for being so fun and effective, but I want to spend more time complimenting Gueye and Verratti, the best midfield in Europe. Verratti is, to put it, a perfect midfielder. The Italian does everything you want from a midfielder in terms of ball progression, with the defensive work to back it up. Verratti has a ridiculous 85% success rate from dribbles, while also topping the league in passes into the final third (20 passes ahead of the player in second: Idrissa Gueye). Gueye has been a revelation. I was always under the impression that Gueye was just a good destroyer, but he’s even more than that for the Ligue 1 champions. Gueye can do everything Verratti can; fantastic passing, a great dribbler and the same vast amount of defensive work, Gueye is playing the best football of his career, at the age of thirty. You cannot have a forward line firing unless they’re getting the ball to their feet, which is what Gueye and Verratti do in bundles.

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What makes PSG such a threatening opposition is how versatile Tuchel has made them. It’s one of the many benefits of coaching the best team in a league. It gives you immense talent and a chance to experiment with them, to find out the numerous ways you can deploy them. Paris primarily plays a 4-3-3 but can switch to 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 in an instant, depending on how the game is going. It makes them a lot more unpredictable, making their opponents always wonder how will they set up. Marquinhos can quickly drop into defence, Mbappe can come much narrower, joining Icardi in the centre and Di Maria is fantastic no matter where you play him.

Let’s move to PSG’s player to watch. It isn’t Mbappe, Neymar or Icardi, but in fact the previously mentioned Angel Di Maria. The former Real Madrid playmaker has played the most minutes for Tuchel’s team this season, and he’s deserved to. Di Maria tops Ligue 1 for assists with 10, while also contributing to 6 goals. His creativity and killer final ball is why he is next to undroppable in this team, topping the side for passes into the penalty area. His non-penalty xG+xA is at 0.98, only behind the front three. Di Maria isn’t only PSG’s best creator but can score and assist himself. If you genuinely want to stop PSG, you need to ensure Di Maria isn’t able to gift the ball to the likes of Mbappe and Neymar.

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If Borussia Dortmund wishes to progress, keep the attacks down the right side. It contains Dortmund biggest attacking threats, being Sancho and Hakimi. Juan Bernat is likely to miss this fixture from an injury, meaning Kurzawa, a player Tuchel wanted to be sold as soon as he arrived, is expected to start. Kurzawa has been underwhelming for years and is a player you want to pressurise from the beginning.

If Paris wishes to finally reach the quarter-final stage, they have to keep constant pressure on the centre backs. As previously mentioned, Akanji has been really bad, and while Hummels has been better than expected, he still lacks the mobility needed in these tight games. The pair will continuously try and play forward passes, to quickly supply the forwards. PSG need to cut that supply line. Not only will it limit what Dortmund can do, but it could gift quick counter-attacks when Dortmund’s midfielders and full-backs are out of position.

This is an exciting round of sixteen fixture, but PSG is the only side I can see winning this game. The superior talent, combined with a dominant and energetic midfield, will make it hard for Dortmund to gain any control on this game. I can see Dortmund gaining the advantage at the Westfalenstadion, but Paris will dismantle Dortmund as if they’re taking their yearly beating at the Allianz. 

 

Is Simeone Running Out of Time? Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

After a lengthy absence, the Champions League finally returns with so many juicy fixtures to discuss. I’ll be previewing all of these games, starting with Atletico Madrid facing the holders Liverpool.

Atletico Madrid currently sits outside of the top four, with La Liga featuring some fierce competition for the Champions League spots for the first time in years. We’ve discussed Atletico’s messy summer, which revolved around the sales of their biggest stars. Griezmann, Godin, Rodri, Hernandez, Felipe Luiz and Juanfran all departed the club; a core of talented players, some of whom helped Atletico to the title back in 2014.

Some of their new arrivals have actually been massive success stories. Felipe and Mario Hermoso fit right in Simeone’s defensively phenomenal back-line, and Kieran Trippier has been their second most creative player, only behind Koke. While their signings in defence have all worked out well, as usual, the issues lie on the other side of the pitch.

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Replacing Antoine Griezmann was always going to be a tough task. The Frenchman not only contributed to a lot of goals, but he was very creative and consistently found pockets of space to help advance the play. Griezmann was always suited to a more attacking team, but playing for Simeone did help bring out skills you’d never expect to see from him if he had been playing under an attacking coach.

I always had my reservations on Atletico Madrid’s £135 million acquisition of Joao Felix. The Portuguese prospect did look like an exciting talent, but spending all of the Griezmann money on a player who only had a single season of first-team football under his belt is insanely risky on the short term. Felix could turn out to be a world-beater, but right now he is not contributing nearly as much as Atleti thought he would. Felix has only managed 2 goals and an assist in La Liga. He still looks very raw, not almost at the level of a Jadon Sancho or Kylian Mbappe. Felix has underperformed massively in attack, with Understat showing Felix should have doubled his goal tally. I can sympathise with that, considering the team’s reliance on him and Morata to do something magical in the final third. The problem with Felix is his underlying numbers have been sub-par. He’s making less than a shot assist per 90 and completing 30% of his dribbles.

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Atletico’s most prominent problem coming into this tie is the number of injuries they’re facing throughout the team. Costa, Felix, Morata, Koke and Trippier are all likely to miss this game, leaving Simeone without a first-team number nine. Their attacking options were already quite barren; now it’s insane to think Atletico will even score against the best team in Europe. The worrying part about this is all the injuries are muscle-based. I can’t comment on how this team trains because I don’t know, but it’s troubling to see all of their forwards suddenly pick up injuries around the same time.

I initially chose Alvaro Morata as the player to watch for Liverpool, but now I have no idea. Carrasco might be their biggest threat, considering he is the only player currently in the squad with a modicum of excitement in the way he plays. After Atletico Madrid’s awful display in their second leg against Juventus in last year’s competition, I can’t see them beating a better team with a worse group of players.

On a more positive note, let’s talk about Liverpool. The current holders have been absolutely fantastic domestically, currently going unbeaten and only dropping points on one occasion. Every player is performing at or above their level at the moment. The Reds’ forward line remains one of the best in Europe, with each of their attackers able to turn a game on their own. Their full-backs dominate the ball, primarily progressing the ball through their incredible passing ability and sheer dynamism. Their goalkeeper, Alisson, who has somehow made the best defence in the league look even better, with shot-stopping so good, he’s undoubtedly the best keeper in the Premier League.

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The midfield has always been an area I’ve been hesitant to call good, but after a year, I finally understand why their midfield works. Klopp doesn’t use his midfielders as other managers do; the likes of Pep use them for ball progression and creativity. Klopp uses his midfielders as defenders, to allow the full-backs to push up and not worry about opposition counter-attacks. Klopp prefers progression through the full-backs because, excluding the obvious answer of how good Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are, it still gives them some security in defence. If the pair do manage to lose the ball, they won’t lose it in dangerous areas. It isn’t nearly as problematic as Henderson or Wijnaldum losing the ball. Klopp and Liverpool have built a team properly, getting the best out of their players, in a system which allows them to blossom and cover for their weaknesses.

There is no denying Liverpool are a genuinely great team but are they one of the best teams we’ve seen of the modern game? They’re definitely up there, but I’d probably put Pep’s 2011 Barca, Heynckes’ treble team and Pep’s Centurions over Klopp’s team. Those three sides were insanely dominant while putting in the performances to show it. Liverpool has been the best team in the league, but their dominance doesn’t show in a similar way to the teams mentioned. Manchester City would be a lot closer if they weren’t suffering from a few off games and some bad luck. The area in which Liverpool have benefitted the most is in their opposition. Numerous times this season, we’ve seen teams play Liverpool and suddenly forget how to put chances away. The likes of Southampton, Watford, Wolves, Manchester United and Manchester City all perform under their expected when playing against the soon-to-be Premier League Champions. Is Liverpool to blame for this? Not necessarily. It’s more to point out how they haven’t been the perfect team many are making them out to be.

Yet, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for this Liverpool team. It’s the same kind of respect I have for Mourinho’s great sides or Sean Dyche’s Burnley. I appreciate how well Klopp’s team operates and wins games. Liverpool is a well-oiled machine, capable of competing against all of the winning Champions League sides from the past.

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As mentioned before, Van Dijk is by far their most valuable player, but Mohamed Salah is a close second. The Egyptian forward has been frighteningly good since his return to English football. Many like to point out he isn’t as good as he was during that first season since his goal return has dropped off, but that criticism has zero weight behind it. Salah is still as creative and threatening in front of goal as he was in 2018. The difference is that teams have begun doubling-up on him. It’s why Mane’s goal output suddenly skyrocketed last season. Salah has effectively opened up space for his teammate through sides labelling him as Liverpool’s biggest attacking threat. It’s quite amazing how Mane is even being discussed in the conversation for player of the year, when Salah, among other Liverpool players, have been a lot better.

If Atletico wishes to progress beyond the round of sixteen, they must pray and hope luck goes their way. Also, they must cement enough of an advantage at the Wanda Metropolitano. We’ve seen Liverpool in the past couple of seasons perform below their level during some away matches, most notably against Napoli on two separate occasions and at the Camp Nou. This first leg is vital. If Atletico waste it, they won’t have a chance at Anfield.

If Liverpool wishes to return to the final once again, they must focus a lot of their attacks down the left side. Simeone will be forced to play Sime Vrsaljko, someone who has only started two games in La Liga this season and has suffered from consistent injury problems since his impressive World Cup performances for Croatia.

My money for this would be on Liverpool. Even if they do manage to lose the first leg, I can’t trust Simeone to set up his side in the right way at Anfield, after the awful in which they exited the competition last season. You can’t hope to sit on leads away from home. The strategy doesn’t work anymore, as Barcelona have proved on two occasions. I can see Simeone sitting on a 1-0 lead and hoping Liverpool forget how to score goals, something that won’t happen. Liverpool will be in the quarter-finals once again.

Every Champions League Club’s Most Important Player

The round of 16 is where the Champions League truly begins. With the predictable group stages finally over, let’s look ahead to all the teams left in the competition. The previews will be coming, but for now, let’s look at every team’s most outstanding player. These are the players who are irreplaceable in their sides, who will be relied upon to win these close ties. I will not be speaking about these players in the previews, to avoid repeating myself. 

Atletico Madrid: Alvaro Morata 

While this season, with all of the departures in the summer, can be argued as a transitional one, it’s still been very frustrating for Atletico. Their city rivals have been above average, but they’ve had chances to stay closer in the title race. While they’ve remained solid at the back, it’s in attack where, as usual, they’ve misfired. Yet, it’s hard to include any defender as their most important player, when Simeone is so reliant on his attackers to produce some magic. Saul Niguez does deserve mention for remaining as consistent as ever, but Morata is easily the player to be relied upon.

The former Chelsea striker has garnered a reputation for being a poor finisher, which is still valid. Morata has again missed a few big chances this season. Possible game-winners against Sevilla and Real Valladolid and a header against Granada would put him in double figures for goals. Morata has always missed the occasional sitter, but it shouldn’t deflect from his all-round game. He’s still taking the most shots per 90 for Atletico Madrid with 3.5, with 2.3 coming from inside the penalty area. He’s winning over 5 aerial duels per 90, reminding everyone how much of an aerial threat he still is, as well as creating 1.4 chances. Even in a very defensive team, these are great numbers. It becomes more significant when Joao Felix hasn’t hit the ground running, and Thomas Lemar still looks like the same shadow as last season.

Morata will need to be at his very best to beat the best team in Europe. Liverpool have been sensational over the last couple of years, especially in the knockout games. I can’t see Atletico creating many chances during both legs. Morata’s ability to do a bit of everything could help his team get the much-needed goals to advance, even if he won’t be putting the chances away.

Liverpool: Virgil Van Dijk

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There were surprisingly a lot of candidates for Liverpool. Any of their superstar forwards, Alexander-Arnold’s elite chance creation and Allison ridiculous ability to make that defence even better than it already is. But the runner-up for the Balon d’Or is my choice. Philippe Coutinho’s sale and the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk must be considered one of the best deals in the history of the modern game. The Dutchman is fantastic in the air, an elite distributor and a constant goal threat. Not only has Van Dijk been individually unbelievable, but he simultaneously improved everyone around him. Joe Gomez looks like a future England starter alongside him, and Matip began earning heaps of praise for the first time in years. Not much needs to be said. While a lot of money has been spent on Van Dijk, he has definitely paid it back. Two European finals, one Champions League, the third-highest points tally in the history of the league and most likely a first title. His influence and ability will keep his side fighting until the very end. 

Borussia Dortmund: Jadon Sancho

Marco Reus is obviously a contender here, but Sancho has taken another leap in his rapid development. The England international has become Dortmund’s biggest threat in the final third and has been the driving for some of their most significant results this season. Sancho made the difference in their massive comeback against Paderborn and scored and assisted in their 3-3 draw to RB Leipzig. He’s contributed to a goal in all of his past 7 games. Sancho finished the Hinrunde with 9 goals and 9 assists, more goal involvements than Reus and Thorgan Hazard. Sancho has overperformed his xG, but that’s been Dortmund’s story under Favre. The former Manchester City attacker has stood out among other elite attackers. Julian Brandt has been fantastic whenever he’s played, and Thorgan Hazard has, creatively, been one of the best players in Germany. Sancho’s speed, dribbling and chance creation will cause a lot of problems for PSG, especially considering their defensively poor full-backs. I can’t see Sancho remaining in Germany past the summer, meaning this could be his last chance to drag Dortmund over the line.

PSG: Marco Verratti

In a team containing talented players like Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, why have I chosen Verratti? I’ve already expressed my love for the Italian, and even with midfield reinforcements arriving in the summer, he has remained a vital piece in Tuchel’s team. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in the world at pretty much everything that matters. Similar to Thiago Alcantara, Verratti is a fantastic progressor of the ball, either through his incredible ability to pick out one of his teammates in difficult positions or his tireless work rate. Here’s statsbomb’s player radar of Verratti’s 18/19 season, and it’s insane:

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Verratti might go down as one of the most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. The popular opinion of Ligue 1 being the weakest league out of the top five, as well as PSG’s dominance, has made it difficult for people to take many of their stars seriously. But it’s not only in France where Verratti has shown his excellence. Time and time again, Verratti has demonstrated the best teams in Europe just how good he is. In their famous 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona back in 2017, Verratti was instrumental in nullifying Rakitic, Gomes and Busquets. Even against (at the time) Solsjkaer’s high-flying Manchester United, Verratti dominated the game at Old Trafford, unbeatable on the ball while being a huge reason why PSG were able to transition so quickly against the Red Devils. I’ll most likely discuss Paris’ attackers during the preview. Still, there’s no debating that Verratti will be instrumental if PSG wishes to dominate the game against a tough and robust Dortmund midfield. 

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic

Papau Gomez is usually the choice for Atalanta’s most important player. And while their captain will need to bring his usual brilliance, it’s hard to argue with just how good Ilicic has been for Italy’s best attacking side. Alongside Zapata or Muriel, Ilicic has involvement in everything Atalanta do in the final third. The Slovenian’s dominates Atalanta’s shots, dribble and shot-assist numbers. In fact, it’s only in shot-assists where Ilicic isn’t top (Gomez averages 3 while Ilicic averages 2.8). The former Fiorentina forward is averaging 4.9 shots per 90, putting him on the Messi and Ronaldo level we wish every forward could reach. His xGChain (the total xG of every possession a player is involved in) is the highest in Serie A, with 14.05 (this is only counting players who’ve played over 700 minutes).

Do I think Atalanta will progress beyond Valencia? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. Atalanta under Gasperini have been so much fun in creating an elite attack, and Ilicic is arguably the crown jewel. His incredible offensive ability, as well as his creativity, could be a massive factor in taken Atalanta to the next stage in their first campaign in the Champions League.

Valencia: Dani Parejo

Not even a competition for this. Dani Parejo is another who’s massively underrated. In a league that’s been dominated by the likes of Modric, Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic and Kroos throughout the decade, Parejo should definitely be considered among those fantastic players. The Spaniard has been so consistent for a team that has continuously changed personnel, whether players or coach. Parejo has been a consistent goal scorer and supplier. Since 15/16, Valencia’s skipper has contributed to at least 10 goals. A lot of goals either come from the penalty spot or free-kicks, but that’s a skill by itself. He’s actually scored 13 free kicks for Valencia, a frankly ridiculous amount for any player. 

Parejo’s biggest strength in assisting his side is by far his leadership. After their poor start to the 18/19 season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Parejo had a massive say in waking his teammates up from their misfortune and pushing them on to finish in the Champions League spots. Even if Atalanta manage to get a first-leg lead, Parejo will do all in his power to turn the tie to Valencia’s favour. 

Tottenham Hotspur: Heung-Min Son

Throughout Tottenham’s run to the final last season, Son was their key man, since Kane (as usual) missed key matches in their memorable campaign. While Lucas Moura did score that incredible hat-trick to sink a young Ajax team, they wouldn’t have reached that point without Son’s goals in the round of sixteen and the quarter-finals. During their first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored the second goal at Wembley, giving them a massive advantage over the Bundesliga side. His performances during their two-legged affair against champions Manchester City were by far the highlight of his season. The South Korean international scored the only goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring that Manchester City were left fighting during their second leg. Son went on to leave his opponents in an awkward position, scoring two goals at the Etihad. 

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With Harry Kane out until April and Ndombele struggling to put together a consistent run of games, it’s tough to argue with Heung-Min Son’s importance to the Tottenham team. Son offers something that none of his teammates can currently offer a consistent goal threat. I much prefer him starting as a winger, because Kane regularly drops deep, Son feels like the only focal point for the team. His pace and ability on the counter-attack make him a threat to every team in Europe.

RB Leipzig: Timo Werner

Julien Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the next level, adding that needed improvement in possession. This allows them to stay competitive against all kinds of opposition, whether big or small. While players like Sabitzer, Nkunku and Mukiele deserve credit for the leaps, they’ve taken in their development. It’s hard to argue with just how good Timo Werner has been this season. The German international is easily the most inform striker in the league. His massive goal tally of 20 is difficult to match across Europe. Not only has his goals gone up, but his creativity is frankly ridiculous. Werner is fifth in the Bundesliga for assists with 6. Not only that, but his xA per 90 is currently at 0.37. Werner has a higher expected assists per 90 than the likes of Filip Kostic, Marcus Thuram and Jadon Sancho. Werner is flourishing in every way under his new coach, and easily the player Tottenham will be looking at stopping.

Chelsea: Matteo Kovacic 

Chelsea were easily the hardest choice here. Abraham, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Kante were all considered, but Matteo Kovacic had to be here. The former Real Madrid midfielder has always been an enormous talent but struggled at his former club. Since signing for Chelsea however, he seems to be finally turning into that world-beater. When playing alongside Jorginho and Kante in a midfield three, it allows Kovacic to focus primarily on his best quality: ball progression. Kovacic has consistently averaged over 10 deep progressions per 90. There aren’t many better players in England who can transition the ball through each zone. It’s arguably been the most significant improvement under Lampard. While they have been somewhat naive defensively, they’ve been better to watch, and the midfield isn’t so static. Kovacic is completing over 3 dribbles per 90 in the Champions League. His defensive work has fallen off a cliff when in Europe, but that’s primarily down to having Kante, as well as Jorginho to do the defensive work. Kovacic will be a player that Bayern Munich have to limit. His ability to quickly move the ball into the opponent’s third is difficult to stop and could be a deciding factor in this huge tie. 

Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski

Whether Bayern are good or bad, there is one player you can always count on, and that’s their superstar striker Robert Lewandowski. Poland’s all-time top goalscorer has been running insanely hot all season. He went on a run of scoring in 15 consecutive games. He ended the Hinrunde with 29 goals in all competitions, more than many talented players manage in a whole season. Not only is his form in the Bundesliga fantastic, but he has brought it into Europe. Lewandowski is currently the top goal scorer in the competition, scoring 10 in 5. His finishes against Tottenham in their 7-2 demolition were outstanding. His first goal saw the former Dortmund star quickly turn his body and hit the ball right between the defenders, making it impossible for Lloris to stop the shot.

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Not only does Lewandowski continually put the ball in the back of the net, but he does so much for his team. I highly doubt Serge Gnabry would have reached 10 goals if it wasn’t for Lewandowski either intelligently dragging defenders away from him, or creating the goals himself. He is a perfect modern number nine but will need to bring his group stage form in the games where it truly matters. 

Napoli: Fabian Ruiz

While Milan and Sampdoria falling down the table is the story of Serie A, it’s Napoli’s drop off which has been the most astounding. Last season’s runners up have looked a shadow of the team they were under Sarri. It was difficult to choose a player here. Not because of a wealth of options, but a lack of them. Key and reliable players like Allan, Callejon, Koulibaly and Insigne have all dropped off massively. The only player that has stood out is former Betis midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has still remained at a high level, even with all of the issues on and off the field. 

The Spaniard is a midfielder who can do a bit of everything. He arrived last season as a number ten or an advanced eight but primarily played in a double pivot under Ancelotti. Ruiz wasn’t necessarily bad there; however, he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Ruiz is an excellent progressor of the ball, continually getting involved during buildup through his passing. The 23-year-old’s xGChain sits at 11.51, higher than anyone else for Napoli. His best strength is comfortably his dribbling, consistently averaging over a 65% dribble success rate. He’s technically excellent and could have a massive say in their tie against Barcelona, who themselves have plenty of midfielders who can dominate a game. 

Barcelona: Lionel Messi 

Nothing needs to be said. The best player to ever grace the game is going to be his team’s most important player.

Lyon: Moussa Dembele

Lyon are having an awful season, on and off the pitch. Sylvinho arrived as the new head coach, with Juninho has the new sporting director, in an attempt to push Lyon to the next level. Unfortunately, this has not worked out so far. Juninho was sacked after only winning three games in eleven. Rudi Garcia was shockingly appointing, which didn’t go down well with the fans, considering he was managing Marseille as recently as last season. When you pair that with Marcelo’s feud with some of the Lyon ultras, this season was over before it even started. 

With Depay tearing his ACL, meaning the Dutchman will miss the Euros, Moussa Dembele seems like the apparent player who could turn the tie for Lyon. Dembele has dropped off slightly from last season but remains a considerable threat. He’s Lyon’s top scorer in Ligue 1 with 11 goals. He’s excellent physically, able to beat players in the air or with his speed. His finishing has always impressed, consistently putting away more difficult chances. The only worry for Dembele is whether he can actually score in the Champions League, something he’s yet to do. Lyon’s sudden nose dive from the top of Ligue 1 has been staggering, and it puts their chances of progressing rather unlikely. They’ll have to hope Dembele can start putting in the performances that made him stand out last season.

Juventus: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions have been slightly worse under Sarri, including Ronaldo. While his form has improved in recent weeks, he’s finally started to look like a 34-year-old. His shot numbers are still on that elite level they’ve been since the start of the decade, but he has begun to look slow, with his start to the season, yet again, underwhelming. Still, Ronaldo is one of the best forwards around, with his knack for the big stage a massive factor when discussing Juventus. His hat trick against Atletico Madrid in last year’s round of sixteen perfectly showcased how Ronaldo can carry a team through the toughest of circumstances. The competition’s all-time top scorer is still the best headerer of the ball in the world and loves a score a spectacular goal. The success of Ronaldo’s transfer to the old lady rests on these big moments. He was brought in for a lot of money (too much), and if he doesn’t win the Champions League, this move will be seen as a failure.

Real Madrid: Karim Benzema

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Moving onto Ronaldo’s former club, who are finally starting to look just as good as they were when the Portuguese superstar was playing in the famous Los Blancos shirt. Even with Madrid looking solid in defence and their young players starting to flourish, it’s Karim Benzema who has remained at the same high level as he has throughout the last decade. Casemiro does deserve a lot of credit for keeping that midfield together, but Benzema has helped keep Madrid in the title race. He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season with 12 and assisting the most with 5. What’s impressed me the most about Benzema is how he’s returned to being more of a goalscorer. His insanely impressive 2 key passes per 90 do show how he is still a great all-rounder in terms of goals and creativity, but his involvement in buildup play has started to decline. This is actually a good thing. Benzema is now 32 and in a team full of future superstars. He is giving these players that reliable, experienced player up front, who will put the ball away when given a chance. Luka Jovic struggling for games is a testament to Benzema’s importance. It wouldn’t surprise to see him play a vital role against the Premier League Champions. 

Manchester City: Aymeric Laporte 

Kevin De Bruyne might be the obvious answer considering how unbeatable he has been this season. However, if Manchester City can reach 98 points with their Belgian playmaker missing most of the season, then he can’t be as vital as Aymeric Laporte. The former Athletic Bilbao defender has seen his importance grow over the last few months. After picking up a severe knee injury in September. It left Pep with a stagnant John Stones and an ageing Nicolas Otamendi as his only recognised centre-backs. While City have been really bad at the back throughout the season, losing a composed, intelligent and dominant defender in Laporte, did make things a lot harder. I have no idea if Laporte will be ready for their colossal tie with Real Madrid. Pep, as well 

The Next Mbappe? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group E

Red Bull Salzburg 

Let’s start in Austria, where Salzburg are back in the Champions League, after being stuck in the Europa League for the last 5 years. The Bundesliga champions have been one of the most exciting sides during the past decade, with their focus on hiring innovative, young coaches to guide their usual crop of young talent. Adi Hutter, Roger Schmidt and Marco Rose all moved to a bigger league, and it shows just how good of an eye Salzburg have for spotting elite coaches. 

Salzburg’s team under Rose was uniquely entertaining. The German tactician formed a side which was aggressive, forward-thinking and very flexible. Full-backs bombing forward, midfielders overloading the centre, strikers splitting wide, it was a side that was genuinely unpredictable in how they attacked. They reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 and went unbeaten in the group stages in the following season, a group containing RB Leipzig and Celtic. Their quality of manager and talent allowed them to perform far better than expected and helped highlight the young talent playing in some of the weaker leagues across Europe. 

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By far their biggest threat is young superstar forward Erling Haaland. The 19-year-old has recently had the spotlight shining brightly onto him after breaking the record for most goals in a U20 World Cup game, scoring nine against Honduras (yes, nine). In 2018, Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United were all showing massive interest in the striker, but Haaland chose to join Salzburg, a sensible move if one is searching for guaranteed first-team minutes. He didn’t play much in his first season, with the Austrian club preferring to let him settle first before throwing him into the deep end, but now with Dabbur gone, Haaland looks ready to tear Europe apart. While I haven’t had a chance to watch Haaland, a look at his numbers and goals show a player who could become one of the world’s best. If I had to compare him to any great forward in terms of skillset, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sebastien Haller is the first to come to mind. As the pair, Haaland is absolutely massive, being 6.2 while having the muscle of someone much older. His size and strength are reasons why he’s been able to start regularly at such a young age, but there is more to him than just physicality. Haaland is a fantastic dribbler, as well as being a very creative forward. For Salzburg this season, the Norwegian has been completing over 2 dribbles per 90, and his xA is currently around 0.30, more than Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah. He’s a clinical finisher who could similarly break onto the scene to Mbappe even if he might struggle in this group. Just remember Erling Haaland, because he is a potential superstar.

Do I think Salzburg have a chance to reach the round of 16? Not likely, but they could still cause a few surprises. Napoli look surprisingly vulnerable in Serie A, and Liverpool failed to win an away game in their group last season. While they aren’t one of the favourites to finish in the top two spots, they are likely to return to the Europa League once again. 

KRC Genk 

Genk play in the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, when Kevin De Bruyne was still playing for the club. The group stages have come at the wrong time for Genk. After winning the league last season, they lost some of their best players. Alejandro Pozuelo left in January to join Toronto for £8 million, while Leandro Toussard departed the club in the summer, joining Brighton for £18 million. The pair were essential members of the team, especially Toussard, who was fantastic for Genk last season. Their departures have coincided with a poor start to the season, with De Smurfen sitting in 9th.

While the losses of two of their most important players were problematic, their replacements haven’t settled as of yet. Theo Bongonda, formerly of Celta Vigo, arrived from Zulte Waregem for £6.30 million. He was pretty bad when the 23-year-old was playing in Spain, only managing 4 goal contributions in his final season. He has since found form but hasn’t made an impression at his new club yet. 

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If Genk want to finish in the top two, they’ll have to hope Samatta can bring his form into Europe’s premium competition. The Tanzanian striker has been a constant goal threat since arriving at his new team, scoring 41 goals in 86 games since signing from TP Mazembe. He’s a classic goal poacher with the added benefit of pace, being able to play on the last man find the right areas in the box. He has so far scored 5 goals this season and is arguably Genk’s best chance of getting any good results in this competition.

Unsurprisingly, Genk are my favourites to finish bottom of the group. Before even looking at their summer business, the other sides in this group were of a higher quality. Not only are they the worst side here, but they’ve started the season poorly, and it’s hard to see Genk standing a chance, based on their competition. 

Liverpool 

Onto the current holders of the competition. Not only are Liverpool the favourites for this year’s Champions League, but they’re most likely going to top this group. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t holes in this squad. Liverpool still has a few key areas that needed addressing, yet didn’t. It could be down to spending so much on players in 2018, with Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri and Allison arriving for a lot of money. Klopp was clearly happy with his squad, but I worry if Liverpool does suffer from some severe injuries. Centre-back depth is still a problem, especially if Van Dijk suffers any kind of injury. The Dutchman transformed Liverpool from a fun, attacking side to arguably the second-best team in Europe. If he is out for any period, It will make Liverpool extremely vulnerable, even though Van Dijk isn’t the sole reason why they improved at the back. There still isn’t depth at left-back now with Moreno released, and Origi just isn’t good enough at all to be covering on the left if Mane suffers an injury. Liverpool have a fantastic team, but they were very fortunate in the fact that all of their key players didn’t experience any long term injuries last season. 

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Nevertheless, the Reds still have plenty of threats in attack. Mane, Firmino and Salah always turn up on European nights, with the three forwards scoring a combined 43 goals in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, they are not who I will be highlighting today, instead the full-backs, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold. Beginning with Robertson, who has been one of the best signings in recent memory. The Scottish captain doesn’t possess the same talent as the likes of Marcelo or Alba but just does everything so well in terms of passing, dribbling and defensive actions, that it makes him one of the best in Europe. The difference between him and Trent is that extra bit of quality. Robertson is a terrific passer, but there aren’t many full-backs in Europe that can boast a spectacular passing range similar to the Liverpool right-back. His vision and ability to pick out his teammates from set-piece situations or from open play make him one of Liverpool’s best attacking threats. 

There aren’t many issues regarding Liverpool’s team. They did struggle away in the group stages last season, failing to win any of their away games. However, while Napoli is a challenging game, they shouldn’t have much of an issue with the others. Liverpool are favourites for the top spot, and only fatigue could stop them from reaching the round of 16. 

Napoli

Switching from Sarri to Ancelotti might not seem like a drastic change, but it’s had a clear impact on the team. Partly due to the sale of Jorginho, Napoli switched from a possession-based brand of football to a more quick and direct style, getting the best out of the talent there. Fabian Ruiz had a fantastic debut season, Mertens and Milik were goal machines, and Zielinski was finally given substantial minutes. With Jorginho gone, Napoli didn’t need to build up play as patiently, instead opting for long balls into the channels to quickly transition the ball. Napoli did at times lack inventiveness in the final third without Sarri, but there was still room for this current group of Napoli players to improve. 

Mertens, Insigne and Callejon, while reaching the twilight years of their careers, are still one of the best front three’s in Europe, but one of their new arrivals has to be the player to watch. After leaving Mexico and joining PSV, Hirving Lozano finally earned his move to one of Europe’s elite, moving to Naples for £36 million, a fair price for a player clearly too good for the Dutch top-flight. Lozano is everything you want from a winger. Able to play on both wings, the Mexican international can create, dribble and score plenty of goals. What makes Lozano so unique is just how raw, yet clinical he is. He runs at defenders with drive yet is so composed in possession. If anyone is going to replace the insane output that their front three have been producing, Lozano is the beginning of that move forward.

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While Napoli’s attack remains exciting, their weaknesses in defence have been well-known by this point. The loss of Raul Albiol must have had an effect on the side. The Spaniard remained fantastic even in his early thirties, and replacing him with Manolas was rather strange. The Greek defender isn’t necessarily bad, but his overreliance on pace to recovery from his own mistakes is not good when said player is reaching a point where his pace may start to decline. Spending over £30 million on a 28-year-old defender was insane to me. I’m not also unsure if Di Lorenzo is even good enough for Champions League football, and it’s made Napoli look somewhat vulnerable, and I can see their visit to Anfield being an ugly one. Nevertheless, they should qualify for the round of 16, if Salzburg doesn’t reach the level they could.