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.

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

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

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

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

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

The Chase for Bruno

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

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

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

Tottenham’s Refresh

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

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

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

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

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

The Scudetto Race

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

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

Dortmund Staying Competitive

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

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

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

 

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 

Hasenhuttl’s Return to 4-4-2 has Saved Southampton’s Season

One team’s form that has slightly gone under the radar is Southampton. Ever since their 9-0 defeat to Leicester, there were massive question marks on whether manager Ralph Hasenhuttl would last the week. It was the biggest defeat a team had suffered since Manchester United’s 9-0 win over Ipswich back in 1995. This defeat was more significant, considering the finances in the league, you rarely see such high scores anymore. The red card does have a massive effect on any team, but not the extent of conceding nine goals.

Many folks, like me, on twitter, began to wonder if Hasenhuttl was as good as we all thought. Southampton are, at best, functional, which is a shame considering just how fun his Leipzig side was in their debut Bundesliga season. The 3-5-2 formation just looked so stale. I assumed it was only used last season to improve the team defensively, but instead, they persisted with it. Having the extra body in defence did help a pretty weak side stay up, but it took away any attacking threat, especially when Valery and Bertrand weren’t offering enough width. Southampton were already lacking numbers in attack, and taking away more players in the front line made them a lot less exciting.
To save his job, Hasenhuttl had to do something. After defeats to Leicester and Everton and a Carabao Cup exit to Manchester City, Hassenhuttl scraped the back three and moved to a 4-4-2, a formation he consistently used when in the Leipzig dugout.

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If we’re looking at the Premier League from the 23rd November, the first time Hasenhuttl used the 4-4-2, in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then Southampton would be 4th in the table. Their impressive turn-around has coincided with victories over Chelsea and Tottenham, keeping clean sheets against both London clubs. While their attacking numbers have improved slightly, taking 13.8 shots per game instead of their usual 12.3, it’s in defence where the team has become a lot more interesting. Southampton have faced 199 shots this season, with 60% of those coming during the period where three at the back was favoured. They’ve stopped opponents from dominating games, which can be best shown through their pressing. Southampton’s pressing has intensified throughout the winter period, and the statistics show this. Southampton are allowing 7.55 passes per defensive action, the joint least in the league. It’s also a massive improvement compared to the 9.24 passes they were allowing per defensive action at the beginning of the season.

This change meant some significant tweaks to personnel. Due to Vestergaard’s lack of pace, there wasn’t a chance he could play in this more attacking system. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, two young and athletic defenders have formed a good partnership. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares, while not near the level they were four years ago, are still solid enough at the back. But most importantly, they’ve enabled the wingers in front of them to focus primarily on ball progression.

The midfield is where the most significant improvements can be seen. In the last nine games where Southampton have played a 4-4-2, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg have played every minute. Other than his set-pieces, Ward-Prowse has failed to impress me. He’s never been a consistent creator from open-play and seemed to only play for his magic from a dead ball situation. Højbjerg has always been an exciting player. A great distributor who wasn’t afraid to put in a tough challenge, Højbjerg finally found his place in the team, after struggling under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes.

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The 4-4-2 has allowed Southampton to play with genuine wingers again. Nathan Redmond has remained an ever-present either on the right or as a second striker, while Moussa Djenepo or Stuart Armstrong fill in on the opposite side. Redmond has been the most improved player under Hassenhuttl. He has always been a great dribbler, but his end product is still quite not there. Last season, Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his current coach. He has only contributed to 3 goals so far this season, but his performances have improved.

Danny Ings has easily been Southampton’s best player this season. He has been the only player in this team who has consistently put his chances away. Many of Ings’ goals have come from inside the penalty area, and has never been better than during these nine games. Ings has scored 8 goals, the most in the league. While Ings hasn’t quite found his striking partner, (Long has primarily played, but Obafemi and Redmond have played there too) there is no doubting his importance to this side.

So let’s look at their 1-0 over Tottenham, and see what they’re doing so well. Let’s start defensively. During Tottenham’s buildup, Southampton were consistently defending in a 3-4-3, with Djenepo joining the front two and Bertrand taking the Belgian’s place. It allowed them to simultaneously cut off the passing options to Ndombele (later Lo Celso) and Sissoko. It forced the full-backs to either drop insanely deep to give their teammates an option, or move further forward and hope Alderweireld or Vertonghen could find them with a long ball. The forward three wouldn’t press the centre-backs during these situations, because their goal is for Spurs to lose possession through a misplaced pass. The long pass became a regular method for the Belgian defenders, but a failed one. Out of the combined 35 long balls attempted by Vertonghan and Alderweireld, only 6 were completed. Southampton forced two players, considered to be very comfortable on the ball, to resort to hopeful balls into the path of Harry Kane.

On the occasions where Spurs would either find their full-backs in space, or Sissoko would drop deep and attempt to dribble through the midfield, the players would quickly shift to a 4-4-2. This would give less space, especially in the wide areas, for spurs to transition play and create chances. Aurier and Sessegnon would be crowded by their opposing full-back, winger and midfield. The sheer amount of ground covered by Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse was impressive. The pair were always there to support their teammates in keeping the Tottenham wide players isolated, forcing them to play it back to their own half, or put in a poor cross for Bednarek and Stephens to efficiently deal with.

Both full-backs were playing different yet effective roles. Bertrand would regularly push up and support Djenepo either through a diagonal run inside, or giving him a short pass option behind him. Cedric, on the other hand, would have more of a reserved role, slotting into the backline, making the back three. This was common throughout the game:

 

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Cedric (number two) stays behind the halfway line, while Bertrand (number twenty-one) is alongside the forwards, and ahead of his winger. This was very effective in both attack and defence. It allowed Southampton to exploit the space left from Aurier’s forward runs and Alderweireld’s lack of pace while having the right numbers if Spurs managed to get out of their own half.

In attack, Southampton can be best described as direct. Some of their attacks that contained some excellent interplay between their forwards. But generally, the Saints were looking to get the ball in the opposition third as quickly as possible. Stephens and Bednarek would look to send balls straight into Ings and Redmond. While the probability of the pair beating Alderweireld and Vertonghen in the air is very low, they primarily did this to win the second ball. Over and over again, Ings would lose the aerial battle, but at least three players would be close to win the ball back. Southampton’s lack of creativity is something that hasn’t been addressed since the departure of Dusan Tadic. Avoiding the midfield and taking advance of the stamina and speed of the forward line is an effective method for the short term.

As seen from Bertrand average position, Southampton were frequently attacking down the left side. In fact, 44% of their attacks were coming down Djenepo and Bertrand’s side. As mentioned, this was down to Spurs’ weakness in that area, but to benefit the players on the pitch. With most of the attacks coming down the left, it allowed Armstrong to make runs into the box and cause plenty of problems for the Tottenham defenders. During the second minute of the game, Djenepo put in a pretty dangerous ball into the box, with Ings, Armstrong, Redmond and Ward-Prowse all available. While Djenepo did waste this chance, it was a sign of things to come, with Tottenham struggling with the number of players pushing forward.

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Ings was a vital cog in his team’s performance. The former Liverpool forward not only scored the winning goal but helped his teammates all over the pitch. Ings would drift to both flanks, aiding Djenepo and Armstrong, while also holding onto the ball well. Ings completed 4 dribbles in this game, failing to be dispossessed. Not only was his attacking play good, but defensively he did a lot to help his teammates. He was pressing well, tracking back when Spurs broke quickly and worked his socks off. Ings was substituted at the 75th minute, likely because of the shift he put in.

The midfielders also deserve plenty of credit for their performances. James Ward-Prowse fits seamlessly in a double-pivot, while Højbjerg continues to show why he is undroppable. The Danish international completed the most passes for his side, while also attempting 12 long balls to help push his team further up the pitch. Ward-Prowse played a more attacking role, joining the forwards in attack, at the same time always tracking back to help his midfield partner. The England international completed 9 tackles in this game, more than anyone else on the pitch.

At the start of the season, I put Southampton down as my team to watch. I like a lot of their players and have backed Hasenhuttl since his arrival in the South Coast. The change of formation was needed and is clearly getting more out of the talent at the club. There are still issues regarding creativity that need to be addressed in the summer. But for now, this change in approach could be enough to not only keep Southampton in the division but challenge Wolves for that seventh spot.

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: A Lot of Work for Two Former Players

Arsenal versus Manchester United was once one of the most anticipated fixtures of the season. But ever since their respective longest-serving managers have departed, the clubs aren’t nearly as relevant at the top of the table.

Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal won’t be remembered fondly by anyone. Since the start of last season, there has never been a moment where Arsenal looked like a capable side, relying heavily on the brilliance of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Their shot numbers were consistently average, and there were countless games where the team generally lacked an attacking structure, struggling to break down teams like Wolves and Crystal Palace. Emery’s man-management also did come under scrutiny. His treatment of the club’s highest earner, Mesut Ozil, was somewhat baffling and continued the narrative of Emery’s difficulties in dealing with prominent personalities.

Yet, what bothered me the most was how Emery was utilising his midfielders. Since summer 2018, Arsenal have brought in several midfield reinforcements. Lucas Torreira arrived as a defensive midfielder, having a massive defensive output while being a competent ball progressor. Matteo Guendouzi was arguably the highlight of Sven Mislintat’s time as head of recruitment. The Frenchman arrived for £5 million and has done a lot more than I expected from a player coming from Ligue 2. He’s proved to be a progressive passer, even if the defensive side of his game still needs a lot of work. 

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I never liked how Emery set up these players. He’d regularly play Granit Xhaka has a single defensive midfielder. While Xhaka’s passing can make him a valuable asset to every manager who he’s played under, his lack of mobility will always make him a target defensively. It was more frustrating to see Torreira playing as a box to box midfielders and Ceballos as an advanced playmaker. While they’re versatile enough to fill those roles, it makes it difficult for them to play to their strengths. A cohesive midfield can be built with these talented players, which makes the lack of protection offered by the midfield even more infuriating.

Mikel Arteta appointment as the new Arsenal manager is the most exciting Arsenal have been for over a decade. While Arteta is an unknown in terms of how I think his team will play, some factors hint towards a man who could become the long term successor to Wenger. Generally, central midfielders are seen as the smartest players on the pitch. The likes of Sergio Busquets, Fernandinho and Marco Verratti are all excellent readers of the game, able to spot their teammates in hard to reach positions, and sense danger before any attacks materialise. We’re seeing this now with some of the most prominent managers in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez, all previously midfielders, have shown to be intelligent tactically, whether through building a philosophy for their teams or showing a high level of adaptability. Arteta’s work with Pep Guardiola and experience playing under Arsene Wenger have given him a high level of knowledge from two of the games best thinkers from the century.

Arteta is clearly seen as a long-term option, but if he is to success for the next six months, he must fix the midfield and add some consistency in terms of approach and lineup. It would help evaluate the level of many of these players. Arsenal do have a lot of players I like, but thus far haven’t shown the level we know they can play at. If he can do that, as well as make them fun to watch, he will set himself up for an exciting second season.

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Since we last spoke about Manchester United, after their 1-1 with Arsenal, not much has really changed. While Rashford’s improvement in form and Martial’s return to the starting XI has helped them move up the table, the same issues persist. Big wins over Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, did help push United into the conversation for Champions League football next season, especially with these same opponents dropping points at crucial stages of the season. United have been reliant on the pace in their forwards when playing one of the bigger teams, accepting that they are the underdog in these games. City and Tottenham struggled to deal with the speed in which United were transitioning. Martial would consistently drop deep to retrieve the ball, while Rashford and James would stretch the defence and use their pace to beat whoever they’re against. Manchester City consistently leaving themselves open was definitely a factor in their 2-1 defeat. However, United still deserve praise for taking advantage of the weaknesses City have gained since De Bruyne’s return.

In all fairness, their ability against the bigger sides was never in question. The problem was how they could break down teams who were willing to sacrifice possession in the same way United do. Defeats to Bournemouth and Watford and draws to Everton and Aston Villa highlighted how these issues have remained. Their 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth, in particular, was awful. A lack of chance creation and the forward line failing to get behind a rather weak Bournemouth defence. Their lack of consistency is easily the most significant issue. One week they’ll beat two of the best teams in the country, the next they fail to beat a relegation favourite.

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Yet even with questions regarding the players in this squad, having better players would fix a lot of their issues. However, I think it might be a while before United will ever be back in the conversation for a title. When hearing Ed Woodward speak on how difficult it is to sign more than three players in a summer window or the lack of value in the January transfer window, it makes you wonder if the club even want to get back to the top. A majority of the players linked to the club are usually players from Premier League clubs who would cost an insane amount of money. James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, John McGinn and Dominic Calvin-Lewin do fill the rather strange policy of going for British players, but there is better value out there. In the summer alone, we saw Thiago Mendes move for £20 million, Julian Brandt for £17 million and Marcus Thuram for £10 million. Even now, players like Dani Olmo and Marco Roca are available for less than £40 million. You can always find value in the market, but it entirely depends where you are looking. If Manchester United’s focus remains only in the Premier League, it’ll take years to build a cohesive squad. 

Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United was the first time I’ve managed to watch Arteta’s Arsenal, and they’re showing some promising signs. The lineup the former Arsenal captain chose was a massive departure to the defensive starting XI’s seen under Emery. Nicolas Pepe, Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all started this game. These elite talents were one of the reasons why Arsenal did look so good in the first half. Kolasinac and Aubameyang linked up well on the left side, with the Gabon forward consistently staying wide, allowing Kolasinac to run with the ball through the space opened from Wan-Bissaka staying with Aubameyang. This was how the first goal was made. Kolasinac had another free sprint right at the defence. He picks out Aubameyang, who notices Pepe free in the box, and delivers a perfect ball for the Ivorian. 

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What impressed me a lot about Arteta was just how quickly Arsenal were able to get into United’s half. While their opposition do deserve some blame for this, the ways they were able to quickly create chances in the first half. They could progress the ball through the full-backs, or use the excellent passing of Xhaka and David Luiz to send a long ball into the wingers. Arsenal were really exciting in that first half, and while they did slow down in the final 45 minutes, the game was in their hands. 

Defensively, Arsenal looked very good. The attacking lineup did cause some concern, mainly if United could produce similar counter-attacks as they have done against some of the top 6. However, all of their forwards, with some garnering a reputation of being lazy, were fantastic defensively. All four of Arsenal’s forwards kept United’s defenders short of options during buildup play. Even Mesut Ozil, who many pundits have consistently labelled as lazy, made 46 pressures, more than any other player on the pitch. United were slow in moving the ball, but Arsenal made it so difficult for them. 

Torreira returned to his more familiar role as a true defensive midfielder. Xhaka was given more licence to push forward, while Torreira would ensure the defence wouldn’t be facing much traffic. It was arguably the most significant crime Emery committed; not playing one of the best young midfielders in the right position. 

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While Arsenal were more focused on holding onto their lead in the second half than truly humiliating United, that first half was such an encouraging sign for any Arsenal fan. For the first time since Wenger, they were fun to watch in a game. They were attacking with speed, dynamism and skill. The question is if they can do this consistently, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

As for United, the lack of energy and pressing was disturbing. United aren’t the pressing side they probably wish to be, but Arsenal were given so much freedom in transition. David Luiz and Sokratis had so many opportunities to run straight into midfield without a United player to close them down. Martial and Rashford looked slow in this game, and you can’t really blame them. The pair have played so much football when they’ve been available. With top four looking like a possibility and the Europa League returning in a month, I doubt they’ll ever get a chance to sit out games. They are United’s only chance of getting into the top four. If they have to rely on James, Lingard and Pereira, they’ll plummet down the table. 

Both managers are in very different places. Arteta, replacing a pretty unequipped coach, has given Arsenal players and fans something to be excited about. Solsjkaer also went through this same period, so we’ll see if Arteta can reach the same level as the coaches he’s worked with. 

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Solskjaer will be under a lot of pressure until the summer arrives. You hear a lot of trusted journalists say the Manchester United board are happy with the Norwegian, but that sense of doubt will always be there. If Pochettino wants to join the club, will they just let Solsjkaer go, similar to what they did to Van Gaal once Mourinho was available? I can’t blame Solsjkaer for all the problems. There are so many holes throughout the squad that one window isn’t enough with the lack of urgency United currently operate with. Woodward can go on and on about how difficult it is to sign players, but with players needed in midfield and attack so clear, it’ll be an embarrassment if their targets aren’t brought in by the end of June. 

 

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

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

Borussia Monchengladbach

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

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

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

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

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

RB Leipzig 

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

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

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

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

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

Schalke

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

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

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

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

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

Borussia Dortmund 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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