The Sacking of Pochettino: Where Did It Go Wrong and Where Do Tottenham Go From Here?

Before even discussing the whole Tottenham situation, let’s talk about Ajax, and more specifically, Rinus Michels. I consider him one of the greatest and most influential coaches in the history of the game. He was a primary factor in Ajax’s dominance in the early seventies, as well as Holland’s fantastic run to the 1974 World Cup final. There is no doubting his importance to how the game is even played today, with the Dutchman’s emphasis on players interchanging positions, ball-playing defenders and an extreme press. His first job on his arrival in 1965 was to avoid the drop, which he did through installing a robust training regime, which pushed his players to new levels. Ajax went on to win 4 league titles and reaching 2 European Cup finals, winning their first in 1971. However, as we now know about pressing teams, it’s very demanding on the players. They eventually reach a point where the constant work needed to put in can be too much, and they become sick of it. This drop off is exactly what happened with his Ajax team once Michels departed to Barcelona, and Stefan Kovacs was appointed. The players were at a stage where they didn’t need to work as hard as they were. They were European Champions at this point. All they needed was someone who would let them express themselves and continue to dominate. Two European Cups in two seasons later, the players became tired of Kovacs, with training and match preparations not at the same level as they were under Michels.

The point of that rather long story is because, on a somewhat smaller scale, it’s a replication of what happened at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino. He completely turned the club around, taking them from an inconsistent mess of a side to title challengers and then European finalists. No more struggling to challenge for the Champions League spots and relying on individual talents to carry them. Instead, they were a great team, defensively solid while still being a lot of fun to watch in-possession. Pochettino showed himself to be an excellent coach, turning the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela into great players through using a demanding, aggressive and enjoyable style of football. Between 2015 and 2018, Tottenham were arguably the second-best team in the league. Alongside Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pochettino side was one of the frontrunners in using pressing as a useful tool in defending and winning the ball high up the pitch.

Everything was going so well for Tottenham under Pochettino in those first three years, but the beginning of the end can actually be traced back to the summer of 2017, and the sale of Kyle Walker. The England right-back wasn’t precisely a world-class talent, so selling him for £50 million did make sense. Still, they failed to replace him adequately, with Aurier arriving to add competition to a defensively-weak Kieran Trippier. This might not have been a massive issue at the time, but looking back, it’s clear where a lot of problems would later arise.

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I think the problems became more apparent in the summer of 2018, a transfer window in which Tottenham failed to sign a single player. There was already a lot of questions regarding if that Tottenham side needed additions and if the squad was good enough as it is. It’s easy to look back now and criticise the club for not adding new players, especially with the gaping hole in midfield that was opening as Dembele was turning into a shadow of the player he was. One of the reasons why teams sign players is to freshen things up. That Tottenham squad had been together for four years. Rarely is there a team that can stay motivated for that long. Clubs need to continually add new faces in the dressing room. It keeps the senior players on their toes, knowing there will be a player ready to take their place in the starting eleven if their form begins to slip. The added competition has kept Manchester City, Juventus and PSG competitive on all fronts, with depth in all positions. Tottenham aren’t on the same level as one of these superclubs, but not signing a single player comes across as insanely arrogant, especially when the team was in desperate need for midfield additions. 

The 2018/19 season was by far Pochettino’s most impressive as a manager. He was stuck with an inferior squad to the one he had in the past, which included injuries to key players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli throughout crucial points of the season. Spurs were not good last season, but Pochettino somehow managed to get enough out of his team to get top four as well as reach a Champions League final. He did this through nearly sacrificing a lot of what made his Spurs side so good for 3 years, instead opting for a more adaptive and reactive approach to his team. Pochettino was more or less changing his tactics depending on the opponent, whether it was formation or personnel. Their surprise 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 2018 does showcase this rather perfectly. During this game, Pochettino changes his formation a lot, switching between alterations of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1. The message was becoming apparent. This team, especially after an exhausting World Cup year, were not at the level to be showing the same intensity as they did in the past.

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Spurs were not good last season, in fact in the second half of the season, they were awful. At the time it was easy to defend their terrible form in 2019 because of their run in the Champions League, which was a lot different to their domestic form. In Europe, Spurs managed to beat Dortmund home and away, somehow progress past Pep’s City and displayed so much fight and heart to edge past the neutral’s favourite, Ajax. Tottenham were not the second-best team in Europe last season, they weren’t even top five, but Pochettino managed to get everything out of the players he had. During buildup, he would regularly bypass the midfield of Sissoko and Winks, due to their lack of ability in ball progression. With Kane injured, it was the best way to utilise Fernando Llorente’s strengths, placing quick players around him like Son and Moura. Their performances in the Champions League were extraordinary compared to their league form, which was truly atrocious. Convincing defeats to Bournemouth, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham showed Tottenham at their worst; games where chance creation was lacking and Pochettino’s players just didn’t look nearly as solid and organised as they did back in 2017. They were facing 12.9 shots per game last season, a considerable increase from the 9.4 they were facing in 17/18. The Athletic even notes:

“Spurs’ pressed sequences increased in absolute and relative terms over the first four Pochettino seasons. From 11.6 per game in 2014-15, joint-eighth in the league, to 15.6 in 2017-18, the second-most in the league, at their pressing peak.

Then, last year, a dramatic drop down to 13.2, their lowest since Pochettino’s first season, and only the 10th highest in the league. That tells the story itself.”

The numbers, performances and results all paint this picture of a manager willing to do anything to take Spurs to win something. Their final defeat to Liverpool, a make or break game which could have defined Pochettino’s legacy at the club, instead highlighted the leap in quality between them and their opponents. That final season seemed to have taken every last ounce of energy out of Pochettino, which makes it more baffling to why he decided to stay. 

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Even with the much-needed additions of Tanguay Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, the sale of Kieran Trippier did leave a massive hole at right-back. Llorente also departed the club in the summer, meaning there was no one to cover for Kane, who has become half the player he was before his infamous ankle injury. I still thought Tottenham would quite easily get into the top four. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea still had clear holes in their team, and Spurs have been one of the most consistent sides in the past four years. It made sense to think they would finish there with the signings of two of the best young midfielders in Europe. 

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Tottenham were terrible last season, but have somehow been even worse in 19/20. So far, Tottenham have only managed 3 wins 12 games, a shambolic amount of wins considering the talent at their disposal. Those 12.7 shots faced last season has risen to 14.8. They’re 10th for shots taken per game and lacked any cohesion in the final third. Their defence has become noticeably bad, but in terms of chance creation and shot location, they’re just as useless. Tottenham are 17th for non-penalty xG with only 13.15, with only Palace, Newcastle and Norwich behind them. The players have looked out of ideas on numerous occasions. Their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle was one of the worst performance I’ve seen during Pochettino’s reign. They were narrow and failed to create anything of substance against one of the worst teams in the league. Their 3-0 defeat to Brighton was somehow even worse. Spurs were comfortably second best in every area, allowing Brighton to create plenty of quality chances, while Spurs failed to create anything of note. Vertonghen and Alderweireld were beaten far too easily for Connolly’s goals. Kane and Eriksen were poor, and they were simply beaten by a better team.

After failing to win since the end of September, Pochettino was given the boot. It’s divided the footballing world, especially with Mourinho arriving as his replacement. I do think Levy is to blame for some of the issues in the dressing and the lack of transfers during 2018, but it’s obvious the players were clearly tired of all the work, as seen by their pressing numbers dropping. But it’s not only the players, but Pochettino also seems to face exhaustion. He was considering leaving the club after the Champions League final if the result went in their favour. This is similar to what happened at Espanyol. During his final press conference in Spain, Pochettino said: “I have been in the world of football for many years and understand that a coach has a sell-by date.” Even with the outside factors, the relation between Pochettino’s Tottenham and Michels’ Ajax are clear. Players will only perform in these intense systems for 3-5 years before it starts to decline.

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So is Mourinho going to be the Kovacs of Tottenham? Well, I don’t think Mourinho will be as bad as many believe, but I don’t think it’s going to work as well as Levy and Mourinho want. The former Chelsea coach does have a considerable advantage compared to his start at United. The majority of Tottenham’s players are ready to go now. Kane, Moura and Son are at a perfect age while Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Rose offer much-needed experience that Mourinho craves. The constant fitness and training done under Pochettino means Mourinho can focus more on the tactical side of the game, something he has always favoured. He has a lot of players who I can see him liking already. I can see Sissoko playing in those big games because of that size, aggression and speed he can offer in midfield, and Son and Moura are both very flexible in where and how they can play. Mourinho has two things he has to do on the short term; fix the defence and fix Kane.

Even if United’s defence was awful in Jose’s final two seasons, he still earned a reputation for creating a solid base to start building from. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are better than the defenders he had in Manchester, so expect the same robust and resilient backline we saw at Chelsea and Inter. The right-back area is an obvious problem, but Mourinho has never attacked with two full-backs. He’ll likely use Rose as his primary attacking full-back, and choose Foyth, Sissoko or Aurier to fill in on the right-side.

Kane is the biggest problem. Many like to paint this image of Kane as this complete forward, bringing others into play as well as scoring bundles of goals. But this is simply not true. Kane was at his best between August 2017 and March 2018, before that ankle injury against Bournemouth. He was not only taking a high volume of shots but taking them in great areas. He scored 24 goals in 29 games, taking over 5 shots per game with an xG per 90 of 0.88, the highest of his career so far. The ankle injury isn’t even the most significant problem to why Kane has fallen out of that top three forwards bracket. He needs to stop dropping so deep, and actually focus on getting in the box. His shot numbers have dropped massively down to 2.7, and his xG per 90 is down to 0.44. Kane is literally half the striker he was in 2017/18. Mourinho has always gotten a lot out of his forwards. Whether it’s an old-school forward like Milito, a young hardworking striker like Benzema or an all-rounder in Zlatan. Mourinho could be the perfect guy to reinvigorate Kane and turn him into the player he used to be. 

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As for Pochettino, I’d recommend taking a year off. This whole Spurs’ situation seems to have drained him. Just like Pep after departing Barcelona, Pochettino could do with the time off, to rethink his approach and recuperate after a very long five years. He will have plenty of jobs when he decides to return to football. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and possibly Paris Saint-Germain could all be looking for a coach next summer. Pochettino has proven he can build a team, get the best out of his assets and improve his teams in defence while bringing an entertaining style and aggressive press with him. Tottenham needed a fresh face in the dugout, just like Pochettino needs a new environment. 

Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Premier League Team of the Decade

With the 2010s coming to a close, everyone’s been discussing who’ve been the stand out players of the decade. Since this has been the first decade where I’ve been able to follow the Premier League from start to finish, let’s look at which players have stood out among the competition, players who will be remembered for years to come. There is a few names I’ve not included here which a majority of people will disagree with. This team is a combination of players who have left a lasting impression on me. Some of them might not be the best players we’ve seen during this decade, but these are the guys I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching during the last ten years.

David De Gea

Starting with by far the most obvious pick, David De Gea has not only been the best goalkeeper during the last decade but arguably in league history. It’s well-documented by now that the Spaniard had a tough first couple of years in England, struggling to adapt to a more physical league, but Ferguson knew he would need to adjust. De Gea did start a lot of games under United’s legendary manager, 29 in his first season and 28 in his second. But if De Gea did have a couple of bad to mediocre performances, Ferguson would take him out of the side to ensure his confidence wouldn’t plummet entirely. This was the best decision, with De Gea going on to start over 34 games in all of his campaigns since the Scotsman’s retirement from management.

During a time where United have been inconsistent or underwhelming to put it lightly, De Gea remained a constant, always making those game-changing saves and made a pretty weak defensive unit look like the best in the division. His best season was by far the 17/18 season, more specifically, away at the Emirates. De Gea had the best goalkeeping performance in Premier League history. He made 14 saves against the Gunners, and they weren’t just simple stops. Some of the saves he was making were groundbreaking. The best among his many saves in this game was his fantastic double save. Lacazette was gifted a chance in the penalty area, which De Gea magnificently stops, only for the ball to fall to his future teammate Alexis Sanchez. De Gea had seconds to react, and from 6-yards out, he managed to save the Chilean’s shot with his leg. It was a save that not only saved United’s defence, which was awful on the day, but perfectly summarised United in the past 6 years. De Gea has been the sole reason for the Red Devils having one of the best defences in the league.

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Some would see a couple of factors that hold De Gea back from being the best goalkeeper of the decade. His first couple of years in England weren’t great and his form has fallen from the best in the world to pretty average since 2018. He’s never been great on the ball compared to the likes of Ederson and Allison. Yet, there were four years of elite production that I’ve never seen a goalkeeper replicate. 

Kyle Walker

The full-back areas have been difficult to choose, not for a vast amount of choices, but the lack of them. With not many names to choose from, Kyle Walker is easily the most obvious choice to fill the right-back position. Walker was an up-and-coming player during his early years, but up until 2015, he failed to live up to his potential. He was still starting a lot of games for Spurs, but was somewhat inconsistent and defensively still had massive holes in his game. It was the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, like for many of the Tottenham players, changed the course of his career. During his three years under the Argentine, Walker turned into the best right-back in the league, giving his side plenty of width while having the speed to make those recovery tackles if possession was lost. He was never a massive goalscoring threat like Marcos Alonso nor a great creator like Alexander-Arnold, but Walker remained solid. He was a constant outlet for Tottenham and seemed to live up to that promise he showed early on. 

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Walker’s move to Manchester changed his game. Guardiola already had, at the time, Benjamin Mendy has a very attacking full-back, so Walker was to take to a more reserved role in the team. He stopped pushing forward as far as he did under Pochettino and AVB, yet still remained heavily involved in build-up play, completing over 70 passes per game last season. Even with more talented players around him, The England right-back has been a critical member for both Pochettino and now Pep Guardiola. Ricardo Pereira and Trent Alexander-Arnold might be more talented, but Walker is an excellent player to have for any manager and has stood out during the 2010s.

David Luiz

Maybe putting David Luiz in this team might be rather daft, but when I think of players who have defined the 2010’s, David Luiz is one of the first names to come to mind. The Brazilian has had moments of stupidity at times, with his brand of defending leaving his teammates rather exposed at times, but what David Luiz has always excelled at is distribution. People like to look at Rio Ferdinand as the first defender in England to honestly look comfortable and composed on the ball. Ferdinand did revolutionise the position here, but David Luiz took the next step and became the best defender in terms of ability on the ball. The issue that many managers have found with Luiz is if you don’t play him in a particular system, he might be your worst defender, but in the right one, he is your best defender.

Luiz has played under a lot of Chelsea managers, 7 in fact. He arrived in January 2011, going onto play 11 games under Ancelotti. David Luiz was loved at Chelsea. His aggression, positivity and the way he has always worn his heart on his sleeve has made him very easy to like. He was genuinely great under Villas-Boas and Di Matteo, but it was Mourinho’s arrival that almost forced Luiz into departing Chelsea. Luiz has many qualities, but defending in a deep block, similar to how Mourinho likes to deploy, isn’t playing him to his strengths. He broke the record for the most expensive defender, moving to Paris for £50 million. At PSG, David Luiz was fantastic and did his usual long balls and runs out the back to help progress the ball. Laurent Blanc usually played possession-based football, with a high-line. This was perfect for Luiz.

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After two successful seasons in Paris, David Luiz returned to Chelsea, coincidentally, the season after Mourinho departed. Many neutrals laughed at this deadline-day signing. Why bring back a player you sold two years ago, who is now 30 years old? It was a weird move at the time, but a lot had changed since that first stint. Antonio Conte was now Chelsea manager, a coach who plays a deep block similar to Mourinho. It usually included a libero, a defender who focuses on sweeping up after the other defenders and using their passing ability to help move the ball further up the field, think Beckenbauer or Leonardo Bonucci. Luiz fitted this mould perfectly and had his best season during his long club career. Luiz was genuinely fantastic under Conte, gaining a place in the team of the season and finally winning a title at Stamford Bridge. Luiz eventually earned the credit he had deserved for years, showing that when placed in the right system, no one in England was better than him. After falling out with Conte, Luiz returned to being a first-team regular under Sarri, another manager who saw Luiz as the great defender he is. His excellent reading of the ball and world-class distribution meant that he fitted seamlessly into Sarri’s possession-heavy system. 

The criticisms which have faced Luiz for years have always been the mistakes and lack of concentration, which are reasonable. He will occasionally give away needless penalties and make the wrong decision when facing teams with pacey forwards. Under a certain amount of pressure, Luiz can crumble, and still does. Now playing for Arsenal, Luiz needlessly pulled Mohamed Salah’s shirt in the box and gifted Liverpool a penalty. It was a moment that many have come to expect from Luiz. Whenever he makes mistakes, he tries his hardest to make up for them, only to make the situation worse. Luiz, at his worst, can be a problem, especially during substantial stints without possession, but at his best, is one of the best defenders the league has ever seen. Maybe putting him over Vincent Kompany might be slightly baffling, but no defender has defined the evolution of centre backs more than Sideshow Bob himself. 

Toby Alderweireld 

Since his arrival in England, Alderweireld has been apart of some the best defences of the past 5 years. Firstly on loan under Ronald Koeman at Southampton, where he helped form the second-best defence in the league. Many, including me, saw Jose Fonte as the stand out player out of the pair, but it was, in fact, Alderweireld, who was the key man. He then earned a move to Tottenham, which not only showed his qualities but turned Tottenham from a mess into arguably the best team in the league for two years. They went from having the worst defence out of the top six to having the best in Alderweireld’s first season. The former Ajax defender offered so much more than any defender Tottenham had in the past. He was the best ball-playing defender in the league, not only comfortable in possession but even helping move the ball into the final third, earning 2 assists in 15/16, both to Dele Alli with long balls right into the England international’s feet. The way he could receive the ball and send this calmness across the ground was something rare to see. In 17/18, he had an injury-plagued season, where he only managed 13 starts, but since then, has continued to be a mainstay in Spurs’ defence.

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Alderweireld might not be a physical monster like Virgil Van Dijk or have the goal threat of John Terry. Still, the Belgian was at one point comfortably the best defender in the league and was the reason for Tottenham’s consistently high performances between 2015 and 2018. It’s instead a shame he hasn’t been able to win a trophy in England, but on quality and consistency alone, no one deserves to be here more than Alderweireld. 

Cesar Azpilicueta

Another example of a position where choices are limited. However, even if there was a fantastic left-back to choose, Azpilicueta is fully deserving of a place as one of the best players of the decade. The Spaniard has been Mr Consistent since arriving in England, moving from right-back, to left-back under Mourinho, centre-back under Conte and now back to right-back. He’s never suffered from a single injury since playing in London and has been loved by every manager who he’s played under. In the summer of 2014, Mourinho brought in Brazilian left-back Felipe Luiz from Atletico Madrid, with Ashley Cole departing and Ivanovic covering at right-back, it was presumed that Azpilicueta would play as a back-up. But he kept his place in the side, and keeping arguably one of the best left-backs in the previous year, on the bench. 

Defensively, Azpilicueta is one of the best full-backs the league has ever seen. He has consistently put up massive tackle and interception numbers, has always been difficult for opposition wingers to beat and reads the game so well. It’s a testament to his defensive qualities that he fitted in rather flawlessly in Antonio Conte’s back three, alongside David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Azpilicueta was primarily winning the ball back and pushing up in build-up play. The Spaniard was putting in less than a foul per game during that title-winning campaign under Conte and played every game of that spectacular season. 

Azpilicueta’s speciality is defending, and he’s really good at it, but that isn’t to diminish his qualities on the ball. The former Marseille defender has racked up 29 assists during his Chelsea career, with his long balls over the top to Alvaro Morata during the 2017/18 season a highlight of his career, assisting the Spanish forward 6 times that season. He was making those difficult balls into the final third that you usually expect David Luiz to play, but Azpiliciueta once again showed just how good and versatile he is. 

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There isn’t a massive fault in his game or in his credentials to play in this team. No one has been more consistent and loved by multiple managers in the same way as Cesar Azpilicueta. An absolute shoo-in for everyone’s side of the decades. 

Fernandinho

Maybe not putting Ngolo Kante in this team might be baffling, but hear me out here. Fernandinho has not only played in this league longer than the Frenchman but has been even better. The Brazilian arrived in this league at the age of 28. Usually, this is seen as the age where players begin losing their physical edge and start to become easier to expose, think Steven Gerrard or Toni Kroos, who after the age of 28, began to show weaknesses defensively. Fernandinho was a short term fix in a sense. His arrival and the sheer amount of defensive work he did during City’s 13/14 title triumph (6 tackles and interceptions), which not only helped add some protection to the defence but covered for Yaya Toure, allowing him to have that great 20 goal season. Fernandinho had an arduous task ahead of him. Pellegrini teams are famously a lot of fun to watch and gets the best out of his attacking talents, but it can leave the defence extremely vulnerable if the personnel isn’t at the same level as the attack. Fernandinho was one of the reasons why City were actually good defensively that season. 

He continued his consistently high standards on the pitch in Pellegrini’s final couple of seasons, even if the team was weaker as each year passes. However, it was the arrival of Pep Guardiola that indeed showed Fernandinho as the best defensive midfielder of the decade. Even at the age of 31, Fernandinho was vital for City’s end of decade dominance. He was the sole midfielder in a three-man midfield containing David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. While Pep and De Bruyne are credited for creating the ‘free eight’ role on the pitch, it wouldn’t be possible without having Fernandinho behind him, allowing the Belgian to push forward and create. Fernandinho has been doing everything you can ask from a midfielder. He puts in a lot of defensive work, reads the game well, and can play those penetrating balls through midfield, can dribble, can score and knows when to partake in the dirtier side of the game.

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His quality can be best be shown with just how bad City were in the 18/19 season without him. While Gundogan isn’t a bad player, he doesn’t do nearly enough defensively to allow the other midfielders to push forward. Fernandinho missed most of the December fixtures, which resulted in defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace. Even finding a replacement for Fernandinho proved difficult. The Champions finally settled on Rodri, after being linked to Jorginho, Fred and Aouar. City’s midfield so far this season has looked weaker without Fernandinho. Rodri is excellent but doesn’t possess the same speed, intelligence and ability to stop attacks before they materialise. People will always look at Aguero, Kompany and Silva as the players who have been the driving force for City’s success. While that is true, most of it under Guardiola has been down to Fernandinho being so well-rounded, so perfect for the whole that his coach requires. 

Santi Cazorla

I love Santi Cazorla, a lot actually. It’s hard to really put in words how fantastic he was to watch during his peak years in England. Cazorla arrived at a very frustrating time for Arsenal fans. It was another summer where they sold their two best players from the previous season, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, to bigger clubs. It left Arsenal with a massive problem, goals and creativity. Giroud and Podolski arrived to fix the goal problem, while Cazorla arrived to supply their new forwards. The Spaniard arrived in a league where two Spanish playmakers dominated in style and production. David Silva and Juan Mata were their teams’ most important players, consistently linking midfield and attack so fluently. While they were at their best as a number 10, they could even play as a wide player, move freely into the centre and cause all sorts of problems for their opponents. Cazorla arrived into the league much later than his national teammates, being 27 while Mata and Silva were 23 and 24 respectively, but that added experience gave the additional quality. Cazorla was a two-footed, intelligent, exciting, while still possessing a burst of speed that let him play on the left.and could dribble through the smallest of gaps. His tight control of the ball was unmatched in the league. 

Cazorla’s first season for Arsenal is arguably the best creative season during this whole decade. I still believe that if Arsenal managed to sign Cazorla and keep Van Persie, they would have been league champions in 12/13. Arsenal were excellent that season, with Walcott, Arteta, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Sagna have their best seasons at the Emirates. If it weren’t for Manchester United desperate to commemorate their manager in the right way and Arsenal’s usual patchy results (I’d imagine they’d be different with Van Persie in the side), the Gunners would have ended their long trophy drought. Cazorla played in every Premier League game in 12/13, playing centrally or on the left, and dominated Arsenal’s stats. The former Malaga midfielder was second for most shots in Arsenal’s squad, first for chance creation, second for dribbles completed, second for passes completed and was even putting in over 4 tackles and interceptions. He ended the season with 12 goals and 11 assists. His best season for Arsenal was the season where he was at his most important. He was responsible for doing nearly everything in attack and ball progression while having to do his fair share of defensive work. The fact he did so and more, shows just the level of player Cazorla was at Arsenal.

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Cazorla’s versatility was arguably his biggest strength, but in the arrival of Mesut Ozil, a flaw. Wenger saw how Cazorla didn’t need to play centrally to be effective, so bringing in Real Madrid’s best creator and moving Cazorla over to the left did make sense. Ozil, and later Sanchez, did start to be looked at as Arsenal’s best players, from their vast reputations at previous clubs, but Santi Cazorla remained as crucial as ever. The reason why you play Cazorla and Ozil together is that it means you can’t stop the creativity. You couldn’t merely mark Ozil out of the game, because Cazorla would then take centre stage. It’s what made them so good for Cazorla’s first couple of years at the club, even with Giroud being very frustrating. It’s arguably what Arsenal’s most significant problem in recent years. The lack of creativity in the side means they are so easy to silence under Emery. Without having a variety of creators, it makes it so easy to stop you from dominating games and creating chances. 

Cazorla’s final couple of full seasons at the Emirates showed just how important he was for Wenger. Even with Ozil, Sanchez, Ox and Walcott preferred in the forward areas, Wenger had to have in the team somehow, so chose to play him in a double pivot alongside Francis Coquelin. Cazorla was once again fantastic, and it made so easy for him to receive the ball, evade pressure effortlessly and continue to play defence-breaking balls into the final third. 

However, his long-term ankle injury in October 2016 ruled him for nearly 2 years, leaving Arsenal and Cazorla with no choice but to part ways. His departure coincided with Arsenal losing their competitive edge, and they suddenly fell off a cliff. Ozil became easier to mark out of games since there wasn’t anyone else to carry that creative burden, and Arsenal generally went from a great team to a bad yet fun team under Wenger. Cazorla might not have the same longevity or titles as other players, but he has genuinely been one of the best players the league has ever seen.

David Silva

The next three players here have all been involved in the best team of the decade, but let’s start with David Silva. Like Walker, Silva has been in the league from the start and has been remarkably consistent. His first season in England was famously not great. While 11 goal contributions and toping the team for key passes with 2.1 is still substantial, it still showed that Silva, and Manchester City, weren’t yet ready to win their first title. The physical side of the league did seem to have an effect, but Silva did eventually got to his best. The former Valencia midfielder had an absolutely sensational campaign in City’s first title win. Silva went from 11 goal contributions in his first season to 21 in his second. This is where Silva established himself as the best creator in the league, linking up so well with the other forwards and always finding space in the final third to exploit. Like Cazorla, Silva was regularly played as a wide playmaker, with an emphasis on coming inside and looking for holes to exploit between the defence and the midfield. He could evade pressure so smoothly and was vital for creativity and ball progression.

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It was actually under Pep where he cemented himself as all time great. During Manchester City’s centurion season, Silva had his best season for the club. While De Bruyne did take the headlines for some of his fantastic assists and performances, Silva’s role had transformed. He was now alongside De Bruyne as a ‘free 8,’ and excelled in this fast, possession football that needed players like Silva, so technically gifted and intelligent to help drive the ball and create chances for the other forwards. During this super season, Pep’s wingers would stretch the defence, Cruyff-style, and give space for Silva and De Bruyne to exploit. Silva was so good when getting the ball in the 18-yard box, to quickly play a pass into one of his teammates in the box when their opponents had no time to adjust to the speed in City’s attacks. You couldn’t stop him from wiggling through defenders and play those simple, yet so effective balls into the feet of his teammates.

I’ve been in more depth with other players here, because in some cases, primarily Cazorla and Luiz, I’ve felt I have needed to justify their selections, but Silva will be in everyone’s team of the decades. He’s consistently performed every season and played a big part in all of City’s title winning seasons. From the leading creator, linking midfield to defence during his peak years, to using his invaluable experience and ability on the ball to find pockets in the opposition’s box, Silva has been a joy to watch during the last 9 years. 

Raheem Sterling 

Sterling might be a hard player to justify including, considering how he didn’t start playing regularly until 2012, in which he was very much a raw talent, being a great dribbler but still needing time to mature. Sterling was great alongside Suarez and Sturridge in one of the few seasons where Liverpool were close to winning the title. His follow-up season was a struggle, yet not as bad as many like to remember, considering he was only 20 and still getting into double figures for goal contributions. We look back and see that £44 million paid for Sterling and think it was a good deal, but at the time, people were not happy. The idea of spending so much money on a young player who was still unproven in a sense was crazy. What made it slightly worse was the arrival of Kevin De Bruyne, who at around £10 million more, Manchester City were getting arguably the best player in the Bundesliga in the previous season. He was at an age where he was ready to produce now. Sterling defined the money clubs were willing to spend on the next hot English talent.

Like 3 other players on this list, Pep Guardiola arrived and changed Sterling from a promising winger to one of the best wingers in Europe. Pep took out the weakest parts of his game, being his shot location and directness. One of Sterling’s problems was how wasteful he could be when in good positions. They improved during his first season in Manchester, but this was down to some dominant Manchester City performances, but what changed under Pep was where his shots were coming from. Sterling began looking for space in the penalty area, with all of his goals coming from inside the box. In the 17/18 season, down to improvements in his own game and a much better Manchester City team, Sterling looked unstoppable. He contributed to 29 goals in City’s first title win under Guardiola and stood out with some vital goals against Southampton, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Everton and Huddersfield. He was one of the reasons why City even managed to win the league and get to a historic amount of points. He was primarily played on the right, with his objective to stay wide in a very Dutch way, to stretch the opposition back four and allow his teammates to find space in behind. Sterling’s dribbling did help him stand out. The problem before Pep’s arrival was the way he was dribbling was slowing down attacks, choosing to take multiple touches on the ball. Pep made the slight yet significant change of telling him to take a single touch and move the ball. It keeps opponents in an uncomfortable position, with Sterling’s speed making it harder to predict his next move. 

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Sterling remained insanely consistent in City’s follow up campaign, scoring 17 and assisting 10. His goals were still being taken in very good areas, even with Kevin De Bruyne missing for most of the season. Pep also began playing him on the left, his preferred position due to the winger being right-footed. Pep clearly sees Sterling as a vital member of his team, with Sane dropping to the bench and the likes of Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, two naturally right-sided players, playing to get the best out England’s exciting attacker. 

Maybe including a player who has only had 3 genuinely great seasons in the Premier League is a bit extreme, especially choosing him over Hazard. But Sterling is one of the best wingers on the planet, and his goalscoring, creativity, dribbling are all fantastic. His skill set is more varied than Hazard’s and has been sensational in the best team of the decade. 

Sergio Aguero 

Another Manchester City player who must be included in this team. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Sergio Aguero is the best South American to ever play in the Premier League. His level of consistency since 2011 is absolutely outstanding. Only once did he manage to score less than 15 goals in a season, scoring bundles of goals and winning games for every manager he has played under. 

Aguero arrived during Manchester City’s early spending spree, joining in the same summer as Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy and joining other big-money signings like Yaya Toure, David Silva and Joleon Lescott. Aguero had some fierce competition in terms of players in the pecking order. Edin Dzeko was another expensive arrival and offered a lot in terms of build-up play and in the air. Carlos Tevez didn’t reach the point of being virtually hated by all sets of fans in Manchester and was still considered one of the most lethal forwards in the league. Mario Balotelli was another player who, while controversial, was still useful, and at this point, promising. Aguero arrived to add that element of speed and coolness in front of goal, while still being very comfortable on the ball and could offer a lot in terms of build-up play, even with a weaker frame to Dzeko. The Argentine famously had one of the best debuts in Premier League history, coming off the bench in a 4-0 win over QPR. In only half an hour of football, Aguero managed to score his first goal, create two more for his teammates and score the final goal. He also scored THAT winning goal against QPR on the last game of the season, with his intuitive and powerful finish winning Manchester City their first Premier League title. 

His best season to me was the 14/15 season, where he won the golden boot with 26 goals (yet didn’t make the team of the year). Aguero was in absolutely monsterous form. He scored all 4 goals in a 4-1 win over Pochettino’s Tottenham, reaching the 10 goal mark by the beginning of November, and actually reached 100 goals for Man City in a 4-2 derby defeat to Manchester United. It took him only three and a half years to reach a goal tally for a club that some strikers never reach. Aguero’s numbers in that season were ridiculous, ending 14/15 with 0.93 non-penalty expected goals contributions per 90. There is only one season where he bettered that, in Pep’s centurion season, playing in a team with a much better supporting cast. I have fond memories of Aguero over the years, with the one that stands out is a particular goal he scored. I still can’t remember what side this goal was against, but all I can remember is when Aguero struck the ball, and you can see the net being close to breaking. 

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His time under Pep did initially start on bad terms. The Argentine marksman bafflingly didn’t seem to fit Guardiola’s blueprint for his ideal striker, with there being a huge question mark over his build-up play. Aguero has always been a consistent chance creator, but as he has gotten older, his primary focus has always been on goalscoring. There were even rumours in January 2017 than Pep would consider selling Aguero, with Jesus being preferred in terms of his ability to drop deep and drag defenders with him. However, Jesus picked up a severe knee injury not long after his arrival, meaning Pep had to turn back to Aguero, an opportunity the Argentine took and proved his manager wrong. From March onwards, he scored 13 goals in all competitions, including 2 huge goals in a spectacular Champions League tie against Monaco. Pep was wrong to doubt Aguero, but the striker proved himself to be the undroppable player he has proven to be for every manager. 

Aguero has been the perfect forward since arriving in England. A consistent, creative scorer who always turns up for big games. Newcastle are his favourite opponent to play, but Chelsea and Tottenham are right behind them, with Aguero in double figures against both London clubs. Like Silva, he has been heavily involved in all of Manchester City’s success in the past decade. Premier League fans still tend to place Henry and Shearer ahead of Aguero, but it is just so difficult to argue against Aguero being at their level. A Premier League legend for sure. 

Sadio Mane

Maybe including Sterling is reasonable, but Mane might be a stretch too far, but hear me out. Mane arrived during Southampton’s best time of the decade, helping them achieve back to back top half finishes. Coincidentally, as soon as he departed, Southampton went from a fun team into the tedious slog they are today. Mane has never failed to score less than 10 goals in every season he has played in English football. The former Salzburg winger had a solid start to the Premier League. In the 14/15 season, he broke the record for fastest hat-trick in Premier League history, scoring 3 goals in only 2 minutes 56 seconds. This hat-trick perfectly showcased what Mane was all about. He was quick, direct, strong and had a lethal strike on him. He was a defender’s worst nightmare.

His £35 million move to Liverpool did raise a lot of eyebrows. While he did show a lot of talent at Southampton, the problem was his consistency and attitude. Koeman publicly called him out during the 15/16 season because of Mane’s lack of focus and concentration. It was clear that with Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Liverpool all interested, Mane wanted to join a bigger club. His form in that final season was also a problem. While his numbers did always remain positive, he would go through long periods with the Saints without scoring. Famously before his brace in a 3-2 win over Liverpool, Mane went four months without scoring. His xG per 90 throughout his career has remained at around a goal every other 3 games, a good return for a winger. What a lot of people don’t realise is players usually stop acting out once they get their dream moves, and Mane’s case, that remains true. He was the first big signing made by Jurgen Klopp to add a pace and goals from the wide areas. Mane has arguably been Klopp’s best signing at Liverpool, for kicking everything into motion and being the starting point for their future success. Bringing Mane in first made a lot of sense. His versatility and ability to press made him an ideal player to have while the majority of players adjust to a demanding style of football. In Mane’s first game, he scored the 4th goal in a spectacular 4-3 away win against Arsenal, hitting the top corner of the net with his weaker foot. His first reaction was to run to his manager, showing how this was the perfect match, for a player who’s acted out before, and a manager with love for players in Mane’s mould.

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His second season saw Mane take a big leap forward. While his xG and his goal contributions did stay mostly the same, he was still consistently producing even with Mohamed Salah having an absolutely sensational season. Mane still had moments of pure magic, which included 10 goals in the Champions League and a goal in the final. In a final which saw Salah go off injured, they needed their other attackers to truly turn up, and Mane definitely brought his a-game. Mane was comfortably Liverpool’s best player, causing Carvahal all kinds of problems with his pace and trickery. 

Last season saw Mane score as many goals as his Egyptian teammate, finishing the season with a personal-high 22 goals. He did massively overperform, but with Salah being tightly marked through many of Liverpool’s matches, teams forgot about the threat that the Senegalese forward can bring. 

Salah could have easily appeared on this list, but it seems unfair to choose a player who has only been playing regularly in the league since 2017. Mane’s numbers have remained consistently high throughout his time in the Premier League, but it took a move to one of the best Premier League teams of all time to allow him to play at his level. 

Honourable mentions 

With the XI finally complete, there are plenty of other players who deserve praise. In goal, there were some other options to consider. Hugo Lloris would probably be my honourable mention, but De Gea has comfortably been the best goalkeeper, and Lloris has gotten noticeably worse in recent years. Lukasz Fabianski was fantastic at Swansea, and we saw Polish shot-stopper have a David De Gea season in 18/19, being the sole reason why West Ham didn’t have the worst defence in the league. Joe Hart even deserves mention for being an excellent goalkeeper during City’s early success but didn’t possess the same consistency for such a long period as David Silva and Aguero.

In defence, there were quite a few choices to select. John Terry was a player who, while past his best during the decade, was still an ever present in Chelsea’s team. However, I can’t include thanks in part to me not liking him as a human being and the former England captain only having 3-4 years where he didn’t look like the ageing player he was. Jan Vertonghen was another to consider, but Alderweireld was just better and transformed Tottenham’s defence on his arrival. Vincent Kompany is obviously the player that should be included, and for 3 years he was fantastic, but injuries began to impact him and lead to a player who struggled for consistent game time for 3 years. He did have an excellent final season at the Etihad. Still, David Luiz at his best was the best defender during the whole decade, and Alderweireld was partly responsible for Tottenham actually becoming good. The Arsenal pair of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker could easily start here, but both had massive injury problems, and Arsenal weren’t excellent defensively during this decade. Full-back, as mentioned, wasn’t stacked with option. Pablo Zabaleta is the only player who was genuinely in contention for a place, with the left-back position producing some weak options over the 2010s. 

There were plenty of midfielders to choose from. James Milner was so close to being put in midfield. He was an unsung hero during his five-year spell in Manchester. He went on to being a fantastic utility player for Klopp, filling in at left-back for a season, then moving back in midfield and being their best player in that position. Kante and Fabregas also could have easily been in this XI, but Fernandinho was simply better than Kante and Fabregas did have some fantastic seasons. Yet, Silva and Cazorla were must picks for Spanish midfielders. I’ve also heard people consider Kevin De Bruyne for this, but he’s missed as many games as he’s played while being in Manchester. He had two seasons of elite production, but two more that consisted of injuries. Yaya Toure is in a similar boat to De Bruyne, but the difference being that Toure arrived in this league a bit too late for his skillset. Ozil was close to being put in this team, but thanks to Emery wasting the two final years of the decade, it’s hard to put him here. 

Up front was arguably the area where a lot of good players had be cut thanks to Aguero being the clear choice. Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku were all considered, but it’s impossible to choose anyone over Aguero. Hazard was arguably the weirdest player to leave out, but his goal tallies have been massively swayed from penalties, and his 15/16 season was so bad, that it ruined his reputation for me

 

The 5 Most Inform Midfielders in Europe

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

Idrissa Gueye

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

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

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

Joshua Kimmich

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

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

Kevin De Bruyne

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

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Marcelo Brozović

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

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

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa

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

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

Just How Good are Borussia Monchengladbach?

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

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

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

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

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Neuheus (32) close to Zakaria, the deepest midfielder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

A lot of people are enjoying just how much United are struggling at the moment, and I can’t blame them. From the start of the Premier League to the end of the Ferguson era, a majority of football fans in England despised the Red Devils. A lot of that hate came from fans who hated their success, which is pretty standard. Most of the big clubs in Europe are hated for being big. Fans love an underdog story and seeing a team dominate makes a generally unpredictable sport, a lot more predictable. The other element to why football supporters dislike them is United’s own fans, another view I can completely sympathise. The title of ‘glory hunters’ has been placed on all United fans since the Premier League’s conception. I’ve spoken to numerous United fans in the past 4 years, and many do not follow the club anymore. I hear it’s because of the lack of entertainment the recent managers have thrived towards, but it’s clear it’s about the lack of trophies. A lot of United fans have this sense of entitlement, which means they deserve a great brand of football, young stars breaking through and winning or at least challenging for the league every season. It’s an attitude that doesn’t matter anymore when their closest rivals are just so far ahead of them. Just like Liverpool after their dominance in the eighties, it’ll take a while before Manchester United are back to battling with the best. I have to bring up the fans because it’s partly their fault that the perspective of Manchester United this season is just so negative. They have a right to be frustrated, but I don’t think it’s been as bad as in the past.

So, do I think United have been terrible? Short answer, no, but long answer, kind of. The best way to explain how United have performed is to go through some of their games, and see where they’ve gone right, and most importantly, wrong.

Let’s start with the summer. United’s approach was a strange one, wanting to stock up on their homegrown quota with primarily targeting British players. They arguably overspent on all of their acquisitions. Daniel James arriving for £18 million was intriguing because it felt like the first time in years since United bought an attacker for relatively low risk. He at least offered versatility and is very young, meaning he could either improve or United could get their money back if it didn’t work out for the young Welshman.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived after a fantastic debut season. He is arguably the best defensive full-back in Europe, but there were apparent issues with signing the former Crystal Palace defender. While the defensive part of his game was never in question, Wan-Bissaka simply wasn’t offering a similar output as the full-backs in the top six clubs. He’s a decent dribbler but wasn’t creating chances for Palace. With United spending so much money on the 21-year-old, you have to hope Wan-Bissaka simply develops into a great attacker, or Solsjkaer can turn him into an excellent full-back.

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Maguire was the final signing. No one can argue that United haven’t overspent on the former Hull City defender, but at the same time, he was a definite improvement. Maguire is a very progressive defender, being comfortable on the ball and a capable distributor on the ball. In transforming the Red Devils into Solsjkaer vision of a more exciting team, having a defender like Maguire would help United when facing those teams who set up in a deep block. He is also fantastic in the air. His size and jump make him not only a great defender when facing taller strikers, but giving any team a considerable advantage on set-pieces, a part of football that many teams are desperate to find more value from. He scored five goals for Leicester, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s when he scored those goals which is noteworthy. He scored winners or equalisers against Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United, gaining Leicester some valuable points. Manchester United have been mediocre at set-pieces for years, so bringing in a threat like Maguire could help in their push for top four. Maguire still has an obvious flaw in his game, and it worries me that the most expensive defender could be exposed by certain opponents. Maguire is slow, noticeably slow. United were likely to field a high line, to bring the pressure onto their opposition and to take advantage of actually having ball-playing defenders. The problem they were going to face is the likeliness of a pacey forward getting the better of Maguire. It is a problem that was obvious at Leicester, but having a more defensive system did protect them from forwards with a burst of speed. A sensible signing, but far from value for money.

These three signings did bring a boost to the club; addressing their most significant issues. It’s something United have consistently never done. Whether bringing in Anthony Martial on deadline day back in 2015 because they forgot they only had a single striker or spending £60 million on Fred when midfield, at that point, wasn’t as clear of a priority as a centre-back. Like me, you can question the value United can get out of these players, but at least they were targetting the right players.

The biggest issue with United’s summer was the players they let go, combining well with the other personnel issues they failed to resolve. Letting Herrera go was by far the strangest decision they made in the summer. The Spaniard did add a lot of defensive output some bite in a team that lacked a bit of character. Not only was letting him go on a free a stupid idea but not replacing him with a player who could bring the same defensive work as Herrera did was by far the worst part of United summer. It meant they were going into the season with an ageing Matic, a disinterested Paul Pogba, an average Scott McTominay and an underwhelming Fred. It was so bad that Pogba would have to play a more restrained role, something he can do, but it isn’t what he should be doing. Solsjkaer would also be hoping that Fred could find some form for the first time since arriving in Manchester. It left United at such a disadvantage. When Manchester City bring in Rodri, Tottenham with Ndombele and Arsenal with Ceballos, it made United’s goal of reaching top four even harder.

Selling Lukaku on paper isn’t the worst decision. It was clear that Lukaku’s type of player wasn’t needed, so getting their money back was the right thing to do, but not replacing him was crazy. I love Rashford and Martial and asking for tremendous seasons out of the pair is realistic, but on the slight chance they didn’t or currently in Martial’s case, injuries, it was a lot of pressure on the rest of the team and especially young Mason Greenwood, who is seen as United’s next breakout star.

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So, after a very mixed summer to say the least, how have United been in the league? Well, unlucky would be the best way to describe it. There are many reasons for this, but let’s go through their league games so far, and see how they’ve performed. Starting with their 4-0 win over Chelsea, which lead to a lot of early excitement. Scoring 4 goals at home against one of their top 6 rivals was huge, but the performance did bring optimism and apparent issues. The first half was a bit of a mess. The players looked incredibly, struggling to break Chelsea down and getting dispossessed rather easily. However, Rashford’s penalty changed the whole game. It’s a simple observation to make, but it forced Chelsea to play on the front foot, which allowed United to play to their players’ strengths, on the break.

The signings of an aerial-dominant Maguire, a defensive machine in Wan-Bissaka and a blisteringly-quick winger in James, that it set up United as a fantastic counter-attacking side, and luckily they were playing against Chelsea, who we now know quite-regularly give away excellent goal-scoring chances. This wasn’t an incredible performance from Manchester United but was extremely sufficient. They had 5 shots on target in this game and put away four of them. This might be the only time United can be described as clinical so far this season

Their 1-1 draw to Wolves is the start of a recurrent theme to describe Solsjkaer’s side: unlucky. Manchester United dominated against a Wolves side who, for a majority of the game, were playing rather negatively, sitting back and allowing United to have their way throughout the game. Wolves could have easily beaten United if they weren’t so safe, but they did help expose some of United deficiencies in the final third. United did have a majority of the ball, but only managed 9 shots with 2 on target. For years, United have struggled to break down teams who set up in a deep block. They even showed this in both of their encounters against Wolves last season, drawing the first game at Old Trafford and losing the reverse fixture. Under Van Gaal, it was down to a tactical plan that simply didn’t work. Under Mourinho, it was down to absolutely no idea in the final third, and now under Solsjkaer, it is quite different.

It’s strange to see United struggle so much when during the start of Solsjkaer’s reign up until the Liverpool game, they looked really good. They were setting up in a 4-3-3, with Rashford, Lingard and Martial playing as interchanging forwards, with Pogba advancing really far up the field. In 10 appearances, Pogba contributed to 13 goals, Rashford with 7 and Lingard and Martial with 4 each. During that strong run, the main criticisms faced, from myself included, was the opposition they were facing. But these were the same type of opponents they just couldn’t beat in the previous 4 years. It was a breath of fresh air to see United not only beating opponents they should be beating but winning with a bit more style. It wasn’t like watching Manchester City or Liverpool; however, it was a vast improvement over the football Manchester United fans had to sit through since Ferguson’s departure. Their attackers were finally allowed to express themselves instead of being held back from the manager’s ineffective systems or personal feuds.

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This game (and most of the games so far this season) just highlight the hole Herrera has left upon his departure. Having a downright weak midfield like this means they have to be protected. Pogba has moved back into a double-pivot, a role that doesn’t play to his strengths because he is receiving the ball far deeper. His key passes are still at a high 2.6 and puts up over 1.5 dribblers per game. The problem is he’s taking fewer shots than before, going from 3 last season to 1.8, highlighting how his role for the side changed from attacker to a deep creator. McTominay has looked okay in midfield, but he seems to be only playing because the players behind him in the pecking order are that bad. Matic is arguably one of the worst signings post-Ferguson, and Fred has been a disaster. McTominay does deserve credit for performing well, but improving on him wouldn’t be that difficult.

Manchester United have been unfortunate to be where they are in the table. They conceded a wonder goal to Ruben Neves and had a penalty saved against Wolves. Their 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace can also be seen as unlucky, with Rashford hitting the post from the penalty spot and a well-taken goal from Van-Aanolt misleading De Gea. If this game were played 10 times, United would win nine of them. The Red Devils dominated this game and definitely deserved more than a draw.

The next game was an improvement in performance, but United failed to get the three points, getting another 1-1 result, this time against the Saints. Southampton are usually a pretty good defensive team, but United did create some good chances, with Rashford having three that could have easily been goals. However, the problem for United here comes back to the midfield once again, but this time it’s all Pogba. It’s pretty well known how much criticism he has faced since his return to Manchester, but that is primarily down to expectations. I think he has been fantastic and United’s best outfield player. He has obviously had games where he has had a minimal impact, but overall he has been great. He’s had to do everything for United, and even more pressure is placed upon him when Pogba clearly wants out. The problem for United is when Pogba is either not playing or pressed out of a game, they can struggle to create any sort of chances. Even against Southampton, where they did manage to reduce his impact, Pogba still made 4 key passes and completed 4 dribbles. Without Pogba, United are half the team they want to be and need him if they want any kind of success this season.

A deserved win against Leicester and an arguably unfortunate result against West Ham (the performance was still pretty bad, but West Ham weren’t entirely deserving of the 3 points) did correctly show just how inconsistent United have been this season. However, you kinda have to feel sorry for Solsjkaer, He is making mistakes himself, and we will get onto that very shortly, but the lack of players he has to choose from is painful. With Pogba and Martial, their best attackers, missing games this season, the players United have to select as their replacements is pitiful. They simply lack forwards. Rashford has been playing with some sort of injury for months, and the likes of Mata, James, Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough to be starting every week, but that’s all that Solsjkaer can really choose. His team will only be able to perform once Pogba, Rashford and Martial are fully fit. Without those three, there is not a single game where United should be considered favourites for a football match.

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So let’s actually get onto Solsjkaer. Like I said before, the first two months of his reign were very good. It wasn’t like watching United return to their treble-winning best, but their best players were playing at their level for the first time in months, which sometimes is enough to carry you on the short term. United’s 4-3-3 worked well with the players they had looked to finally be the right system to fit all of their players. However, Herrera’s departure and his lack of replacement meant Solsjkaer simply didn’t have a midfield good enough to dominate while also allowing Pogba to push forward. He had to go back to the relatively stale 4-2-3-1 because there aren’t many formations that can play to United’s strengths right now. They simply don’t have the full-backs to play a back three, the midfield to play a midfield three or the strikers to play an old-school two-striker system. It’s pretty dull to watch, but until the club actually buy good players, it’s hard to see United changing.

I watched their game against Arsenal a couple of times, to see just how they play, and find out what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s start with United in attack. Firstly, I need to mention that Arsenal were playing Callum Chambers at right-back. While not a bad player, no one is quite sure yet what his best position is. United look to attack down the flanks, starting with the left, taking advantage of Arsenal’s clear weak point. Pogba was being tightly marked by Torreira. The Frenchman would usually drop deep to leave space James to be picked out by one of the defenders, or make the pass himself. The problem with this approach was that James just isn’t good. If Martial or Rashford were playing in that position, United would have been more successful. United wanted to isolate him, but nothing was really coming from it, so they started going down the right side, with Kolasinac being pretty bad defensively. Pereira and Young are bad, with Pereira being so underwhelming when in possession and Young playing at a point where he should be retired. To help a pretty inadequate pair, Rashford was consistently making runs into the right channel, with Pereira dropping deeper to allow Young to pick Rashford out. 40% of their attacks came down the right side, and no one touched the ball more than Young for United. Solsjkaer did set up his team in the right way. They were trying to expose their opponent’s evident weaknesses and consistently attempted to create chances down the wide areas. The problem, as it has throughout this lengthy analysis, has been personnel. If United had better right-sided players, they might have had more success in creating good chances.

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Even on the defensive side, United did pretty well. They played a pretty high line and put a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders, especially Guendouzi. While the teenager is clearly talented, he still possesses immaturity that will eventually be faded out of his game, but right now it is a weakness. At times, United were putting him in a three-on-one situation, and it did work, disrupting Arsenal’s build-up play. United were genuinely good in the first half, but the second half started pretty bad. They were being a lot more direct in possession and lacking that same aggression in the first half. For 15 minutes, Arsenal not only scored but deserved to score a couple more goals, if Torreira managed to get a better connection with the ball. United’s defenders’ concentration dropped, and Arsenal were quick to take advantage of that.

The last 20 minutes of the game was scrappy, to say the least. Both teams were desperately searching for that winning goal, which never came. It was the first time this season where United actually lost on xG. The second half was not good and was the worst United performed all season defensively, especially for their goal, with the whole back four at fault for Aubameyang’s goal. Maguire played him onside, Lindelof was out of position, Tuanzebe lost possession and Young didn’t make much of an effort to stop Arsenal’s Gabon goal machine.

I have been somewhat defensive of United so far. Even including that goal conceded against Arsenal, Solsjkaer’s side has remained pretty solid defensively. They’ve only conceded 8 goals this season, with understat placing them top of the league in terms of xG against. Of course, the inferior opposition they’ve faced has made it easy to look that good, but they’ve still looked mostly good against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all looking to sneak into the top 4. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka’s arrivals have made a massive difference in defence, and merely having defenders who are confident on the ball does make them a better team. The 4-2-3-1 Solsjkaer chooses to deploy could help too, giving the defence a lot of protection. Defence has been United’s problem for years, but finally looks resolved.

The problem with Solsjkaer’s Manchester United is just how bad they are in the final third. Again, Martial and Rashford not being fully fit is holding them back, but the lack of ideas when in the opposition half is hugely troubling. Their general shot quality is poor, and have struggled to create high quality chances for the forwards. Having Pogba roughly 10 yards further back than last season doesn’t help, but United’s general approach in games is reminiscent of the same problems witnessed under Mourinho, being a lack of a plan. The players seem to have no idea what to do. Again, United are good on the counter-attack and signing 3 players that benefit playing in that style does massively help. But United aren’t going to be playing on the counter-attack against every opponent. They will have to bring the game to their opponent, something they’ve failed to do in any game this season. United’s shot volume is high, but the problem is where they’ve taken them. While they rank 5th in the league for shots per game, they rank 12th for shots in the penalty area. They’re 17th for dribbles per game, and 2nd for most times fouled per game. The Red Devils have heavily relied on penalties and set pieces for goals. They are awful at set-pieces. When the only decent chance they created against Newcastle was a corner, that Maguire missed, there are apparent problems. United have been unlucky and are massively underachieving xG for, but that isn’t defending the lack of chances created.

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So if I was Solsjkaer, what would I attempt to do to fix these obvious problems. The midfield is holding them back, so I’d try and put Wan-Bissaka in there. A lot of fans have seen his massive defensive output and decent dribble numbers and think he at least should be tried out there, and I agree. Full-back is a position you don’t tend to want to play when going through the academy. When you look at some of the most prominent full-backs right now, Kimmich came through as a midfielder, Marcelo a winger and Pavard a centre-back. It’s a position you can fill pretty easily, with players who have significant engines and are at least competent defensively. United would look a lot worse in the full-back areas on the short term, but midfield is such a problem that it needs to be fixed immediately. Moving Wan-Bissaka into a more central position would allow United to go back and play a 4-3-3 with good players. The 21-year-old could fill that huge Herrera shaped hole and let Pogba play further up the pitch. McTominay has performed as the more defensively minded midfielder this season, and while he has been decent, I think I’d still look for an improvement. He’s a fine recycler of possession but just doesn’t have the same ambition and confidence in possession Pogba shows. Moving Wan-Bissaka is personally the best method to get United properly playing a 4-3-3, without including Matic and Fred in the starting XI. This change in formation pushes Pogba further forward, and if Martial and Rashford and stay fully fit for most of the season, it would at least make them okay in chance creation and remain solid.

They should definitely get kicked out of every cup competition. They simply do not have the squad to compete in more than one competition. Their league form is becoming embarrassing, and if Solsjkaer does want to push his ideas onto this team, the painful schedule is the last thing this group of players need.

This has been very long, but there was a lot to say here. United haven’t been good, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as under Mourinho. The players being targeted are still a step in the right direction. They’re a lot younger, and Solsjkaer has gotten rid of a lot of players who didn’t fit what he wanted to do, as well as players who shouldn’t have been there. If the United legend did get sacked in the coming weeks, he would probably be remembered in a slightly negative fashion, for the lack of points they’ve gathered since that PSG game. He further shows how stupid the United board are in terms of managerial appointments. I still don’t know what style of play Solsjkaer wants to play, but I’m at least curious to see where this goes. I’d like to see him stay because he could continue to make a more coherent squad since Ferguson, and give future managers a better chance to succeed at the club. Sometimes these lows can lead to massive highs, so let’s hope that’s what will happen with England’s biggest club.

Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

It’s a question that many have asked since Nagelsmann was announced as head coach back in 2018. The 32-year-old managed to turn Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into regular top 4 challengers. The number of goals he got out of the likes of Belfodil, Szalai and Uth made me wonder what he could do with genuine elite talent. We’ll be looking at Leipzig’s start to the season, to see why they are currently at the top of the table.

Leipzig’s history is short, yet full of controversy. Before the Red Bull takeover, RB Leipzig were formally known as SSV Markranstadt and playing in the 5th division of German football. The exact reasons for choosing Markranstadt isn’t certain, but I can guess it’s down to a few things. The club were stuck in the 5th division of German football, and right next to them was the city of Leipzig, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. It was an untapped market and gave them the chance to invest in a club which could become a global brand, providing a city with a football club to match its size. I can imagine RB Salzburg was in the owners’ thoughts, making, socially, a clear path from Austria into the Bundesliga. From their formation in 2009, it took them only 6 seasons to reach the Bundesliga, climbing the football pyramid with ease, thanks to a clear plan and massive investment.

It’s difficult to talk about RB Leipzig without even mentioning why nearly every fan in Germany despise them. It all begins with the name. The ‘RB’ stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to lawn ball sports. It ensured they didn’t break the league’s strict laws of no branding in club names, but through abbreviation, could keep their brand recognition. It’s things like this that really infuriate German fans, putting the importance of corporate needs over the fans, a part of the game that Germany empathise. While Red Bull’s lack of subtlety is frustrating, it’s the way they managed to work around the 50+1 rule. It was first inforced in 1998, to ensure football fans wouldn’t be treated as customers, remaining the majority voice at their respective clubs. Bundesliga clubs do possess a lot of members, with Dortmund having over 140,000 fans who pay an annual fee of €62. Once again, Red Bull found a way around this. RB Leipzig only have 17 members, all Red Bull employees, paying over €800 annually. It ensured they could legally play in the Bundesliga through bypassing all of their rules, without having the same routes as other clubs in Germany.

Football is a working-class sport, originating from hard-working men attempting to take a break from their lives through sport. It had the easy viewing for everyone to get into but had that extra level of sophistication, which made it extremely popular Germany, Austria and Hungary. Red Bull made it look so easy to abolish real fan ownership and build a club in their own image.

I sympathise with these views, but part of me finds it really hard to hate a club when they are just so good at finding talented players and managers. Their first season in the Bundesliga included some of the brightest talents in Europe. Naby Keita broke onto the season and dominated the midfield through high defensive actions and showing himself to be one of the best prospects for any Champions League club. Marcel Sabitzer was always seen as one of Austria and Red Bull’s brightest prospects, and moving to a more competitive league helped his development. Their crown jewel was young German forward Timo Werner. At only 20, he was alongside more experienced forwards like Aubameyang and Lewandowski in the race for the Golden Boot. While full of future prospects, they had players who were there during their stint outside of the Bundesliga. Emil Forsberg arrived as a promising 21-year-old and proved to be a fantastic creator. Yussuf Poulsen and Diego Demme both came in 2013. I’ve expressed my love for Poulsen, having a skill set that combines well with any goalscoring forward. Being coached by Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig were aggressive, energetic, young and plenty of fun to watch during the 16/17 season.

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They’ve remained relatively consistent since their first season in the Bundesliga, finishing 6th in 17/18 and 3rd last season. Finishing 3rd and returning to the Champions League is a positive season, but it did feel like a transition into a new era, spearheaded by Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim manager is one of my favourite coaches in Europe, being able to turn a weak Hoffenheim side into a fun yet effective side in Germany. However, what was holding him back was the personnel. Last season, he was stuck with Ishak Belfodil, who was basically moving clubs every season and only managed 4 goals for Werder Bremen in 17/18. Nagelsmann’s teams create a vast amount of chances that it’s difficult for any forward who starts over 20 games not to get at least 10 goals. Mark Uth might be the perfect example of Nagelsmann supercharging strikers. The German contributed to 22 goals in 17/18, earning him a move to Schalke once his contract expired. However, he only scored 2 goals in 15 games in his first season for Schalke. If Nagelsmann could get a lot of goals out poor to average players, it makes you wonder what he could do with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, who just had the best seasons of their careers.

The defence was the other area which did hold Nagelsmann back. His sides have usually played a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 with a very high line. To perform a system like that, you need to have genuinely elite defensive talent, something the 32-year-old just didn’t have at Hoffenheim. Last season, Hoffenheim gave away more penalties than any other side with 7 and gave away the most fouls per game with 13.9. In teams that play high-lines, you expect a lot of fouls to be made, in an attempt to recover the ball when the line is beaten, but the frequency in which they were taking down their opponents is concerning. Now at Leipzig, he has four extremely talented centre-backs. Willi Orban has been at the club before their promotion in 2016. While the club captain is an essential figure for the team, he backs that up with being a terrific defender, comfortable in possession and commanding his backline. The French trio of Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahima Konate are all extremely promising defenders. It’s a testament to how good Red Bull are at spotting talent. They arrived for a combined fee of £23 million, with Konate arriving on a free transfer. The club could manage to sell these players for over £70 million each, showing how they’ve remained to find value in the market, even with such a well-known brand like Red Bull behind them. All are comfortable on the ball and possess extreme athleticism to help them cover the distance needed to play in a Nagelsmann side.

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So how have Leipzig played in the first few games of the Bundesliga? While I don’t think they’ve been the best team in the league, they’ve been the most impressive. The main reason for this is because of the opposition they’ve had to face, with the Red Bull-owned club already playing Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayern Munich in their opening 6 games. I’ve watched three of these games and so far have been impressed with what I’ve seen. Nagelsmann has been extremely flexible in terms of formation and personnel. Against Frankfurt, Nagelsmann lined his side up in a 3-4-3, to match Adi Hutter’s team in terms of formation. Thanks to Leipzig having extremely athletic defenders, it allowed them to double-up on Frankfurt’s wing-backs Filip Kostic and Erik Durm, their opponent’s most prominent attacking threats. In breaking them down, Leipzig used Christopher Nkunku and, after an hour, Emil Forsberg, to run into the space that was left from Frankfurt’s marauding wing-backs. The pair completed 5 dribbles, showing how effective they were in moving the ball into the opposition half.

Their game against Borussia Monchengladbach saw some changes, with Nagelsmann switching to a 4-4-2 and bringing in Kampl and Forsberg for Mukiele and Nkunku respectively. These changes allowed them to deal with Gladbach’s weaknesses, being their lack of width and the full-backs. Rose usually lines his side up in a 4-3-1-2, with Thuram often drifting to the left. Leipzig countered this through their compact shape. It made it difficult for Rose’s players to break them down, and with the press from Leipzig’s front men giving them no time on the ball, it showed just how much work Rose has to do in turning this side into a Champions League regular. Their defenders lacked mobility and Leipzig used that to their advantage. Poulsen and Werner were consistently making diagonal runs into the box, making it very difficult to defend against Nagelsmann’s side. Werner’s hat trick was a combination of superb chance creation and elite finishing. Leipzig haven’t been topping the table in terms of shots and chance creation, but their forwards are consistently getting chances in fantastic areas. Even if Werner’s shots are of weak locations, his finishing is unrivalled in Germany, meaning he will be able to put all sorts of chances away.

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The two games so far have shown Leipzig to be flexible, aggressive and clinical. Like every team in the Bundesliga, the games against Bayern Munich were going to show just how good Leipzig were when facing better opposition, and for 45 minutes, it did not look good. I haven’t spoken about it yet, but in all their games so far, Leipzig’s press is consistent. Whatever formation was deployed, they would always press in a 4-2-4, with Forsberg moving over to the left, Poulsen and Werner in the middle and Sabitzer on the right. They plan to force their opponent into the flanks. He’s tried this against Bayern before, to some success. In their 3-1 defeat to the champions in August 2018, Nagelsmann used Joelinton and Szalai to keep pressure on the central defenders and force them to play the ball to the full-back. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and wide midfielders would then aggressively press Bayern, and for a lot of the game, it was effective. The problem was Bayern were just too much for Hoffenheim, but trying a similar tactic against them once again might work considering the players Nagelsmann now has to work with. But that game was Kovac’s first game in charge of Bayern in the league. The team have since grown in quality and showed this at the Red Bull Arena. When Leipzig did try and press Bayern from the front, Bayern’s midfield duo of Kimmich and Thiago, the best midfielders in the league, found space and exploited the room that was left from Leipzig’s pressing. Both were at their usual best in this game, Kimmich especially, who created 6 chances from midfield. It wasn’t just in midfield where Leipzig were exposed, but in attack, where Lewandowski’s goal perfectly showcased this. Whenever one of their forwards were in possession, Bayern were quick to outnumber them, usually making it a three against one, to recover possession. This is what happened for Bayern’s goal. Sabitzer had three men around him, and when dispossessed, Klostermann attempted to recover the ball, but Muller was quick to get it back. A fantastic pass from Muller and a great run from Lewandowski to show some naivety from Nagelsmann, and Bayern continued to dominate the first half. Leipzig did get back in the game through a Forsberg penalty, but the half didn’t scream optimism.

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The second half is where Nagelsmann shined in his tactical adjustments. His players were being completely outclassed in the centre of the park and needed to fix it. He did so by taking off Klostermann and bringing on Diego Demme, to add numbers and ensure they could compete with Bayern. They switched to a 4-3-3, with Mukiele moving over to right-back. This was when Leipzig started creating chances, while remained stable at the back. Yet, they still weren’t exceptional. A lot of the opportunities they created just weren’t of high quality. Mukiele had a decent chance with a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box, but it was a routine save for Neuer. Sabitzer attempted to a shot from long distance, and while it did have some spin on it, it wasn’t going to trouble Germany’s number one. While this approach might have worked against a weaker team, Bayern are more than that. Thiago and Kimmich are so difficult to simply bypass. This game felt like a lesson for Nagelsmann.

So, can RB Leipzig win the Bundesliga this year? They definitely have a chance, but Bayern look too good to beat at the moment. Leipzig still have room to improve. Amadou Haidara hasn’t played much this season, and Tyler Adams is still yet to return, a player who could seriously make a difference in the middle of the park. Nagelsmann will have to be more open to rotation his key players if he wishes to compete on all fronts. This team is very aggressive, and I worry how often they might be caught on an off day, similar to how easily Schalke beat them at the Red Bull Arena. Nagelsmann should either change the approach for specific games or use the vast number of players in the team. Ademola Lookman and Matheus Cunha have rarely featured, and definitely have a part to play this season. If Leipzig wish to win the league this season, they’ll have to hope Bayern’s form begins to plummet and Dortmund remain unlucky. On the bright side, I do expect Leipzig to improve over the next couple of years, and the team is still young enough to stay competitive. Bayern still have a massive rebuilding job on their hands, so even if Leipzig do falter, their chance will come.

Arsenal’s Early Form and Why It Isn’t a Surprise

In my Premier League predictions, I predicted Arsenal to overperform, based on their overreliance on Aubameyang, who covered their cracks quite effectively. Even with the new additions of Kieran Tierney, David Luiz, Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos, the side still lacked that solidarity at the back and in midfield to prevent them from challenging Liverpool and Man City at the top of the table. When you add that alongside a manager who I doubt can take Arsenal into the Champions League spots, this season could get a lot worse for the Gunners.

Let’s start with the attack, where the numbers read similarly to last season. It was an area that needed desperate improvement. Last season, Arsenal were taking 12.3 shots per game, the 11th best in the division, behind Southampton, Wolves and Crystal Palace. Arsenal were dominating games, averaging 56% possession per game last season, but failed to make that control count. The ‘Top 6′ are perceived to be miles ahead of the teams below them in the table, but the truth is countless times Arsenal looked so passive in the final third, especially against weaker opposition. Take their 1-1 draw against Wolves in November 2018 as one of many examples. They dominated the game 72% possession to Wolves’ 28%, yet were outshot by their opponents, with Jota, Traore and Costa having chances to win the game for the away side. Arsenal just couldn’t deal with their counter attacks and speedy wingers and allowed them to look the better team in possession.

Even with a lot of bad performances, Arsenal still remained in the conversation for Champions League football. However, that all changed after a 3 game spell, which saw them showcase their frailties for the country to see. Defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester allowed Chelsea to get into the top 4. Their 3-2 loss to Palace was bad based on individual errors. It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Mustafi’s future in North London, with the German defender allowing Zaha to ease past him for the second goal. Their 3-1 defeat to Wolves did flatter in the sense of Wolves were putting the ball away from difficult areas, but this game showed just how useless Arsenal were at chance creation. From open play, Arsenal created next to nothing, and while they were unfortunate to concede three, they didn’t deserve to win by any stretch. Yet, this wasn’t even the worst performance out of the three defeats. Their 3-0 battering by the hands of Leicester City was a sign of just how bad Emery’s team was. While Maitland-Niles’ red card in the first half did obviously make it more challenging to get the win, allowing Leicester to have so many shots from inside the box was still extremely concerning, considering Koscielny came on for Iwobi soon after the sending off. xG had this game 3.68 to 0.60, showing how Leicester deserved such a comfortable victory.

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These 3 games perfectly provided proof of the problems with Arsenal. The Palace game showed the poor individuals who needed replacing, The Wolves game showed a side unable to create chances and Leicester just how easily Arsenal could be opened up. The North London club attempted to resolve a lot of these problems in the transfer market, and to their credit, they had a great summer in terms of recruitment. William Saliba began the spending with the defender signing for £27 million. The 18-year-old, however, was sent back to his former club St Etienne on loan, to gain more first-team experience in a league which excels in the development in young players. Dani Ceballos was next, arriving on loan from Real Madrid. The Spaniard was seen as one of Spain’s next excellent midfield talent, able to bring quality on the ball while putting in a lot of defensive actions. He could add much-needed ball progression to a very slow and sluggish midfield. Nicolas Pepe was the marquee signing, with the former Lille winger arriving for over £70 million. There is no denying Arsenal have overspent on Pepe, but he was absolutely fantastic last season. I was intrigued to see how he would play in a team where he wasn’t the main threat and prove that he is one of the best wide players in Europe. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney signed on deadline day for £8 million and £25 million respectively. Luiz is on the older side but is a fine-enough stop-gap until Saliba is ready to become a regular in that defence. There is definitely question marks over Tierney being good enough for a big club, with Scotland having a pretty bad domestic league. However, there is no denying he is an improvement over an ageing Monreal and a defensively-weak Kolasinac.

There is no doubting that Arsenal have improved in terms of personnel, and are arguably the 3rd best team in the country. Manchester United still have weaknesses in attack and midfield, Chelsea lost their best attacker and Spurs didn’t bring in a back-up for a Harry Kane who isn’t one of the top 5 strikers in the world anymore. Arsenal already had a decent goalkeeper and the best striking partnership in the league, and have added improvements throughout the team. You could argue Arsenal did need to look at a back up for Bellerin until his return, but Maitland-Niles can cover pretty well for him.

After 6 games, Arsenal sit in 4th with 11 points, 7 behind Liverpool and 2 behind Man City. On that fact, it would seem like Arsenal have started well, but in reality, they haven’t improved as of yet. A scrappy nevertheless, deserved win over Newcastle wasn’t the worst way to start the season, considering their away form has always been questionable. Their 2-1 home win over Burnley didn’t exhale confidence. Sean Dyche’s side had a few good chances to win the game and were slightly ahead of Arsenal on xG (1.16 to Burnley’s 1.39). Excellent performances from both David Luiz and Dani Ceballos did give Arsenal fans a big positive out of the game. It wasn’t a great start, but getting maximum points with players still missing was at least acceptable. Then the Liverpool game happened.

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I haven’t touched on Emery yet, but I have not been the Spaniard’s biggest fan since his arrival in North London. He showed at Sevilla how good his sides were in knockout competitions, winning the Europa League three consecutive times. Both him and Monchi were getting the best out of undervalued talent like Rakitic, Gameiro, Bacca and N’Zonzi, who were brought in for low prices and left bringing Sevilla a significant profit. PSG looked at Emery and in their desperation to win the Champions League, chose him to finally begin their desired domination in Europe. However, all didn’t go to plan in his debut season in France. It’s hard to criticise him in Ligue 1 when Monaco won the league with an extremely talented squad. It was a year where everything seemed to click for Jardim’s side, and with PSG losing Ibrahimovic and David Luiz, it left them relatively vulnerable. Their recruitment that summer was especially weak, with Ben Arfa, Krychowiak, Jese Rodriguez and Gonzalo Guedes all failing to make an impression. Unfortunately, Emery’s time at PSG is best remembered by that round of 16 encounter with Barcelona. After tearing them apart in the first leg, with Verrati especially having one of the best games for the club, it gave them a 4 goal lead over the Catalan club. However, as we all know, they absolutely capitulated in the second leg. The pressure seemed to get to the players and thanks to some extremely questionable refereeing decisions, a weak Barcelona side advanced.

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His second season did bring the league title back to Paris, but a defeat to Real Madrid in the round of 16 cemented Emery’s time in France as an overall failure. When brought in with the sole intention of winning one competition and failing even to get close to the final, it’s easy to see why PSG didn’t renew his contract. After Wenger finally departed the club, Arsenal chose Emery as his successor, giving him a two-year contract, making it a very sensible appointment and allowing the club to resolve some of their off-field problems.

So why don’t I like him? Well because he hasn’t been great for years now, especially at Arsenal, where the attack has gotten a lot worse, and the defence has marginally improved. During Wenger’s final years at the club, Arsenal were extremely weak defensively but remained one of the best-attacking sides in the league. Emery sacrificed that attack to help resolve the defensive issues, but haven’t shown much of an improvement, even after the summer signings. However, during their 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, Emery was entirely to blame for their awful performance. When you play the European champions, the one thing you do not allow them is space in the wide areas, and what did Arsenal do? Give Alexander-Arnold and Robertson all the room in the world on their respective flanks. Arsenal simply didn’t deal with their biggest threat, with the Alexander-Arnold saying after the game that he expected them to play a different system, and they were “really narrow.”

Allowing Liverpool to play to their strengths is something you wouldn’t expect a manager of Emery’s experience to do. I’ve always seen him as a defensively-minded, adaptable and pragmatic coach. It baffles me why many of the mainstream media treat him like a philosophy manager, similar to Guardiola and Klopp. Emery has always been pretty effective in those big games, which is why he was able to guide Sevilla to three Europa Leagues. He doesn’t mind bringing in players to fill specific roles, something you see Mourinho or Allegri attempt to do. It’s some of Arsenal’s performances in the big games that have left me scratching my head, to why he consistently makes terrible decisions.

The Liverpool performance was abysmal, but their 2-2 draw against Watford was arguably the worst performance I’ve seen from Emery’s Arsenal as of yet. Allowing arguably the worst side in the league, right after they sacked their manager and brought in former Watford coach Quique Sanchez Flores. The Gunners allowed Watford to have 31 shots on target. That is a number you see Manchester City have against relegation sides, which helps illustrate just how bad Arsenal are at the back. The lack of midfield protection was staggering, with Guendouzi and Xhaka just allowing Deulofeu, Doucoure and Capoue to waltz right into the box and if it weren’t for Aubameyang scoring a first-half brace, it would have been an embarrassing day for Emery and his players.

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Do I think Arsenal can improve? Absolutely. Bellerin and Tierney haven’t played in the Premier League as of yet and will offer a lot in attack while not being so weak defensively. The best thing Arsenal can do until the pair are fully fit is drop Xhaka. There is no reason to play Xhaka when you have an excellent passer in David Luiz and an elite ball progressor in Dani Ceballos. Xhaka is one of the best passers in the league but is such a liability in every other area that it’s hard to justify him starting every weak, especially when the new signings can do what he can and offer more. Playing a midfield three of Torreira, Guendouzi and Ceballos will give them more mobility and keep them defensively solid. I just worry that Emery won’t do this, and persist with starting Xhaka every week, keeping Torreira on the bench and using him incorrectly and only playing Ceballos when he feels like it.

If I were Arsenal’s head of football operations, I wouldn’t give Emery a contract extension. Giving him 2-years was sensible, not wanting to make the same consistent mistakes that Manchester United have made in terms of managers’ contract. Arsenal have let go of many of their fringe players and brought young talent to keep the team fresh and giving them a chance to grow. Arsenal were a mess under Wenger, but at least they were fun. Under Emery, it’s been a frustrating journey to see how bad their performances have become.

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

Red Bull Salzburg 

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

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

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

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

KRC Genk 

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

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

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

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

Liverpool 

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

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

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

Napoli

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

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

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

Are Juventus Favourites? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group D

Atletico Madrid

The summer transfer window was one of the most critical windows for Atletico during this decade. They lost an entire back-line, alongside their best midfielder and attacker in Rodri and Griezmann respectively. They went about fixing these problems in quite exciting ways, with a combination of experience and younger talent, including the addition of one of the hottest prospects in Europe; Joao Felix. It keeps Atletico Madrid competitive in the short term while allowing them to improve over the next few years.

Simeone’s side is currently top of the league, winning all of their games. However, they’ve shown an unusual trait in the opening 3 games. They’ve remained defensively solid as ever, with only Sevilla, Bilbao and Getafe facing fewer shots per game. They are deservedly top of the table, but what stands out is in the attack, where their shot numbers are fascinating. No side takes fewer shots per game than Atleti’s 6, but they’re managing to get 4 of them on target, the joint 7th best and by far the most efficient. In fact, Barcelona is taking 4.3 shots on target in 13 shots per game. It seems Simeone’s side are focusing on only taking shots from strong locations. Their xG per shot is 0.29, better than Sevilla, Barcelona and Real Madrid. It’s an approach I doubt is sustainable, but the idea of your players focusing only on high-quality shots is delightful.

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While Morata and Costa have started the season brightly, their big-money signing Joao Felix has to be the player that rest of the teams here have to keep their eye on. The Portuguese international broke onto the scene with a bang. In his first full season of top-flight football, he scored a hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt, making him the youngest player to score on in the Europa League. A lot of clips of the young forward went viral, showcasing his skill and ability on the ball in training. While that is great to watch, by far his best quality is his movement. Felix plays as a second striker, making him effective wherever he plays. The 19-year-old can find pockets of space to expose the opposition in different ways. He can either find room to receive the ball and bring others into play or go for goal himself. Playing in such a forward position has put pressure on him to contribute to goals, but it hasn’t had an effect on the way he plays. It’s by far one of my favourite things about him. Felix enjoys playing football, and you can see it on the pitch whenever he plays and makes the game look so natural. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops under a defensive coach like Simeone, but Felix possesses the qualities right now that can make him a world-class talent. His shot location and movement off the ball are genuinely excellent but offers so much in terms of dribbling and creativity that will make it so difficult for his opponents to handle.

My only worry regarding Atletico is during the knockout stages, but right now, I don’t expect them to have any issues in terms of reaching the round of 16. Their games against Juventus will undoubtedly be exciting, just to see if they continue their consistently high-quality chance creation.

Bayer Leverkusen 

One of the more attacking sides in the competition, Leverkusen have the forward talent to match nearly any team in Europe. Even with Julien Brandt’s departure, Leverkusen still possesses arguably the best forward options in the league, with Volland, Diaby, Demirbay, Bailey, Bellarabi and Havertz all being extremely useful for any coach to have. Ever since Peter Bosz’s appointment midway through the season, they’ve been an absolute joy to watch. Last season, he managed to improve all of the attackers’ output, while ensuring the side weren’t leaking goals nearly as often. Before the Dutchman’s arrival, Leverkusen were struggling to remain in competition with the other teams seeking Champions League football. The change in management was a real boost for all involved. Brandt and Volland were the two who benefitted the most. Out of Brandt’s 18 goal involvements, 14 came after Bosz’s appointment, and Volland scored 8 out of his 14 goals during the second half of the season. A change to a 4-3-3 with the players reaching their expected talent level ensured they deservedly finished inside the top four.

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As mentioned, there are a lot of players that Juventus, Atletico and Lokomotiv have to watch, but by far their biggest threat is Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old is not only the best player for his club but the future of the German national team. At such a young age, Havertz has shown so many qualities that will make him one of the best in the world. While goal-scoring has attracted all the attention, his creativity is his best quality. The midfielder, capable at playing from a six to a ten, is a fantastic passer. His teammates, primarily Bailey and Brandt last season, were great at stretching a defence, which allowed Havertz to pick up the ball in dangerous areas. The German consistently picked out the likes of Volland and Bailey through defence-opening through balls or accurate crosses into the box. It’s tough to stop Leverkusen from scoring goals, but stopping Havertz is the best way to ensure they’re not a threat.

The only problem with Bosz, and it’s a big one, is his naivety. It all goes back to that Europa League. He fell right into Mourinho’s hands and played the way the Portuguese tactician predicted. Ever since it’s been a consistent worry for whenever his sides play one of the big clubs. Bosz possesses a lot of good qualities like other Cruyffian thinkers. The difference between him and other managers like Pep and Koeman is he doesn’t make the necessary changes for specific opponents. His sides will consistently play the same way week in and week out, and while that is good when facing weaker opposition, it makes it so easy for a good thinker to outsmart him. In a group containing the best defensive coach of the decade and a Juventus team famed for dealing with sides like Leverkusen, I just can’t see a world where they finish ahead of either of them.

Juventus

The way Juventus were eliminated in last year’s competition was worrying. A poor, but effective performance to earn a 1-1 draw away against Ajax gave them an advantage during the second leg in Turin. The problem was Juventus just decided to sit on their small lead, instead of taking the game to Ajax. The Dutch side was fantastic and highlighted not only their old-fashioned approach but the weaknesses in their team, especially the midfield. Frenkie De Jong and Donny Van De Beek walked right through Can, Pjanic and Matuidi. Since Pogba’s departure, The Old Lady have failed to adequately replace him, settling for older players who could do a job, instead of improving the team.

It’s what made Juventus’s summer quite perfect. Aaron Ramsey added a player who could offer a lot in goals and creativity from deep, something the previous crop of midfielders could not give. Rabiot is by far their best acquisition. While the Frenchman’s off the field issues put off a lot of clubs from signing him, there is doubting his talent. Rabiot is quite similar to a younger Luka Modric, arguably the best compliment to give him. He makes a lot of defensive actions per game, with the 24-year-old making 5.5 tackles and interceptions last season for PSG. He is an elite progressor of the ball, completing 1.3 dribbles and over 10 deep progressions. He is what Juventus needed, a midfielder who could actually transition the ball through dribbling.

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So far this season, Juventus haven’t been playing their new signings, with Sarri still opting for Khedira, Matuidi and Pjanic. What’s so fascinating about this is just how good they’ve been this season. If Sarri continues to get this output out of these ageing stars, I wonder what he can do with Rabiot once he is settled. Juventus now have a more attacking coach who could help guide Juventus to the Champions League they’ve been trying to win for years. With a solid defence, an improved midfield and Ronaldo still scoring goals, it’s hard to look past Juventus as one of the favourites for the competition. Simeone might cause them problems, but I can’t imagine Juventus failing to escape this group.

Lokomotiv Moscow 

It’s difficult to see how Lokomotiv Moscow find a way out of this group. The Russian side ended the 18/19 season in second place, finishing 8 points behind champions Zenit and equal on points with Krasnodar. Out of the top teams in Russia, Lokomotiv was arguably the worst. They overachieved xG and were lucky to finish so high up the field. Even after losing a lot of their older talent through free transfers, they have made some exciting additions. Joao Mario arrives from Inter Milan on loan, and while I’ve never been his biggest fan, he can offer a lot to a Moscow side who have just lost Manuel Fernandes. Grzegorz Krychowiak was signed permanently during the summer, after being on loan in the 18/19 season. The Polish international had a torrid time in Paris, but his move to Russia has been an enormous success. Usually playing as a defensive midfielder, Krychowiak has already scored 3 this season and is taking 3 shots per game. It’s clear he’s enjoying his football again, and it’s the best he’s been performing since his time for Sevilla.

Lokomotiv’s most significant threat has to be the Miranchuk twins. A rare occurrence to see twins playing for the same team, and makes it even more unique to see them being their team’s best players. Let’s start with Aleksey. The 23-year-old is more experienced than his brother, making his debut at 17 while his brother Anton, didn’t play for the first team until he was 20. Aleksey primarily plays as a number 10, using his incredible passing ability to create for his brother and the other forwards. Last season, Aleksey was making 2.6 key passes per 90, and it’s risen to 3.4 this season. Most of Lokomotiv’s attacks run through the attacking midfielder, which has made him not only one of his club’s best players but one of the stars of his national team.

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Aleksey’s attacking output has been improving as he gets older, mainly his shot volume; something his brother already excels at. Anton Miranchuk had to wait four more years to play alongside his brother in the first team, which is very surprising considering just how good he is. While his brother plays in the middle, Anton sees most of his game time on the left, cutting inside to shoot or create for his teammates. Aleksey is slightly more creative, with Anton averaging 2.2 key passes per 90, but Anton is far more of a goal threat. Last season, the wide player was scoring 0.51 goals per 90, a massive difference to his brother’s 0.13. This is primarily down to the pair having different roles in the side, but it’s good to see where they differ.

It might be slightly unfair to write them off before the competition even begins. But it’s difficult to imagine a world where Lokomotiv can escape this group. Atletico possess a fantastic manager, Juventus have talent across the pitch, and even Leverkusen have some of the best attackers in Germany. It’s one of the many flaws with the Champions League group stage structure, and it seems each of these previews showcases this perfectly. I’m still unsure how to necessarily fix this, but something needs to be changed to benefit those who did win their league titles. After all, it is called the Champions League, not the super club’s league.