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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

What Do Each of the Top 6 Clubs need in the transfer window?

Manchester City

Manchester City are in a spot of comfort right now. They do not need many additions this summer. All of the additions needed are for depth purposes, not for first team strengthening. They have enough depth at centre half, right wing, right back, goalkeeper, and upfront. What they need is depth on the left wing. Pep had made it very obvious that he likes to rotate his squad when given the chance to. His long pursuit for Alexis Sanchez showed that he still thinks that there is a gap to plugged in that left side. Sane has been absolutely incredible this season, but having another option wouldn’t hurt. As for this left winger, I am unsure. Leon Bailey makes a lot of sense. He’s been brilliant for Leverkusen this season and with the German club in the Europa league this season, Bailey might think it might be a good time to move club.

Another clear area they might need to resolve is depth in defensive midfield. Fernandinho, like the rest of the team, has been brilliant. He’s given Silva and De Bruyne a licence to roam, because they know that the Brazilian will be there to ensure that the danger is dealt with, if by any chance there is any at all. One such player who has been linked heavily is Napoli’s pass master Jorginho. He’s been averaging 90 passes, with a pass accuracy of 90%. He’s shown he is able to dominate a game and keep possession very effectively. Pep likes players in this mould, like Sergio Busquets and Thiago before him. If a player like Jorginho is signed, then their midfield will have plenty of reinforcements.

Manchester United

Where do I even begin here? Even though many United fans will say that second place and a cup final is progress, it isn’t. With a lack of balance in midfield, very poor fullbacks, and centre backs who have no idea how to control a ball. The red devils need to plenty of reinforcements this summer.

The first key area to resolve are the full backs. Many can criticise Man City for spending over £100m on fullbacks, but the method has clearly worked. United currently have 2 ex wingers over the age of 32 starting every game, and 2 others who are clearly out of favour. They will never challenge for a league title next season if Valencia and Young are the starting full backs. Alex Sandro is the obvious choice for the left back slot. While I would like us to consider Philipp Max, with his insane amount of crosses per game, Sandro would still be a perfect addition. The right back that could help United next season would also be from Italy, being Elseid Hysaj. The Albanian is part of a Napoli team that play football in such a delightful way. Hysaj has been excellent for Napoli for the last 2 seasons, and at only 24, he could be a long time right back for United.

As mentioned. United lack a centre back who is able to control the ball and put some balls through the opposition midfield. Every time an opponent marks Matic, it leaves the back four to pass between each other in this frustrating line until an option opens. Having a defender who is able to pass the ball effectively could be very beneficial. Toby Alderweireld is the player constantly linked. With contract troubles at Spurs, a move seems very likely for the Belgian.

Another key area would definitely be central midfield. With Carrick retired, and Fellaini and Herrera both potentially leaving the club, it is an area that needs reinforcements. Two players that have been heavily linked are Fred, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Both are brilliant players and would be a welcome addition to the squad, but with the Serbian costing a potential £80m, only one would be financially available. While I think Milinkovic-Savic is a wonderful, with his brilliant ability in the air and his dribbling ability. My problem with signing him is we wouldn’t be able to get the best out of him. We already have a world class midfielder we struggle to use correctly, so why by another who wouldn’t be fulfilling his potential? Fred would be my personal choice. He has Moussa Dembelle levels of successful dribbles, and wins the ball back more than the Lazio midfielder. Fred is still only 25. He can fill in multiple positions and even if Pogba is injured the same way he was earlier in the season, Fred could easily fill that role. He has such a brilliant ability of transitioning play, and would help us function without our star midfielder. A player with his talent is needed in a squad filled with imbalance, to give us another edge in catching up to our blue rivals.

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs have a real issue. They have hit a ceiling that they seem unable to break. Their two biggest games of the season, Juventus in the champions league and Man United in the FA Cup, both ended in defeat. They were arguably the better side in both games, yet failed to seal the wins. They need to begin to sell some of the current crop of players, and find improvements. The problem is buying these improvements. Spurs have an owner who only sells to buy. The problem that arises from this is buying improvements for this squad.

To improve on players like Dembele and Alderweireld, a lot will need to be spent, even if both are sold for a lot of money. One suggestion is Milan Skriniar. The Inter Milan defender has been absolutely fabulous this season. He’s been apart of a very solid Inter team. They have conceded the same amount as title challengers Napoli. So why is he a good fit for Spurs? Well he averages around the same amount of passes as the current three defenders, but the difference is his pass accuracy is higher. Skriniar averages a brilliant 91% pass accuracy, while Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Sanchez all averages around 86-88%. While it isn’t exactly a massive improvement, it does show he can compete with them on his passing ability. The only issue is Skriniar averages 2.6 long balls per game. While it is still a very good number, it doesn’t come near Vertonghen’s 4.6 or even touches Alderweireld’s 7.9. Skriniar is more of a destroyer type defender, similar to Vertonghen. With Sanchez seemingly playing the more sweeper role, having someone similar to Vertonghen, while the Belgian is starting to show his age, could be great. Skriniar could cost up to £40m, but like the signing of Davidson Sanchez, it could definitely be worth it.

The other key area to improve on would be central midfield. It is seemingly clear that one of Dembele or Wanyama are leaving the club this summer. With Dier already having a similar role to the Kenyan, Dembele is the player that is needed to be replaced. The problem is finding a player who can fill his role. Geoffrey Kondogbia would be a good addition. He has been an absolute monster in midfield. He’s been averaging 5 tackles and interceptions per game. Which is much more than any spurs player. This may be because Valencia play in a two, which gives him more of a workload, but those are still brilliant numbers that show he knows how to do his job. He averages 2.1 dribbles per game from a defensive position. This is lower than Dembele, who has 2.6 dribbles per game. But they still have the exact same success rate, being 85.7%. He would be a fine replacement for the Belgian.

Liverpool

Many mainstream pundits are seeing Liverpool as the challengers to Man City next season, and for good reason. While they actually did worse in the league, they also progressed into a champions league final (albeit an easy run in compared to their opponent). They have clearly progressed from last season. With Van Dijk, Oxlade-Chamberlein and Mohammed Salah all being successes, the only way is up for the reds.

The most obvious area to improve in is midfield. I think that midfield is easily their biggest weakness. I believe the whole perception of Liverpool having a really poor defence is out of the window by now. With Van Dijk there, Liverpool have much more solid and most importantly, more confident. Due to Van Dijk arriving, Even the goalkeeper has looked so much more confident in himself. Many say that a confident goalkeeper helps a defence, but it also happens in reverse. Seeing a defender so composed must fill them with confidence. But there is still a gap in that squad. While Lovren has improved, he is 28, and he isn’t a long term solution. Klavan is no where near good enough, and Matip seems to have clear injury problems. I’ve identified one player. A central defender who is showing similar traits to the current Liverpool players, being aerial duels, and that is Dayot Upamecano. The young Frenchman has really had his breakout season,starting 25 games for Leipzig this season. What makes him perfect for Liverpool is his aerial duels. He specialises in this area, winning 3.3 per 90. While it is lower than Lovren and Van Dijk, who complete 3.5 and 5.2 respectively. It is still a high number, considering he’s still only 19. The issue with their defenders is they’re all in their prime. It isn’t an issue in the short term, but when you want to create a dynasty, bringing in someone who has the potential to succeed is perfect for the team.

Even with Nabi Keita arriving, there is still a clear issue in that midfield. Liverpool have players who are brilliant at following a game plan and do not need the ball. The problem with this is in some against teams who play a similar way, you need a player who is able to not only do that, but is also able to show some ability on the ball and not to rely on the forwards so heavily. Keita can definitely do that, but he also specialises in his defensive work. Having someone else who can also do this would be perfect. Napoli players seem to be a key theme in suggested players, but there’s a reason for it. Sarri has Napoli playing in an energetic, and quick way. One player for them who has excelled in recent years is Allan. The Brazilian has had yet another stella campaign. He’s 27 and is at an age where he will be ready to do what is asked, and help the reds challenge city closely next season. What he is brilliant at is regaining possession and using it in an effective manner. He averages 2.8 tackles per game, which is something players in a pressing system usually average. He averages 3.2 dribbles per 90, having a 65% success rate. While not as high as someone like Dembele, it is still a good number that shows he is able to drive the ball forward, and would help in a game that Liverpool would be dominating. It would keep Liverpool playing at full speed, and that is what they need.

Chelsea

The blues have went from Champions to fifth. It is such a drop considering everyone thought this team was unbeatable. I think Conte should get a lot of blame for it. Him selling Costa when he didn’t have a replacement available, and not playing David Luiz. Both were key for Chelsea last season. Costa was at his best, showing his strength and power in the air, and winning games for Chelsea. Conte’s biggest problem is rotation. He seems to not trust his team in the slightest. Whether he changes the formation to play a front two of Hazard and Morata, or changing the midfield to put Bakayoko or Drinkwater in there. He needs players with consistensy. Chelsea have made so many bad decisions in the market. It is time to go through how they can resolve it.

A young wide player should be one of the first priorities. With Hazard turning 28 soon, and both Willian and Pedro over the age of 30, it is time we rejuvenate that forward line with someone much younger. One player should attempt to go for is Ousmane Dembele. While he has struggled with injuries this season, Barca have looked great with him in the side. The only reason why is because of the Antoine Griezmann rumours. If the Catalan giants are to sign Griezmann, it could mean the end for the young Frenchman. When a moment like this arises, it is a chance to capitalise. Dembele is an excellent dribbler and also a brilliant creator. At Dortmund, he was second to only Muller in assists, and was not far behind Messi in dribbles per game. It is clear that there is a world class player there. Even though signing him could prove difficult, he would still be a brilliant addition.

Central midfield is the other key area that needs improvement. With Matic leaving, it left Chelsea with a real problem. They have no central midfielder who is able to connect midfield to attack. It also has put more pressure on Kante to create, when he should have never had that obligation. They need a player who is able connect the attack and defence, with Kante already being able to do the defensive work. My suggestion might be an odd one, but it could work. Aaron Ramsey might just be what Chelsea need. He would be the perfect partner to Kante. Because of Ramsey’s solid attacking prowess and Kante’s superior defensive numbers. The problem with having Bakayoko is it means Kante has to contribute going forward. It’s something he should never be doing. Ramsey is already averaging 3.1 tackles and interceptions per game, and taking 2.7 shots per game. His key passes are just over 1. This could definitely be higher, if he had a better midfield partner than Xhaka. If he had Kante, he would be able to add so much more, and with his contract running out next year, he would be achievable at a very low price.

Arsenal

Easily the hardest one, since they have so many positions to resolve. This season exposed so many weaknesses in their squad. They have very low widthz because of the system they play. They seem to be short on quality centre halves. All of their goalkeepers are not good enough to be starting for a champions league fighting team, and their midfield is almost as bad as Liverpool’s. I’ll be sticking to their two weakest positions, being midfield and goalkeeper.

Last season, Cech dropped like an anchor. He began conceding more than he was saving, and his distribution was only getting worse. People are saying to spend a lot on a goalkeeper, when all they need is a very good stopper, not a world class one. I say this because any average goalkeeper is an improvement over Cech. The replacement I have chosen is Timo Horn. Currently relegated with Koln, it is a chance to snap up a very good goalkeeper for a very low price. He is averaging 3.9 saves per season, more than Nick Pope and Jordan Pickford. I compare to the two Englishman because they play for teams that also face a lot of shots. Koln were very good last season, and he still performed exceptionally. His relegation clause is only £3m. If Arsenal can persuade him to leave his club, it’ll be one of the bargains of the season.

Arsenal are also at a point where attracting talent might be difficult. With Arteta seemingly being the main target as Wenger’s replacement, it’s important to stop buying big, and start buying smart. One such player would be Zambo Anguissa from Marseille. Arsenal have one key issue right now, and that is lacking a good box to box midfielder. Their midfield options are just too weak. Jack Wilshere cannot be relied on, Xhaka needs too much time on the ball to be effective, and Ramsey seems to need a certain player near him to be at his best. Anguissa this season has been part of a Marseille team that have performed very well under Garcia. The Cameroonian is only 22, and yet is already showing qualities of a top level player. Discounting his mistake in the final, Zambo was very good. He was brilliant in moving the ball forward, while still doing his defensive work. He averages 3.7 tackles and interceptions per game, while having a very solid 87% pass accuracy. He is very good at taking the ball from an opponent, and giving it to a more talented player. In Marseille’s case it’s Payet or Thauvin. He would be effective in this Arsenal team because they don’t have anyone like him. They don’t have anyone who isn’t afraid of doing all the dirty work to help the team. If Xhaka is going to continue playing for Gunners, they will need to sign a player like Zambo, if they wish to go back to champions league football.