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.

Manchester United’s Baffling Transfer Policy

In a recent post, I discussed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and why I think he was United’s best signing of the past decade. His towering presence arrived after multiple summers of underwhelming arrivals that showed how United were without a cohesive plan in how they wanted to recruit. They were obsessed with bringing back success as quickly as possible without any regards to sustaining it. Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City all had long term visions and have succeeded in bringing their respected clubs into the spotlight across Europe. United needed a plan, and people who knew how to execute it.

This summer was planned to be the departure from those shirt-selling superstars and a push to bring in players who could execute the system that Solsjkaer wanted to deploy. There was an emphasis primarily on British/Irish players, young guys with previous experience playing in England. It explains the signings of Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the strong links to Harry Maguire and Sean Longstaff. This approach does make a lot of sense for United. The Red Devils have had high profile flops in Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Alexis Sanchez and the club wanted to move towards players with lower wages and a desire to play for arguably the biggest club in England. Young British talent have been everywhere for the past couple of years, and it is clear there are some very talented players. The under-20 side who won the World Cup, Chelsea’s youth teams over the past couple of years and the most apparent reason for this policy, Jadon Sancho’s success at Dortmund. The club does not want to have the same problems they have had with Sanchez, high wages no one else is crazy enough to pay and get players who could add something to the side while possessing resell value.

As expected, I have a massive problem with this. The approach is admirable, but the execution is terrible at the moment. I still really like the signing of Dan James, and while he won’t be a starter, he has something to offer the team and didn’t cost a tremendous amount of money. Wan-Bissaka is another who I have no problem with. The England Under-21 full back was an obvious signing, and the fee is reasonable for the best defensive prospect in Europe. But the other recent links to the club make no sense from a financial point of view, an essential factor for Manchester United. I cannot emphasise this enough, but the top 6 clubs should never deal with the mid-table clubs, like Leicester, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Everton. You are guaranteed to be overcharged for players and are forced to pay the British premium. You could easily find better deals elsewhere or from clubs in the Championship. United only seem to be going for the most well known British players, instead of attempted to go under the radar. Why not take risks on guys like Kalvin Phillips, Philip Billing, Reece James or Matt Grimes. Football is a sport that has a history of rooting for the underdogs, and while seeing a £50m player perform is satisfying, it’s also expected. Seeing any low-cost player arrive with no fan fair and become an essential first team player is still a great site, similar to how Robertson, Alli, and Gomez have become vital to their teams.

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This recruitment of young Britsh players seemed to be the priority this summer, yet United have found themselves in the hunt of a big money signing, predominantly Bruno Fernandes. This is a player that United should avoid. I do think Fernandes is an excellent player and had a fantastic season in 18/19, contributing to 33 goals in just as many games. He’s a fantastic creator and is never afraid to take risks in the hunt for goals. I have reservations on the Portuguese international, the first being Liga NOS. Like the Eredivisie, Liga NOS has had a reputation of being a flip of a coin. You could get a player who could become one of the best players in his position, similar to Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo or Deco, or get a player who isn’t good enough for a top 5 league, like Jackson Martinez, Nani or Renato Sanches. You have to take their form with a pinch of salt. If Jonas and Bast Dost can be the best goal scorers in the league, there is a definite talent gap. The idea of United spending up to £60 million on a player, when they are rumoured to only have £100 million to spend is insane. This would only seem likely if United managed to sell a lot of assets, but that isn’t happening. I can only see Fernandes coming in if Pogba was to be sold, but that would be a massive downgrade. Pogba has been fantastic during his United career and still has a lot more to give, while I look at Fernandes and think that could be his best output. This is just another example of United failing to see the promise in players. Fernandes was absolutely superb before his move to Sporting. Why the club only sign players when they have had headline seasons is baffling. They should be signing players before their actual value is discovered.

Bruno Fernandes has dominated the summer window, but another player who has been heavily linked to the club is Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman has been one of the best forwards in La Liga with his clinical finishing and solid hold up, highlighting him as a potential replacement for the outgoing Romelu Lukaku. Ben Yedder has been one of my favourite strikers in La Liga since his arrival, but this another move I would recommend United making. Ben Yedder is 28 and would cost United up to £35 million, a lot for a player without any resell value.

Signing younger players is very important for United at the moment. It’s clear that their chances of returning to dominance is not happening while Liverpool and Manchester City are at the top. They need to make long term investments to ensure they will eventually reach the same level as their rivals. Signing players in the profile of Ben Yedder work when your club are on the brink of success and just need that push. This has been done throughout the Premier League era. It began with Eric Cantona becoming the figure of Ferguson’s early success, to Claude Makalele joining Chelsea to start their dominance in the mid-2000s and most recently David Luiz returned to Chelsea and pushed to win a league title. If United managed to sign Ben Yedder, he would be a success, but the club would arguably waste his best years in football. If United were closer to their rivals, this would be a must signing.

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While bringing in players is a priority in pushing United to the next level, it is so vital they finally get rid of a lot of the dead weight in the squad. Six players need to leave the club ASAP, and that isn’t even considering the potential departures of Pogba and De Gea, two of United’s most important players. When you look at the team that City were before Pep’s first title-winning season, the difference in quality is frightening. City went out and fixed all of their problems quickly while letting their senior players out of the club. Selling Fellaini back in January was the right move. He was the representation of the darker years of Manchester United in the Premier League era and felt like a step in the right direction by selling him. The same needs to be done to the likes of Jones, Smalling and Darmian, players who cannot offer enough in the long term for the club and their exit could finally signal the transition into a new United, a team which focuses on building a team, something that has been lost since Ronaldo’s departure.

PLAYER ANALYSIS – Bernardo and the Forgotten Fullback Role

Fullbacks have been an everchanging role, that has evolved from it’s role in the 90s as more wide centre halves, growing into players that are able to contribute in the final third. In one of the most famous clips in Monday Night Football’s history, Jamie Carragher said that fullbacks are either “failed wingers or failed centre halves.” While an element of that is true, with Manchester United finishing second in the Premier League last season with their first choice fullbacks being Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, two players who were used during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign in his latter years. Even current prospect Aaron Wan-Bissaka came through Crystal Palace’s academy as a winger, but was moved further back. It can paint this image of a fullback being a position that isn’t of grave importance, compared to the demand for well rounded forwards or centre halves with a vast range of passing. This is of course far from the truth. It’s a position that offers great flexibility and seperates a mid table team to a truly elite one. There have been huge innovations in this field, with like many of the changes in the modern game, go back to Pep Guardiola. The Catalan coach deployed Alves and Abidal more as wingers, with their need to defend absent thanks to Pep’s emphasis on possession. After his sabbatical, he became Bayern Munich’s and went to further innovate, using the incredible versatility and intelligence of defenders David Alaba and Philip Lahm, to use them more as inverted full backs. They would come inside and overload the midfield, to make the simple job of tracking them nearly impossible. Antonio Conte was another who changed how fullbacks could be seen, using two failed wingers in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as wingbacks in his famous 3-4-3 system at Chelsea. Both were athletic and could contribute effectively in the final third, giving the side plenty of numbers defensively and offensively.

One would wonder what does any of this have to do with Bernardo? It’s more for context, and how the original purpose of a fullback has changed so much since the turn of the millenium. It seems their role as defenders has been forgotten, but Bernardo is different. The Brazilian was part of the Red Bull machine, starting his career at Red Bull Brazil, and going on to play for RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig respectively. After having a very good season with Leipzig, he earned a £9m move to Brighton. It was a very good signing, like many of their signings last summer. It made a lot of sense for Bernardo as well. While playing 1350 minutes last season is fine for a player who still hasn’t hit his peak. Moving to a club that was willing to make the same step up was the perfect solution for both parties. Bernardo is apart of a strange new breed of defender, strangely being defensive first. As mentioned, the role of the fullback has changed over the years. Bigger sides realised that having as many players have attacking ability gives them such an advantage. It’s different at the other end of the table. Players like Bernardo, Wan-Bissaka and Chilwell are all really good defensively, but do not offer much on the attacking end. There is an assumption that all fullbacks now bomb forward and help the other wide players. They might help give an option for their teammates, but defending is their priority. Bernardo is the best example of this. In their most recent game against Tottenham, The Brazilian showed all of his best qualities. He is very good in the air, winning more than half of his aerial duels. His tactical versatility has been very impressive. He helps keep the defensive line and is so good in a one on one. Lucas Moura struggled in the first 30 minutes because Bernardo kept forcing him wide, making him so much less effective and persuading Pochettino to switch him and Son. He caused Tottenham a lot of problems when they were attacking. His tackling is by far one of his best attributes. He attempts 4.1 tackles per 90, and wins 80% of them. That’s better than Chilwell’s 65% and not far off Wan-Bissaka’s insane 92%. The 3 players mentioned rarely get dribbled past. Bernardo has only been beaten 0.7 times per game, showing just how solid he is. He definitely lacks attacking qualities, but that isn’t his role or his strength. Brighton are a side that will fear relegation for the next couple of years. They don’t want a full back who will make Marcelo eat his heart out, but someone who won’t get beaten and help make sure their side aren’t conceding preventable goals, and Bernardo is filling that void.

The next sensible question would be if Bernardo could handle a step up into a side that demanded more from their full backs offensively, and I wouldn’t think he could. It’s not to say that he couldn’t join a club with more prestige than Brighton, but he couldn’t join a side, like Tottenham or Napoli, who demand a lot from their fullbacks. He would have to join a side with a more pragmatic approach, where he could still focus on the defensive side of his game. One key area he would have to improve in however is his distribution, Bernardo has averaged a pass accuracy of 73% throughout his career, that would have to peak in the eighty’s if he could be relied on in possession. He turns 24 soon, which gives him less time to improve as other younger full backs, but some teams could truly use a player like Bernardo, where his offensive inability can be brushed aside when seeing just how good he is for his side defensively.

 

Future Superstars! – Under 21 Team of the Season 18/19

With everyone making their team of the seasons and discussing which players should take the award of player of the season when it comes to a close, we’ll instead look at  young players across the big leagues in Europe, and make an XI of players who have stood out for their sides. We’ll mainly focus on players in the top 5 leagues, with some obvious inclusions from other leagues, so let’s get started. Important is they have to have been 21 when the season started, so if players who are 22 are here, then you know why.

Goalkeeper – Gianluigi Donnarumma 

There aren’t truly many options for this position, but we’ll go for AC Milan number one Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Italian has went to further establish himself in a Milan side that are still trying to find their feet. While his teammates are inconsistent to say the least, he has remained one of the best players in the side. He is a good distributor, commands his box and has put in some excellent performances for Milan. One of his stand out performances had to be against Genoa. The 20 year old made 8 saves, and had a 93% pass accuracy. His future still seems to be as bright as it was when he broke onto the scene as a 16 year old.

RB – Aaron Wan-Bissaka 

My love for Wan-Bissaka isn’t hidden at this point. The Crystal Palace defender has been the best full back in the Premier League this season. His crazy high 6.2 tackles and interceptions per game, comfortably the highest in the team and the second highest in the league. He has only been dribbled past by less than 10 players in the league, highlighting just how good he is in those one-on-ones, and his anticipation shines. I even highlighted the Englishman last season for his great performances, by putting him in my team of the season for players outside of the top 6, and seeing him succeed is just so gratifying. Wan-Bissaka actually came through the ranks as a winger, which explains why he’s such a good dribbler, completing 1.7 per game. With Manchester United and Bayern Munich looking at right backs, it makes the prospect of Palace keeping him nearly impossible.

CB – Matthijs de Ligt

I cannot imagine anyone arguing with this choice. De Ligt’s transformation from a small kid playing in the Europa League final against Manchester United, to one of the best young defenders the world has ever seen has to go down to hard work and a brilliant mentality. Playing for arguably the best club in Europe for developing young players, it has given him the platform to succeed and show the world what kind of player he is and can be. His performances in the Champions League have been fantastic. He has shown a calmness and maturity that you don’t see from many players of his age. His distribution also needs to be admired, with the 19 year old completing 63 passes per game, with a 88.2% accuracy. It’s an area which many elite clubs are looking to improve, and he showing all of these things at an age where it gives him years to still improve. If Van Dijk’s record remains this summer, I will be very surprised.

CB – Ibrahima Konate

Leipzig have been a recent breeding ground for young defenders, with Upamecano, Mukiele and Bernardo being recent talents to blossom for them. Konate is another prospect to shine for them. He’s already beeing touted for a big move to Arsenal and it’s earned. With Leipzig playing such an offensively minded system, stand out defenders are needed. Konate is both athletic and a great reader of the game, with the Frenchman making 2.3 interceptions per 90. Thanks to their defenders being so high up the pitch, it leaves them vunerable to long balls towards opposition strikers. It makes the importance of aerial dominant defenders important, and Konate fits the bill. The Frenchman has a respectable 67.3% aerial win percentage, showing how he can deal with the threat. His passing could be better, with a defender’s ability on the ball a sought after part of their game. He is still only 19, meaning his future remains very bright. He’s been one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga and has stood out in a side full of promising players.

LB –  Achraf Hakimi

When discussing Real Madrid’s systemic failure this season, it can be aquainted to making bad decisions. Whether it is selling their best player and not replacing him with a player of similar quality, or in Hakimi’s case, letting a player leave who could have definitely had an effect on the side. The Moroccan international has been the boost that Dortmund needed. With constant injury problems related to Schmelzer and Guerreiro, adding a player who could help with giving the side width, and most importantly, moving the ball. Hakimi is an excellent dribbler, and was nearly the opposite of his full back partner, Lukasz Piszczek, who defensive first. It gave Hakimi a lot of responsibility on a side of the pitch that didn’t have the same consistency as the other. He relished this role, and has been one of the most sought after full backs in Europe. His ability to play on both sides makes him so useful to have, but its his dribbling that is so great. He’s completing 2 dribbles per 90, which is great for both a full back and a young player. He is isn’t a stand out creator by any means, but that isn’t his role. He has to get his side far up the pitch, using his athleticism and ability on the ball. He ranks 4th in the squad for passes completed per game. He is essential in Dortmund’s attempts to move up the field, with not many young players in the world being so adept at passing in a possession that rarely sees that quality. A must for this side

RM – Jadon Sancho 

Rumours are already surfacing, linking Jadon Sancho with £100m moves to the Premier League, and I would definitely pay that. Sancho is having a similar break out season that Mbappe had in that final season at Monaco, which saw the Frenchman earn a £170m move to PSG. Sancho is having a similar season to that. The teenager is one of only a handful of players who is in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s turned into a very good dribbler and creator. Sancho was always seen to be a player who destined for great things, but for him to do it this rapidly is just incredible.  His shot numbers stand at a decent 1.6 per 90, but he’s completing a crazy 3.9 dribbles and making 2.6 key passes. Those are top 10 players in the world numbers, and he’s doing it for a title challenging side in a respectable league. His xGP90 is sitting at 0.58, which is roughly a goal contribution every other game. This shows just how promising the young winger is, being able to have such a stamp on a side full of talent in his first true season. His numbers are spectacular, but there’s more to him than that. His maturity, intelligence and his risk taking is what makes him such a desirable prospect, and arguably the break out star of the season.

CM – Frenkie De Jong

The Eredivise has had this huge problem with analysing talent. Players can have truly excellent seasons, but thanks to the standard of the league, you have to take it with a grain of salt when looking at their numbers and involvement. This current Ajax team has been trying to break that rule, and no one has done so more than Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman came off the back of a very good 2017/18 season, and decided to take that to the next level. It’s earned him a £75m move to Barcelona, and will add so much to a side that has been needing a player like him for a long time. De Jong is a true all rounder. He is averaging 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also completing 80 passes, creating 1.4 chances and completing 2 dribbles.  These are numbers similar to a peak Modric, who was helplessly embarassed by De Jong. While his numbers in the Eredivise have been outstanding, it’s his performances in the Champions League that have really taken the headlines. He dismantled Real Madrid in their own turf, and when playing Juventus in the Johan Cruyff Stadium, he made it nearly impossible to take him out of the game. Every time Bentancour tried to get near him, De Jong would just drop between the defenders to receive the ball. Since he is such a good dribbler, he can just get the ball and walk right through the opposition defence, with no one able to get a finger on him. He’s attempting 1.8 dribbles in the Champions League per match, and is completing 78% of them. Those are peak Moussa Dembele numbers, a player who was famed for his dribble success rate. De Jong will be a superstar, and has everything to put him down as a potential great.

CM – James Maddison 

Moving back to the Premier League and for the final time, let’s look at James Maddison, who has had a spectacular season. The former Norwich midfielder took the step up the Premier League, and already looks like he belongs here. With Leicester losing Mahrez, they needed a creator and someone to help with moving the ball into the final third, and Maddison has fitted the bill. He is creating more chances than any other player in the league with 3.3 key passes per 90. While Leicester have been inconsistent to say the least, Maddison has put in good performance after good performance. His chance creation is incredible, but his dribbling should not be forgotten here. He’s completing 1.5 dribbles per 90, which is good for a player who has been played behind the striker. He reads the game well and has created a great relationship with Jamie Vardy. He constantly wants to get on the ball and is always looking to make positive moves. The only problem is his shooting. His shot map is a mess to say the least, with Maddison taking shots in bad places. A coach needs to try and wipe that out of his game, and ensure he is not wasting chances like that. The future is bright for Maddison, and could be the real central creator that his country has been looking for.

LM – Joao Felix

I mentioned how some leagues have created this impression of risk, and Liga Nos might be the most infamous. Whenever you see an Oblak or Nelson Semedo, you’ll see a Perez or a Jackson Martinez. It’s a league that doesn’t create the same teams that you see in Holland. The sides are usually good defensively and efficient in attack, which makes attackers especially a huge risk. While there have been many failures, Joao Felix doesn’t look like one. The Benfica attacker has had a great season, breaking the record for youngest player to score a hat trick in the Europa League, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. His best performances have all come as a striker, where he has scored 12 and assisted 6 in 18. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high, but when he’s played, it’s usually been with Seferovic, who’s taking roughly 2.6 shots per game (Felix is at 2.4). There has been more to his game than this. He’s also creating 1.1 chances a game, the fourth highest in the squad. His general anticipation and maturity is what has made him stand out, but I think any move for him this summer would be premature. he doesn’t seem to be showing the same insanity in terms of elite numbers, but there is a top level player here. He just needs to play more games before making the step up. A great start for Joao Felix in his break out season.

ST – Kylian Mbappe

Who else? Mbappe is now in the top 5 players in the world for me. Only Messi and Neymar can be argued to be more perfect attackers than the World Cup winner. He’s taking 4.7 shots per 90, with 3.5 coming in the box. He’s taking more shots in the box than most players are taking in a game. He’s had some stand out performances this season, with his hat trick against Lyon earlier in the season being arguably a career high. While he is arguably at the level of Messi and Neymar, he doesn’t have the same wow factor as they do. This is a complement if you can believe, because it makes him more direct and attack with less patience about it. Going on would be pointless because everyone knows just how good Mbappe is. He is player everyone in the world wants.

ST – Luka Jovic

Last but not least, we’re returning to the Bundesliga for our final player. Jadon Sancho has been on the lips of every Bundesliga viewer, but Jovic has been fantastic. I’ve watched a lot of the young Serb since those 5 goals he scored earlier in the season, and he just keeps impressing me. He’s taking shots in great areas, he’s two footed, good in the air and puts some real power on his shots. A small detail there but it’s great to see someone who looks like they want to break the net whenever they score. His xG contribution per 90 stands at 0.90, which is elite levels for a player who hasn’t had much experience at the top. In hindsight this could have been predicted. His xGP90 was 0.74 last season, showing how in little game time, he was still having an incredible effect on his side. The only thing he needed was a manager who was going to start him every game, and that is what he’s got. Jovic looks to be the next super star striker in Europe, similar to Kane or Aguero. It won’t be long until he’s playing for Europe’s truly elite.

 

 

From Mid-Table to Europa League – Let’s Fix Crystal Palace

I thought it would be fun to ‘fix’ a club. While there might not be anything wrong in particular, I want to try and push a club to the next stage, and decided to choose Crystal Palace. They have a very interesting way of playing, and gets the best out of the players there, while also keeping them solid defensively and allowing them to create chances. They are quite simple, but effective.

So what are Palace good at? Well first it’s chance creation. The Eagles are 6th in shots per game, ahead of the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal. They are a side that are very good at quickly transitioning the ball, with Zaha, Wan-Bissaka, Van Aanolt and Townsend all being good dribblers. They are 3rd in the league for dribbles per game, with only Man City and Chelsea ahead of them. Finally, their ability at winning the ball back has to be praised. Palace are a side that focus on quickly regaining the ball, and moving the ball up the pitch. It’s why their dribble numbers are so high. Milivojevic and Wan-Bissaka put in a lot of defensive work, and even players like Zaha and Ayew are putting in a tackle per match. It’s why I’ve chose Palace, because they have an effective style, and makes them a threat. They have the 7th best away form in the league, because their style suits that underdog approach.

Now that we know what is good, let’s look at the more negative side. The first is their home record. I mentioned how well Palace have done away, but their results at Selhurst Park have not being nearly as impressive. They home record ranks 18th in the league, with the Eagles only winning 4 games at home. To describe them as unfortunate is an understatement. xPTS would rank them at 7th in the league, with Palace being very unfortunate to have such a poor record. Their shots and dribble numbers are much better at home than on the road, which highlights the next problem. I mentioned how good they are when it comes to transition and creating chances, but they have a finishing problem. While Palace rank high when it comes to taking shots, their shots on target are not as impressive. They rank 15th in shots on target per game, eight places below where they rank with regular shots. It highlights their biggest problem when it comes to attacking, lacking a good striker. While Hodgson playing Townsend and Zaha as a striking pair did work, they just lack a vocal point, and someone who has a better ability at finding space and taking those chances. Batshuayi has added that to an extent, but I think they need something else, and his move seems more of a boost for the Belgian’s career than for Crystal Palace. The midfield could also use a boost. Kouyate is a below average player at best, and Max Meyer has been horrible, continuing his reputation of being a player many think is good, but just doesn’t offer enough to justify dealing with his baggage, meaning his wages. Meyer left Schalke because they refused to accept his wage demands, which makes sense considering he was bad last season.

Now that we’ve went through the good and the bad, let’s talk about what needs to change. The manager is one that might make a lot of sense, but as mentioned on my manager rankings, I like Hodgson a lot and is still getting the best out of this side, but if the owners do want to upgrade for justfied long term issues (maybe Pablo Machin is getable) but for now we’ll stick with him.

Let’s look at the players. Their goalkeeper options are fine for now. Both Hennessey and Guaita have been fine enough to keep around, with Hennessey finally being replaced. Defence is where it becomes a bit more of a priority. We’ll look at players to bring in later, but for now we’ll focus on who stays and goes. Starting with the centre back options, I think Tompkins and Sakho will be fine for now, but it will be area that I will be looking at later for additions. While both players are have formed a solid partnership, their back ups should be looking at moving on. Scott Dann used to be a regular in the side, but has only started 3 games. He’s also 32 and it might be time for him to leave. The team needs to ensure that they’re is solid competition in all areas. Martin Kelly was one I was thinking of letting go, but then we’d only be left with two centre halves. The full backs are an interesting topic. They arguably have one of the best pairs of full backs in the league, with Wan-Bissaka and Van Aanholt being great at transitioning the ball, winning it back and giving the side a lot of width. The former is going to be on many big club’s radar, but it would be vital to keep hold of him for at least another season. However if United do offer something crazy like £50m, I couldn’t blame Palace for accepting it. We aren’t going to be looking at another full back, since in this perfect world, Wan-Bissaka stays.

Moving on to the midfield, Max Meyer is the first to go. Since he has arrived on a free, you can get some money for the player, because he isn’t worth keeping around. Schlupp and Townsend both stay, with the pair having their best seasons in recent memory. They are versitile and can help fill a number of positions. McArthur, Milivojevic and Kouyate all stay. Regarding the forward options, all are going to be sold besides Zaha. Benteke, Sorloth, Ayew and Wickham are all going to be sold. All have failed to add goals on a consistent basis and also haven’t shown enough to justify even keeping in the first place. It’s an area that definitely needs improving.

Palace have been making conistently bad business in recent windows. Many just seem to have arrived based on the falsely believed ‘premier league proven.’ Palace are another side to show that just because you have players who have experience in the league, doesn’t make it a guaranteed success. I would never recommend any Premier League side sign a player from the same league, unless they’re a relegated side. There’s always an expense based on selling to a Premier League side, as well as many clubs refusing to give to their rivals. Ayew, Kouyate, Benteke, Townsend and Schlupp are average players at best, and the club could have found better options abroad, but decided to play it incredibly safe. Let’s get to the most interesting part, and talk about which players will be brought in, if I had such control.

Let’s begin with an additional centre back. With Sakho, Tompkins and Kelly all over 28, it means a younger addition makes the most sense. With the solid partnership that Sakho and Tompkins forming a decent partnership, it means there’s a chance to find some value in the market here. The first option that should be considered is a player from the tier below. After seeing plenty of players make the step up from the Championship, it’s proof that there is definitely value to be found. Bournemouth are a great example of this, with Brooks, Mephan and Lewis Cook all showing plenty of promise since making the step up. Palace could try a similar approach, since the quality in the Championship is starting to increase by the season. the first suggestion is 24 year old Bristol defender Adam Webster. Ever since their impressive run to the League Cup semi final last season, I’ve always kept an interest in seeing how they’re doing, and after their drop off during the second half of the season, they have definitely shown improvement. They currently sit in 5th, with the 3rd best defensive record in the league. Adam Webster has been very good in the heart of that Bristol defence, turning them into a side finally ready for a chance at promotion. This isn’t exactly a new revelation either. Webster should a lot of promise at Ipswich, with his high interception numbers and massive aerial duels showing him to be a player to keep an eye on, but he just wasn’t playing enough games at his former club, with Webster starting only 25 games in the 2017/18 season, thanks to another ankle injury. Bristol took that risk on him and to say it’s paid off is an understatement. He’s started 35 games this season and has become a vital player for them. Earning the nickname ‘Webdini’ (after Italian legend Maldini), he has come up with important moments, including a winner against Middlesborough. Webster has been putting in the numbers to back up this praise, making 2.1 interceptions per game, the 8th highest in the league. He is also a monster in the air, winning 6.3 aerial duels per match, again the 8th highest. He has been simply fantastic, and would be perfect for a side who are needing a younger defender. Defenders are harder to buy in the current market, so a bargain like this is exactly what the team needs.

Midfield is the next position that needs addressing. While Milivojevic has been great and has been winning points thanks to his penalty prowess, he need a better partner beside him. While he isn’t my first choice, I would still recommend Crystal Palace pick up Philip Billing. Huddersfield might go down as one of the worst sides in the history of the league, but Billing has been a stand out. He’s only 22, and has put in massive defensive numbers, with the Danish midfielder putting 4.7 tackles and interceptions and winning 3.3 aerial duels a game. He is still young, and since Huddersfield are now relegated, it makes picking him up so much easier. I think Palace could pick him up for less than £15m, which would be reasonable enough for a player who has performed well in the Premier League.

My real recommendation would be Jordan Veretout. While Zambo Anguissa and Joan Jordan were all looked at, I thought going for a player who is in his prime would be a great idea. It would be the Frenchman’s second time in the league, with the Veretout previously playing for Aston Villa, a Villa side that were really bad, and Veretout wasn’t good in the slightest. However he was much younger then, and after 3 successful seasons, 2 for Fiorentina, he has turned into a very good player. Veretout deserves another chance in England, and he would add a lot of Palace. He is a great creator, and can help in quickly moving the ball further up the pitch. His key passes are at a career high with 2.4, which would be higher than anyone else in the Palace squad. It’s one of my biggest issues with how Palace build up. They have this over reliance on attacking through the wide areas. They have been playing Zaha and Townsend have been playing as a partnership for most of the season, and it means they mostly lack any unpredictability sometimes. Having a midfielder who is actually able to create means they don’t have to keep relying on Zaha for everything. It’s their biggest flaw. While he is great at transition, he is awful in the final third. I’ll get more into fixing this problem soon, but having another player who can with that is really useful. It makes them so much better in midfield, instead of having just a solid pair, they have more than that. I think Fiorentina might sell if they’re offered between £20-£25 million. He’s 26 and has played a lot of games for them. It could be more, but that’s how much I think he is worth.

Let’s move on to strikers. Since all are departing, and Zaha will be playing as a second striker, bringing in two would make sense. The first is Karl-Toko Ekambi. The Villarrael striker has not had the best of seasons, but can’t all be blamed. Villarreal have been really bad this season, and have only recently looked like surviving. It was a massive decline from a side that qualified for the Europa League last season. Ekambi arrived in the summer to fix their goal problem, alongside Gerard Moreno. He has scored 8 and assisted 1 in 19 starts, which is good considering he’s playing for a struggling side. Many might look at this selection as a strange one, and I get it. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high and he’s 26, so the chances of this changing are unlikely. He’s getting selected because he’s a really good finisher. He doesn’t overperform or underperform his xG, and has a respectable 0.44 xGP90, which is good considering he doesn’t play much. He is just a really good finisher and would fix one of my biggest issues with Palace, being they take a lot of shots, but not good ones. Bringing in a guy who will put those chances away is needed if they want to push onto the next level. I think Villarreal would sell for more than £20m. He is on a 5 year deal which would make it difficult to sign him. Ekambi has proven before that he can score goals. Villarreal signed him because of his impressive 17 goal season in Ligue 1. If he can replicate that for Crystal Palace, it could be exactlywhat they need.

My next striker choice is more of a wildcard, but would be a lot of fun. I’ve already brought up how the level of the Championship has improved massively in the past couple of years, and my next choice shows this. While Brentford don’t seem to be getting promotion this season, they have a very interesting attack. Ollie Watkins has been on the radar of so many clubs, and seems to be on the verge to a Premier League club very soon. Said Benrahma has been one of the best players in the league this season, and is now in double figures for goals and assists. While both of those players are great, the player I will be talking about is Neal Maupay. The Frenchman has been insanely good this season, scoring 21 and assisting 7 in 38 appearances. He has played more than the players previously mentioned, and as been vital for Brentford. While small, he is quick, technically gifted and gets in very good areas. He is taking 3.4 shots per 90, more than anyone for Palace. While the clear quality difference needs to be pointed out, it’s still positive to have a young forward having such healthy shot numbers. He is also a good creator, which is needed they want to get even more out of Zaha. It’s something I forgot to bring up when talking about Ekambi, but both have very good key pass numbers. A little more is needed from them if Zaha is to work as a second striker. Maupay averages 1.4 per 90, which is very good for a striker. Bringing both Ekmbi and Maupay into the side will give them options and two very good finishers. It’s rumoured Brentford are asking for upwards to £20m for their forward, which is a fair price. It might be a lot for a Championship player, but he is clearly a step above that league.

That’s all the signings I would bring in. Let me know if there are any I might have missed. These names might not be the huge names, but it’s not about the names. It’s about being smart, in taking risks while also having players who are likely to succeed. The Eagles have potential to take that next step up. It’s insanely unlikely that they would take this advice, but it’s I would see in fixing this side.

Best XI of players outside of the Top 6 (2017/18)

After speaking about the best eleven for the top teams, let’s discuss how some players in the lower half of the table are doing, and making an eleven of their best players.

Nick Pope (Burnley)

There isn’t much of a competition here. While I think Jordan Pickford has been very good, Pope has been head and shoulders above his competition. He had came into a very organised Burnley side after Heaton’s injury, and not even looked out of place. He’s been averaging 3.3 saves per game this season, which betters Courtois’s 2 saves per game. While Burnley themselves have been a brilliant defensive unit, they have relied at times on Pope to bail them out. Some that come to mind would be against United and City, where he made some brilliant saves to win his team some valuable points. I’ll be very impressed if Heaton will be able to get back into this team, with Pope being this good

Aaron Wan Bissaka (Crystal Palace)

It might be a bit odd to put a player who has only played 7 games in the premier league this season as the best right back, but for a 20 year old, he has been absolutely brilliant. Against Man United he was incredible in keeping Sanchez quiet. He was tight on him and blocked any pass that was attempted. He’s averaged 5.9 tackles and interceptions this season. Which is just absolutely unbelievable. Every time he has played he has not looked out of place, and could become a key player for Palace next season.

Christopher Schindler (Huddersfield)

Huddersfield in a defensive sense have actually been relatively good this season. For a team with a minus goal difference last season, to concede only 8 goals more than Arsenal is pretty impressive. They also top the table in tackles, ahead of champions league finalists Liverpool. It says a lot about how Huddersfield have been playing this season. They have been playing very risky football, which has given many defeats, but because of that, their defensive players have a lot of responsibility in ensuring that the opposition does not get past. He has been averaging 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, and also 7.2 clearances. It shows that playing this open system has not affected the German. His defensive numbers are at a real high because of the responsibility he has. He’s been excellent in this system and deserves so much more credit than he gets.

James Tarkowski (Burnley)

Michael Keane was excellent last season. He completed the most passes for Burnley in the final third and showed himself to be a strong, intelligent and capable player. But systems are important in football and his move to Everton shows it. He has been exposed more this season because of style changes to the way Everton play. I bring this up to make a certain point, that playing in a certain system brings out your best qualities. Tarkowski might be in this similar mold as we speak. He has replaced Keane perfectly. It’s a another decision from Dyche that deserves as much credit as it is getting. A player no one heard of twelve months ago is now getting England caps. He’s shown himself to be a perfectly capable defender, who is able to keep the shape and do his job. I cannot call him a great defender by any means, because he plays in a system that favours a more pragmatic approach. The credit he is getting here is because of how flawless he has been, and anyone who does their job that good deserves my credit.

Patrick Van Aanholt (Crystal Palace)

Maybe a strange pick. Usually the Southampton fullbacks cover these positions. But because of their off season, other players have to be considered. Van Aanholt had always been an odd player to me. No matter how good he is going forward, the defensive frailties have always showed themselves. His positional sense had always been very off, having the possibility of getting caught out. This season has been different however. He has been averaging 3.4 tackles and interceptions per 90, and most impressively for me he only gets dribbled past 0.6 times per game. He’s a very difficult player to beat in a one on one. His passing numbers might not be great, but that can be explained by Palace themselves. Much of their game comes on the right side, with Zaha especially effective in this regard. It gives the Dutchman the chances to get in dangerous areas. He has scored 5 goals for palace this season, and some of them being very important. He have his inconsistencies, but has been an important player for palace.

Abdoulaye Doucouré

Doucouré has been a very consistent player in Watford’s team selection, and for justified reasons. He’s averaged 3.6 tackles and interceptions per game, while also completing 85% of is passes. He’s showing signs of a very well rounded midfielder. Not only has he been capable of playing in a deeper position, he also can play in a midfield 3. It shows him to be a very flexible player for any team who is thinking about adding depth in that area. He has been a towering figure in that Watford side. Most importantly he has scored 7 goals and assisted 3 for a team that hasn’t been too great in front of goal. In a season that started so brightly, and slowed down after the sacking of Marco Silva. Doucouré has been the only player to get constant praise.

Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace)

Milivojevic has showed himself again to be the best midfielder in this side, and most reliable. He has been relied on for taking the teams penalties, which he has gladly repaid them for their trust, out of the 10 goals he has scored, 9 of them have been from the spot. He’s also completed 4.5 tackles and interceptions per game. Not only is he scoring goals, but his defensive work has been absolutely superb. With a midfielder like Cabaye next to him, he will be relied on for the defensive work. The Serbian has been brilliant again, and continues to be a key player for Palace.

Pascal Gros (Brighton)

Gros has been the signing of the season for me. Many will simply say it is Mohammed Salah. I disagree here simply based on the fact that premier league survival is worth so much to a club that has just been promoted, than any trophy Liverpool can win. Not only that, Gros costed nearly 10% of what Liverpool paid for Salah. For a player who has contributed to more than half of Brighton’s goals this season, it is clear to see why he should be considered the signing of the season. It wasn’t as if this wasn’t expected. He created the most chances in the Bundesliga last season, and Brighton clearly saw that and knew he was worth the small amount of money they paid. He has a relatively low pass accuracy for a creator, at only 76%. But that can be explained on his role. Gros’s role is to create, and seeing as he averages 1.8 crosses and 1.8 long balls per game, that is perfectly understandable. Crosses and Long balls are types of passes that usually aren’t common to complete. It’s pretty incredible that he was able to that, while also making 2.2 key passes per 90. He’s contributed to 8 goals and 8 assists. He’s been Brighton’s best player by a mile, and it’s clear to understand why.

Wilfred Zaha (Crystal Palace)

I’ve never been much of a fan of Zaha. He’s always had the talent, but his final product was always something to desire. This season however, Roy has clearly gotten the best out of him. He’s been the key player for Palace in an attacking sense. Because of the terrible form of Christian Benteke, Zaha has mainly been played as a striker, alongside Townsend. He’s scored 9 and assisted 3. Even though he has definitely improved, there is still more to improve on. He averages 2.2 shots per game, 1.8 key passes per game and most impressively, dribbles past his opponent 4.1 times per game. It’s clear to see that going wide is his speciality, with his incredible ability to take on players. His threat to the opposition can clearly be seen, based on him being fouled 2.6 times per game. He is winning the ball in good positions for his team. On a talent basis, he is one of the most talented out of the lower teams in the table, and while there are more areas for him to improve on, mainly his conversion rate, he has still been very good for Palace this season.

Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

I think Mahrez has been absolutely brilliant this season. Leicester themselves have been very on and off this season. At points they have reminded us why they won a league title, and others remind us why they were so poor last season. Leicester themselves haven’t been ruthless enough with their squad. It’s clear to see that there are players who shouldn’t be at the club. Players such as Morgan, Fuchs, and Simpson all need to be moved on. Their fragility as they begin to show their age is getting more and more clear. Mahrez is another example, but in an opposite situation. Mahrez has been brilliant this season for the foxes, and continued to be their main creator. He’s scored 12 and assisted 10. Thosr are very very good numbers for a wide player. Not only that, he has 2 shots per game, makes 1.6 key passes per game and also completed 2.3 of his dribbles. He’s quite similar to Zaha. The only difference being the strikers they play with. Vardy has scored 20 goals, which has put less pressure on Mahrez, but he has still been excellent. Zaha’s numbers have been much higher, yet he has scored and assisted less than the Algerian. It shows the difference in quality, and which player is ready for the transition to an elite club. With Arsenal looking for wide talent, this summer could be the only where Mahrez finally makes the big move.

Kenedy (Newcastle United)

While many would be including Vardy in this XI, I decided to be a bit different, and choose a player who decided the fate for a certain Northern club. Before the Brazilian signed, Newcastle were in a mess. They were struggling with scoring goals and defending. Rafa made two loan signings that changed both. Dupravka in goal, and Kenedy on the left side. While Matt Ritchie had that right side locked down, the left side was still much for debate. Atsu was very inconsistent, and Jacob Murphy seems to have been a mistake before he even played. Kennedy arrived and instantly showed what they were missing. He’s a player who wants to try things, and isn’t afraid to get involved. Kenedy has been averaging 1.8 shots per game. In a Newcastle side that overall hasn’t been too attacking, that is showing how much he is willing to attack. What I find most impressive is his defensive work. He’s been averaging 3.3 tackles and interceptions per game. For a wide player who is also taking plenty of shots, it’s unbelievable he’s able to do both. If he doesn’t sign for Newcastle, he would be perfect for a team with an intention to press. His ability to work the left side and contribute in front of goal is very valuable.