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

Atletico Madrid

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

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

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

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

Bayer Leverkusen 

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

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

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

Juventus

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

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

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

Lokomotiv Moscow 

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

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

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

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

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Selling at the Right Time

Out of the many players I’ve covered, not a single player has come from Serie A, and there is one simple reason why. The Italian top flight just isn’t as interesting as the other leagues. While it mostly has to do with Juventus winning the league in the worst fashion, it also has to do with the general style. The Premier League and Bundesliga have been so interesting to look at with innovative managers and young players shining in teams that are fun to watch. Italy just didn’t have that this season. While Napoli and Atalanta do break the mould, with the pair being entertaining to watch, you still see Juventus, Inter and AC Milan all being very dull. Maybe the departure of Allegri and arrival of Conte to Inter Milan might change that, but at the moment it is at the bottom in leagues to watch.

It is, however, the league that seems to contain the clubs who refuse to cash in on overperforming players. What I mean by this is every once in a while, a player will have a truly stand out season, and when the bigger clubs come knocking, they refuse to sell in the expectation that the player in question will improve and be seen as a more valuable prospect in the future. Andrea Belotti serves as the perfect example. After his exceptional 2016/17 season, which saw him score 26 goals, with only Dzeko and Mertens scoring more. Before they signed Romelu Lukaku, United were ready to offer over £80 million for the Italian. It was foolish for them to offer that much for a player who scored over 20 goals for the first time in his career, but it was even worse to see Torino reject it. They instantly came to regret it. Belotti suffered injuries last season and generally looked worse. While he did improve this season, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in that breakout season. Valencia made the same mistake in not selling Rodrigo when Madrid were offering a crazy amount for the Spaniard, and Palace might make the same mistake regarding Zaha.

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The player we will be analysing today was also related to the ignorant stances clubs can take. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic had a fantastic 17/18 season, which saw him score 12 and assist 3. He was one of the highlights of a strong Lazio side, and it didn’t take long until Manchester United came knocking. They were offering nearly £80 million to sign the Serbian midfielder, and Lazio refused. It now seems that Milinkovic-Savic is on his way to Juventus, for £30 million less than United were offering. It’s another example of a club ignoring a better deal but does this drop in price show a player who has stagnated?

Milinkovic-Savic began his career in his homeland, playing for one of the biggest clubs in the country, Vojvodina. He shined in the youth team and ended up playing 13 games for the side, before moving on to Genk. In his only season for the Belgian club, he showed himself to be a midfielder with an eye for a goal, scoring 5 in 24 games. Lazio then decided to sign the Serbian, where he has remained and flourished. While he seemed to be a bit part player in his first campaign, he has shown himself to be an important player for the side, starting over 30 games for 3 straight seasons. He has the game time to back up the exciting numbers he has been putting up.

With Milinkovic-Savic starting as a central midfielder and slowly being pushed to a dominant attacking midfielder, his numbers have increased in some areas and dropped in others. His defensive numbers have slowly been declining since his arrival from Genk, going from 3.2 tackles and interceptions in the 2016/17 season to 2.1 last season. Inzaghi has used him in a more attacking role and has gotten the best out of the Serb. He is a physical presence in midfield and has the speed and energy to easily move up and down the pitch. Milinkovic-Savic specialises in making runs late into the box but is also comfortable in dropping deeper to receive the ball from his defenders. He has a good range of passing, which has allowed him to pick out the runs that their wing backs would usually make. While there is some flexibility in how Sergej can be deployed, the only area he truly stands out in is in the penalty area. While a return of 5 goals isn’t a fantastic one, he constantly makes late runs into the box. using his superior aerial presence to win the ball for his side. He wins 3.6 aerial duels per game, the most for his side. He gives Lazio another dimension in attack. While Alberto is a fantastic creator and Correa a good dribbler, Savic gives them another threat in attack. giving them a sense of unpredictability. His shot locations are okay. He is taking 1 shot per game, but most of his shots are coming from outside of the box. He is an average distance shooter, but he should stop shooting recklessly. He has a good range of passing that enables him to spread the ball across the pitch. While I did compliment Demirbay recently for his shots coming from outside of the box, that is because he is good at it. Milinkovic-Savic is also a very good dribbler. While his 1.1 successful dribbles per game could be higher, he does use his size to his advantage. It makes him difficult to dispossess.

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While Juventus remaining interested could be good for the player, I would recommend the Champions stay clear. The Old Lady are in dire need of an elite midfielder. With Khedira and Matuidi looking worse as the seasons pass by, they do need a player who is able to cover the same ground, while also being able to contribute on the attacking end. Juventus were outrun in midfield against Ajax in both legs, and couldn’t deal with the brilliance of Frenkie De Jong. While Milinkovic-Savic does offer a better option in that area, I do think they should look for someone else. Brozovic, Kovacic, Rabiot and Partey would make a lot more sense. Milinkovic-Savic excels in an area where Juventus do not need cover. They already have Ronaldo and Mandzukic as their aerial threats. The Serbian doesn’t stand out defensively and while his range of passing is impressive, they already have Pjanic as a player with excellent passing. Savic has been relied on heavily after the departure of Anderson and when Alberto has missed games. He doesn’t stand out in a way that would make big clubs take note. He isn’t what Juventus need at the moment.

I think there will still be suitors for the Serbian international. His goal drop might look like a problem, but xG shows he was lucky to even reach 12 goals in his breakout season. It looked more likely he would get around 6 goals instead.  There is a lot of Savic’s game that I like, but isn’t at the same level as someone like Paul Pogba or Bernardo Silva. In a couple of years, Lazio might regret not selling Milinkovic-Savic when they had the chance.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Giovani Lo Celso and PSG’s Mistakes

It seems like criticising PSG is a club I consistently criticise, and for good reason. They sacrifice building a good team for the sake of shirt sales. While a very blunt statement, they haven’t failed to prove me wrong as of yet. When they brought in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar for record fees, it was in the attempt to fix a lack of goals in the squad. While this did work, it further went to highlight the lack of balance in the side. While their attacking options are vast and give them depth to compete on multiple fronts, it’s the rest of the pitch where the problems lie. They had to resort to bringing in the ageing Gianluigi Buffon to give them a better goalkeeper, but now it seems they want to bring in David De Gea to add another to the list of goalkeepers they’ve tried to bring in. Their full-back options are simply not good enough, with Tuchel even pointing out before the start of the season that he was in desperate need of players in that area. Bringing in Juan Bernat is an improvement, but he isn’t as good as the full-backs you in the Bayern Munich, Liverpool or Man City starting XI. As mentioned when discussing Ander Herrera in the previous analysis, the midfield is a problem, and it will take more than Herrera on a free to fix it. It makes the departure of Giovani Lo Celso even more puzzling.

Arriving in Paris from Rosario in 2016, Lo Celso arrived as a skilful midfielder with an eye for goal. While he didn’t become a prominent member for the Champions until the 2017/18 season, he did show value to Unai Emery. He made 33 appearances, starting 18 games, and added a different element to a very good midfield. He was a fantastic dribbler and was very good at recovering the ball. While Verratti, Rabiot and Motta are all composed players and great passers, Lo Celso gave that Argentine aggression that they needed. While he did have a very good season, it’ll be your performances on the big stage that will be remembered. During their defeat at the Bernabeu, Lo Celso had a very poor display. Playing as a defensive midfielder, a position has been able to cover before, he gave away a penalty and generally had a poor game. He was outplayed by the superior Modric and Isco, and it a stamp on a good reputation he was establishing. In came Thomas Tuchel, arguably one of the top three coaches in Europe. He made it very clear he wasn’t going to use him as much as Emery did. Tuchel said back in September, “Personally I think it’s not a number 6. It’s more like an 8, an 8 and a half, even a 10 if you like.” He is right. Lo Celso is better as an advanced midfielder. While his tackle numbers are high, it’s more in an attempt to get the ball in the final third, not to protect the back four. The young Argentine decided to join Betis on loan in an attempt to receive more minutes, with an option to buy for €30 million.

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To say he’s had a successful spell in La Liga is an understatement. In only one season, he went from a promising player, into arguably the most desirable midfield prospect in Europe. While you’ll see young midfielders like Ndidi, Rodri or Sangare who are great defensively, or Rabiot and Tielemans, who are fantastic progressors of the ball, Lo Celso is something different. His good shot numbers from deep, high dribbling and tackling numbers, it made Setien slowly move Lo Celso from the left-sided number 8 to a number 10 and now a striker. This does make sense. He is by far their best attacker and moving him further up the pitch gives him more chances in front of goal. It was also to resolve another huge problem, that being the passive side of Betis. They’ve struggled in many games to take advantage of their domination and struggle to break down opponents who prefer to sit deeper. Setien’s idea was by moving Lo Celso as a striker in a front two was to help find space between the midfield and defence. In the game against Villarreal, he would constantly drop deeper from the defensive line, to help give an option to the side. It would allow his teammates to find space in the areas he’s opening up by coming deeper. It adds another strength to a player who is full of them. Lo Celso is a player who is seemingly growing a persona every time I’ve watched him. His constant asking for the ball, his speed and aggression in which he dribbles and the pressure he puts on the defence. It’s truly fascinating to watch him play for just how well rounded he is. He matches a tireless work rate in midfield with this direct style that has made him so effective. From playing in many different positions, he has scored 9 and assisted 4. He is Betis’s top scorer in La Liga and has more goal contributions than any other player in the side. He seems to have blossomed in the over-reliance placed on him. While some of his defensive numbers have dropped as the season’s progressed, this is due to him being played in more advanced positions. If looking at his numbers when played as a central midfielder, he has been making 2.3 tackles per game, an increase to the 1.6 he’s been averaging throughout the season. Lo Celso must be a gift to have as a manager. His versatility, speed and technical ability make him such an appealing prospect for all big clubs. He’s by far been Betis’s best player this season and looks destined for a move to a league challenging side.

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It does beg the question if Lo Celso is PSG’s biggest mistake in the past few years. From a club’s perspective, it must be a yes. Betis have signed one of the best young midfielders in the world for less than half of what he’s valued. It does seem like the club didn’t expect him to kick on and perform at such a high level so quickly. He’s able to play in multiple different roles, and but is arguably best played as a number 10. He has the energy and defensive ability to match his technical skill. But it does come back to the question of if we would have known about this if he hadn’t moved to Betis. It’s an argument that is made in football in recent years, playing a certain player in a different system can bring other strengths. Think Antoine Griezmann and his ability to create and find space has been highlighted thanks to being played in such a pragmatic system. Bernardo Silva would be another example. Since Pep has opted to play him as a central midfielder, we have arguably seen the best side of him. He can lead a press so well and had more defensive output than anyone expected. Setien has discovered Lo Celso’s ability to career the attack, and his intelligence and desire to constantly want to make an effect on the match have shown him to be a player to be feared. It is worrying, however, that a side lacking midfielders would let one go, even if Tuchel wasn’t fond of him.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ander Herrera and Improving PSG

With Paris crashing out of Europe in the round of 16 for a third time in a row, questions are going to be asked. What makes this different to the previous eliminations is who they lost to. While losing to Barcelona thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, followed by a defeat to the eventual champions Real Madrid the following year are all understandable, losing to a weakened Manchester United side has no excuse. While Tuchel was unable to choose Neymar, Cavani or Rabiot, his team was still strong enough to progress past a Manchester United side which were injury struck. Manchester United were the first team in the history of the Champions League to overcome a two goal defeat in the home leg to progress to the second round. It’s an embarrassing fact for PSG to face. I’ve already criticised the Ligue 1 champions plenty of times, and for good reason, but it seems this summer they are eager to fix these problems. While their full back areas are in desperate need of surgery, their midfield is in need of depth. With Manchester United failing to secure contracts with key players, it’s given Paris the chance to steal one of their key midfielders in Ander Herrera. Let’s look to see how he can improve PSG.

Herrera has had a very up and down time in Manchester. Primarily used as a squad player under Van Gaal, he did have a solid impact in his two years under the Dutchman. In his first season, he managed to contribute to 10 goals in 17 games, a solid output from a central midfielder. In a midfield consisting of an ageing Michael Carrick and an immobile Fellaini, he added energy and some needed bite to the midfield. While his game time didn’t improve in Van Gaal’s final season, it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho that truly brought the best out of the Spaniard. With Mourinho desperately searching for a player to partner Paul Pogba, Herrera was by far the best. His work rate and reading of the game was unrivalled in the squad, and gave the perfect balance to his french midfield partner. Their partnership brought the best out of each other, with Herrera’s huge 5.3 tackles and interceptions protecting a fragile defence. Herrera is one of the few players in the Premier League who understands how to take advantage of the rules of the game. It’s a common consensus that every Premier League fan hates Herrera, except United fans. He knows the dark arts of the game, like you see from the Catenaccio sides from the sixties. He will take a yellow card for the team, if it helps stop an opposition attack. He will always stay on the ground for longer than needed, and harass referees to help get the decision to go his way. While many authentic football fans do not like this side of the game, winning teams are built with players like Herrera. A combination of huge defensive work and adding that extra bite to midfield is perfect when you want to hold onto a lead near the end of the game, and to help disrupt more possession based sides. PSG’s midfield has missed that energy and aggression since the departure of Blaise Matuidi.

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So what are the issues with the Spaniard? He doesn’t offer enough in the attacking front. It’s strange to see a player who blossomed as an attacking midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa to have a lack of attacking output. Herrera’s drop off in the final third is massive from his final season for Bilbao. His key passes, shots per game and dribbles have all halved since then. While this could be down to a change in role, which is true. He isn’t relied on in an attacking sense anymore, thanks to the dominance of Paul Pogba, but the problem comes when he has to be relied. When Pogba suffered a short term injury during Mourinho’s second season, Herrera replaced him in a 4-2-3-1, playing alongside Matic. The Serbian couldn’t offer anything on the attacking front, and it was up Herrera to bring something to the midfield. United truly struggled during this period, with a stale draw at Anfield, a loss to Chelsea and an embarrassing lost to Huddersfield. Pogba was huge blow and Herrera just couldn’t add the same flair and arrogance as his teammate. It wasn’t a surprise as soon as Pogba came back, United beat a gritty Newcastle side 4-1.

So what would Herrera add to this side? As mentioned they are lacking in midfield depth. They have been forced to play Dani Alves and Marquinhos in that position because they are truly lacking options. Herrera would add a physical and defensive presence to a midfield that has looked shaky at times. It’s a team full of superstars, but having a player who isn’t afraid of doing the hard yards is always needed to succeed. As the famous Zidane quote goes when Makalele was sold to Chelsea. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”