The BEST Attacking Team in Europe? Atalanta vs Valencia – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is likely the least interesting tie for many neutrals, but there is still plenty to talk about. We’ll be seeing everyone’s new favourite hipster club; Atalanta, face off against one of La Liga’s most talked about clubs; Valencia. Both have a strong chance to reach the quarter finals, so let’s look at who will be advancing.

We’ll start with Atalanta, who I’ve anticipated to see in this competition for years. They were so close back in 2017, finishing fourth (finishing fourth meant Europa League back then, but was changed recently to allow four teams in Italy to qualify). They finally made it, after finishing 3rd and being the best attacking team in Italy, topping the league for shots, chances created and expected goals. Gasperini formed a team full of Serie A journeymen and small fee signings throughout Europe. The likes of Duvan Zapata and Josip Illicic have played throughout the decade, but are at their peak in terms out output, near the end of their careers.

As mentioned, Atalanta’s biggest strength is their attack. They top Serie A for xG, surprisingly ahead of Lazio (Atalanta have 55.7; Lazio have 45.1), who have the top scorer and assister in Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto respectively. La Dea also top the league for passes into the penalty area and shot assists. Gasperini as built a side that uses a three at the back formation different to how it’s usually intended. The Italian coach uses it to give his attackers as much freedom from defensive duties as possible. Zapata, Illicic and Gomez are the best forward line in Italy. Zapata has been fantastic since joining the Nerazzurri, scoring 23 goals in his debut season. He has gotten less minutes this season down to an injury he picked up on international duty (pointless friendlies strike again). Thankfully, Luis Muriel, a summer signing from Sevilla, has been a healthy contributor, scoring 12 goals and only behind Illicic for top scorer. Both Illicic and Gomez are easily the team’s most important players. Both are in the top five in Italy for passes into the penalty area and shot assists, with Gomez actually ahead of Alberto (granted by a single shot assist).

Martin De Roon still does a lot of work in terms of defensive actions, topping the team for tackles and interceptions, while Remo Freuler is a very good progressor of the ball, even if he’s dropped off slightly this season. The wing-backs offer a lot in terms of creativity as well. Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens don’t contribute many defensive actions, but give the side plenty of width, which further allows the forward three freedom to create and score.

Yet, while Atalanta’s domestic form is fantastic, their first Champions League campaign started in awful fashion. They lost their first three games, humiliated by Dynamo Zagreb and Manchester City and losing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. One of the best attacking teams in Europe only managed to score 2 goals and conceded 11. While some teams in Italy might be better than Zagreb and Shakhtar, their opposition have European experience in terms of preparation. The problem Atalanta had was how their opponents exposed their biggest weakness; dribbling. Gasperini deploys a man-marking system. This means when a player is beaten, the system falls apart. Atalanta’s players were beaten though dribbling more than any other team in the group stages. Dani Olmo, Bruno Petkovic, Marlos, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne all had their best performances in the competition when facing the Nerazzurri. A lot of teams in Serie A simply don’t have the players to take advantage of this weakness, but when playing European teams, three of which were league champions, make it easier to exploit.

Gasperini somehow managed to turn this whole disasterous campaign around with a massive 180. Atalanta went on to win two of their final three games, and thanks to Manchester City beating Dynamo Zagreb, Atalanta were able to qualify for the round of sixteen on the first try. Luck went their way, and their attack finally started to put their chances away. It’s good to see an objectively good team in the round of sixteen, one of which that could shock a lot of neutrals.

Let’s move on to Valencia, who are the worst team left in the competition. I doubt that will raise any eyebrows, considering the only other team left who are just as bad are Lyon or arguably Atletico Madrid.

Valencia had the most unfortunate season I can remember in 18/19. For the first four months of the season, they couldn’t buy themselves a win. By the end of November, Los Ches were fifteenth in the table, when xG shows they should have been in the top four. Their poor results were mainly down to their strikers running cold for months, drawing a lot of games where they should’ve gotten the three points. Marcelino, as well as their misfortune running out, got them back on track, eventually finishing in the top four and winning the Copa Del Rey.

Talking about results and performances is what I should be doing at this point, but it’s hard to talk about Valencia without discussing Marcelino’s sacking. The fact that the former Villarreal coach managed to take one of the worst run clubs in Spain to back to back fourth place finishes is a massive achievement. Yet, Marcelino was sacked at the beginning of September, after clear disagreements with the the owner, Peter Lim. Marcelino was well liked by the fans, so sacking so early in the season did not go down well, with #LimGoHome trending on Twitter. What made things even worse for Lim is when Marcelino revealed why he thought he was fired:

“I’m convinced the Copa del Rey was a trigger (for my sacking).”

Marcelino, the rest of the coaching staff and the players all wanted to fight for the copa, while Lim showed little interest in adding something to his club’s trophy cabinet. The Champions League was obviously the priority for Lim because of the money, but fans and players rarely win silverware in Spain unless you’re Barcelona or one of the Madrid Clubs. Winning a domestic cup, one that Barcelona have dominated for years, gave the Valencia fans and players something to celebrate.

Marcelino’s sacking not only annoyed the fans, but also the players. They refused to attend the pre match press conference before the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, to show their frustration towards the current situation. Valencia lack talent in their squad (which we’ll come onto), so angering the best coach you’ve had in years is a baffling move.

Back to the football, where there isn’t much good to say. Valencia haven’t been good this season, currently sitting in 7th but only two points behind Atletico Madrid in fourth. Similar to the Bundesliga, a race for top four has materialised from the established clubs underperforming, with two mid-table clubs (in this case Real Sociedad and Getafe) having closed the gap and given the top clubs some real competition for the Champions League places. The current state of this squad is incredibly underwhelming. Dani Parejo has still been fantastic as ever, but no one else is performing at his level. They only manage 9.4 shots per game and possess one of the worst xG differences in the league, with their -7.4 placing them in the bottom half of the table. The approach of relying on their goalkeeper to produce save after save, defend deep and supply their pretty talented forwards isn’t encouraging, when the teams ahead of them in the table have an effect way of playing, whether it’s Sociedad young, fun attack or Getafe with their insane organisation.

A lot of it can be blamed on misfortune. Gonçalo Guedes and Geoffrey Kondogbia, two of their best performers in their impressive 17/18 season, have missed a lot of football. They’ve missed 37 and 32 games respectively since the start of 18/19. Guedes has just came back from a lengthy ankle injury, while Kondogbia has missed a lot of football through recurrent hamstring problems. The pair just aren’t at the level they were two years ago, and couple that with Gameiro missing these game and Garay missing the rest of the season, then it’s pretty clear Valencia could be better.

You look at this fixture on paper and it’s pretty clear Atalanta should walk all over this Valencia team, but I have my reservations. Albert Celades’ side managed to escape the most competitive group, containing last year’s semi-finalists Ajax, Frank Lampard’s young Chelsea side and Ligue 1 runners-up Lille. I thought Ajax were comfortably the favourites, with the fight for second between Chelsea and Lille. Yet Valencia managed to progress. Their second place finish is primarily down to luck, but they still deserve some praise. They took advantage of Chelsea’s poor defending at set-pieces and managed to win at Stamford Bridge through a Rodrigo goal. Rodrigo was gifted another goal in a 0-1 win, this time in Amsterdam. Valencia’s league form is inconsistent to put it nicely, but their performances in Europe, especially away from home, do make it difficult to argue against them deserving to being here.

This will be their biggest advantage when facing Atalanta. Rodrigo’s pace and Maxi Gomez’s aerial threat give them some versatility upfront. Valencia play pretty direct, using Parejo’s vision from open play and set-pieces to pick out the forwards. He’s only attempted 32 passes less than 5 yards, showing his main role is moving the ball into the final third through riskier passes. The Valencia captain is actaully fourth in the whole of La Liga for passes into the final third.

I do think if Cillessen makes his usual amount of miracle saves and forwards convert the minimal chances they create, Valencia will have a shot at reaching the quarter finals. But when you consider their opponent have the best attack in Italy and only behind Manchester City in the whole of Europe, it’s hard not to back Le Dea. Valencia are likely to come back with something in the first leg, but I fully back Gasperini and his players to show the Spanish side exactly why everyone can’t stop raving about them.

 

The Best Team in Europe? – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group C

Arguably one of the least competitive groups in the competition. It’s undeniable who will top the group, but that second place is still very much up for grabs.

Atalanta 

After missing out from a playoff defeat back in 2017, Italy’s new hipster club are finally making their first appearance in the Champions League, and they fully deserve it. Atalanta have been one of the best sides in Italy for the past 3 years, credited for their attacking football and the value they’ve managed to uncover from a wide variety of talent. Back in the 2016/17 season, they were also famed for the young players they were producing. The likes of Franck Kessie, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Bryan Cristante all flourishing at the club. Atalanta seemed like the breeding ground for both Italy and Europe’s next generation of footballers, with the 4 players mentioned now playing for Italy’s more established big clubs. 

What last season did show was not only how Atalanta should now be considered one of Italy’s most dangerous sides, but just how they are doing that. Instead of focusing on young talent, their primary focus seems to be getting the best out of players who were written off by other clubs. This ability at finding value in the market made their 3rd place finish, with the best attack in the Serie A, even more impressive. Their front three revolves around Duvan Zapata, Papu Gomez and Josep Illicic. The trio are all over 28 and were brought in for a combined £22.05 million, some of the best value for money you’ll see. Gomez and Illicic play as inverted playmakers, given free roles to create for Zapata, as well as score themselves. While Gomez adds that unpredictability and skill to forward line, Zapata was by far their best performer last season. I can’t stress enough just how good his teammates were at creating chances for the Colombian, but Zapata’s knack for shooting in generally good positions turned those chances into goals. A majority of his goals were coming from inside the six-yard area, whether from set-pieces or from open play. These players can cause any side in Europe a lot of problems, and I fully expect them to bring their A-game to the rest of the teams in their group. 

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There is more to Atalanta than just their attack. In fact, their midfield has remained a force even with the departures of Kessie and Cristante. Remo Freuler and Martin De Roon combined to form a midfield pairing focused on winning the ball but remain adept at progressing it to their gifted attackers. De Roon’s massive defensive output does deserve praise, but Freuler is comfortably the best out of the pair. The Swiss midfield combines massive defensive actions of 4.4 tackles and interceptions alongside over 9 deep progressions, placing him in the top 10 in Serie A for progressions from deep. The pair cover the wide areas of the pitch so effectively that it has enabled their wing-backs to push up and give Atalanta width. 

While I can expect Dinamo and Shakhtar to have a shot at escaping this group, La Dea is by far the favourites to finish 2nd. A great coach in Gasperini, the best attack in Italy, a solid midfield and marauding wing-backs, they could indeed turn the heads of many casual fans.

Dinamo Zagreb

The Croatian side has garnered a reputation for producing some of their country’s best talent. Luka Modric, Matteo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic and Marko Rog all played and eventually departed to join some of Europe’s elite. Dinamo Zagreb’s production line earns more plaudits than the actual team, but the team do deserve some praise. Their performances in the Europa League last season were excellent, topping Group D and going undefeated in a group containing Fenerbahce and Anderlecht. A Round of 16 departure to Benfica is respectable enough, considering they managed to take the Liga NOS champions into extra-time. They brought the same impressive form to their qualification, easing past Rosenborg, Saburtalo and Ferencvaros. They’ve earned their place here and were always going to struggle to get out of the group based on Dinamo being in a low pot. 

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Dinamo has a chance to get to the round of 16, but it rests on the form of Dani Olmo. The 21-year-old is a player who I have a lot of respect for, possessing the courage to leave La Masia at 16 and move to Croatia. It’s not a path you see Spanish players take, but joining Dinamo Zagreb must be a decision he doesn’t regret. It allowed him to start playing first-team football at a young age, enabling him to develop as a more refined player than you see from other players at his age. Olmo has primarily played as a winger but has recently moved inside, which is the best move for his future. He is calm under pressure and can dribble in wide areas. Playing him in a wider position does make sense when Olmo wasn’t fully developed as a man but has grown and increased in muscle, making him even more challenging to dispossess. Last season in the Europa League group stages, Olmo completed 19 dribbles, more than any other player in the competition. He isn’t just the best player in Croatia but is at the level where he could start for an established Champions League club. The young midfielder has a varied skill set, being an excellent dribbler while also being one of the most prominent distributors in the Dinamo side, with no other outfield player completing more than his 33 passes per game in the Europa League. He is everything for Dinamo in the attack, and his form could decide their outcome in this year’s competition. 

Manchester City 

Manchester City is placed in a group where their chances of losing or near the land of impossibility. It’s hard to argue against Pep’s side is the best in Europe. They boast the best forward line, some of the best creators and one of the best goalkeepers. Not only that, but they are managed by one of the best managers the game has ever seen. Many like to lambast Guardiola for the money spent on fixing this side, but you can’t argue just how much better a lot of these players have become since moving to the Etihad. De Bruyne is now one of the top 5 players in Europe, Bernardo Silva is far more than just a good winger, and Sterling has been completely transformed. This Manchester City side is the best the Premier League has ever seen and is likely to retain the title once again. 

Man City already had the best team in Europe but went about improving the only weak areas they possessed, by bringing in Angelino and Rodri to cover Zinchenko and Fernandinho respectively. Angelino is unlikely to start often in the league, but gives that needed depth for next to nothing, after Fabian Delph departed the club. Rodri was the addition that the champions required since 2017. City lack proper central midfielders. David Silva, Bernardo and De Bruyne play there, but they’re more like free-roaming 8’s. Gundogan and Fernandinho are all they had, so signing a successor to their Brazilian powerhouse was the most crucial signing in recent history, and they have nailed it with the Rodri’s arrival. While the Spaniard isn’t nearly as quick as Fernandinho, he has a vast range in passing and puts in a lot of defensive actions. At the moment, he isn’t as good as Fernandinho, based on the fact that the Brazilian can do everything in midfield. However, he is now 34. Pep has consistently evolved his defensive midfielders. Busquets was a fantastic passer and reader of the game, and one of the main reasons Barca have been so good in attack for over a decade. Arturo Vidal was different, being more of a box to box, aggressive ball-winner to help against sides like Dortmund under Tuchel. Fernandinho is similar to Vidal but could read the game on a higher level than the Chilean, sensing danger and stopping attacks through a well-timed tackle or a tactical foul. It’ll be interesting to see how Rodri grows into the role, but it’s hard to deny that Pep’s side is somehow even better than last season. 

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Depth at centre-half is a slight issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Walker or Fernandinho fill in there until Laporte’s return, but City should ease through this group. This isn’t to say the teams in group C are weak, but City is that far ahead of the competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the elite clubs when the knock out stages arrive, but for now, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge for City.

Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar, similar to Atalanta and Dinamo, have garnered reputable status as one of the best feeder clubs of Brazilian talent. Fred, Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira are a handful of players who flourished in Ukraine, eventually moving on to star-studded leagues. Yet, Shakhtar’s reputation in Europe is pretty respectable, even with some glaring off the field problems, primarily down to tensions between Ukraine and Russia. They’ve been a mainstay in the Champions League since their first inclusion back in 2001, and have even gotten as far as the quarter-finals in 2011, losing to Pep’s Barcelona. They also managed to win the UEFA Cup back in 2009 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2016. They have European pedigree and mostly kept their side from last season together, alongside some improvements. Yevhen Konoplyanka arrives after having a torrid end to his time at Schalke and could add some creativity and pace from the wide areas, with Taison and Marlos both 31. 

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The Ukrainian side does have a chance of getting out of this group. They have started the season in perfect form under new coach Luis Castro, winning all 6 games. They are against a Dinamo side who are heavily reliant on a single player and an Atalanta team who have never played in the Champions League before. Shakhtar has performed well under more stringent circumstances, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them finish above their competition. That said, I do think they will finish in the Europa League spot. Their best players are now another year older, and I’m unsure how long they can keep performing in Europe. They’ll perform well, but it won’t be enough against two sides, who in Atalanta and Manchester City, have a more talented group of players and better coaches.

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Seasons #4

Los Blancos’ Return 

We’ll keep this one nice and short since I’ve discussed Real Madrid on multiple occasions. After arguably their worst season in the current century, Real Madrid were left in desperate need for surgery in crucial areas. Perez failed to replace Ronaldo adequately and left the side without the 40 goals that Ronaldo was giving the side every season. Entrusting Bale and Benzema to double their goal tally at their age is unrealistic. They were embarrassed by Ajax in the Champions League and were left so far from their closest rivals, signalling the time for a rebuild.

Madrid were insanely quick in acting upon their need for players. Eder Militao was signed back in March for over £50 million. The Brazilian was fantastic for Porto, comfortably playing at both full-back and centre half. He is one of the most promising defenders in Europe, and his signing makes perfect sense with Ramos and Nacho getting old. He wasn’t the only defensive signing, with Ferland Mendy arriving for £47 million. Mendy is an excellent full-back and can give a similar attacking output as Marcelo while not being nearly as error-prone as his new Brazilian teammate. Madrid’s defence now looks in much better shape. Ramos and Varane are still fantastic and now with Eder and Mendy, have long term replacement for their ageing stars.

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Eden Hazard was by far the biggest signing of the summer. The Belgian has wanted to leave Chelsea for a long time and has finally achieved his dream move to the Spanish capital. While he is far from value for money, Madrid are getting a player who has come off the back of his best season in his career. Hazard was the best player at the 2018 World Cup, and he finally showed how well he could perform under an attacking coach. Chelsea had their problems under Sarri, but Hazard’s form was by far the most significant strength from his time in London. Hazard will be fantastic for Zidane, but I doubt he will reach a similar goal tally as Ronaldo. He will be much more creative than Ronaldo ever was under Zidane, and should contribute to at least 30 goals.

The icing on top of the attacking cake is Serbian striker Luka Jovic, who was one of the breakout stars of last season. Jovic is a forward who can score all types of goals, who relishes constant chances in the box to pounce. He is two-footed and can score headed goals. It’s what made him stand out for Frankfurt; his elite finishing and getting into excellent scoring positions. His shot map last season was a pleasure to see. The former Benfica striker is a lethal finisher and is the goal threat that Madrid were craving for last season. Benzema, while scoring a lot of goals for Madrid last season, is far past his best and shouldn’t be relied on as the primary goal threat anymore. Jovic couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive.

All of these signings and the current experience they possess, have instantly made them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They have fixed their most prominent issues in both defence and attack. The only issue that remains is the midfield. The midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro is not a midfield you can play consistently anymore. Modric is very old now, and Kroos has never been a mobile player. What makes it so worrying is the sales of Llorente, Kovacic and potentially Ceballos. All offer more defensive work off the ball than Kroos and Modric and give the midfield some energy to help Madrid in tougher games. I fear that midfield will lack the energy against sides like Liverpool or Tottenham. If Madrid can bring in one of Pogba or Eriksen, there wouldn’t be an issue, but it is looking improbable.

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

Valencia had a bizarre 18/19 season, having a miserable start to the season but managing to finish in the top 4 deservedly. Marcelino is one of the best defensive managers in Europe and managed to turn Valencia into a tough side to face. He gave stability to the club after barely surviving relegation in 2016. After a very positive 17/18 season which saw all of their strikers run hot all year, it got them back into the top 4 and allowed them to return to Europe’s elite once again. He managed to get a lot out of players who failed at their previous clubs, with Garay, Gabriel, Kondogbia and Neto all standing out in their debut season.

Their disastrous start to last season is one of the strangest occurrences I’ve witnessed since following football. They only managed a single victory up until the middle of November. At first glance that looks bad, but when looking at the numbers, they should never have been in such a drought. What’s even more baffling about this is they only managed one defeat before November, meaning they drew all but 2 games. The defence remained solid as ever, but it was in attack where they couldn’t catch a break. I mentioned before that their strikers were all running incredibly hot in terms of form. What made this so unfortunate was Mina and Rodrigo both hit a dry patch at the same time. It meant many games at the beginning of the season ended in draws due poor finishing. Marcelino faced a dilemma, and while he did manage to rally his players in the second half of the season, taking advantage of Sevilla dropping off a cliff, it still painted a very mixed season. Valencia’s top scorer that season was midfielder Dani Parejo with 9. It’s easy to see where Valencia needed to improve.

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They acted in sorting their issue with the signing of Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo in an odd deal which saw both Santi Mina leave permanently and young defender Saenz on loan. They have brought in a player, while I think he lacks in finding good shot locations, he is one of the best aerial forwards in La Liga and could help bring more goals out of both Guedes and Rodrigo. Let’s hope that they do not begin next season with the same bad luck.

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

It has been a long time coming, but Atalanta have finally reached the Champions League after a couple of years of getting close. La Dea have been a club producing talent for clubs ranging from Juventus down to clubs in Serie C. Chelsea are a club who garnered a reputation for having an obscene number of players out on loan, but Atalanta takes that to another level, with 76 players out on last season. Context is important here, with players like Petagna and Kessie virtually signing for their new clubs, but the fee not being paid till this summer. They have been a selling club for Italy’s biggest clubs for years with a youth system unlike no other.

Their success last season came down to getting every ounce of talent out of a trio of ageing forwards in Josep Illicic, Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata. With Gomez already captaining the side, Illicic and Zapata arrived for a combined £17 million and all have flourished. They are on the older side, with the trio all over 28 but Serie A has blossomed thanks to its reputation for allowing older players to play slower-paced league. Gomez has been one of my favourite players in Europe for the last couple of years. He’s caused so many defenders issues with his elite dribbling and can carry the attack on his own. Both Gomez and Illicic have practically been given free roles under Gasperini in terms of positioning, looking to create for Zapata. He has been the centrepiece for the side, scoring more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Dries Mertens last season. It’s his highest goal return since playing in Serie A and has excelled due to the high chance creation in the side. His shot map shows a player taking shots in fantastic positions. He’s been blessed with a team full of creation throughout the side. Out of his 118 shots in Serie A last season, 89% were taking from inside the penalty area. The Colombian is a poacher at heart and feeds off chances. It’s been similar to all of the top scorers in Serie A and while Quagliarella scoring over 25 goals in his late thirties is impressive, getting 23 goals out of a journeyman like Zapata has been nothing short of genius from Gasperini.

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It’s strange to see a club rooted with youth success having a squad full of older players, but the model is working. Atalanta have even added another Serie A veteran in Luis Muriel to their ranks, to add to that incredible frontline. The Nerazzurri are one of my teams to watch in the Champions League next season. They’ve managed to reach the biggest competition in Europe with a squad full of players who weren’t good enough for the usual big sides. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them cause a massive upset next season.

Barca’s Ageing Squad

Most clubs discussed so far have all been making positive moves and showing long term thinking, but Barcelona are far from that. The La Liga champions were underwhelming for the whole of last season. They managed to make by far the most comfortable title win their recent history look more complicated than it needed to be. It makes the consistently disappointing performances in the Champions League, more concerning with the way the squad is going. They have spent an insane amount of money on a host of attacking talent but have failed to address some of their critical areas in the squad, primarily left-back and centre-back. They are seemingly desperate to sign even more attacking talent and are failing even to consider finding long term replacements in defence.

Let’s start with left-back. I disliked Jordi Alba for years, and while he was an excellent attacking option, he was such a liability in defence that I thought he was an area that needed addressing for a long time. However, Valverde’s pragmatic system did finally manage to get the best out of the Spaniard. He has been fantastic for Barca over the last couple of seasons, but the club’s laziness in not signing another left-back left them in such an awkward position. It forced them to give Alba a high earning, long term contract because he was fully aware of how desperate they were to keep him. Alba is turning 31 next season and as we’ve recently seen with Tottenham, is usually far past the expiry date of a modern-day full-back. If Alba begins to drop off similarly to Marcelo or suffers a long term injury, it could derail Barcelona’s whole season and what makes it even worse is Barcelona aren’t linked to anyone in that position. Their whole seasons rests on the form of Alba staying healthy.

The centre-back problem is almost as clear as the same issues as left-back. As soon as Frenkie De Jong signed for the club, it seemed apparent to see De Ligt play alongside his teammate at the Nou Camp. However, it didn’t happen. Valverde has issues with Umtiti and Pique’s age is becoming more noticeable per season. Pique’s success has been quite fascinating. A player who has lacked pace throughout his career being able to play a high line successfully is to his credit, but we’ve seen in the past how when certain players age (Steven Gerrard and Diego Godin), their awareness seems to diminish. Pique has mostly been fantastic under Valverde but has had moments where you have to question if he is the same player he once was. What is becoming more worrying for Pique is the likely departure of Umtiti. While the Frenchman has struggled with injury, his ability to rush out of defence made him an ideal partner for someone incapable of doing that successfully.  If Pique is forced to play over 30 games in the league once again, it could make his decline extremely painful to watch.

I cannot stress this enough, but I can’t stand the signing of Antoine Griezmann and the potential return of Neymar. Barcelona have just spent over £100 million on an ageing forward who isn’t even guaranteed to start. I love Griezmann as a player, but anyone who signed him was going to suffer. Spending that much money on a player who wasn’t essential is just baffling. Real Madrid signing Hazard made sense because they were desperate for a player who could fire them right back to the top and fill in a position they were in desperate need for since the departure of Ronaldo. Griezmann doesn’t possess that same urgency that Hazard did, making his signing stink of panic. Real Madrid acted swiftly in bringing in Jovic, another player who seemed destined to sign for the Blaugrana. Barca didn’t have a plan B and have waited too long to bring in Griezmann. The Frenchman feels like an expensive stop-gap in their future pursuit of Kylian Mbappe, which isn’t worth the money for a club who are already full of financial difficulties.

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Neymar’s rumoured return might be even worse than Griezmann’s signing. The Brazilian has been a massive failure, and while his performances on the pitch have been the second-best in the Paris side, he has missed many games through injury, most notably both round of 16 clashes with Manchester United. The reason why Paris signed Neymar was to make their chances of winning the Champions League increase dramatically. He has failed to do so and with his awful attitude off the pitch, it makes it extremely difficult in justifying keeping the forward any longer. Barcelona made a strange yet enticing offer of £90 million and 2 players. I understand why PSG want the money they paid back, but taking two of Dembele, Malcolm, Coutinho, Umtiti, Rakitic or Semedo would help fix some significant issues in the squad and makes them a much better team without their Brazilian superstar. Barcelona’s constant search for more attacking talent baffles me. They have the best player ever to play the game and continues to carry that side more than ever. If you have Messi, your attack is going to function well. They need to focus on fixing the defence and adding some younger talent.

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

Let’s end this list where we began, with the Bundesliga. The effects Austrian football has had on the Bundesliga in recent years has been vital in its development into becoming the breeding ground for young coaches. When discussing this effect, the Red Bull clubs are usually the first link that comes to mind. It was Salzburg who have been responsible for the rise of Marco Rose, Ralph Hassenhuttl, Roger Schmidt and Adi Hutter. It’s not only coaches too, with Naby Keita, Amadou Haidara, Marcel Sabitzer and most recently Stefan Lainer. The Austrian Bundesliga contains a pool of talent that Germany takes full advantage of and it seems other leagues are finally seeing the perks of looking at a historical footballing nation for players.

However, in this case, we are not looking at a manager who has had previous relations with the Red Bull machine. Oliver Glasner arrives after a very successful 4-year spell at former club, LASK Linz. He took them from fighting for promotion the Austrian top flight, to qualifying for the Europa League. This success is primarily down to Glasner, who’s fascinating system got the best out of players at his disposal. While I’m not an avid viewer of the Austrian Bundesliga, but from what I can gather, Glasner is a forward-thinking coach who follows in the footsteps of Rose and Hassenhuttl in creating a physically demanding pressing system. It’s an appointment that makes much sense for Wolfsburg. After suffering from the Bundesliga drop off, nearly facing relegation in 2016/17, they managed to bring themselves back into the conversation at the top of the table, with a direct style of football revolving around star striker Weghorst, an aerial-dominant forward who became the focal point of his side. Wolfsburg began looking for players they could acquire for less money than their evaluation. Signings like Jerome Roussillon and now Kevin Mbabu for a combined £10 million is the kind of genius business that have turned Wolfsburg from that struggling side to one of the best teams in the division.

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Glasner’s appointment shows ambition from the club, to establish a style that will allow them to get back into the Champions League spots. Wolfsburg’s positive appointment is another reason why the Bundesliga is the league to watch next season. The clubs are not obsessed with big stars in a similar fashion to the Premier League and La Liga. They do not get nearly the same amount of money as those leagues and need to stand out. It’s why these clubs are run so well and can sign players for so much less money than you expect them to be. I suggested Arsenal should sign Marcus Thuram, expecting his valuation to be around the £15 million mark, yet Borussia Monchengladbach have just picked up the Frenchman for £8 million. The Bundesliga is a league I have such respect for, and I hope it reaches the high bar I have set the sides this season.

 

Are Dortmund Doing The IMPOSSIBLE? Top 5 League Talking Points

What a fascinating week of football. Some huge upsets, big victories and frankly terrible performances. Let’s get straight into it.

Bundesliga

Dortmund extend their lead

This was by far the biggest clash of the week. League leaders Dortmund face a lesser, yet strong Bayern side. It delivered exactly what we all expected, with Dortmund winning the game 3-2, thanks to a late winner from Alcacer. This was a huge game for both. Dortmund have been excellent, but there was an element of if they have been a bit lucky. Plenty of times this season they have won thanks to a late goal, or by a singular goal margin. While they do deserve to be at the top, this could just be a side in red hot form, instead of a side ready to keep it up for a whole 34 game season.

Bayern on the other hand have been a bit frustrating. Dortmund have blossomed in squad rotation, while Bayern haven’t. Kovac seems unable to find a team and formation to stick with, and it’s easy to understand why. He lost both Coman and Tolisso, two players who definitely would have been important this season. They failed to fix the midfield. With Vidal and Rudy both leaving, and Goretzka not playing much at all, it leaves Kovac with an injury prone Alcantara and an immobile Javi Martinez. There have been positives. Lewandowski has finally hit some form, Hummels has looked solid and Gnabry has been excellent since filling in for Robben. It’s about time their wide areas are being replaced.

The away side started the game excellently, thanks to an early header from Lewandowski. He scored a good header, thanks to a peach cross from Gnabry. Lewandowski did well against his former side. Before the game, he had scored 12 goals against Dortmund since moving to Munich, with 3 coming at the Westfalenstadion. He reminded Dortmund fans why he was so loved by them so long ago. Bayern only created 3 goal scoring chances, and Lewandowski scored 2 of them. He also created 2 chances and won 3 aerial duels.

One player who was incredibly wasteful for Bayern was Thomas Muller. To say the German hasn’t been at his true best for a while now is an understatement. This season has seen him at his worse, when he’s at an age where he is in his prime years. He didn’t create a chance, have a shot on target, complete a dribble or have a real involvement in the game. Muller is one of the players at Bayern who has plenty of influence in the dressing room, and at this point does not deserve it.

Now onto the victors, who while did have less of the ball, created the better chances. They had 5 shots on target compared to Bayern’s 3. It isn’t a huge margin, but it was definitely decisive. While Dortmund were good, Bayern’s mistakes really helped. Neuer gave away the penalty for coming out of his box too slowly, intercepting Reus and giving them the equaliser. While Reus’s second was a class finish from a class player, there was a clear issue from a Bayern perspective. Javi Martinez let him run free and didn’t even attempt to keep up with him. It was pure laziness that allowed Dortmund to spring a comeback. Their last goal was brilliant. Thanks to quick interplay between Sancho and Reus, it allowed them to counter incredibly quickly and allow Witzel to play a lovely ball to Alcacer, who chipped Neuer like he was ordinary. Dortmund now have a 7 point lead on their rivals, leaving them in a comfortable place to win their first league title for 7 years.

Their man of the match was Marco Reus, and justifiably. Ever since Favre moved him into a number 10 position, he has absolutely flourished. It means he doesn’t have to move as much as he would outwide, meaning he can save his energy more in the final third. It has reinvigorated Reus, and he has been one of the hottest players in the continent. He was responsible for Dortmund’s first 2 goals, and was a real driving force for their victory. He had 4 shots on target, completed 3 dribbles and made 4 tackles. He was the deciding factor in this game. He’s been so unlucky over the years, and deserved the success he gets.

While Reus was the best player on the pitch, one of their defenders certainly deserves some praise. I loved Dortmund’s defensive signings over the summer. Akanji, Diallo and Hakimi all were brilliant additions to a defense that was slowly aging. One of their signings, Dan-Axel Zagadou, went under the radar, and has established himself already as an important player in the team. The 19 year old was one of their best players on the day. While Piszczek was also brilliant, Zagadou really caught my eye. He Frenchman made 2 tackles, an interception, 8 clearances and won 7 aerial duels. He helped keep Bayern mostly quiet. For someone of his age to perform that well in the biggest game in German football, deserves a lot of credit. His ability on the ball cannot be disputed either. In this game, Zagadou completed the most passes for his side. While Akanji is the superior passer out of Dortmund’s centre backs, seeing a 19 year old complete 8 long balls against the champions is ridiculous.

As said before, Dortmund are now 7 points clear of their Der Klassiker rivals. They seem to be the best side in the division. While other sides might have a better attack or defense, Dortmund play with such confidence and swagger, that it is hard to not want them to finally crush Bayern’s domination. As for Bayern, they are now in 5th. The teams around them have been excellent this season, and it is the deserved punishment for a side full of players who seem to have down tooled just because they aren’t a fan of the manager after a short time. While I do blame their board for the failings this season, for lacking ambition, Kovac still deserves criticism. His constant changes to the side have made it difficult for any player to get a run of form together. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bayern do win the Bundesliga again, but hopefully it will be a wake up call for the entire club, to step up their game.

Frankfurt pummel Schalke

Now onto the team just above Bayern Munich, Frankfurt cruised past an underperforming Schalke side with a 3-0 victory. After a relatively successful season last season, with current Bayern manager Niko Kovac guiding Frankfurt to a DFB-Pokal victory over Bayern. They seem to have built on that this season, with the winners sitting in 4th, equal points to Bayern but with a +13 goal difference. They chose Adi Hütter has Kovac’s replacement. The Austrian found plenty of success last season with Young Boys, who he helped break Basel’s dominance over Swiss football. His appointment was a risk, but has so far paid off. They have scored the second most goals from open play, with 19. However to call them lucky is a massive understatement. Thanks to their massage 7-1 victory over Dusseldorf, it has swayed their stats and numbers to look better than they really are. They take 4.5 shots a game, the 5th worse in the division, with Hoffenheim leading the Bundesliga 6.8. It’s crazy how one game can change how an entire side is perceived, but that is exactly what’s happened here.

Let’s discuss the game in question. Frankfurt created more chances and their opponents, 14 to 5. However while they did dominate, it did take a while for the deadlock to be broken. The first half was very uneventful to say the least. Frankfurt did have the better of the chances, with Luka Jovic taking many shots. However he wasn’t taking his shots from good positions, and was just trying more than thinking. The second half was definitely where the game began. Frankfurt scored twice in 11 minutes to give them a deserved advantage. Frankfurt are very good at creating good chances for both of their forwards, Haller and Jovic. Their shot numbers are low, but having 2 forwards will always make those chances mean so much more. Haller is excellent in the air and Jovic is great at taking shots in the box. They are a classic big man little man combo and are working so well. XG had this game at 2.62 to Frankfurt and 0.82 to Schalke. It shows how good Frankfurt are at creating goal scoring opportunities for their forwards.

Let’s talk about the forwards, and especially Luka Jovic. But before we discuss the young Croatian now leading the Bundesliga’s goal scorers, let’s talk about his partner in crime, Sebastian Haller. While Jovic has had plenty of the headlines, let’s not forget that Haller is currently only a single goal behind him, and even has 3 more assists. The Frenchman has been excellent this season, winning a crazy 4.9 aerial duels and creating 1.3 chances a game. He is a perfect partner to a forward like Jovic. He is able to create space for others and give a real vocal point to his side. He is overachieving XG, with him only projected to have 6 goals and 2 assists. That would still be a healthy return and shows just how good he has been. In this game, he wasn’t incredible, but was effective. He only managed 2 shots, created 1 chance, and won 2 aerial duels. It wasn’t his best game, but still managed to score.

Now let’s move onto Jovic. The Benfica loanee (which I didn’t even know until I looked him up on transfermarkt) has started the season in absolutely amazing form. His 5 goals against Dusseldorf has given him an arguably unjust position as the top scorer in the Bundesliga. After seeing those 5 goals, there is a player who has potential to have a good career at the top. However I had doubts, thanks to Dusseldorf just being terrible in a defensive sense. After seeing his performance against Schalke, it proves there is a young player who should be watched by all around Europe. Teams like Spurs, Manchester United, Marseille and even Bayern Munich should all be looking at him. I’ll explain why now. His performance against Schalke was elite. He had 7 shots, 3 on target and scored a brace. He was comfortably the man of the match in this game. This game continued his already incredible start to the season. He takes 3.3 shots per game, which is incredible for a player for his age. What is most impressive is the fact he takes 93% of his shots in the box. He is getting into great position that you don’t see from a player who’s career is still only in its infancy. His stats are so good, but what I love the most is the power in his shots. It’s a small thing, but every time he gets the ball in a goal scoring position, he hits it as if he’s trying to break down a brick wall. It reminds me of Aguero, who I’ve seen hit the net off the ground with his power. Jovic shoots to kill in the box, and it shows what a talent he is.

La Liga

Barcelona’s home record ruined

While there were 4 games I could have easily spoken about, this one was a guaranteed talking point. While Barcelona have always been a relatively attractive team to watch (as previously mentioned when discussing the 2011 Champions League), I love seeing them lose. They are a club I have a dislike towards. Whether it’s their questionable deals in the past with Qatar airways, to the sheer arrogance of their fans, they are an incredibly easy team to hate. They lost at home to Real Betis by 4 goals to 3. It was a truly embarrassing display from the Champions, and was the defeat that they finally deserved to receive. After some luck against Sevilla and Vallecano, it was about time that their opponents got their own bit of luck.

Let’s start with Betis, who are and have been a very good side now since January. Signings like Lo Celso and Carvalho did drastically improve their midfield, and dominate games as well as the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have been in lackluster form recently, with their win over Barcelona their first win in five matches. While a defeat to Atletico Madrid is understandable, they should not be losing to Getafe and Valladolid. I highlighted how well I thought they played in their last game against Celta Vigo, and they carried it on in this game. They had more shots on target in this game, 8 to the home side’s 5, and deserved the lead they had. They took advantage of a poor Barcelona side on the day and showed why they have been such an interesting this year.

While Lo Celso continued on from his fine display against Celta, Betis’s best player on the pitch was Junior Firpo. The young full back was Betis’s best attacking threat on the day, completing 2 dribbles, creating 2 chances, scoring and assisting against the Champions. He’s primarily been used as a full back and excellent in that role, completing 3 tackles and interceptions a match and creating a chance a game. He gets into very good positions for a player of his age, while also not leaving his defensive work behind. It does seem strange seeing him moved into a more advanced position, with his dribble and shot numbers not exactly spectacular. Quique Setièn must have moved him thanks to his recent goal and assists for his side, and hoped he would replicate that against the best side in the league, and he definitely did.

One player definitely showed his former employers what they are missing, and that is Mark Batra. The Spaniard joined Betis in January from Borussia Dortmund, and has been the catalyst for all the good that has came to that club. He was just the perfect fit for the 3-5-2 system being played by Betis, and turned them into one of the best defensive sides in La Liga. He was a wall in this game, making 7 tackles, 5 interceptions, 6 clearances and 4 aerial duels. No other player on the pitch managed that many defensive actions. It was truly an elite performance from a player who has blossomed in this system.

Now onto Barcelona, who as mentioned before, did deserve to lose this game. While XG did give it Barcelona, with 4.08 to the home side and 2.37 to Betis, I do think they deserved to lose based on how poorly they defended through out this game. Firpo got the best of Roberto and eased past him to score the first. It has to be made clear that Roberto is terrible defensively. He might put a few tackles, but it’s more of awareness and positioning that lets him down. He should have allowed Firpo to come inside the way he did. The second goal was strange to say the least. After the ball was played inside, it was deflected into the path of Joaquin, who had not a single player near him, allowing a free shot on goal. Lo Celso’s goal should never have been allowed to score the third, with Ter Stegan not putting a strong enough hand forward to stop the shot. The problem with Valverde is when his defence performs this badly, it makes it hard for the fans to get behind him. He is a pragmatic coach by nature, and relies on the solidarity of his backline to win games. It is clear that Umtiti is heavily missed. The Frenchman is one of the best defenders around and his athleticism and quality on the ball is unrivalled in Europe. But Lenglet and Pique should be enough to deal with a side who only managed to score 8 goals before this game. It’s a terrible performance that already puts pressure on Valverde, who already gets enough criticism from the fans. They face Atletico Madrid after this game, which will not be pretty if they defend the same way.

Sevilla take on in form Espanyol

While this game wasn’t as dramatic as the Madrid club’s games, it was an interesting one never the less. Sevilla took on Espanyol, who sat in 2nd before this game. It was a chance for Sevilla to get back into 2nd place, and keep pressure on Barcelona.

The game ended 2-1 to Sevilla, who deservedly won this game. They had 23 shots compared to Espanyol’s 14, and deserved to win based on the better chances they made. Sevilla have been able to carry on scoring at an insane rate, with only Barcelona scoring more goals than their 24. It has largely been down to how well their attack has performed this season. Silva has managed 7, while Ben Yedder has managed 6 in only 6 starts, having a goal contribution every 63 minutes. Both are in fine form and showed it in this game. Silva managed 9 shots with 4 on target, while Ben Yedder, who only played 45 minutes, managed 3 shots and completed 2 dribbles.

While their attack is always effective, a special mention needs to be given to Jesus Navas. He was always I couldn’t stand at Man City, mainly due to how wasteful he was at times. To say he’s flourished since playing as wing back is an understatement. It’s became common to see old fashioned wingers, like Navas, Young, Antonio Valencia Kostic and Milner playing as full backs in the past. They focus on stretching a defense and attempting a cross, instead of cutting inside. It’s what many managers want from their full backs and Navas provides that. His defensive work is non existent, but he’s not there for that. He completed 7 of his 10 crosses, and created 6 chances. He’s arguably been one of the surprising players of the season. He was once a player I thought was finished, but he’s proving he still has life next to him.

Onto Espanyol, who have had a very good season so far. While they have been relatively reliant on Iglesias, they have been solid at the back. They have only conceded 10 goals, only Atletico Madrid have conceded less with 8. They are ranked 3rd with tackles, the same as Atletico Madrid. They are an aggressive side who win the ball back and attack quickly, quite similar to Simeone’s side. While they are relatively middle of the road with their amount of shots, they are 3rd in shots on target, making them a very clinical side. One of the players who have been hugely responsible in their goals is Borja Iglesias. The Spaniard doesn’t seem to be getting the credit he deserves. Andre Silva has been on everyone’s lips, but Iglesias has arguably been better. While his shot numbers are slightly lower, 2.7 to Silva’s 3. However he wins more aerial duels, creates more chances and has now scored the same amount as Andre Silva and added an extra assist. He scored against Sevilla, had 3 shots, won 2 aerial duels and made 2 tackles. He came in to replace Moreno and has done an excellent job.

Both sides are definitely taking advantage of taking of advantage of Madrid and Valencia dropping off. Sevilla are relying more on outscoring their opponents, based on their crazy line up and the goals they score. The only problem will be if a side attacks them in the same way. Barcelona did the same thing to them and scored 4. They flourish against defensive sides, but it’ll be interesting to see how they handle Barcelona and Real Madrid again. I’m unsure if Espanyol will keep this up. While Iglesias has performed accurate to XG, the side have been very clinical, and eventually that will ware off.

Ligue 1

Paris put pressure on Henry

Monaco are in arguably the worst position in recent time. After their 4-0 humiliation to Club Brugge (check out Heroes and Zeroes from game week 4 to find out more), the last side they would want to play is PSG, a side who broke the record for most consecutive wins at the start of the season. They have won every game this season, and were playing a Monaco side who have only won a single game all season. I would get straight into complimenting the winning side, but I think they get enough praise from me and other critics so let’s look at the losing side and see what is going wrong.

Let’s start with the defense, which was by far one of the worst performances from a defence I’ve seen this season. It may sound harsh but it seemed as if the players were being lazy. The first goal was Sidibe not playing the high line properly and put Cavani on side. The second involved Sidibe again, where he didn’t seem to realise Diaby was making a run right behind him, which let Cavani score again. The third goal was a magnificent goal, but the players just stood there. They were all ball watching and just allowed PSG to play their way. That is not how you defend against players like this. Liverpool proved the way to take a game to them is to be aggressive. Many of these players are relatively soft. They will complain to the referee constantly to get their way, and you have to keep being aggressive. Make the players lose focus on actually playing. Instead there was no sort of pressure from the midfield or the defense. I think what summed up this performance from Monaco was the amount of tackles being put in. When your on the back foot for the majority of the game, winning the ball back at any means necessary should be priority, but not for this side. PSG actually put in more tackles than their opponent, 15 to Monaco’s 14. PSG had nearly twice the possession too. They had no need to make that many challenges, yet they did.

At the end of the day, the ones who should get the blame are the Monaco board and Thierry Henry himself. Why it was ever a good idea to hire a man who’s only known coaching experience was under one of the worst defensive coaches in the world is beyond me. Monaco had one of the best managers in Europe in Leonardo Jardim. A man who knew how to deal with squad turnover and bringing the most out of the players he had. I do think Jardim was right in leaving. He was left with a completely new squad, with players who weren’t nearly as good as players he was given in the past. The board were so focused on selling, they clearly forgot to sign good players. Signings that helped them win a league title only 2 seasons ago. Now onto Henry, I can understand wanting to take a job of this calibre. It was a top level job and it would show of his managerial skills to the world, if it was successful. My problem with Henry is his sheer arrogance. Players who played during his time were smart about their choices. Patrick Viera, a player he knows very well, started out in MLS, a league that would show generosity to him, before going to Europe. He now manages Nice and has done a fine job so far. Even Frank Lampard, who was criticised for not taking a lower league job, took over Derby and has given the fans something to be excited about. Henry should have learnt from Gary Neville, and why you shouldn’t take jobs for their size, and especially for the amount of pressure you’d be be under. Monaco are a mess, and deserve the situation they’re in based on the bad decisions they’ve made.

Depay’s dazzling display

Onto a more positive note, let’s talk about Memphis Depay. I’ve brought up before how much I love Depay as a player. His versatility and flexibility in how he plays, being able to create and score is so impressive. Last season he went quite under the radar with his incredible displays, scoring 19 and assisting 13 in 36 games. He is a sensational footballer who thrives for Lyon, thanks to the reliance and confidence put into him.

This season has been a similar story. He already has 10 goal contributions (5 goals and 5 assists) in only 11 games. What has impressed me so much is his versatility. He’s usually seen as a left winger, but he’s played as wide attacking midfielder, a striker, a number 10 and a winger. He’s just so good as an attacking threat wherever he plays. He’s one of the leading players in Europe for chance creation, with the Dutchman creating 3.2 chances per game. Only Dimitri Payet is ahead of him in Ligue 1 with 3.7. I’ve mentioned before but I think one of the top European clubs should seriously have their eyes on him, mostly Real Madrid. He’s on the verge of a breakout season.

Let’s talk about the game in hand, where Depay scored 2 and assisted 2 for Lyon against relegation struggles Guingamp. He played as a second striker in this game, playing just behind Moussa Dembele. When Lyon went a goal down thanks to a lovely header from Thuram, it was Depay who found space and played Aouar through for the equaliser. His goals were absolute individual brilliant. His first was a stunning effort from outside the box, and the second was an amazing free kick that seemed unsavable. This game showcased everything good about Depay. His creative ability, his individual brilliance and goalscoring. He is just the perfect player to have lead your team in the front line. Let’s hope he gets another chance to play for a big side.

Premier League

The Manchester Derby

I never have seen such a divide between the two sides like this in my lifetime. I grew up seeing United as the dominant side and City as the struggles. Ever since Ferguson left, the gap just got bigger and bigger. That season was the last time the red side of Manchester finished about their rivals. Ever since it has just been complete dominance from City. This game was the biggest difference on quality I’ve seen.

Let’s start with the champions, who were absolutely superb. They played the game very professionally, playing way more reserved after their first goal. They knew how to manage games, a real sign of a good team. United usually wake up when they go behind, so Manchester City decided to just retain the ball, to make sure they couldn’t attack at all. While simple, not many players have the ability to do that, making it very difficult to initiate. They only allowed United a single shot on target, and that was a penalty. A perfect big game display from arguably the best team around.

While David Silva and Fernandinho were brilliant, City’s stand out man was Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese winger has covered so effectively for De Bruyne in midfield. He retains possession so well and can truly pick out a pass. He was the player who helped transition the midfield into the attack so well. It was his ball into the box that set up David Silva. He was a creative hub in this game, creating 6 chances, completed 2 dribbles and got 2 assists. While those stats are amazing for a midfielder, what impressed me the most was his defensive work. He made 3 tackles in this game. With Silva originally being a right winger, it was good to see that he’s even putting in the defensive to the midfield role. He’s a player who has really impressed me this season. While he did make the most appearances for City season, he didn’t truly blow me away. He started a lot of games, but because of the form of Sterling and Sane, he just didn’t have the same monsterous effect as them. He’s blossomed in midfield however, where his lack of pace and strength aren’t relevant. He’s been brilliant this season and it will be a shame if his place is taken once De Bruyne returns.

Now onto Manchester United, who were outclassed in every area. While the defense is usually the area that gets the most criticism, it was actually the midfield that underwhelmed the most. Fellaini is excluded here. The Belgian was solid defensively and he shouldn’t have been expected to contribute as much as the other two in attack. Herrera was very poor against City. He was dispossessed in very dangerous areas, and was one of the key reasons why United lacked any control or threat from midfield. Herrera was once the perfect partner for Paul Pogba. Back in José’s first season, he was an industrious midfielder who aggressively won the ball back and really helped protect Pogba’s defensive issues. The problem since then, and most of United’s problems, is Matic. Whenever these two play together, they are unable to contribute anything in the final third. It really baffles me because Herrera used to be a good number 10 under Bielsa, but seems to have all of his old creative spark. He offered nothing in attack in this game, and didn’t do as much defensive work as his midfield partners (Fellaini and Matic both made 5 defensive actions). Pogba was a huge loss in this game. United lacked that arrogance, flair and spark in the middle of the park. It’s why United lost this game. They couldn’t get the ball to the forwards, and lacked the mobility to keep up with them.

It leaves both clubs in complete contrasting positions. City are comfortably the favourites for me. They have the squad and have by far the best manager. United now sit in eighth. While things are not good right now, there is a possibility it will get good again. Their Champions League fixtures are much easier now that Juventus are out of the way. They also have had 2 of the toughest away games they could have had. While Liverpool and Arsenal could be very difficult. It will leave their next few fixtures with a high chance of winning. Let’s hope they make the top 4 race interesting.

Wolves continue run against Top 6

Wolves have been one of my surprise packages of the season. While I can gladly question their goalscoring, what cannot be faulted is how disciplined the players are in this system. They function so well and are so difficult to break down, yet are still able to create good chances. They’ve already done relatively well against the Top 6. The were able to get draws against both Manchester clubs, and now Arsenal, which is the game we’ll be discussing.

Let’s begin with the newly promoted side, who were easily the better side. They only had 28% possession, yet managed more shots than their opponent (13 to 10). They took advantage of the highline Arsenal usually play, and used Costa, Cavaleiro and Jimenez to counter. It worked even better thanks to the incredible range of passing that Neves and Moutinho possess. It caused Arsenal plenty of problems and it is why they were the more deserving side of the 3 points.

While their midfield is incredibly dominant and solid, it’s their wing backs that remain to be their most impressive players. The sale of Barry Douglas in the summer was confusing. He was great in the Championship and I would have presumed would have continued to play in the Premier League. However their replacement has been excellent to say the least. Jonny arrived from Atletico Madrid and has been absolutely great. In this game he made 11 tackles and interception and kept Bellerin and Iwobi very quite (they only managed a key pass between them). However the man of the match was Wolves’s other wing back, Matt Doherty. The Irishman also did his share of defensive work, making 5 interceptions and 5 clearances. But what set him apart from his Spanish teammate was his offensive work. Doherty created 3 chances, the most in the game. Both have to be seen as the most inform full backs in Europe at the moment. Just incredible from the pair.

Onto Arsenal. This game was another example of the luck that Arsenal have had this season. This is the 3rd time of note where Arsenal probably should have lost the game, with Everton and West Ham recently being games where they won and can call themselves fortunate. They dominated this game, but created less chances than a side who had 28% possession. What usually helps them through all games is their incredible attack. Ozil, Lacazette and Aubamayeng are incredible talents and have plenty of magic to help them in tougher fixtures. Emery has done a great job so far. He’s mostly fixed their midfield, got Granit Xhaka functioning in a midfield and finally made their defense better. Not a huge improvement, but any organisation is an improvement over last season. Looking at XG, it is clear to see that Arsenal have actually been the most fortunate side in the Premier League. XG has them down to be on only 16 points, 8 less than they are on now. While the improvement is definitely there, there is still plenty of work to do for Unai Emery.

Serie A

Inter humiliated

Inter looked to be on trackin recent weeks. Big wins over Genoa and Lazio reminded us all why we thought they were going to challenge Juventus this season. But their 4-1 defeat to Atalanta this week has really put massive question marks over their long term ability to challenge Juventus.

Let’s start with the victors, who have quietly went about their business in Serie a since their impressive 4th finish in the 2016/17 season. They finished in a very respectable 6th. What has kept Atalanta going strong is two key elements. The first is Gian Piero Gasperini. His side are excellent to watch. They take the 3rd most shots in Serie A, with only Juventus and Napoli amassing more shots. They attack relentlessly with the talent they have. Speaking of talent, it’s actually their transfer activity that’s mostly impressive. Whether it’s selling young talent like Kessie, Conti and Gagliardini, to buying players many would deem as average, and turning them into very useful players. Martin De Roon epitomises this. The Dutchman was signed from Middlesbrough last year, and has been a brilliant defensive shield for the backline. He’s been arguably the best defensive midfielder in Serie A. He makes 5.7 tackles and interceptions this season, and creates a chance a game. Very good numbers for a defensive midfielder. He got an assist against Inter, and created 2 chances. His defensive work wasn’t there but Inter’s terrible display justifies that.

The real talking point however from an Atalanta point of view is that front three. Zapata, Illicic and Gomez. I’ve been a huge fan of Papau Gomez for a few years now. He’s a versatile, skillful and a brilliant all rounder. This game showed this. He scored an absolute stunning goal to seal the win, but he also was excellent in a creative sense, creating 6 chances. Another display to show just how good he is for a side that truly loves him. While Illicic has only started 4 games, he’s scored 3 and assisted 3. His numbers are truly outrageous. He takes 3.1 shots, makes 2.6 key passes and completing 2.1 dribbles. He’s truly went under the radar since signing from Fiorentina, and is playing out of this world. He was incredible game. He ended the game with 2 assists, and completed 7 dribbles. He was the best out of the three, but that isn’t to take credit away from Zapata. The Columbian completed 6 dribbles, won 2 aerial duels and took 4 shots. The huge amount of dribbles just shows how interchangable they are. They work so well together and are in hot form right now.

Now onto Inter, who were truly terrible on the day. Each goal was scored because of the mistakes made by the players. Asamoah let Hateboer run completely free and score the first. The second and third were thanks to poor marking at set pieces, with Skriniar and Icardi both at fault. The fourth was a moment of magic from Gomez, so players cannot be blamed there.

The midfield was also weak. Throughout the game, both Illicic and Gomez were constantly allowed to run through the middle. I usually view Vecino as a defensive midfielder, yet he only made a single tackle all game. There was a complete lack of intensity all over the park, and it all resulted in Inter’s humiliation.