FC Barcelona: Europe’s Cavaliers

While being a huge fan of European football, I’m also an avid viewer of the NBA. And something that’s becoming clear is the mismanagement of some organisations in both sports and their similarities. In this case, we’ll be looking at the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and how their stories will potentially intertwine. 

We’ll start with the Cavs. After leaving his hometown team in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James went on to win two rings in South Beach and cemented himself as the league’s best player. But the possibility of James returning to Cleveland remained in the air, and in 2014, King James came home, with the sole drive of finally winning Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. 

LeBron couldn’t do this on his own, so Cleveland paired him alongside Kyrie Irving, who had been the Cavs’ best player since being drafted first overall in 2011, and Kevin Love. The Cavs traded their number one pick in 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) and Anthony Bennett (the worst number one pick in the history of the league) for Love. This gave the Cavs their best chance of winning the championship in their history.

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The set-ups do differ in specific ways. Messi had never left Barcelona and won plenty of trophies for his team. However, in 13/14 can easily be seen as their worst. The team looked stale and ended the season with zero silverware. Tata Martino was replaced with Luis Enrique, who carried their important (yet incredibly pretentious) Barca DNA. Not only were the main core from their 2011 double success still there, but they also had Neymar alongside new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo and Andre Ter-Stegen. A majority of these players were ready to go now and didn’t need any time to develop. This was the first time Barcelona began stockpiling their team with older guys. During Pep Guardiola’s reign and even under Tito, Barcelona would have their experienced, elite talent in the first team (Henry, Eto, Xavi, Puyol for example). Yet, would have a combination of cheaper, versatile players and some La Masia graduates. It’s what made them pretty likeable at the start of the 2010s. However, innovators have the potential to become imitators. 

Neymar was the first colossal money signing, but his ceiling was huge and even looking back now, was worth the massive fee. Luis Suarez was arguably the best striker in the world when the club signed him and gave them a similar rawness and aggression I hadn’t seen in a Barca forward since Stoichkov. The issue with Barcelona since 2014 is their lack of patience. They do not want to give up their place at the top of Spanish football, even if it jeopardises the future of the first-team. 

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The Cavs ended up reaching the finals in LeBron’s first season back but were comfortably beaten by the Golden State Warriors, mainly down to injuries suffered to Irving and Love. It was the following season where they finally won the championship that had eluded LeBron and his legacy. Irving and Love were both healthy and, Irving especially played a huge part in their famous comeback. The Cavs were 3–1 down but managed to bring it back and win the series 4–3. LeBron was in tears, finally doing his hometown proud and fulfilling his promise. 

While Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 wasn’t as dramatic, it was one of the most dominant knockout round runs in Champions League history. Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Laurent Blanc star-studded Paris Saint-Germain and Pep’s Bayern were all champions in their respective leagues, yet Barcelona managed to outclass them with ease. Juventus were their final opponents, who just didn’t have enough to beat Barcelona and their superstar forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN as they were later nicknamed).

Both teams won the big prizes in different seasons, but their collapsed happened simultaneously. The Cavs were beaten yet again by the Warriors in the 2017 finals. This defeat resulted in Kyrie Irving demanding a trade away from the Cavaliers. Irving was tired of being second fiddle to LeBron James and wanted to be the main man in a title-winning team. Sound familiar? Well, it should because it’s what happened with Neymar and Barcelona. The Brazilian thought the best way to win the Balon d’Or and cement himself as the best player on the planet was to step away from Messi’s shadow and be the best player on another team. Messi was left with an ageing Luis Suarez, while James was left with Kevin Love, who was also on the decline. 

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The power that both players had at their respective teams was being to show itself. James embodied the Cavs and all of their decision making. The team would consistently make decisions to please his ego. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith were given big contracts because LeBron liked them. Tyronn Lue, an average coach at best, was there for so long because LeBron was friends with him. The Cavs’ team had zero squad cohesion. The team was incredibly old and couldn’t play defence, relying heavily upon LeBron to bail them out of every bad situation they found themselves in. 

Messi might not be as vocal of a figure as James, but his grip at the club remains as firm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived for an insane fee in 2009, but only lasted a season, with one of the reasons being that Messi felt like he wasn’t the main man anymore. Enrique was close to facing the sack after nearly falling out with Messi, and Valverde only remained at the club for as long as he did because Messi liked him. One anecdote that helped me understand Messi a lot more recently featured in The Athleticwhere Messi apparently wasn’t fond of Guardiola’s obsession with tactics, and just wanted to see the best players on the pitch. This might sound small, but it explains a lot on why Barcelona’s team is all over the place. Busquets still plays nearly every game, even when he’s physically falling off a cliff. Suarez plays every game even when he doesn’t have the same speed and bite from 2015. Realistically, the club should bring in players who could help Barcelona on the defensive side. They might not be as talented, but they could offer something different to help balance out the squad. Yet, that just isn’t going to happen. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Griezmann’s signing made zero sense, and the idea of Neymar returning to the club is a disaster waiting to happen. Messi seems to have zero consideration for the future of the club, only looking at the here and now. If selling Ansu Fati, their most talented young player I’ve seen in years would help bring Neymar back to the club, they wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Messi putting his ego aside and showing more of a consideration for what the team needs would be hugely beneficial.

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In summer 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time to join the LA Lakers; due to the team failing to provide him with adequate support and to follow his dreams of making movies. The Cavs have since gone back to being one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. Messi’s future could have similar, if not as extreme, consequences for Barcelona. They can give Messi what he wants now and overpay for older players on the possibility of winning the Champions League or actually start to plan for life without the Argentine. Messi is everything for that club. But he’s 33 and the club’s desperation to please him in every department could result in the team potentially falling far behind their rivals, domestically and on the continental stage. 

Where is the Best Destination for Jadon Sancho?

With the football season unofficially over, we might as well look at the summer. I was planning to do a lot of work on the European Championships. However, with that delayed until next year, transfers are the only real talking point in the football landscape. It might be somewhat irrelevant to talk about transfers, especially during the current health pandemic facing the world. Nevertheless, we might as well continue with business as usual. 

I’ll be covering some of the most wanted players in Europe, and deciding which club is the best place for said player’s development. We’ll be starting with England prospect and current Borussia Dortmund Jadon Sancho, who is wanted by pretty much every big club in Europe. He’s easily the best winger in the Bundesliga, capable of scoring, as well as creating for his teammates. His maturity in the opposition box is arguably his most valuable skill. Not many players at the crazy young age of 20 can lead the league in assists and be one of the leading figures for goals. Sancho’s decision-making is what’s made him one of the first names on the teamsheet. He never looks under pressure, and will always make the choice that benefits the team, instead of putting himself in the spotlight. So who should Sancho join this summer?

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Manchester United

Where else to start with than with the club linked to every player with a shred of talent? I’ve not been huge on a majority of players rumoured with moves to Old Trafford. Jack Grealish and James Maddison have been heavily linked since November. However, the signing of Bruno Fernandes negates the need for these players. Sancho will definitely cost over £100 million, but it at least makes a lot more sense. United haven’t had an actual right winger for years. The last real winger the club had was debatably Antonio Valencia, before being converted into a right-back by Louis Van-Gaal. Daniel James has primarily played on that right side, but I don’t think he’s good enough to start for United in the long term. Sancho possesses a vast skillset, making him a deadly weapon for Solsjkaer, no matter the opposition. Sancho also holds that star power the Manchester United board are obsessed with. 

I don’t think you can argue against Sancho being a massive improvement over all of United wingers. My only reservations are related to United’s other requirements. A winger is definitely needed, but there is still a gaping hole in the centre of the park. Fernandes has taken a lot of the creative burden from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial; who have proven they are capable of scoring the goals needed to take United into a title race. I would only sign Sancho when the rest of the issues are resolved. There are plenty of players in the team who’s futures are uncertain. Sancho feels like a final piece of a puzzle, but United need to solve the rest of it first. 

Chelsea

With their transfer ban finally over, Chelsea looks ready to unload a chest full of funds in an attempt to return to the top of the table. Hakim Ziyech was an early arrival, with the Ajax playmaker confirmed to be a Chelsea player in February. With Ziyech’s arrival, it’s made clear that if Sancho was to sign, his role would be very different than the one given if he was to sign for Manchester United.

A versatile winger, able to play on both sides is a player Chelsea are desperate to bring in. Willian and Pedro have needed to be moved on for years. Their off the ball work is worth praising alongside their reliable chance creation, but both forwards are over thirty and take a lot off the wage bill. If it weren’t for the transfer ban, I doubt the pair would still be in London today. Sancho would bring an insane spike in creativity and shot quality. The Borussia Dortmund winger is averaging over 0.84 non-penalty xG+xA; a better output than Willian (0.45) and Pedro (0.47). 

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A move to London makes sense for both parties involved. Chelsea’s young squad has been a delight to watch, and adding another prospect to the project only makes things better. If Sancho was to return to England, Chelsea would be the best destination, in terms of developing his game. The goalkeeper problem is obviously is a big one, and it is one of the significant issues, next to Lampard, which is holding Chelsea back. Sancho is not only a perfect Eden Hazard replacement but could surpass the Belgian.

Liverpool 

Similar to Chelsea, Liverpool needs to start looking at moving on some of their attackers. The difference between the clubs is the reason. Chelsea needs to clear up space and sell two players whose impact are dwindling as they age. Liverpool, on the other hand, should sell because it’s the right thing to do. If I had to choose one, it would be Sadio Mane. The decision isn’t even a difficult one. Mohamed Salah is far more talented and is left-footed; a rare and exceptional trait for a right-winger to have in the modern game. Mane has just come off a golden boot winning season in 18/19 and scoring 14 goals before the season’s suspension. Mane might be better than Firmino, but the Senegalese international is younger and worth more, especially with some of Europe’s elite keen to add world-class production from the wing. Liverpool has become one of the best clubs in Europe when knowing when to sell their players. They sold Coutinho for a lot more than anyone expected and let Suarez go at the perfect time. 

Sancho is among a handful of excellent players who could replace one of Liverpool’s acclaimed front three, and it’s another which makes so much sense. Not only does Sancho excel on the right side, but is more of a threat on the left, since he’s naturally right-footed. Sancho might not be as good of a scorer as any of Liverpool’s front three, but this is something that could easily improve overtime. He’s still so young and could be a key player in keeping Liverpool relevant at the top of the table. 

Barcelona 

The current La Liga holders have had a lot of their most significant issues exposed over the last six months, primarily with their squad. It still surprises me that a club of Barcelona’s size and stature can be so idiotic in the market. Their team has been built so poorly. A majority of their signings just haven’t worked out. The likes of Andre Gomes, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Nelson Semedo and Samuel Umtiti have all failed at the Camp Nou for varying reasons. The most significant and most inexcusable act from the club is how they’ve been unable to even look for replacements for Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi. The core from their 2015 treble-winning season is even more critical than ever, even when they are evidently declining (excluding Messi of course). Barcelona doesn’t even look like they have a plan to replace the greatest player of all time and will continue to rely on him until he retires.

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Barcelona should do everything in their power to sign Jadon Sancho. They’ve already made a huge mistake in signing Antoine Griezmann and would make it even worse if they decided to resign Neymar. Their hunt for one more Champions League for Messi is blinding them from future-proofing their squad. Having a young and incredible talent in Sancho at least gives them reassurance in the future. 

Borussia Dortmund 

I include Sancho’s current club because that’s where he should be next season. I think one more season in yellow will not only help Dortmund in their title challenge but will give the club enough time to find the perfect replacement. The team has looked more settled as the months have progressed this season. The back three has helped solve their huge defensive problems, while Emre Can has given the midfield that extra steel needed in the big games. Dortmund’s insanely high level of attacking talent will always keep them in the conversation for the title. If they manage to add some extra pieces in terms of depth and defensive personnel, they could pose a real threat from the beginning, especially with Haland at the club from matchday one. 

The only issue is if Dortmund can keep him. Most clubs outside of Europe’s elite are going to be affected by the lack of matchday revenue and complications regarding television rights. I highly doubt any Bundesliga clubs will face anything as drastic as liquidation, but lack of finances could propose a problem in the summer. Dortmund might have to sell their most valuable asset if they wish to improve other parts of the team.

Why I Hope Barcelona’s 5-2 Win Over Real Betis is a Sign of Things to Come

Barcelona, like many of Europe’s elite, are a side I love to complain about. It’s primarily down to incompetence from the board, focusing on galactico signings instead of continuing on the path Cruyff set and Pep developed. Their work resulted in the most exceptional team in the Champions League era, mostly focused on La Masia graduates and some significant signings in Dani Alves, David Villa and Seydou Keita. It’s what made Pep’s 2011 side so magnificent. A majority of that starting XI was built with players who knew the Barcelona system. It’s why Pep has never been able to build a team as good as his treble-winning side. While his Bayern side had an idea of how Pep wanted to play through Louis Van Gaal, he had to start from scratch at Manchester City, which is why his first season in England was so underwhelming.
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The problem with Barcelona since Neymar’s signing is they’ve basically turned into Real Madrid. Losing the best manager of the modern game is going to have an effect on how much value you can get out of specific players. However, the change in style and player profile has been the most significant issue regarding Barcelona since Pep’s departure. Barcelona were never a tiki-taka side because they had so much purpose in possession. They would break teams down through counter-pressing, wingers stretching the defensive line and Messi being fantastic. Pep had all of his players actually work defensively, and it’s what made them so different to Real Madrid. They never allowed any player to have a completely free role.
I bring this up because Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Betis was the first time in a while, where I’ve seen Barcelona actually look like a team. They weren’t perfect, far from it, but they showed signs of showing that aggressive counter-press with actual wingers. While this will not continue when Messi and Suarez return, it’s good to see Barcelona play well without their star players. To make it very clear, I have not watched much of Barcelona in the past couple of years. With La Liga being a pain regarding its TV rights, I only managed to watch them in the Champions League. I also missed their defeat to Bilbao, where I heard they were awful.
Here’s how Barca set up for this game:

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A very different eleven to what we are used to seeing, but there was enough quality in the team to comfortably dispose of Betis, and they showed this for the first 10 minutes. De Jong and Roberto were drifting wide to stretch the midfield, allowing Griezmann to drop deeper to find space. This made the French forward a problem for the defenders. He was effectively creating space for his teammates to exploit.
In theory, that was supposed to happen, however, in the first half, Barcelona looked so stagnant in the attack. This was especially problematic in the wide areas. Carles Perez did look threatening when receiving the ball but was consistently left isolated. Semedo kept coming inside, instead of giving Perez an overlapping run. This wasn’t nearly problematic on the left, with Alba still being a menace when going forward. Rafinha was mostly ineffective through the first half, continually drifting inside. It’s difficult to blame him since he is a central midfielder and shouldn’t even be at the club, never mind playing on the wing.
The wide areas weren’t the only issue. When Griezmann dropped deeper to create space for his teammates, the midfielders were supposed to make runs into those gaps that were created through Griezmann. This just wasn’t happening, with Roberto and De Jong not taking advantage of the space. De Jong, especially, looked very uncomfortable moving further up the pitch. The Dutchman usually plays in Busquets’ position, where he can progress the ball through the midfield. During the start of the game, De Jong received the ball inside the box. Instead of shooting as most players would, he chose to pass, which resulted in losing possession. It perfectly represented how an attacking role just isn’t what De Jong should be doing. This forced Busquets to push forward to aid the forwards, which worries me if that has to happen more often. Busquets is increasingly becoming a liability as he ages. He has never had the legs to push forward, and it’s something he really shouldn’t be doing anymore and shows how ineffective the rest of the midfield were in the attack.
This became even worse after Fekir’s goal, which in itself was not a good look for Barca. Busquets played a very risky ball to Rafinha, who looked half asleep and Betis score just seconds later. It was their first shot on goal and their first real attack in the game. It caught Barcelona off guard and put them in a position they didn’t deserve to be in. Despite the issues previously mentioned, they were still the better side, but wrong decision making in the final third and static movement was holding them back.
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One area of their game that remained consistent throughout the game was their intensity. Betis have a handful of players who are excellent in possession, with Fekir, Tello, Canales and Carvalho all being able to cause a threat to Barca. Valverde ensured his side stopped this from happening, through the forward three and the midfield pressing high to force goalkeeper Daniel Martín to pump long balls into the channels. It allowed the home side to recover possession quickly and nullify their opponents. Betis only completed 78% of their passes, showing how they struggled to build-up play. They were pushed back throughout the game due to Barcelona pressing from the front. I wonder if the press would be just as effective with Messi in the side. Since Pep’s departure, his off the ball work has left a lot to be desired. It’s such a shame to see a player who was elite on and off the ball lose that skill down to managers giving him freedom or the precise control he has over the team.
Griezmann did manage to bring his side level right at the end of the half, but this game had to end with 3 points. After the defeat in Bilbao, they could not fall 6 points behind Atletico after only 2 games. Thankfully, all of my problems from the first half disappeared. Barcelona looked so much better and didn’t have the same nerves we saw in the first half. That Griezmann goal seemed to push them to start taking risks and use the full length of the pitch. At one stage, Rafinha and Griezmann switched positions, and they looked fantastic. While it was only for around 5 minutes, Rafinha held the ball well, which led to Griezmann’s second goal. The Brazilian held possession until Roberto arrived, who played the ball to the French forward, who scored with some style.
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Semedo began to give Perez as an option on the overlap. The Spaniard is very one-footed and made his constant cutting inside predictable and easy to deal with for Sidnei, the Betis central defender. Semedo finally began making those runs for support. It enabled them to be more varied in how they attacked Betis, which led to Semedo picking up an assist for Perez’s first goal for the club. For his first start, the young attacker had a very positive impact. He looked a threat when in possession, but his work off the ball does need improvement. Yet, there is a player here who could play a part in Barcelona winning their third successive title.
This win did show a lot of the better qualities of Barcelona. Their control over games, aggressive counter-pressing and quick interchanges made them a joy to watch throughout. However, I’ll hold my reservations on whether they remain good enough to win a Champions League. Having Messi will always give you a chance, but Valverde’s slightly negative tactics in the bigger games have shown them to be weak when facing opponents of a similar level. When Barcelona concede early, it shakes them, and they don’t seem to have the drive and desire to fight. They’ve collapsed twice in Champions League semi-final, after securing 3 goal leads in the first legs. I loved the approach for the game, with the forwards actually defending for once, but you expect them to beat the every non-top 4 sides in La Liga. I’ll come back to talk about Barcelona when they face an opponent of equal level, whether in the league or in Europe.

 

Predictions for La Liga – 19/20

La Liga, next to Serie A, is probably my least favourite out of the top 5 leagues. While part of it is down to myself being unable to watch the games legally, I have other problems. It’s primarily down to my distaste for Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two clubs that dominate all discussion in Spain. Nevertheless, let’s look at the teams and players who will stand out in the 19/20 season, for good or bad reasons.

Outside Shout – Sevilla

While the signings of Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias have pushed Betis as top 4 contenders, I’d back Sevilla to do even better. I’m not claiming Sevilla are title challengers in any sense of the word. But with the quality and quantity of signings, they are arguably in a fantastic position to finish in that 4th spot.

Sevilla had a mixed 18/19 season. After a fantastic start to the season, which saw them top of the table at the end of November, it all fell apart. They dropped out of the top 4 after only winning 2 games between the start of December and the 10th of March. It meant the Europa League was their best chance of getting back into the Champions League. However, this ended in disaster, losing to Slavia Prague in the round of 16. This culminated in the sacking of head coach Pablo Machin, which left Sevilla with another rebuilding job.

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Who else to be at the helm of the tough task than Monchi. The Spaniard departed the team in 2017, joining Roma. However, after an unsuccessful stint with the Giallorossi, he returns to bring back the same magic he did for years. With all the top clubs desperate to bring in a director of football, there aren’t much better than Monchi. The value he managed to find out of the transfer market, especially Ligue 1, was remarkable. The likes of Lenglet, Gameiro, Banega, Navas, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves were all discovered by the former Sevilla midfielder, showing his eye for talent is unrivalled. While his time at Roma wasn’t auspicious, with the Italian side dropping down the league during his two-year spell, returning to where his success began is the best thing for both parties.

With Joaquín Caparrós diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, the search for a new head coach was on. Julien Lopetegui was appointed head coach on the 4th of June, and I’m unsure what to think about it. Judging him based on a problematic four months at Real Madrid is unfair, considering how little he was backed in the market. While he was very successful with the Spanish national team, his managerial experiences at club level are not the most comforting. His most notable job was with Porto, where he finished 3rd with £57 million spent on 18 players, 7 of which were Spanish.

Joining a club that isn’t as insane as Real Madrid, where he will be given more time to take Sevilla back into the Champions League, will be fascinating. Lopetegui has always favoured a classic 4-1-2-3, a formation that Sevilla have not been playing in recent seasons. Lopetegui needs to resolve some of the consistent issues with the side, in defence and now upfront. Sevilla have sold two of their best assets in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben-Yedder, meaning Lopetegui can start from scratch with the current core of players and plenty of new arrivals.

Sevilla did some of the best business in the window. They went out and resolved their most significant issues, being wide talent and defenders. Monchi targetted plenty of players from Ligue 1, with 4 of their 11 signings coming from the French top flight. Rony Lopes has left the sinking ship known as Monaco to finally play for a club where his talents can be showcased. Ocampos has arrived from Marseille, and while I’m not his biggest fan, I acknowledge he does offer a lot in terms of dribbling and physicality. Sergio Reguillon comes after unfairly being pushed out from Real Madrid. This is a delight to see because Sevilla have finally picked up a good left-back after years of being so one-sided, even if it is just a loan deal.

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Their best signing, by far, is Joan Jordan. The Spaniard had a very successful spell with Eibar, earning him a move to Sevilla. This is such an improvement over Vasquez and Mesa. The midfielder is solid defensively and offers a lot of ball-progression. This is one of the most sensible signings of the window, and I’m surprised other clubs weren’t showing interest.

Sevilla have made some signings where I have my doubts, but right now, they are in a great position to get that 4th spot. A balanced experienced yet youthful team that possess the qualities to challenge the other top sides in La Liga.

Overachievers – Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid’s summer can best be described as a mixed bag. Losing their best attacker in Griezmann, their best midfielder in Rodri and the hugely impactful Diego Godin was huge. While they did pick up over £200 million from only 3 of their sales, it meant a lot of work was needed to turn this into a Champions League squad once again. Atletico recruited without any sort of consistency, which is understandable. They brought in a mix of young talent in Felix, Lodi and Hermoso to keep the squad fresh on the long term, combining that with the experience of Trippier, Herrera and Felipe. It allows them to remain competitive in the short term while also giving them a future in two of their most important positions; attack and defence.

In concept, I do like a lot of their business, but during a closer examination, I have my doubts. Let’s start with Joao Felix. The teenage sensation arrives for a gigantic £113 million. There is no doubting the forward is talented, but substantial game time is something lacking in his repertoire. The 18/19 season was Felix’s first season of top-flight football and displayed some promising qualities. His shot location was generally fantastic, and his technical ability is undeniably excellent, but factors come into my reservations on this transfer. The first is Liga NOS. The Portuguese top-flight is difficult to judge when it comes to talent. Your club might pick up a Bernardo Silva, Alex Sandro or a Willy Boly, or end up with a Mangala, Jackson Martinez or Enzo Perez. Joao Felix could be just as useful as Griezmann, or even better, however, there is a likely chance the pressure on him might be too much. Felix is one of the only pacey forwards Simeone can use. There is no other player like him in the squad, with Morata and Costa both preferring the ball in the air. Atletico have paid a lot of money to seemingly beat the competition and remind the rest of Europe they are a threat.

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I’ve expressed my doubts about Marcos Llorente before, and my opinions on Trippier and Felipe aren’t nearly as negative as many. Simeone has a reputation of supercharging defenders, and I think he will find the value out of the pair. They definitely didn’t need to spend that much money on them, especially on Felipe, but they’re decent acquisitions in terms of the players they are getting. I like Hermoso and is arguably their best signing in the window, with the defender performing well in a similar system at Espanyol and still has time to improve.

So why are they, my overachievers? Most of their squad are recent summer arrivals and as noted, aren’t all likely to succeed. Simeone has a reputation for grinding out results better than any other coach in the game. He rarely uses the exciting talent given to him, and it makes me wonder if Simeone will just stick with his compact system, only to remain close with the top two. Atletico will finish the top four but will look bad doing so.

Underachievers – Barcelona

Barcelona have lost their traditions in recent years. While they have never been likeable, you could at least respect them for putting more faith in youth than big-money signings. However, the same luxury signings they seemingly mocked Real Madrid for making are now the players they want. This has culminated in a squad full of different players, and not in the right way. This team lacks pace in the attack and balance in the midfield. Even though I dislike the Griezmann signing, They did end bring in an understudy for the ageing Jordi Alba and one of the best midfield prospects in Frenkie De Jong. This squad is a general improvement over last year’s title winners, but many problems remain.

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Ernesto Valverde is by far the biggest and most frustrating problem at the club. I actually had a lot of respect for what he did during his first season. He turned Barcelona from a free-flowing, direct and pacey team into a very defensively solid and efficient one. It wasn’t the most entertaining watch, but it was working and kept Barcelona better than the rest of the league. In spite of their title-winning season, only losing a single game in La Liga, the fans were not happy. They didn’t just want to win, but in a way that Cruyff would be proud of. While insanely smug and arrogant, I can understand. Barcelona have the best player ever to grace a football pitch. Seeing him in the best attacking side in Europe and playing to his fullest while his career to starting to wind down is essential. Messi is the only reason why Barcelona have won the league under Valverde. While Messi hasn’t been at his untouchable best like he was back in 2011, this has been his most impressive time at the Nou Camp. In his thirties, he is still carrying his side more than ever before, and it’s comfortably established him as the greatest there is.

Barcelona have the best side in the league, but mediocre squad building and the wrong manager has made them weaker than they should be. They’ll underachieve through not playing to their potential. They will most likely win the league, but not nearly as comfortable.

Best Transfer – Frenkie De Jong

This is arguably the most of outstanding signing Barcelona have made since Ter Stegen. The former Ajax central midfielder was fantastic both domestically and in the Champions League, where he was vital in Ajax reaching the semi-final. He has so many qualities that persuaded Barcelona to pick up his signature. De Jong is an allrounder. He is good defensively while possessing a great passing ability and solid dribbling numbers. It allows him to be versatile in how he plays, whether as a ball-progressor or even or a centre-back. His ball retention is by far his best quality. During their dominant victory over Juventus, the old lady attempted to man-mark De Jong out of the game. This didn’t work; however, with De Jong dropping so deep that it made him difficult to mark. He would consistently receive the ball and dribble right through Juventus’ deep block. He was one of the most challenging players to dispossess in Europe.

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There isn’t even debate on whether he starts. De Jong has to play whenever he is available. The Dutchman, alongside Arthur, offers a young central midfielder with more risk on the ball than his teammates. Rakitic is not as adventurous as he once was, Busquets has been overplayed for years, and Vidal hasn’t really worked out in Barcelona since his arrival. De Jong’s versatility would allow him to not only excel wherever he plays but to give Busquets and Rakitic a chance to be rested. De Jong’s arrival has zero drawbacks and is by far their best business since Luis Suarez.

Potential Flop – Munas Dabbur

Sevilla’s business overall was fantastic, but their forwards were always going to be difficult to replace. Los Hispalenses lost 3 of their starting forwards in Ben-Yedder, Silva and Muriel. It left them with only Munir as a starting striker, leaving them with a lot of work to be done. I have my doubts about Luuk De Jong, but he can play as an effective target man. It’s their acquisition of Isreali forward Munas Dabbur where my suspicions are raised. The former Salzburg striker was fantastic during his time in Austria. Dabbur was a well rounded forward who could score as well as create. He was excellent in the Europa League, where he scored 8 in 10 and helped guide Salzburg to winning every game in their group. It’s obvious Dabbur has talent, but excelling in a league where Salzburg are a level above everyone else means there is an instant reason to be worried. He’s also 27. Usually, when taking a talented player from a weaker league, they need to be at an age where they can improve or have re-sell value. As per usual, I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Dabbur leaving the club in a year.

My Football Opinions: Teams Recruiting Poorly

While the transfer market has its enjoyment, it ultimately does take away from the reasons we all love football, to watch the game itself. The summer window is full of twists and turns, from players turning their backs on their respective clubs, to owners desperate to improve their teams. The area we will be discussing today is clubs who recruit in the wrong areas, and why it is so frustrating.

When talking about this problem, it comes back to one of the best managers to ever grace the game, Valeriy Lobanovskyi. His influence on the game cannot be underestimated. From introducing statistics and the power of science to the game, he also had one belief that should be embraced by all clubs, being the weak link. The legendary Dynamo Kyiv coach believed that a team’s success was primarily down to which side made the least amount of mistakes. Lobanovskyi famously said, “a team that commits errors in no more than 15 to 18 per cent of its actions is unbeatable.” It isn’t the number of superstars you have in attack that wins you titles, it’s how good or bad those lesser players are.

This belief has been tested throughout history, but no one pushed it further than Florentino Perez with his infamous Galacticos project. The idea of overloading your side with the best attackers was something never believed to be possible, and for a good reason. There isn’t a world where you can afford players of that world-class level and keep them all happy while keeping the side defensively solid. This turned out to be partly right. While one La Liga and a dramatic Champions League win in 2002 can be considered successful, it just wasn’t enough for the insane amount of money spent. The team was imbalanced to put it lightly, with Claude Makelele’s role in that team vital in doing all of the defensive work in midfield. You look at the signings during Perez’s first tenure. This included Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, R9, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Walter Samuel, Sergio Ramos and finally Robinho. While these aren’t all the signings Real Madrid made between 2000 and 2006, they were the most expensive. It’s clear where Perez was prioritising his finances, on selling shirts with the most attacking players in Europe. Only two of them I would consider being defensive signings. Los Blanchos’s team was built so irresponsibly, that it was no wonder the project was considered a failure.

I thought that Perez’s failed project meant that no other side would ever try and win similarly, yet I was wrong. While Barcelona haven’t gone as crazy as their rivals in terms of signing everyone available, their recent signings in the market scream a lack of planning. The signing of Griezmann shows how Barca are continuing to ignore the more pressing issues in their squad. Busquets, Pique and Suarez still remain without a worthy successor. They are blessed to have the greatest player of all time, yet seem to ignore the other parts of the side despite Messi now reaching the twilight of his career.

While these examples are on a grander scale, we still see clubs signing a player for a hefty fee without any idea of what to do with them. United signing Alexis Sanchez, even though Rashford and Martial were in fantastic form before his arrival. Everton brought three number 10’s in the summer of 2017, and it begs the question of why they needed to bring those players in when they failed to add pace in the wide areas. Even Arsenal signing Aubamayeng for a club-record fee can be seen as quite reckless considering the weaknesses that side had in midfield and defence.

The point remains. The clubs who succeed in football prioritise fixing their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths. It isn’t a surprise that Manchester City and Liverpool are the two best sides in Europe. In recent years, the pair have always addressed their most significant issues first. The Reds did overspend on Alisson, but he solved their most significant problem; the lack of a commanding presence in goal. Manchester City’s first signing of the current window was Rodri, the Fernandinho replacement they were in desperate need for at specific points last season. It’s why they are miles ahead of their Premier League opposition. Their intelligent recruitment and desire to stay away from a messier side of the transfer market.

Even Manchester United, a club ridiculed for its inability to recruit adequately in the market, have begun moving towards signing players in their weakest positions. The arguments can be made for how much they are spending on the likes of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There are premiums they are forced to pay for players with quality that can be questioned in certain areas. It’s vital that instead of spending an insane amount of money on Bruno Fernandes, they have stayed away in pursuit of a defender.

These points had to be made due to potential moves possibly being made in this transfer window, primarily Neymar. Barcelona might perhaps form the most fearsome frontline in world football, but in reality, Neymar might only improve Barcelona by around 5%, with their attack already the best in the division. Adding to that position is needless when other areas on the pitch need addressing. Studies have been made in the past that show the importance of clean sheets over goals. While goals to win you games, you realistically can score 2 goals and become the favourites to win the game. What’s essential is not throwing away those leads due to ageing stars in defence. If Barcelona invested a potential £200 million in resolving their right-back and centre half issues, it would make them a much better team than resigning Neymar. There is no need to continuously allow your weak points to increase, in favour of slightly improving your strengths.

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.

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Andre Gomes and How Opinions Change

If it isn’t a surprise by now, there are many things in football that I have failed to get right since starting this blog. From Brazil or Spain winning the World Cup, Axel Witzel being a bad signing or Seri being one of the best signings of the previous summer. You can always learn from your failings so it is mostly a good thing when I get these predictions wrong. This current player is another who I might have gotten wrong in the past, that being Portugese midfielder Andre Gomes.

When he joined Barcelona for €50m back in 2016, there was a lot of pressure on him to succeed. Champions at the time, Barcelona were still looking at replacing Xavi and finding a worthy successor to Iniesta and even Busquests. Gomes was apart of a Valencia side that was ripped apart by Jorge Mendes’s sharp claws. They went through 3 managers that season, and it was crazy to think any player could come out of that side with a semblance of positivity. It was a crazy summer for Barcelona in 2016. They seemed destined to through money away. Even if you exclude Umtiti, a majority of their signings from that window are not at the club. Alcacer, Digne, Denis Suarez, Cillessen and Gomes all highlight a club that wanted players to just fill the eighteen, instead of truly challenging for first team places. Gomes was the most expensive out of all of these signings, and was arguably the worst. It can all be summed up in Barcelona’s worst defeat that season, their 4-0 defeat to PSG. Gomes started that game, and looked truly out of his depth. He was taken off before the hour mark, and looked like a passenger. He only touched the 39 times, with Iniesta touching it twice as many times. it highlighted a greater problem for Gomes, what does he add to this side? He isn’t as good defensively as Busquets, not as effective in the final third as Iniesta and isn’t nearly as good a passer as Rakitic. For a lot of money, Barcelona got a very average player, and it was clear that he didn’t have a long term future at the Nou Camp.

After another underwhelming follow-up season for Barca, he decided to give the Premier League a go, joining Everton on loan. It strange summer. Everton made a lot of business that seemed good on paper, with Digne and Richarlison being instant hits on Mersyside, while Mina and Zouma haven’t been great been great. Gomes was an important addition to the side. While I’m not a massive fan of his, he does offer much more in a transitional sense than Schneiderlin and Gueye. Both are much better in a defensive sense, and while both are good players, they cannot start them together for a season. They don’t offer enough creatively and in keeping hold of the ball. Gomes was there to add that level of maturity and spark to a midfield full of defensively minded players, and has done that. He’s completing 1.6 dribbles per game, the highest in the side, and completes the most long balls in for any outfield player for the Toffees. His contribution going forward is quite lacklustre, but he has offered very good ball retention and helps Everton begin dominating games. One of his stand out games this season was Everton’s unfortunate draw against their local rivals Liverpool. He added a level of confidence and maturity in a ground where Everton have struggled for a long time. He completed 4 dribbles and made 45 passes, with only Coleman completing more with 52. While he hasn’t been a signing of the season, he’s added an element of class to a side in desperate need of it.

When I titled this post, it wasn’t with the intention of how Gomes turned from a flop into a huge success, it was the fact that I understood him. I mentioned how he was supposed to be the future for Barcelona, but didn’t have an obvious skillset to replace any of their top talent, but moving to a lower side has brought a skillset out of him. Gomes is a good dribbler who can help certain sides retain possession. I would recommend Everton sign him, but for anything less than £30 million. While he has improved them, he hasn’t done enough yet for a side to be ripped off when signing him. Some players just have a certain level where they flourish, and Gomes has found his

Why Barcelona Have Been Underwhelming – Lyon vs Barcelona -UEFA Champions League Preview

These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.

Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.

What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.

Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.

Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.

If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.

If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.

Are Manchester City Unstoppable? Top 5 League Talking Points

Goals goals goals! This week contained many big scorelines, so let’s get into the usual detail of the leagues, and see what’s new.

Bundesliga

Hoffenheim walk over Leverkusen

By far one of the most interesting matches of the weekend was Hoffenheim’s comfortable victory over Leverkusen. Originally Hoffenheim were seen as a quite defensive side under Nagelsmann when he took over. However in the last couple of seasons, the young German tactician had turned his side into an extremely direct side that attack with incredible speed. This game just highlights the ferocity of Hoffenheim.

While Leverkusen outshot and dominated the game (it was their home game after all), they failed to capitalise on their dominance. Julien Brandt had a very good chance to get Leverkusen back in the game, but hit his shot wide.

What won Hoffenheim the game was how clinical they were in front of goal. While Leverkusen have been poor this season, they are still a side full of talent. Hoffenheim needed to take their chances if they wanted the three points, and they definitely did so.

Expected goals had this game 1.89 to Leverkusen and 1.93 to Hoffenheim. While it doesn’t show the final result, it highlights how well Hoffenheim finished on the day. The forward two of Reiss Nelson and Joelinton worked so well together. Both scored on the day, including Joelinton scoring a brace and Nelson scoring an excellent finish near the beginning of the game. While the Brazilian did score 2, Nelson was very impressive. The Arsenal loanee created 2 chances, scored, and even made a tackle and an interception. It was a very well rounded performances from a player who is still so young.

With Sancho getting many of the headlines, it’s good to see another Englishman in Germany doing so well. Not only does it show how good these players are, but also about the league and the coaching. Both Sancho and Nelson are performing so well because of the coaches they are playing under. Many ignorant pundits say it’s about going abroad to show off quality, when it isn’t. It’s about joining a club that is willing to put faith in your ability and teach you a different system. While fullbacks are arguably the most important position in football, it’s young attackers who are getting chances because they usually do not require as much discipline and knowledge of the game defensively. It allows them to blossom and that I hope they continue to do.

Freiburg surprise again.

Onto a more surprising match, Freiburg actually did carry on from their surprise victory over Mönchengladbach, by getting a point at the Allianz against the reigning Champions.

I said after their win over Mönchengladbach, that they will have to hope that they give the same performance and hope to surprise the Bundesliga, and they did. After the game being goaless for a large majority of it, it was Gnabry who broke the deadlock. But thanks to a very late goal from Höler, Freiburg earned a very good point.

Their goalscorer, Lucas Höler was excellent on the day. The German was part of a side that were resilient and held off a very average Bayern side. Höler scored his only shot on target, created 2 chances, completed 2 dribbles and most impressively, made 4 tackles. It just shows how the entire fought so hard in this game, to take advantage of an out of form Bayern side.

Speaking of Bayern, this really wasn’t the performance that Kovac would want to see. I do sympathise with him in some way. He lost both Tolisso and Coman to injury. Both Frenchman would have seriously helped him in the situation he is in. Tolisso was arguably Bayern’s best midfielder last season, and Coman is extremely talented, but injuries seem to keep holding him back. It means he has to rely heavily on both Robben and Ribery, two players who should be on their way out, yet remain to be key players in the side.

Bayern have had the same problems since their last champions league win. Ever since Dortmund dropped off, they had no challenge and by the time the crunch champions league games arrived, the players struggled because of the sudden step up. This is the first time where Bayern are finally challenged, they seem to be unable to keep up. The lack of challenge over the years is the reason why Robben, Ribery and Rafinha are still key players in the side. Bayern would have realised back in 2016 that these players cannot keep starting as many games. They let Douglas Costa go because he was unhappy with his place in the side. Bayern have cruised the Bundesliga for too long, and are finally being punished for it.

La Liga

Barcelona lucky

Barcelona had an incredible week last week. They disposed of Inter without Messi, and cruised past Real Madrid with way too much ease, without Messi. Their players have seriously stepped up since their best player received a relatively short injury. However against Vallecano, they can call themselves fortunate to say the least.

At one point, Real Vallecano were 2-1 and minutes away from getting the 3 points, however thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, the Blaugrana got the win they might have not deserved. Let’s talk about the home side first, who really impressed against the Champions. While Barcelona dominated as everyone expects, they might have used to it as well as they should. Vallecano had more shots and completed twice as many dribbles. That could been because without Messi, who takes a majority of their shots and completes and an incredible amount of dribbles, but you still expect them to be better.

For Vallecano, their stand out player was arguably Adrian Embarba. The Spaniard was excellent on the day, creating 3 chances and completing 4 dribbles. He was a driving force for his side on the day. Alejandro Gálvez was another who held strong in the game. He completed the most defensive actions in the game, including 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 clearances. He was one of the key reasons why they were so close to winning the game.

Now let’s start about how Barca failed to win this game comfortably. I believe it’s the fault of their wide players, Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha, were just below average on the day. Valverde will continue to confuse for the rest of his time as manager, but choosing to play Rafinha, a guy he tried to sell in the summer over Ousmane Dembele will never seise to confuse me. Rafinha and Coutinho are just not wingers. They both do not have the pace and drive to be able to stretch a defense.

I called Rafinha one of the heroes after his solid performance against Inter Milan, but I thought that would be a one off game. He has continued to start, despite looking worse in every game I see of him. Coutinho is a very good creator. His ability to find that killer ball to break open a defense makes him one of the most useful players in Europe. While he did play as a winger under Klopp because of how interchangable that front three were, it worked. But more is desired from him under Valverde, and he just shouldn’t be playing there. I have no idea how many times I have to say this but Dembele really should be starting every game for Barcelona. At the beginning of the season, I said he was the most impressive players in La Liga. He started the season off on fire, and yet after winning so many games for Barca, Valverde still doesn’t start him or seem to trust him. His speed, trickery and raw power would put him into any side in Europe, yet he can’t start over two players who are out of position. Decisions like this are why many Barcelona fans really do not like Valverde at all, and I can understand that. He needs to realise that to win games, risks have to be taken as a player. If you limit a player, like Dembele who relies heavily on his natural ability at beating opponents and creating chances for his side, it will make the team weaker and predictable. Barcelona will have to step up if they wish to win the Champions League, because let’s face it, that’s what they really want.

Betis and Celta Vigo play a memorable draw

This next match infuriated me, because I decided to watch AC Milan scrape a victory than watch this goal fest. The game in question is the entertaining draw between Real Betis and Celta Vigo, which ended 3-3.

Both sides have turned into real entertaining sides in La Liga, and two I usually keep an eye out when looking at upcoming fixtures. Both have quality players, making this fixture even more exciting (and even more puzzling on why I chose Milan over this). This was very close, with both sides having a similar amount of shots (14 to Betis and 15 to Celta) and XG putting this game at 1.73 to Betis and 1.69 to Celta. It shows there wasn’t much separating the sides. A huge surprise of this was who stood out. Both teams have experienced players who guarantee consistency. However it wasn’t players like Aspas, Carvalho, Mallo and Bartra who stood out, in fact it was the younger players, being Lo Celso, Firpo, Méndez and Beltrán.

Let’s begin with Betis’s young stars. Lo Celso was absolutely superb in the game. The Argentine has slowly turned into one of my favourite players in Europe at the moment. He came to light when he was selected to start for Paris against Madrid in the Champions League. It was the first time I ever heard his name, and he stared in the defensive role, playing as a destroyer alongside Verratti. He was strangely unused at the world, thanks to Sampaoli’s incompetence in charge. He is now being commonly selected because of his versatility and energy. I’ve been more accustomed to seeing him as a defensive midfielder, but in this game he played as a wide attacking midfielder, and he remained excellent. He took 4 shots, created two chances, completed 2 dribbles, made 3 tackles and got an assist. He is still only 22 and is showing amazing versatility and maturity. It’s crazy how Tuchel let him go out on loan. Another Betis player who shone in this game was young wing back Júnior Firpo. While his attacking output wasn’t there in this game, that can be explained by the player he was playing against later. Firpo’s defensive work in this game was definitely there. He put in 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 4 clearances. He helped Betis remain the defensive wall that they are, on a day where they needed it.

Now onto the young stars of Celta. Let’s start with Brais Méndez, who by far the best player who started the game for Celta. The Spaniard is only 21 years old, and gave a real top class performance against a solid defensive side. He was playing against Firpo, and while he did well in keeping Mallo and Méndez quiet, it didn’t stop Méndez from having an excellent performance. He had 4 shots, 2 on target, made 2 key passes and won 2 aerial duels. Celta have been known recently for finding talent and helping them flourish, with Aspas, Sisto and Mor coming to mind. Méndez seems to be another player who seriously looks impressive at a young age.

Another who performed well on the day was Fran Beltrán. The midfielder is 19 had a great game against one of the best teams in La Liga. He made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and a key pass. He made more defensive actions than any other midfielder on the pitch, and credit needs to be given to him for doing this at such a young age. He hasn’t exactly been incredible this season at all, with his creative play needing plenty of work. But that doesn’t matter. At this age, what is important is that he is playing games at the highest level. Eventually he will become more adventurous in his play. Right now he players as a pretty effective destroyer. Celta could have a player on their hands if he continues to play games. He’s already started 10 games this season, so they must have a lot of faith in him. He was signed from Vallecano in the summer, and it could possibly be one of the bargains of the season.

While I don’t expect both of these teams be challenging for top 4 or anything, I do hope they earn success, whether it’s Betis doing well in the Europa League, or Celta upsetting some of the bigger sides. Let’s hope they can continue on this and earn even more plaudits for their style and flare.

Ligue 1

Montpellier walk over Marseille

Let’s start with by far the most satisfying victory of the weekend. Montpellier continued their good start by comfortably disposing of big guns Marseille. Not long ago, we all thought Marseille were back thanks to their excellent run the Europa League last season, and finishing in the top 4 back again. It seems they are back to underperforming.

Let’s not take credit away from the victors however, because after their 3-0 win over Marseille, they now sit in 2nd. Thanks to PSG beating their closest competitior Lille, Montpellier now are above them on goal difference. While the title race is already over, Montpellier have now swept aside one of the harder games of the season, leaving them full of confidence. They outshot their opponent, put in more challenges and created better challenges. They really showed why they are in 2nd place in the league, with them attacking fast taking their chances well.

The man of the match was comfortably Paul Lasne. Montpellier lined up in a 3-4-3. This was genius from Zakarian. This formation is perfect in dealing with a 4-3-3. It allows the wing backs to press the opposition full backs, and completely nullify any wide talent. This worked brilliantly, with Lasne and Aguilar putting in a combined 11 tackles. It was a showing on how important wing backs are, and Lasne was the epitome of this. The Frenchman put in 7 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. He also made a key pass and scored the final goal to seal it. A great performance in a game where they needed a top quality performance.

Now onto Marseille. Saying they had an off day is an understatement, because this isn’t the first time this season where they have failed to show up. I’m slowly becoming tired of constantly criticising their strikers, so let’s criticise their defenders instead. Adel Rami was pretty bad on the day. The Frenchman can go down as one of the worst players to ever win a world cup, and this game isn’t changing my mind. He was at fault for the first goal, not marking Laborde and gifting him a free header. He also didn’t put in a single tackle or interception in the game, showing how easily he was exposed by opposition in this game. Marseille have now conceding 21 goals in Ligue 1, the second worst total in the division.

Another who was quite disappointing was Florian Thauvin. I have expressed my fondness for his player on numerous occasions, but today wasn’t his game. While he did have 3 shots and complete 3 dribbles, he was disposed 7 times and had a 65% pass accuracy. He was completely neutralised in this game, and summed Marseille’s attack on the day. They failed to created chances, and out of the 11 shots they had, only 2 were on target. Thauvin an extremely talented player, but he is just not thriving in this side at the moment. It doesn’t help with the constant changes being made to the side. He has tried different formations and moved player in numerous positions, even trying Payet as some false 9 last week. Questions marks have to start be asked about how Garcia is managing this side. They have been terrible this season. If it wasn’t for how quickly Monaco fell of a cliff, so much more pressure would be Marseille

St Etienne and Angers play a classic

While La Liga and the Bundesliga had plenty of goals, Ligue 1 might just out do both of them. Nantes were victorious over Guingamp with a 5-0 win, and Nîmes getting a 4-0 away win over Dijon. However the match that outshined both of these was St Etienne’s 4-3 win over Angers. This game was very tight, and had everything. Late goals, own goals, good finishes and was an overall entertaining spectacle for the neutral. St Etienne dominated the game, but that’s mainly due to the fact they were playing at home, and were chasing the game for a majority of it. St Etienne did deserve to win the game, based on them creating better chances, with the home side having less shots outside the box, and more in the penalty area.

However while St Etienne did deserve the win, it was an Angers player who stood, and that’s Flavien Tait. While Reine-Adédaïde stood out with his 6 dribbles completed, he just wasn’t as effective in the final third as his teammate. Tait was indeed excellent on the day. He put all of his shots on target, made 2 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was in fact only one of two players in this game to get 2 goal contributions, with the other being the centre half Pavlovic. He was the best player on the pitch and it’s a shame he was on the losing side.

St Etienne still had some stand out players. By far their best player was Newcastle flop Remy Cabella. He is one of many players who just wasn’t suited for the Premier League, and is back in France and finally flourishing again. He played just behind Wabhi Khazri in this game, and was excellent. His very lean frame helps him slide and turn on the ball with such speed. He is a good creator who can also beat his man. This game showed both of those. He created 4 chances and completed 2 dribbles. He also got an assist for his work and was a key reason on why St Etienne got the 3 points.

St Etienne could actually finish in the top four this season. With Marseille, Lyon and Monaco all looking below par, it could leave an opening for teams to take their place. St Etienne have quality players in midfield with Khazri and Cabella, and players like Subotic, Perrin and Debuchy are reliable in defense. It could be a very important season for a club with such history in France.

Premier League

Manchester City do it again

What I mean when I say do it again is another 5 goal thriller from the Champions. This is fourth time this season they have beaten someone by a 5 goal margin. The team on the end of their beating was Mark Hughes’s Southampton.

I’d like to add just how terrible Southampton are and I’m dying to know what happened to them. They used to be a side who found talent in places no one else was looking, like signing Mané, Tadic and Van Dijk from clubs and leagues no one was paying attention to. They hired good coaches, like Pochettino, Koeman and Puel. They were developing players at a good pace and getting insane profit on them (just look at Liverpool’s entire side). Mark Hughes is truly a terrible manager and I’m tired of seeing being given good jobs based on a reputation made of sand. He will ruin any club’s defense, and relies heavily on individual talent in the forward lines. He is also incredibly frustrating to watch in interviews. Statements like we gave them too much respect mean absolutely nothing. They are statements said to fill space and make it sound like Hughes is being insightful. I hope Southampton sort themselves out. I was so fond of them and now they have turned into your usual short term club with no idea what to do after survival.

Now onto Manchester City, who were absolutely sensational on the day again. While Raheem Sterling will get all the plaudits, and justifiably so, it’s Sergio Aguero who stood out for me. The Argentine will go down as one of the top 5 strikers in Premier League history. His consistency is unrivalled and the way he’s been able to evolve his game at a stage in his career when that’s usually difficult deserves so much credit. This game showcased this step up in the way he plays. Aguero was always a poacher, but he seems to have turned into a perfect all rounder. He scored and got 2 assists. He had 4 shots, completed 4 dribbles and created 4 chances. These are stats we’re never used to seeing Sergio Aguero put up. What Pep has done with him is short of incredible. He turned an already world class finisher into a world class player.

This leaves City in an incredible position. They are comfortably ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool when discussing goal difference. They have a big squad and even without their best midfielder, are still walking over opposition. The Manchester Derby is next, and this is a chance to put on a show against their biggest rivals. This could really show how far ahead they really are.

Overachieving Bournemouth halted

Bournemouth have always frustrated me. While I do think it’s impressive they are still in the division, they seem to avoid criticism just because of their size. Last season they were terrible. Only Stoke conceded less goals, and they put in the least amount of tackles and interceptions in the league. They almost allowed opposition to score past them. Nathan Ake was the player of the month 3 times for them. If that doesn’t sum up their story, I don’t know what will.

However it seems to be different this season. When I saw where they were sitting in the Premier League, I just assumed they were overachieving and eventually they would hit reality. However looking at XG, it does seem they are performing as they are expected to. They aren’t lucky in attack or defense, and are performing at their level. So what has changed? Well firstly it’s penalties. The Bournemouth are the second most fouled team in the division, and it’s shown with how many they’ve scored from penalties. They have scored 5, more than any other side. They take the chances that are gifted to them. They have also changed the way they play. They’ve turned from a wannabe possession side, into a really good counter attacking side. They have incredibly fast players with King, Wilson and Frazer being able to move the ball so quickly. They now soak up pressure so well and attack so quickly. They seem have finally fixed their biggest problems.

Looking at this game however, Bournemouth should have been further ahead than they were. They had a few chances at the beginning of the game, that if they took them, would have comfortably won the game. They took the early lead thanks to Calum Wilson, who now is the only English player in the league to have 10 goal contributions. While Wilson was good, Fraser continued his brilliant form into this game. He had 2 shots on target and created 3 chances. He has by far the surprise package of the season.

Now onto United, who were absolutely terrible in the first 20 minutes, but thanks to a usual turn around in the second half, managed to get the 3 points. Many said that Lerma absolutely pocketed Paul Pogba. When it couldn’t be further from the truth. If he truly did, then how did Pogba maneged to have 3 shots, create 4 chances (the most in the match), and completed 2 dribbles. I’m just assuming the old school pundits want to push the narrative because of their dislike towards the Frenchman. United created a lot of chances in this game and were better than Bournemouth in the full 90 minutes. XG put this game at 1.89 to Bournemouth and 2.98 to the Red Devils. Maybe it can be said that United probably should have won by more.

After another nothing performance from Nemanja Matic, it asks the valid question of should he be dropped? And he definitely should. United’s defense is terrible, but their forward line is very good. In an ideal world, United would start with a midfield of Pogba, Herrera and Fred. Pogba is a creative hub and can drive your midfield so effectively. Fred is an energetic player who keeps the ball pretty well, and wins the ball well. The Brazilian won 5 tackles against Bournemouth, the most out of any United player. Herrera is personal favourite of mine. He has a lot of bite and is great at winning the ball. United should focus on outscoring the opposition, instead of trying to sit deep.

While Pogba was great in this game, Anthony Martial was the man of the match. While I criticise the Manchester United board for a lot of things, but stopping Jose from selling Martial was by far their best decision ever. He is in fine form this season, and thanks to the heroics of the Frenchman, United claimed the 3 points. The goal was his 5th in 4 games, the first time he’s scored in 4 consecutive games. He’s been fabulous since his Newcastle, and continued this against Bournemouth. He had 4 shots, created 2 chances and scored the equaliser. He’s just reminded Jose how good he is.

Serie A

Inter hit five

Another league, another goal fest. This time it is Inter Milan. Who absolutely walked over Genoa in this game. Inter now haven’t lost since the 15th of September. Before this game, they absolutely smashed Lazio 3-0. They are in super form right now and seem ready to take 2nd off Napoli. They won 5-0. While that is impressive, what is the best part is Icardi didn’t even score. Inter have been incredible at creating chances for Icardi, and they became incredibly over reliant on him. Spaletti rested Icardi for this game, with assumption of the importance of the Barcelona game being priority.

New signing Lautaro Martinez started this game, and he wasn’t exactly impressive. He had 5 shots, but didn’t manage one on target. He is still 21, so wastefulness in front of goal is still expected. He’s the understudy of the best striker in Europe at the moment, and will definitely improve over time. While he wasn’t great in front of goal, Roberto Gagliardini was. The Italian scored his first brace in Italian football, and showed why he is one of the most promising players in Italian football. He scored both of his shots on target and created 3 chances. Let’s hope he can put a stamp onto this side.

The man of the match was quite comfortably Jõao Mario. The Portuguese has been a bit of joke in recent years. His time at Inter started so badly, that he had to join West ham on loan for a short period to regain form. This game showed why Inter bought him in the first place. He created 4 chances and ended the game with a goal and 2 assists. An improvement from a player who seemed to be on the way out.

Let’s take a quick second to point out just how bad Genoa were defensively. For every goal they seemed to just make the wrong decision. They gifted Nainggolan for a free header, they stepped out too late, allowing Politano to finish his chance pretty easily. If Martinez and Perisic finished their chances, it would have been 7. It actually blows me away how this side were able to take points away from Juventus and then put in a terrible performance like this. Inter still deserve plenty of credit, but this was a shambles from Genoa.

Torino show Sampdoria reality

While Lazio and Napoli also put up amazing wins, Torino are the ones I’m highlighting here. It’s been difficult for Turin based side since their 2016/17 season, where Andrea Belotti went supernova and scored 26 goals. He definitely overachieved but because of the board’s happiness in his season, they were asking for an absurd €100m for the Italian. It was an example of player who should have been sold, because it was the first time Belotti ever got those numbers in the league. United and Chelsea were interested, but instead went for Morata and Lukaku respectively, who were cheaper than what Torino were asking. They ended keeping their star forward, and to say last season was underwhelming is an understatement. He played three less games than his stand out season, yet managed less than half of the goals. He could be down to the team, but it is still disappointed considering he was being spoken as a triple figure player. He now has 4 goals in 10, and is looking better than last season already.

The reason I bring this up is because of the performance he put in against Sampdoria. Torino can be called lucky to have won this comfortably. The game ended 4-1 to Torino, and performed well against a good Sampdoria side in their back yard. XG had this game at 2.24 to Sampdoria, and 1.93 to Torino. Torino won this game thanks to their excellent finishing and the very good chances they created.

Belotti really gave a performance reminiscent of his break out season, scoring a header and a penalty that he won. Headers were something he specialises in. The rooster is excellent in the air, winning 5 aerial duels in this game alone. His height and incredible jump make him a difficult player to deal with. He also has 5 shots on got 3 on target. It was a very good game from a player who I hope goes back to his best.

As mentioned before, Sampdoria should probably feel hard done by to some extent. They created good chances and could have got back into this game. When mentioning teams who were surprising their league, I said while Sampdoria are doing well, eventually this will stop. It seems to have happened earlier than expected. They have no lost 2 on the bounce and not won since the start of October. They now sit in 11th, which is where about you expect them to finish.

One player who seriously stood out for them was Albin Ekdal. The Swede was a real presence in midfield for his side. Lucas Torreira was a massive loss for Sampdoria. The Uruguayan was excellent at ball recovery, while also doing at transition and distribution. Ekdal filled all of these roles. He completed 4 dribbles, while also making 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. He had a great game considering the result.

Both of these teams aren’t expecting to open Serie a wide open or anything, but sometimes it’s good to put the spotlight on sides who have a good week, when others might not. Let’s hope these teams continue to have solid seasons.

Who Is To Blame For Real Madrid’s Poor Start? Top 5 League Talking Points

What a week of football. Big sides falling behind and the usual superstars scoring for fun. Let’s get into the Top 5 League Talking Points for the weekend that has just passed.

Bundesliga – Monchengladbach lose on the road. Leverkusen’s huge win

Let’s take focus away from Dortmund and Bayern this week, and focus on two teams underneath them. Let’s start with Mönchengladbach, who have started the season in amazing form, lost 3-1 to Freiburg. It was only their second defeat of the season, but still leaves them in a position where a Champions League finish could still be possible. However if they wish to finish in the top four, they must make sure not to perform in this manner again. Freiburg were simply better than them on the day, with the home side registering more shots on target than their opponent. Mönchengladbach have started the season so well because of their attacking players, mainly due to Hazard and Alassane Pléa performing very well. However it wasn’t the best of days for Frenchman, who only managed a single shot, had a 66% pass accuracy and only managed 24 touches. He only played the first half because how little he effected the game. Freiburg aren’t exactly going to be fighting for a high finish, with the club currently sitting in 11th. This win was only their third of the season. It was a surprise victory and it will be interesting if they can perform any more upsets in the Bundesliga. One of their star performers against Mönchengladbach was Janik Haberer. He did a lot to help his side get the three points, with the German making 5 key passes in the game, which was the same as the entire Mönchengladbach side put together. He also wasn’t afraid to help defend their lead, with Haberer making 4 tackles in the game, the most for his side. It was an excellent performance and he was key in their surprise victory. Both of these sides have very contrasting games this weekend, with Freiburg visiting Bayern Munich, and Mönchengladbach playing Dusseldorf (arguably the worst side in the league) at home. Let’s see how both respond to this game.

After losing their first 3 games, Leverkusen seem to be back on track. It was a difficult start for them, with Bayern, Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach all beating them. Now Leverkusen haven’t lost since the end of September, and their 6-2 win over high flying Werder Bremen was by far their best performance. This was actually a huge upset. Bremen haven’t lost at home for almost a year before this game, and with the home side currently sitting in 4th, it should have been a simple win for Bremen on paper. While Leverkusen have underperformed this season, they still have excellent attacking players. Thanks to Kevin Volland’s early strike, it gave Leverkusen the ease of sitting back and playing on the counter attack. It is what won them the game, with Bellarabi, Volland, Brandt and Havertz all playing great on the counter. It gave Leverkusen a 3-0 lead going into half time. While Bremen did get two back, thanks to Pizarro and Osako, Leverkusen did make sure there was no comeback, and scoring 3 more to ensure they had the 3 points. Arguably the man of the match of this game goes to Bellarabi or Volland. Bellarabi was a key reason why his side got the victory. 44% of their attacks came down the German’s side. He was given the freedom of the pitch to exploit, and did so with ease. Kevin Volland was another who performed very well on the day. The forward scored and assisted 2. Volland managed 2 shots on target, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. Leverkusen have so many talented players, and should be much higher on the table based on the quality they have. They’ve played most of the tougher sides, so it’s now their chance to gain some momentum and to climb the table.

La Liga – El Classico. Alaves in second

The big fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid was of course the most anticipated fixture of the weekend, and to say it lived it up to it could be very subjective but it was what I was expecting. Barca were without Messi for this game, but it didn’t change the fact that Madrid have been so bad, and it was going to be a simple win for them. While I did expect Barcelona to win it, I didn’t expect to see it in the fashion as it happened. It ended 5-1 to the Blaugrana, thanks to a hat trick from Luiz Suarez and goals from Coutinho and Arturo Vidal. It was the definition of a comfortable victory for the Champions, and it just highlighted how poor Madrid are at the moment. However credit does have to be given to Barcelona, and especially Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan really turned up against their rivals, on the day they needed him the most. He scored a hat trick, being the first Barcelona player to do it since Romario. He truly had a field day against Madrid’s awful defense, having 4 shots on target, making 2 key passes and completing a dribble. Sergi Roberto was another who was excellent on the day, making 4 key passes and getting 2 assists. Now onto Madrid, with possibly their worst performance of the season. They lost the game because of how poorly they defended the first 3 goals. After that, they tried to get back in the game, and because of how far they were advancing, it left them wide open for the last 2 goals. For Coutinho’s goal, Nacho left too much space outwide for Alba to receive the ball. Coutinho was able to make a late run into the box because neither Casemiro nor Kroos decided to track him. Coutinho was left with arguably the easiest goal to score in his career. The second goal was given thanks to a very stupid error from Varane. The Frenchman has looked a shadow of himself this season, with this not even being his first error this season. While many have pointed the finger at Bale, Modric and Isco for performing poorly this season, Varane has comfortably been their worst player. Not long after this poor performance, Lopategui was confirmed to have been sacked by Perez. While he does deserve a lot of criticism for how he has set up side, with an incredibly high line that has left them open in many games (Sevilla and most recently Barcelona), he was given an incredibly hard job. They lost a player who scored 50 goals for them, and didn’t bring in a suitable replacement. It was even revealed that Lopategui wasn’t Perez’s first choice, with Pochettino, Conte and Sarri all being linked. They were all unavailable and he decided to go with the Spaniard. It just puzzles me why Perez didn’t at least try and sign Hazard, Dybala or a player in that superstar mold. They needed an instant success. He was only given Mariano, a player who simply isn’t good enough to start for Madrid. I have to feel for Lopategui, and Perez deserves a majority of the criticism here.

Now onto a more positive note, Alaves are now surprisingly sitting in 2nd. After their 3-0 defeat to Barcelona, they haven’t lost a game since, with their best performances being a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, and a 5-1 victory over Real Vallecano. There are certain departments where they have excelled, and one of them is set pieces. Aberlardo Fernandez has made sure his side take advantage of those previous goal giving opportunities, and they take them well. They have scored 7 goals from set pieces, the most in the league. However that is only half of their entire goals scored this season. They manage the 5th least amount of shots in La Liga, the least amount of dribbles in the whole division. To say they have been lucky is an understatement. Most of their wins have been thanks to a single goal margin, when they have usually had less shots and possession. They rely heavily on their set piece prowess. While it will do them well on the short term, eventually their luck will catch up to them. Let’s look at their latest win against Villarreal, and see what they are doing right. Villarreal have been a consistently solid side for the past few seasons. After quite a few easy games, it was a test to see if they are able to keep up their great start to the season. The game ended 2-1, and it was a deserved victory for Alaves. After conceding an early goal to Gerard Moreno, they eventually equalised from a set piece (what else). They then won the game thanks to a late winner from Swansea flip Borja Baston. Alaves were very good in the game. They created many chances for their forwards, and while their forwards didn’t take them very well, with Sobrino and Calleri taking 9 shots and only getting 2 on target. Their best player however was Jony. The winger had a very productive game, managing 2 shots on target, a key pass and completing 2 dribbles. He also got the assist for the equaliser. They only allowed the Yellow Submarine to have 2 shots on target out of 10. They need nullified their opposition completely. While I really don’t think Alaves can keep this up, it’s good to see another name in the Top 4.

Ligue 1 – PSG equal record. Depay looking ready.

Another predictable week in Ligue 1. Let’s start with the league leaders Paris, who just equalled a nearly 60 year record of most consecutive wins at the start of the season. The record is currently 11 (held by Spurs out of all people) and if Paris win just one more game, their dominance in Ligue 1 will not be more easily presentable than this record. To equal the record, they beat fierce rivals Marseille 2-0 away from home. The game was relatively close, with Paris getting 13 shots, one more than Marseille’s 12. Possession was cut relatively in the middle. However PSG’s quality was showcased when looking at shots on target, where they had triple of what Marseille managed, with 6. It does help that one side can bring on Kylian Mbappe, the most inform player in Europe, while the other has two strikers who have failed to impress me all season. Mbappe has proven to be arguably his team’s most important player. He now has 13 goals in 11 games, and is Europe’s top goal scorer at the moment. It’s crazy to think he isn’t even 21 yet. Tuchel has kept the Champions as superhuman as ever, but it’s in the Champions League he will be tested. He is already left with a hurdle, thanks the board not giving him the targets he requested. The German wanted new full backs, with Alves, Meunier and Kurzawa all deemed not good enough. While I do agree with him to an extent, there are limit amount of top quality full backs in Europe. Tuchel will have to be smart if he wishes to fix his problem areas, and look maybe more outside the box. PSG are the only top level club in Paris, meaning they have their pick of young players from one of the most prestigious cities when finding football talent. Tuchel will improve this side, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can show it in Europe.

Onto Lyon, who beat Angers 2-1, thanks to goals from Aouar and Depay. Lyon haven’t lost to Angers since 2015, meaning they are a side they have enjoyed facing over the last couple of years. However it wasn’t exactly a comfortable victory for the away side. While they did dominate possession, with 69% going in Lyon’s favour, Angers still managed more shots and only one less on target than Lyon. Chiek Ndoye was great on the day. The 32 year old put in a real all round solid performance in midfield. He had 3 shots, made 3 key passes, 2 tackles and 1 interception. He also got the assist for the consolation goal. It was the heroics of Memphis Depay that won the game for Lyon. He was only on the pitch for roughly 35 minutes, and set up Aouar for the first goal, and was gifted an open net by Dembele for the second. He has really turned into a key player for Lyon. His ability to create, score and play across the front three has came in handy for Bruno Génésio. After his poor spell in England, Depay might be ready for another elite level club. With his former club United, Chelsea, Madrid all looking for younger talent outwide, Depay could be the perfect solution.

Premier League – Man City favourites. United scrape by Everton

The Premier League title race is at its best for a long, long time. With Liverpool at the top of the table on Monday, it left a lot of pressure on Man City to continue their winning ways against one of their top 5 opponents, Tottenham. They overcome the pressure and beat Spurs at a very unprofessional Wembley, thanks to a single goal from Riyad Mahrez. It was a game where City definitely should have won by more, with Aguero and Silva having great chances to put the game to bed. However while their attacking side wasn’t perfect, they were mostly defensively sound. While Mendy does leave a lot to be desired on a defensive side, their centre back pairing of Laporte and Stones looks perfect. Laporte is your perfect modern centre back. His defensive numbers aren’t important because of the side he plays for. Possession sides usually keep hold of the ball so much, that their defenders don’t actually need to defend per say. Laporte is an excellent reader of the game, and senses danger at such a young age for a defender. He’s showing qualities of a 30 year old Leo Bonucci at only 24. The Frenchman’s ability on the ball is nearly unrivalled in Europe, with him completing 4.8 long balls in the Premier League, and having a crazy 92.3% pass accuracy. Both him and Stones can form arguably the most promising centre half partnership in Europe. Laporte was excellent in the game against Spurs, making 3 interceptions, 7 clearances and winning 2 aerial duels. The fact that spurs only had 4 touches in City’s box, just shows how good they were defensively. Spurs are in a strange place right now. While this is still their best ever start to a Premier League season, there is an unnerving air in North London. After failing to sign a player in the summer, it left them at a disadvantage. Now with some of their key players suffering injuries, it left them starting a very makeshift midfield of Sissoko, Dembele and Dier. While Sissoko actually had a pretty effective game, constantly running through the middle of the park, Dier and Dembele were poor on the day. Dembele didn’t make a single key pass, or a single defensive action. The Belgian’s numbers have been dropping for the last couple of years. He was the player they desperately needed to replace, yet they failed to do that. I still think City will cruise this season. They have a better squad than anyone in Europe, and still look so good even without KDB in midfield. It won’t be long until they’ll be clear of all their opponents.

Onto City’s red rivals, United scraped by Everton thanks to goals from Paul Pogba and a lovely finish from Anthony Martial. United did not look great on the day. Matic showed his usual lack of quality, with the Serbian shown to be out muscled by Gylfi Sigurddsson out of all people. Even Pogba had a very typical performance. At one moment he shows his world class quality on the ball, and another he gives the ball away to Gueye thanks to his showboating. Martial was easily the best player on the pitch. Every good attack went through him, and whenever United looked threatening, it was thanks to Martial. One of the big talking points of the game was Mourinho’s decision to bench Lukaku, and start Rashford. While it was the right call, bringing him on at all was wrong one. Fergie famously used to give his key players, like Ronaldo and Rooney, a couple weeks off to keep them fresh for the important games. Lukaku never had a pre season, and even came back from his vacation early thanks to Mourinho whining. Lukaku needs more than an hour off, he needs weeks if United want to see the best from their big Belgian.