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

Atletico Madrid

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Bayer Leverkusen 

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Juventus

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Lokomotiv Moscow 

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Predictions for the Bundesliga – 19/20

With all leagues, excluding Serie A, underway, it’s time to make some predictions. As a majority of previews have shown, I’m bad at predicting football, but that’s a good thing. 50% of football results are decided by luck. It’d be worrying if I was getting these right. We’ll be making predictions for the outside shout, over-achievers, under-achievers, best transfer and potential flop.

Bundesliga 

Outside Shout – RB Leipzig 

While not exactly the most surprising choice, I’m still expecting this side to take a massive step forward under Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim coach is already one of the best in Europe, showing a willingness to adapt depending on his personnel. He has demonstrated this throughout his career in the Bundesliga. His sides have primarily been possession-based, focusing on creating an insane amount of chances for their forwards. However, the German has consistently made adjustments to suit the constant changes in his squad. In his first full season, he used the direct route of Sandro Wagner to his advantage, focusing on quick transitions to the forwards. This Nagelsmann side was incredibly reliable defensively, only conceding 37 goals. However, with the losses of both Wagner and Rudy, the team needed to be tweaked. The 17/18 season saw Hoffenheim qualify for the Champions League for the first time. While they did concede 11 more goals than in Nagelsmann’s first season, there were improving in the final third. Thanks to the arrival of Serge Gnabry on loan and the form of Mark Uth, They scored more goals in open play than in the previous season with a far weaker side. It showed that Nagelsmann was more than the defensive coach he seemed to be when he broke through. In actuality, he is one of the best coaches at building an attack out of spare parts.

In the summer of 2018, it was agreed that Julien Nagelsmann would be joining RB Leipzig at the beginning of the 19/20 season. It was the best managerial appointing since Pep’s arrival in Manchester and showed the power and ambition of Red Bull. They managed to convince the best young coach in Europe to join their project when Bayern was showing interest.

Embed from Getty Images

What makes this appointment so exciting for Leipzig is the players that Nagelsmann has to work with. This is arguably the first time in his managerial career where he has some genuinely fantastic talent to work with. A young midfield pairing of Tyler Adams and Amadou Haidara is one of the most promising in Europe. Both are solid defensively and have the technical ability to offer a vast amount of ball progression. Nagelsmann has worked with talented midfielders before, but it’s in attack and defence where the talent is so noticeable. Timo Werner is one of the best strikers in the league, and when paired alongside Yussuf Poulsen, who finally reached the goal total we knew he could reach. This is a remarkable improvement over who he worked with at Hoffenheim, where Mark Uth and Issak Belfodil were relied upon for the goal output.

One of the biggest cliches in football has always been a manager’s ability. “Let’s see how Pep does with Burnley” is something you might have heard at least once. However, Nagelsmann has done this. He took a relegation side into the Champions League places. He has a club and a group of players to match his talents, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Leipzig win the Bundesliga during his reign.

Over-achievers – Borussia Dortmund 

This isn’t to say they will be bad throughout the season. In fact, I believe Dortmund will keep the title race exciting for a majority of the season. The main reason why I think they will overachieve is because of Lucien Favre. The former Nice coach has a history of defying the numbers. He usually builds a relatively solid defence and relies upon the talent of the attackers to carry the side. The lack of planning on the attack has made them rather poor against better opposition if his players are in a bad patch. Luckily at Dortmund, Favre has been given the most talented teenager in Europe and an injury-free Marco Reus. Both were fantastic last season, and their sheer talent carried Dortmund over the line on numerous occasions, with their 3-2 victory over Bayern being the game that stands out. It’s what made their quite impressive second-place finish somewhat misleading. Dortmund were very fortunate that Bayern started the season very poorly and Leipzig had gone through a bad patch near the end of the season. If Bayern weren’t so unfortunate up until December, there wouldn’t have been a title challenge.

Embed from Getty Images

I’m expecting more of the same this season. Bringing in both Hazard and Brandt to replace Philipp and Pulisic was a stroke of genius. Both are at the right age to contribute effectively for the next few seasons, while still being able to improve. I didn’t like the signing of Hummels, and the sale of Diallo made it a lot worse, but the German’s experience could be that extra edge they need. There were countless occasions where Dortmund lost against weaker opposition, primarily down to set pieces. If Dortmund had someone of Hummels’ leadership, it could have made the difference.

Will Dortmund have a good season? Most likely, but I can guarantee if they finish runners-up once again, they will not have been the 2nd best team in the league.

Under-achievers – Bayern Munich 

Oh, Bayern. This summer window was predicted to be the most significant window for Bayern in the past decade. With Robben and Ribery departing, Lewandowski now 31 and James Rodriguez returning to Madrid, there was a lot of work to be done. Leroy Sane was the player consistently linked to the Champions, but they failed to agree on a fee with Manchester City and were forced to look elsewhere. Nicolas Pepe seemed to be an option at some point, but they waited too long in pursuing him. While missing out on those two is a huge loss, their decision not to sign Ousmane Dembele was arguably the most baffling. Barcelona are clearly open to offers, and with their desire to see Neymar return to the Camp Nou, it was a chance for Bayern to get the young Frenchman. However, Bayern are refusing to pay the massive fee for a player who Barca are willing to sell.

Embed from Getty Images

Bayern’s transfer policy this summer has to come into question once again. For years, the champions were making such safe signings in the market, knowing full well the Bundesliga was always going to be theirs. However, Dortmund showed that wasn’t the case, and proved Bayern aren’t the invincible juggernauts as they perceive themselves. This was the summer where they would genuinely show ambition in the market and actually challenge the likes of Barcelona, Man City and Liverpool for the Champions League. But they got it all wrong.

Bayern’s business this summer has instantly made them susceptible to losing their dominance. Dortmund and Leverkusen have added even more attacking talent, and Leipzig looks to be the real deal this season. Bayern might win the Bundesliga once again, but it will not be as comfortable as they wish.

Best Transfer – Kerem Demirbay

Speaking of Leverkusen, they’ve had a surprisingly good window. The additions of Moussa Diaby and Nadiem Amiri are more exciting additions to arguably the best attack in the league. However, the icing on top of the cake has to be Kerem Demirbay’s arrival from Hoffenheim. The German playmaker has arrived for a hefty £28.80 million, but the fee is reasonable considering Leverkusen did sell Brandt for a £22.50m. Demirbay is a couple of years older than Brandt but does possess that extra bit of quality. The former Dusseldorf midfielder has consistently been putting up outrageous numbers since his arrival in the Bundesliga, with his shots and key passes being some of the highest in the league. He is, in reality, quite similar to Brandt in some ways. Both like to be heavily involved in the play, looking to receive the ball just outside of the box. The difference between the pair is for me is Demirbay possesses that extra bite. He is a tough tackler who has an excellent eye for a pass. Last season for players to play over 1000 minutes, his expected assist was at a fantastic 0.40 per game, the same as Muller and more than Brandt and Forsberg. There is no doubting Demirbay’s talent, so it’ll be interesting to see what Bosz does with his skillset.

Embed from Getty Images

Potential Flop – Ivan Perisic

I cannot stand this signing, and it just shows Bayern’s desperation in search of wingers. This is what happens when your wide options are an injury-prone Kinglsey Coman and a rather average Serge Gnabry. With Bayern missing out on their top targets, they had to settle for quick fixes, even if they might not fix anything. Perisic is a player who all top clubs should have avoided. Inter were asking for an obscene amount of money for the Croatian. He has been slowly declining since 2017 and only contributed to 11 goals last season, the lowest during his time in Italy. Perisic is a decent creator who can help defensively, but Bayern do not need defensive players. They’ve spent over £100 million on defensive reinforcements when they already had the best defence in the league. Perisic is here for his work in the final third, and he won’t offer enough. It baffles why Bayern weren’t even looking at Ziyech, Neres or Bailey. It’s hard to place blame on Kovac at this point. He is working for a club that isn’t willing to give him the same talent other managers have been able to work with.

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #3 – Conte turning Inter into Scudetto Challengers?

De Ligt Joining Europe’s Elite 

This transfer window has been the summer full of players that everyone knew were going to move. We have already seen Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann make their dream moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The next player who is likely to leave their club is Matthijs De Ligt.

His growth from a frail kid playing against Manchester United in the Europa League to becoming a generational talent, while not as fascinating as the journeys of Jamie Vardy or Ollie Watkins, it still fantastic just because of the calibre of player De Ligt now is. The Dutchman is the complete package in what teams want from a centre back. He is an elite distributor, possessed a large frame, can catch any forward with his pace and was his team’s captain at only 19. The Eredivise has kept its reputation of being a flip of a coin in terms of either fantastic talent like Van Dijk or Memphis Depay, or a player who struggles to adapt to a better league (Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen spring to mind). De Ligt is different. His numbers in his domestic league are outstanding (he’s been taking more shots in the league than Diego Costa this season) but what makes the prospect of seeing him in one of the top 5 leagues is what he showed in the Champions League. He put fantastic performances in both legs against Juventus and Tottenham, scoring against both teams, including the winner in Turin. It’s arguably my favourite trait of his, being his presence in the opposition box. When Ajax would get a corner, the cameras would zoom in on De Ligt, and around him were usually two players, ensuring he cannot make those deadly runs into the box. What’s so fascinating about this is De Ligt is unstoppable. His winner against Juventus was headed between Pjanic and Sandro, where they could not do anything to stop him. Set-pieces have become more critical than ever, with clubs in desperation to take advantage of a goalscoring opportunities that many have failed to seize. It’s why Van Dijk and Harry Maguire are valued so highly. Their threat in the box gives their team an outlet that can give them those extra goals to move further up the table. De Ligt is among Europe’s elite defenders already, and it’s what makes all the big clubs desperate to get his signature.

Embed from Getty Images

His strengths are well known by now, but where should the Dutchman go? De Ligt is linked to numerous big clubs, with Juventus, PSG, Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona all interested in getting his signature. He would be a perfect addition to all these clubs. Barcelona will have their long term heir to Pique while allowing them to sell Umtiti, a player who is currently out of favour with Valverde. PSG would get an improvement over what they now have in defence and would most likely give De Ligt a league title for every year he plays. PSG were rumoured to have offered De Ligt a 4-year deal. He could finish the contract, and he would still only be 23, meaning he would still have a future to join other clubs with even more title-winning medals. Manchester United should sign him if they can, but I would not recommend De Ligt join that sinking ship of a club.

Juventus are the favourites to sign him. The Old Lady have done some great business during the summer window. Both Aaron Ramsey, Gianluigi Buffon and Adrien Rabiot have arrived on free transfers and three defensive prospects in Luca Pellegrini from Roma, Cristian Romero from Genoa and Merih Demiral from Sassuolo for over £50 million (It’s important to note that Spinazzola, Sturaro and Rogerio have been swapped for the respective clubs). So many football experts have been wondering how Juventus have this much money to spend. A club that can pay Ronaldo’s wages, as well as a dozen of other high earners is also able to pay £60 million for De Ligt as well as paying his rumoured £350k a week he is demanding. It’s interesting to see what Juventus would be willing to let go to ensure they can get their man.

Even with Juventus most likely to sign him and the likeliness of this happening now very low, I would love to see De Ligt playing under Jurgen Klopp next season. Liverpool, while arguably one of the best in the history of the league and possessed a side that only conceded 22 goals last season, the best record in the league. Most of that is down to Van Dijk and Allison having superb seasons and keeping their side organised. They have a fantastic defence, but the departure of Moreno and possibility of Lovren leaving the club has left space in the squad for additions. While the pair were not essential members of the team, they at least gave cover to positions that needed reinforcements. While left-back is by far the priority for signings this season, adding a player as good as De Ligt is a great idea. Van Dijk is fantastic, but if he does suffer a significant injury, which he has in the past, would leave Liverpool at a severe disadvantage in their attempts to challenge Manchester City once again. It would give Liverpool the best centre back partnership in the league, and if Van Dijk were to get injured, they would cope without him. While De Ligt would be successful no matter where he goes, he would genuinely show his talents and increase his reputation for playing for one of the best sides and under an elite coach.

Leverkusen’s Best Chance

Moving back to the Bundesliga, let’s look at another side that could be very exciting to watch. Peter Bosz is a coach who, while not making the sturdiest defences, he can get his side scoring goals. His Ajax side did show immaturity at times, but Bosz did manage to get a lot of goals out of Kasper Dolberg, something Ten Haag has failed to do. Think of Bosz’s side as the start to the what Ajax did last year. After his disastrous spell with Dortmund, being offered a job at a team full of attacking talent was precisely the job Bosz needed.

It is no understatement when mentioning how attacking Leverkusen are now being managed by Bosz. This change was so significant, and it seeing how well Leverkusen were performing before and after his appointment. Leverkusen were sitting in 9th, and deservedly so. They only managed seven wins out of 17 and most worryingly, were 9th in goals scored with 26, behind Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg. It’s arguably what got Herrlich sacked and why Bosz came in. They have a terrific group of players, especially in attack and should consistently be in those Champions League places. Havertz, Brandt, Volland and Bailey are talented enough to compete with anyone in the Bundesliga.
The issue has been trying to get all their talented players in the same team and getting them to perform at their highest level. Bosz seems to have done this, with many players standing out since his arrival. His first change was the formation, going from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. It involved moving Brandt more centrally and turning Havertz into a free-roaming 10. It brought the best out of both players. It gave Brandt the chance to get involved more on the ball, enabling him to use his intelligence and exceptional passing to help find gaps in opposition defences. Brandt had a fantastic second half of the season. He ended the season with 18 goal contributions, and 14 of those came after Bosz arrival. His new coach was the first to turn Brandt from a talent into an excellent player. Brandt isn’t the only attacker who has improved massively under Bosz. He has pushed Havertz to another level from the high bar he has already set, got Volland performing more consistently than ever before and managed found goals in Alario, with his xGP90 under Bosz sitting at an incredible 0.88.

Embed from Getty Images

Leverkusen’s current crop of players is very exciting, but some of their new additions make their prospects even more impressive. With Brandt leaving for a small £21 million, being one of the bargains of the summer, but Leverkusen’s replacement is even better, with Kerem Demirbay arriving for £28 million. I’ve spoken heavily about Demirbay before, but it’s hard to deny just how good of a replacement this is. The German attacker has been Hoffenheim’s drive in attack since his arrival. Aggressive, a great passer and a love for a longshot, Demirbay will give similar productivity to Brandt, with the added benefit of possessing a real cutting edge in the final third. Mousa Diaby is another exciting arrival. Leverkusen managed to get the French prospect for a bargain £13 million thanks to Paris having to deal with their FFP problems. Even with his limited minutes, he managed to make an impression. Out of under 23 players in Europe who played over 1000 minutes, only Sane, Iwobi and Gnabry finished the season with a higher xA per 90 than Diaby. While you can argue that he was playing for a team far above their competition in terms of talent, he was still performing whenever given a chance. He’s still only 19, and if Bosz can give him the minutes he needs at a young age, he could develop into another breakout star to develop in the Bundesliga.

My only doubts towards Leverkusen next season is the rather negative reputation Peter Bosz has had in terms of his tactics in the big games. While a win over Bayern was impressive, Leverkusen did faulter against the other top sides in the league, with defeats to Hoffenheim, Dortmund and RB Leipzig showing once again how better coaches consistently outclass Bosz. He doesn’t have that same reactive thinking that has helped Pochettino and Zidane stand out in the past. There is a very slim chance they will challenge for the title, but if you want to see a good team play arguably the best football in the league, Bayer Leverkusen should be the first team to watch.

Napoli’s Scudetto Challenge 

We’ve already discussed their chances not long ago, so we’ll keep this short. Napoli are the only settled team out of the top sides in Italy. Juventus have just appointed Maurizio Sarri, a manager who as we’ve recently seen with Chelsea, will need time for his players to adapt to the system that Sarri will attempt to place on the side. While Napoli have made fantastic signings, especially a generation talent in De Ligt, there are still many senior players in that side that need to be moved on. It’ll be challenging for Juventus to compete on all fronts and I doubt if they do finish next season as Champions, it will not be nearly as comfortable as it has in the past. Milan, Roma and Inter (we’ll get to them soon) are going through similar situations, so it makes them unlikely contenders.

It leaves Napoli in an excellent position. Ancelotti attempted to change Napoli from a dominant possession side into a more direct team focused on an energetic midfield and fitting in forwards like Insigne and Mertens into partnerships and cover the channels. Napoli primarily deployed a 4-4-2 and meant they could play more of their attacks and aim to attack through the wide areas. It made them way less patient in build-up, and while it did leave them fragile at times since they weren’t retaining the ball nearly as much, it did make them just as fun to watch and brought the best out of many players in the side. After an excellent debut season, which saw improvement in some players and a drop in others, it showed the potential that Ancelotti’s side could reach when given more time and better players.

Embed from Getty Images

They’ve already made smart moves in the market. They offloaded both Albiol and Diawara. Albiol was getting old, and it was about time for him to leave the club and Diawara wasn’t getting the game time we’ve all wanted him to get since his arrival from Bologna back in 2016. The midfielder’s departure gave Napoli the chance to bring in Kostas Manolas. While he can be wreckless and was apart of a weak Roma backline, he is younger than Albiol and possesses a vast passing range and has the pace needed to cover the vast distance required in a high line. If they can get a deal for James Rodriguez over the line, it could be the signing to give Napoli their best chance to win Serie A for a very long time.

Conte Fixing Inter

Inter Milan have been extremely disappointing for the past couple of years. The appointment of Luciano Spaletti and some huge signings during his tenure showed ambition and a goal of competing with Juventus. However, even with some huge additions in Skriniar, De Vrij, Nainggolan, Martinez and Vrsaljko, their new quality was not seen on the pitch. While the defence remained fantastic throughout Spaletti’s spell at the club, they still had a lot of players who were not good enough. Sime Vrsaljko wasn’t registered in the squad after January due to consistent injuries, and Nainggolan faired even worse. Spending over £30 million on an ageing midfielder who famously had a very unhealthy lifestyle should never have happened. Nainggolan was fantastic during Spaletti’s reign at Roma but had a very average season under Di Francesco. His goal contributions were dropping, and he was consistently putting in less defensive work. He continued showing these negative sides to his game and has gone on to be one of the worst signings in the past decade.

Conte has a lot of work to do in Milan. The Nerazzurri finished 21 points behind Juventus and need to close that gap. Conte is arguably the best defensive manager in the world and can organise any side in Europe and ensure they are at least stable. One of his first signings for next season was Valentino Lazaro. The Austrian, able to play at either right-back or right midfield, puts in above-average defensive numbers while pushing forward to help Hertha Berlin in the final third. He would be a natural fit in Conte’s famous 3-4-3 formation. Inter’s starting back three for next season could be the best in the league. Skriniar, De Vrij and Godin offer a tough and experienced backline that can deal with a majority of attacks in Europe. All are comfortable on the ball, and while Godin is far past his best, he will help keep them organised on the pitch.

Embed from Getty Images

Their midfield offers versatility and quality, with players able to fill in multiple roles to help Inter dominate the centre. Conte has always preferred hard-working midfielders who can stay organised and put in a substantial amount of defensive work. His title-winning partnership of Ngolo Kante and Nemanja Matic displays this correctly. It isn’t a surprise that Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio had the best years of their career under Conte. Two players who were known for their energy, strength and defensive power in the midfield. Inter, even after the signing of Italian midfielder Nicolo Barella, have an imposing midfield roster. Marcelo Brozovic has been one of the best midfielders in Serie A for years now, with his fantastic passing ability and impressive defensive output showing his superiority in the middle of the park, even if he does rack up a lot of yellow cards. Vecino offers a solid yet unspectacular option, and Gagliardini was a promising signing at the time but has never been given the game time by his previous managers. There is enough talent here for Conte to work with and could get the best out of past players who failed to shine under Spaletti.

The midfield and attack were never a huge issue as a whole; instead, it was in attack in which Inter were continuously struggling, with issues on and off the field showing Inter as arguably the worst attacking side out of the top 7. It has to begin with Mauro Icardi. While undoubtedly one of the best finishers in Europe, his off the field issues have consistently halted his career and is why so many clubs are put off by him. His deliberate attempts to frustrate Maxi Lopez, threatening the Inter ultras and now faking injuries to avoid playing for the team. He would be problematic for clubs, and it’s why Inter are pushing him out of the club. The issue is no one will want to sign him, meaning Inter will have to persist with him until the end of the Argentine’s contract. Icardi’s trouble has forced Inter to look elsewhere for a forward, with Lukaku being Conte’s first option, which isn’t the first time the Italian coach has pursued Lukaku. In 2017, Chelsea were seen as the favourites to sign the Belgian marksman, but Manchester United swooped in the last minute to sign him. Conte seems desperate to work with Lukaku, and it’s easy to see why. He is a great finisher who can score all types of goals. He is a physically gifted striker, able to chase balls into the channel or play as a more old fashioned number 9. While Icardi is a deadly marksman, Lukaku will give them the better all-round striker and could offer more in build-up play. The issue with signing Lukaku is just how poor he was playing at times last season. He looked lethargic and was aiding the opposition in neutralising any threat posed by United. If Inter can get Lukaku at his best, he will score bags of goals for them.

Embed from Getty Images

Am I expecting Inter Milan to win the Scudetto in Conte’s first season? No, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I remember doubting Conte and what he could with Chelsea when he arrived in England. He was up against Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp and Mourinho. I thought they wouldn’t get near the title, yet Chelsea went on to be one of the best sides the league has ever seen. Conte is that good of a coach that Inter winning the league is never off the table.

PSG’s Change in Approach

It’s safe to say that the Neymar project has been a colossal failure. He arrived to help push PSG closer to winning the Champions League, while also increasing his chances of winning the Balon d’Or by exiting Messi’s shadow. Neymar has been fantastic whenever he has played. The issue is he has not played nearly enough minutes for the most expensive player of all time. He missed PSG’s round of 16 clashes once again, and his complaints regarding their lack of competitiveness in Europe’s premium competition is hypocritical, considering he failed to help PSG reach their goal of being taken seriously among Europe’s elite. His consistent injury problems and awful attitude has meant that the spotlight is on Kylian Mbappe, who has been the second-best player on the planet in the last 18 months. While he has struggled at moments, he has been sensational and is the best young player I have ever seen. Last season, he was the first player under 21 to score over 30 goals in the top 5 leagues since R9, which should show the gap Mbappe has made between himself and the competition.

Embed from Getty Images

With Leonardo now PSG’s sporting director, his first aim was to discard the superstar approach that the Champions had in the past. He seemed to be targetting Neymar, and it’s so easy to see why Leonardo is tired of the Brazilian. Mbappe has taken over as PSG’s best attacker so selling Neymar for as much Barcelona are willing to offer the best plan of action. I agree with Leonardo’s new look at PSG. While they do provide the same wages the other superclubs can, they can’t offer the same competitiveness as Real Madrid or the top Premier League clubs. They cannot please players like Neymar, and it makes his decision to leave Barcelona in the first place even more moronic.

Paris are taking the right steps in reinforcing their new strategy. The arrivals of Herrera, Sarabria and Diallo are sensible moves that improve the team. While Herrera is on the older side, he offers that bite and defensive work rate that will make him a great choice in the bigger games. He won’t start every game but will be a valuable player for Tuchel. Sarabria was another smart piece of business, arriving for £19 million. He was one of the best creators in La Liga and has worked well with managers who demand a lot from their players physically. Diallo is another astute signing from the Parisians. He was made seemingly available after Dortmund’s purchase of Matts Hummels, and it’s safe to say Paris have the better end of the deal. Diallo offers a comfortable ball player and physically strong defender who is still very young for only £28 million. He might not be as good as De Ligt, but he is a fantastic acquisition.

Embed from Getty Images

These new arrivals blend well with the departures of Buffon, Alves and Rabiot. Three players on high wages, who were replaceable. PSG now have more of a bite in the team, with players willing to do the hard yards that Tuchel will demand. Even though losing Rabiot is enormous, he has obvious attitude problems and is the last player you want in a dressing room. PSG have a complete side and arguably look better than ever to challenge for the Champions League.

5 Real Madrid Players Your Club Should Sign

With Los Blancos’ huge summer spending already amassing over £250 million before July, it begs the question of what are they going to do with some of their less valued players. This is what we are going to discuss, looking at the less utilised players in the Real Madrid squad and trying to find suitable destinations for them. The only player we will not be talking about is James Rodriguez because in my post discussing Napoli as potential title challengers, I spoke in depth on his likely move to Naples.

1. Mariano Diaz

The summer of 2018 for Real Madrid was arguably the worst in their history. Their sale of Cristiano Ronaldo made sense from their perspective, cashing in highly on an ageing striker. This backfired on an unimaginable basis thanks to their unwillingness to bring in an attacker on the same level as Ronaldo. Their defence of putting faith in the players in the squad is admirable, but they cannot replace nearly 40 goals, it’s that simple. Madrid ended the summer with Mariano Diaz, among others.

This was his second spell with the club after his first coming to an end due to zero starts in the league during the 2016/17 season. It gave Lyon a chance to pick him up for less than £10 million, a bargain for a such a young striker, even with the risk regarding his lack of game at the top level. It proved to be a massive success, with the Spaniard scoring 18 and assisting 4 in 30 starts for an excellent Lyon side. He is athletic and put up solid shot numbers, taking 3.4 per game in Ligue 1. I was so impressed by him last season, that I considered him to be one of the top 3 bargain transfers in the 17/18 season, alongside Pascal Gros and Andy Robertson. He is such an all-rounder, being able to score all types of goals. He’s a good distance shooter, with 6 of his 18 goals coming from outside the box. Most of those 6 goals he scored all were low drives from outside the box. It seems to be misleading for some keepers, with the opposition possibly not expecting a strike so low. He also scored 3 goals with his head, which is by far his best attribute as a striker. His leap his reminiscent of Ronaldo, with the sheer height he can reach being quite freakish. He seems to be able to jump twice his size, to reach balls that many taller strikers might not be able to reach. His small size makes him very difficult to mark compared to the more prominent players. He can find gaps that many taller strikers might not be able to.

Embed from Getty Images 

Mariano is a player who possesses many skills that make him a versatile forward, being able to do different roles on the pitch. It’s what makes his former club’s repurchase of the striker for £20 million more than they sold him for understandable, but was still a bad choice. It seemed they brought him back because he was the best player they could get for the price, which is arguably true (in a market where Napoli are demanding £130 million for a 27-year-old centre back). This transfer has not worked out in the slightest. It isn’t the fault of the player, but the managers who didn’t want to play him. Whenever he did play, he was imposing. Out of his 3 starts in La Liga, he scored 2 and put high shot numbers and performed as well as he could when given a chance. With Jovic’s arrival and Benzema seemingly staying, it leaves Mariano in the same position he was in back in 2017, a lack of game time with more favoured players in front of him in the eyes of the coach.

So where should the Spaniard go? There have been some clubs linked to Mariano, with Milan and Valencia the prime candidates to get his signature. I would not recommend any striker to join AC Milan at the moment. They have a couple of excellent strikers, with Piatek only arriving back in January. Valencia makes much more sense. I have discussed previously how their strikers overperformed massively in the 2017/18 season. It meant their drop-off the following season was slightly expected but highlighted the issue for firepower up front. Their top scorer last season was midfielder Dani Parejo, with Rodrigo, Mina and Gameiro all contributing to 21 goals between them. It isn’t necessarily a bad return, but with Gameiro and Rodrigo ageing, adding a younger forward wouldn’t be the worst idea.

My recommendation would be Lille. The French side finished in the Champions League spots for the first time since 2014 with Nicolas Pepe guiding them to second in Ligue 1. While Ikone and Bamba contributed in attack, Lille have seemed slightly overreliant on Pepe doing everything in attack. The issue in attack has been the strikers. Loic Remy is not good enough to be playing in the Champions League, and while Leao seems like an exciting prospect, it’s still an area that needs addressing. Mariano is so multifunctional, comfortably able to fill multiple roles in attack. He has the speed to get balls in behind, the jump to challenge top defenders and is able to hold the ball up comfortably. He would be a great addition to a defensively solid side but need a bit more inventiveness in the final third. I doubt Madrid would sell for less than £30 million at the moment, so a loan move with an option to buy would be a sensible idea. Mariano is proven in the league and seeing him perform as he did for Lyon would be fantastic to see.

2. Jesus Vallejo

It’s crazy how Vallejo just doesn’t seem to be involved in Real Madrid’s plans. He is another Spaniard to struggle thanks to a lack of opportunities. Vallejo came to prominence after a standout loan spell at Frankfurt back in the 2016/17 season. He showed all of his best qualities in Germany, starting with his passing. Vallejo is a fantastic distributor of the ball and has consistently demonstrated that throughout his career. Since that break out season for Frankfurt, his pass accuracy hasn’t dropped below 85%. While he is comfortable at recycling possession, he has a vast range. He was averaging 3 long balls a game in the Bundesliga, a respectable amount in a team full of players taking those riskier passes. While his defensive partner David Abraham was great that season, Vallejo, for the first time, showed how he was capable of playing at the top level. He was completing over 75% of his tackles and was second in the side for pass accuracy with 85%.

Embed from Getty Images

One area of his game that needs improvement is his ability in the air. This became apparent in arguably his most significant appearance for Real Madrid, a Champions League Quarter Final second leg match against Juventus. This was Vallejo’s big chance to fight for a place in the side, with Ramos missing the game due to suspension. He really struggled in the game, being consistently exposed through Juventus’s direct route of Mandzukic. He even showed these weaknesses at Frankfurt, winning less than half of his attempted aerial duels. It means joining a club that has more of an emphasis on defending aerial dominance is off the table.

So where should an intelligent, young and composed passer move to this summer? I would recommend Vallejo go back to the Bundesliga, a league full of teams wanting to play from the back, and join Bayer Leverkusen. Peter Bosz plays an insanely attacking style of football, in a system where Julien Brandt, predominantly a wide player, was pushed into midfield just so more attackers could be on the pitch. With Sven Bender now 30-years-old, looking for a replacement who can replicate his excellent distribution and intelligent reading of the game is essential. Vallejo would fit this profile well. He’s always produced high interception numbers and is an elite distributor of the ball. While I recommended Mariano for a loan move, it might be time for Vallejo to commit permanently to another club. He does seem to want to stay at Madrid, but with Eder arriving and Varane, Nacho and Ramos most likely keeping their place Zidane, it might be time for Vallejo to return to the league where he flourished.

3. Lucas Vazquez

The first two players are much younger than Vazquez but remain in similar positions. Vasquez has been a valued squad player at Madrid since Zidane’s arrival back in 2016, making over 25 appearances in La Liga since the 2015/16 season. He is by no means a starter for Real Madrid in their biggest games but was vital to what Zidane implemented during that double-winning campaign. He didn’t have that same speed, power and eye for goal has Bale, but offered a great cross and a substantial defensive contribution. Per 90 in La Liga, he was putting in 2.6 tackles and was often used late in games to help Madrid keep hold of their leads. He is very much the old school wingers the game began moving beyond years ago, but he offers a parallel to the stars of Real. You can’t successfully compete in every competition without having players like Vasquez in your side.

It what makes the possible sale of Vasquez somewhat baffling to me. On the one hand, I see Real’s thinking. The winger is now 28, and it could be their last chance to cash in on him when he isn’t as crucial as other players in the squad, but on the other side of that, I think what the harm in keeping him is. The amount you could earn for Vazquez cannot be that enticing as selling the other 4 players on this list. He is still a valuable member of the team, and I don’t see a reason to sell him.

Embed from Getty Images

However, if Madrid do decide to sell him, where should he go? He’s been linked to Arsenal, but his profile does not fit what they are looking for. The only side in La Liga that I could see him joining is Sevilla, but Lopatequi might want a winger who can offer more inventiveness. The only clubs I could see being a suitable destination would be the Milan clubs. Inter Milan still want to play a more traditional style in the attack, with Icardi and Lukaku fitting that poacher mould. Vazquez can become a reliable creator when starting often and offers that defensive work rate that Conte will want. The Italian is a coach who can get the most out of ageing players, as seen with how much output he was able to pull out of the likes of Barzagli, Cahill, Graziano Pelle and Pedro. It could be the move which would give Vazquez more game time while also allowing him to receive a considerable payday before he enters his twilight years as a player.

4. Sergio Reguilon

Onto our final Castilla graduate, Sergio Reguilon was one of the very few players at Real Madrid to perform well in arguably their worst season in the past decade. Marcelo had arguably his worst season in a Madrid shirt. The Brazilian was being consistently caught out and especially poor in their 3-0 defeat to Sevilla earlier in the season. It gave a chance for another player to take his position and with Theo Hernandez on loan, Reguilon was the only option. Madrid weren’t precisely stand out during their time under Solari, but Requilon was a bright spark. Even in their humiliating defeat to Ajax at the Bernabeu, getting the only assist for Los Blancos. He put up some solid defensive numbers, putting 3.2 tackles and interceptions per game. He offered something different to Marcelo, who has been the only wide player on the left side since his time playing with Ronaldo. The Brazilian had to do so much, and while many have criticised him defensively for years, his offensive output could never be ignored. As he’s aged, Marcelo has gotten worse in his awareness and contribution defensively, so having a more defensively capable player on that left side did have a positive effect. Reguilon also presented himself well in attack. He was creating 1.2 chances per game and is a very adequate passer, fitting that Spanish mould of confidence on the ball in defence.  He has a lot to offer a club who are in search of full backs.

Embed from Getty Images

My first choice for which team he should join is Liverpool. This might be a rather daft suggestion considering they have the best full back in the league, but it would fix one of their most significant issues in defence, being defensive cover. With Moreno gone and Milner reaching the end of his career, the Reds need to start recruiting players who will able to challenge the first team players in the team and keep them competitive, but primarily to give them depth in case of injuries. Liverpool were fantastic last season but were also very lucky that none of their stars suffered major injuries. Liverpool cannot hope for luck again and will need to assure they are prepared for those moments. Reguilon is well rounded and is solid defensively and would deputise well for Robertson. He wouldn’t cost as much as other full backs, simply due to his lack of game time and will learn under one of the best coaches in the game.

5. Dani Ceballos

Last but certainly not least, we have Dani Ceballos. After his arrival back in 2017, I was hoping for Ceballos to have an effect on a side featuring an ageing midfield but was barely given a chance. This was down to Real Madrid struggling massively in the league and couldn’t rest their first team players to the same extent as they could before Ceballos’s arrival. It was sad to see him struggle as much as he has in the capital, and while his game time has improved, he could definitely offer more than he currently is. Ceballos gained attention from being a very versatile and talented midfielder. He was a fantastic dribbler at Real Betis and put in substantial defensive numbers while being very good physically. This earned him a move to Madrid where it seemed he would be given similar game time to Kovacic and Rodriguez were in the previous season, but this didn’t materialise. Ceballos is an extremely talented player and could play for a majority of top sides. He, like Kovacic, is one of the players that Madrid are willing to let go in an attempt to thin out of the squad of the less used talent, and also in a bid to sign one of Eriksen or Pogba. It would be ridiculous to let him go, but Ceballos is too good to be playing a bit part role.

Embed from Getty Images

There are an endless amount of clubs that should get Ceballos’s signature, with Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Napoli (if Allan leaves), Lyon and Manchester City all needing a player in the Spaniard’s profile. He should join whichever club guarantees him the most minutes. It would be fun to watch him in the Premier League, no matter who he joins.

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Kerem Demirbay and Replacing Julian Brandt

Bayer Leverkusen have been a host of fantastic young talent, with the club being essential in the development of Leon Bailey, Kai Havertz, Karim Bellerabi, Jonathan Tah and Benjamin Hendrichs. However with the side continuing to play an attractive style of football, they seem unable to find a coach who is able to succeed while using the host of attacking talent. Roger Schmidt, Sami Hyypia and now Peter Bosz failing to make this side the Champions League club it could be. It’s given the chance for big clubs to take some of their talents, including German talent Julian Brandt. He’s been attracting a lot of attention with Brandt looking to move on from Leverkusen, with Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur both looking to get his signiture. With Brandt’s current club forseeing this sale, they have already acted swiftly in finding his replacement, Hoffenheim playmaker Kerem Demirbay. Let’s look to see if he will be able to replace what Brandt offers.

Demirbay was signed from Fortuna Dusseldorf in the summer of 2016, and has been involved in the transformation of Hoffenheim under Julian Nagelsmann. He had a fantastic debut season under young tactician, scoring 6 and assisting 8 for a side who successfully finished in the top 4 after only narrowly surviving relegation. While his second season was halted by injuries, he has returned to his best this season. The midfielder has contributed to 13 goals in 26 appearances. An impressive tally that shows how he is continuing to grow as a player, and has shown the best numbers in his career. His xA per 90 is at 0.40, the highest during his time in Hoffenheim, showing how influencial he has been to Nagelsmann’s side. While he is one of the best creators in the league, it’s his dribbling that is arguably his biggest strength. His technical ability and skill make him great when facing opposition players. He attempts 2.9 dribbles per game, with a very impressive 75% success rate. These are the numbers that Moussa Dembele was showing during his best years at Tottenham, when he transformed what a midfielder can do. He is important in moving the ball for a side who have had arguably the best attack in the league. He is the representation of what Nagelsamnn was trying to do on the pitch. Demirbay shows the aggression, speed and pressure that his manager is aiming for. One other interesting part of his game is his shooting. Demirbay epitimises a distance shooter. Out of his 2.3 shots per game, 1.8 are taken from outside the box. It shows when Hoffenheim attack. With their focus being attacking down the wide areas, it can leave space for Demirbay outside of the box, and gift an opportunity for a slightly more riskier attempt at goal. Usually I would criticise a player for this, but he’s taking these shots in better positions than when you see from someone like James Maddison or Andros Townsend. Demirbay shows himself to be a well rounded attacker, who has an element of unpredictability to him that have made him such a threat.

Now knowing what kind of player the Hoffenheim playmaker is, how does he compare to Brandt? If Brandt did depart his club, it would leave Demirbay to fill the same position. Leverkusen set out their team in a 4-3-3, which Brandt occupying the left side of the midfield three. He will constantly find positions inbetween the opposition midfield and defence, to help transition the ball to the attackers. This is similar to what Demirbay does for his side, with his high dribbling numbers help move his side into the attacking third. The former Dusseldorf midfielder also is left footed, enabling him to fit in even more comfortably on that left side. With Leverkusen also trying to attack through the wide areas, it gives Brandt the chance to find space just outside of the box. This is shown with his excellent finish against Hertha Berlin. Brandt found space outside of box, and thanks to a brilliant ball from Aranguiz, he was able to shoot with calmness into the top corner. Both players are intelligent and can find space in the final third, but also offer a work rate to help recover the ball. They are both difficult to dispossess, and are vital in how their sides attack.

Demirbay would offer a very similar skillset to Brandt, but adds an element of aggression to his game. While Brandt offers a calmer figure on the ball, Demirbay is more erratic. While he does lose possession more than his German counterpart, it’s usually in the attempt to help his side score. He’s a player who is ready to take risks. While Brandt has contributed to more goals, Hoffenheim have not been nearly as prolific as Leverkusen. They have arguably been one of the unluckiest side in the division, with the side being denied constantly by the woodwork and good chances being missed that are expected to be scored. If looking at xPTS, they would be in 3rd, ahead of Leverkusen, Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund. If better finishers were placed in front of Demirbay, there is a good chance he would have ended the season with a better return.

I do think that Demirbay is an improvement over Brandt. He’s consistently shown to be one of the best playmakers in the league. Taking a team’s best player is showing a real state of intent from Leverkusen. They aren’t going to sell one of their best players and allow themselves to fall behind the competition. I like Brandt a lot and they might miss his versatility, but Demirbay isn’t a prospect, he is ready made and will keep Leverkusen competitive in a league that will see other sides improve, like RB Leipzig and Dortmund. It is already one of the best signings of the summer.

Why Mourinho Was Sacked. Top 5 League Talking Points

While this week wasn’t as interesting as the last, there are still plenty to talk about so let’s start with Germany

Bundesliga

Frankfurt Outclass Leverkusen

While Bayern and Leipzig all pick up big wins, let’s look at Frankfurt, who continued their great start to the season with a 2-1 victory over Bayern Leverkusen. While Frankfurt have been very good this season, Leverkusen are still a side that can cause any side trouble, with Werder Bremen conceding 6 against them. They also haven’t lost since the 11th of November, so this was a tough task for both sides.

Let’s start with the winners, who won this game, even without their young shot machine Luka Jovic, who started the game on the bench. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. They still had both Ante Rebic and Sebastian Haller, who have been very good this season. Rebic has continued on from his World Cup exploits, with the Croatian scoring 5 and assisting 2. His shot numbers are healthy considering he’s played all over the field this season, and he’s creating 1.8 chances a game, showing how much of a well rounded player he is. While he has been good, Haller has been absolutely brilliant. He’s scored 9 goals and is at the top of the assists chart in the Bundesliga, with 8. If you count the Europa League, he’s in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s incredible in the air and while he has been rather fortunate to have this many goal contributions, he has still been arguably the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Against Bayer Leverkusen, he took 4 shots, created 3 chances and won a ridiculous 12 aerial duels. Dragovic and Tah just couldn’t deal with him, with the pair only winning 3 aerial duels. I wouldn’t be surprised if clubs aren’t looking at him, for bids in the summer. He’s only 24, meaning there is still a ceiling to hit. He was only signed for £6.3m from Utrecht. What a brilliant bit of business from a club that seems to keep impressing me.

While Haller was as good as ever, the man of the match was arguably Filip Kostic. The Serbian was great on the day, scoring and assisting to help his side get the 3 points. He also created 2 chances, made 4 tackles and interceptions and 6 clearances. Frankfurt play in a way where their full backs are pushed so far forward, that they are almost like inside forwards. The first goal showed this, with Kostic assisting Da Costa with a beautiful low cross. It gives their side a constant attacking threat in all areas, and it means players like Rebic and Haller can stay more central without worrying about lacking isolation. But their marauding full backs come at a cost. It leaves them so vunarable at the back. Leverkusen were probably unlucky to not get more out of this game. They started it off so well, with Brandt having two great chances, and Bellerabi having a goal disallowed. They exploited the wide areas that are always left so free at times, and if not for better finishing, would have let Frankfurt pay for it. But they didn’t, and Frankfurt continue on this season, looking to get Europa League football.

La Liga

Betis back on track

While November did include a brilliant victory over Barcelona, it wasn’t a great month for Betis. It was their only win last month, with a draw against Celta and a defeat to a poor Villarreal, it left them in a position where they couldn’t seem to put two wins together. Now in December, they haven’t lost a single game yet, with their only points dropped being in the Europa League. Wins and clean sheets against Sociedad and Vallecano, means they are finally showing how good they really are. This side have a solid defense, and a great midfield. This actually transitions very smoothly to talk about Giovanni Lo Celso. The Argentine is one of my favourite players to watch this season, and has been the best midfielder in the league. While he’s only started 9 games, it is because the horrible Europa League campaign they are also playing in. He’s clearly being saved for those games, and it’s understandable why. Lo Celso is a midfielder who can play anywhere in the midfield. His tackle numbers and great dribble numbers make him a very flexible player, similar to Moussa Dembele or Allan. The difference here is goals. Lo Celso is Betis’s top scorer, and while it’s only with 4, it does show how good he at getting in the box. He also ranks third in the squad for shots per game, and xG says he is achieving what he should be, which shows there isn’t much luck or a purple patch here. This is Lo Celso playing his game, which is just frightening. He’s only 22, meaning there are still plenty of years left.

He was the man of the match in this game, taking 4 shots and completing 4 dribbles. Lo Celso is not a creator. Canales takes that role (and is another who has performed very well), while Lo Celso plays as the player who arrives late in the box, but is also an expert at winning the ball back. It does seriously trouble me why Paris let him go out on loan, and are now forced to play Marquinhos to play as a holding midfielder, a position where Lo Celso could definitely fill in. It would would amaze me if Paris actually let him go. He’s a player with massive potential would offer something different in a midfield which will see Rabiot leave by the summer. He is such a good player and is the reason why Betis are such a threat.

Ligue 1

Monaco Misery Continues

It is fair to say Monaco have been the worst side in Europe. They have went from Ligue 1 runners up, to a side hiring a manager with zero experience, and are now suffering for it. They have conceded the 4th most goals in the league, and scored the 3rd least amount of goals in Europe. They have turned from league winners, to a shambles. This game against Lyon just shows their weaknesses in both areas. They are currently suffering with 16 players out in the sidelines. I can definitely sympathise with Henry in that department. He has been forced to play Raggi as a right back, a player who should really not be at the club at this point. Monaco were truly awful in this game. It may become boring just looking at numbers, but they sum up the situation perfectly. The five highest shot takers in this game were all Lyon players, and the most dribbles were all Lyon players. Falcao actually won 3 tackles, more than all of his teammates. A striker should never be doing that. They had a pass accuracy of 77%. That is just awful. You expect a side, with ball players like Monaco to have at least 80%. You expect lower than that from direct managers like Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. While Lyon managed 21 shots, Monaco managed a poultry 4, meaning Aouar and Depay had more shots than their opposition, with 5 each. This all wasn’t helped from Golovin getting sent off. The Russian decided to throw a terrible challenge in, earning a straight and justifiably got his marching orders. They offered nothing in this game, which can’t be highlighted more than Benaglio getting the second highest amount of touches with 45. It was just a nothing performance from a side that has been no where near average this season.

Let’s quickly look at Lyon. They are now looking like the second best team in Ligue 1, which they are. Their best player on the day was Nabil Fekir. It might be an exaggeration, but he is arguably one of the top 20 players on the planet. Not many attackers can boast his creativity, shot numbers, set piece ability, dribbling and versatility. There’s so much to his game that is makes him such a desirable player to every top club. He could get into any team in the world. This game showed his quality. He scored, created 6 chances and completed the most passes out of any forward for Lyon. He was at his unbeatable best in this game, tearing through Monaco as if they were a light piece of paper. It was a great performance from a player who is just too good for this league. Another who stood out is Kenny Tete. He completed the most tackles and created 4 chances, with only Fekir creating more. His cross for the second goal was fantastic, and showed this determination and fight that he clearly has.

With Paris already seemed to have wrapped up the league, Lyon could seriously shock some sides the champions league. Barcelona are arguably the favourites for the competition, but injuries to their defenders and Luis Suarez’s ability to have an incredible off day, means they are definitely beatable. Valverde’s pragmatism is his biggest weakness, and best quality. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it just doesn’t work. Losing to Roma, failing to win the league because of his complete team change against Levante, and their terrible performance against Betis only last month. It leaves questions on whether they can actually go the distance. They go against this Lyon side. A side full of attacking quality, and a side that showed a lot of versatility in the past, able to play a 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3. It could be a real challenge, as Manchester City found out.

Premier League

Manchester United outclassed

While this is quite late, let’s look at Mourinho’s last game in charge of Manchester United, arguably his side’s worst showing. I compare every single bad performance from United this season to that game against Brighton, where I saw nothing in attacking sense and complete incompetence in defense. Even the games against, Southampton, Valencia, Juventus, Manchester City, Spurs and Derby, they just weren’t as bad as Brighton, but the against their closest rivals is definitely the worst. Allowing Liverpool to have 36 shots, is a disgrace. United just sat back and allowed Liverpool to attack relentlessly. While Liverpool were quite wasteful, with Fabinho, Lovren and Mane all wasting chances, they still created so many chances and were allowed so because of just how bad United were. While United did get a goal back thanks to an Allison mistake, it was not deserved. Liverpool won the game thanks to goals from Xherdan Shaqiri. I think the line up was the start of things to come for United. No Martial, Pogba or Mata meant a huge lack of creativity and spark in the side. It made United so much more predictable and passive in an attacking sense. They lacked Mata’s ability to drift and find space, Martial’s speed and chance creation and Pogba’s pure arrogance. While I like Herrera, he isn’t going to offer anything in a creative sense, and Matic is just not very good. I like Lingard, but he works better when he’s playing off other attackers. Rashford, while he tried his hardest, did struggle in this game. United are an absolute mess, and it truly doesn’t make sense. This side has some of the best attackers in the league. Lukaku was scoring over 20 goals only 2-3 years ago, Martial was carrying United’s attack, Rashford was ruthless in his first full season, Sanchez was linked to every single top during his final year at Arsenal, Mata is arguably as good as David Silva. How this team isn’t scoring more than Arsenal and Chelsea is mind blowing. Mourinho started his time at United so well. Two trophies, an arrogance and swagger with the signings of Zlatan and Pogba, and huge progress to be made. However it’s just been downhill from there. This is written right after Mourinho was sacked, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been appointed. The Norwegian will hopefully bring back the confidence in this side, and make times at Old Trafford much more enjoyable.

While I still do not think Liverpool are near City in performance and quality, credit needs to be given. They were very good against United. It does help that their opponent was so bad, but they themselves were good. Fabinho was their best player on the day for me. While many have given Shaqiri the man of the match for his effect on the game, I think Fabinho did show exactly why Liverpool have been such a solid side this season. While he started slow, he seems to have finally found his place and purpose in this side. Considering he was playing in defensive midfield, he played more as a number ten. He had 5 shots, created 2 chances and 3 dribbles. He got the assist for the first goal, with an excellent ball that cut the United defense open like cheese. He dominated this game and could be a real important player in a season where Liverpool finally seem ready for a trophy.

Serie A

Roma entertain Genoa

With all the big clubs getting typical wins, let’s look at the most entertaining of those wins, being Roma’s 3-2 victory over Genoa. Roma have been poor this season. I still have massive question marks over Di Francesco, and Monchi just hasn’t had the impact all expected him to have. I do think it is a massive shame that Malcom made the wrong decision in joining Barcelona. If he did sign as he was expected to, they would definitely be more of a threat in front of goal. Roma have scored a very good 29 goals, but an injury to Dzeko has left them with a difficult situation. Schick hasn’t impressed in the slightest since his arrival from Sampdoria last season. Instead, they started Zaniolo. The Italian didn’t manage a shot on target in the game, but having the opportunity will definitely help him grow as a player. For the first time this season, I can say Roma’s midfield were very good. Di Francesco chose to start Bryan Cristante and Steven N’Zonzi in this game. Cristante is a player who isn’t full of talent, but he did show what he’s got against Genoa, scoring and creating 3 chances. His midfield partner was even better. N’Zonzi has not been great since his arrival in the capital. He’s started show his age, and struggling with the pace of some sides in Italy. But in this game he was back to his best. He completed 6 tackles and interceptions, and won 8 aerial duels. He is finally showing why Monchi chose to take another risk on him, at an age where he should start to be fading. He hasn’t been at his best this season, but he is still a presence in midfield and hopefully he can find a certain place in this side. With Pellegrini in the sidelines, it was important that the pair stepped up, and they did.

Genoa can truly call themselves unlucky. They had a lead in this game, with the shot monster Piatek and Hiljemark both scoring, but Roma clawed back and got the result. xG had this game at 1.88 to Roma and 2.18 to Genoa. This is mainly due to how good Piatek is. The Polish marksman has been on fire this season, and showed it here. He had 5 shots, with every single shot on target. It’s something you don’t usually see from a forward, being able to hit every shot on target in a game against the second best defense last season. There is no doubt that Piatek is over performing, but he is playing for a side that isn’t exactly a top 6 contender. They don’t create a crazy amount of chances, so it’s very impressive. It’ll be hard for Genoa to keep hold of him, if any big clubs would go for him.