Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

This is actually the first time I’ve closely paid attention to the Bundesliga from the start to the end. While I plan to pay more attention to teams outside of the title race in the future, let’s focus on that for now. From comparing today’s table to the ones of previous seasons, this was easily the most thrilling title race in years. Just going back to the start of February, only three points were separating first and fourth. The season did eventually end with Bayern Munich winning comfortably. But it gives me hope that this league can remain competitive in the future, and if it can remain entertaining with multiple teams fighting for the Meisterschale, it could attract even more fans to German football. But instead of looking at the future, let’s look back on the season that’s just finished, and grade each team that finished in the top four.

Bayern Munich — A

I mean the winners can’t get anything less than the highest mark right? Bayern did have a shaky start under Nico Kovac, with the champions struggling to find their feet for the first few months of the season. Kovac was never going to last in charge. The Croatian never really fit the profile for a Bayern Munich manager, with his style of play leaning more on the defensive side. This was never going to work with a group of players still accustomed to the style of Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. 

Kovac isn’t the only culprit to Bayern’s poor start. The club spent the whole summer looking for replacements for Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben; two players who defined Bayern Munich in the 2010s. After looking at Timo Werner, Ousmane Dembele and Leroy Sane, they ended up settling with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic on loan for the season. Both were talented players, and alongside Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and youngster Alphonso Davies still left Bayern with a formidable selection of wide talent. The problem is the board knew this moment was coming. Robben and Ribery had been struggling with injuries for years and needed long term successors ready for the day they left. I like both Coman and Gnabry, but with Coman’s injuries and Gnabry unlikely to reach that world-class level, it instantly left Bayern lighter on the attacking end. 

Bayern’s Hinrunde is defined by Kovac’s sacking and the appointment of former national team assistant coach; Hansi Flick. As soon as Flick was appointed, the Bayern team looked transformed. Flick’s first game saw his team deliver their usual humiliation to arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, with a comfortable 4–0 win at home. From here on, Bayern was playing their best football since Heynckes and only went on to lose two games. Those defeats were definitely anomalies. Bayer Leverkusen managed to beat the champions through some fantastic counter-attacking and resolute defending. While Borussia Monchengladbach did so through some massive luck. Both losses came in November, and from then on, Bayern only dropped points on one occasion. Super Bayern returned with a bang and managed to make the most exciting Bundesliga title race end with their usual comfortable lead at the top. 

Embed from Getty Images

When excluding Lewandowski (we’ll get to him in the future), no other player looked better for Bayern than Thomas Muller. The World Cup winner fell out of favour with Kovac last season, struggling for consistent minutes. This wasn’t only due to their toxic relationship, but down to the form of Coutinho, who looked absolutely fantastic under Kovac. However, when Flick was appointed and seemed to get Bayern playing as they did under Heynckes, it meant Muller had to start. Coutinho definitely has that x-factor that Muller has never possessed in his career. However, Muller is still one of the best for chance creation and finding space, as well as maintaining the superior defensive work-rate. This is the happiest Muller has looked playing for his club in years, and his relationship with Lewandowski is still telepathic. In the 23 games Muller played under Flick, the German forward contributed to 24 goals. Muller has proved once again why he is indispensable to Bayern Munich. 

If we were just looking at Bayern under Flick, they’d get an A++, but we can’t ignore those first 10 games under Kovac. Bayern could indeed continue their stranglehold over the rest of the league if they adequately rebuild this team. Lewandowski, Muller, Neuer, Boateng and Martinez are all over 30, and there’s a chance Thiago could leave in the summer. They still need to sign additional wide players and hope Hernandez and Sule come back from their injuries without a drop-off. Bayern has to ensure they have a plan in place to continue their dominance in the league; otherwise, their competition could overtake them. 

RB Leipzig — B

Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have had a better first season for his new club. RB Leipzig has taken a step forward in terms of their play on the pitch. Before Nagelsmann’s arrival, the East German club was known as a counter-pressing side, able to hurt teams quickly with their youthful and athletic attackers. While Leipzig still excels in this area, they’ve changed their style to be a lot more effective in possession. They averaged 54.1% possession, a 4.6% increase to 18/19’s average. Their shots per game have slightly increased, as well as their pass accuracy. This change in approach did make Leipzig easily the second best-attacking team in the league. They still remained as direct and vertical as seen by previous Leipzig teams but are now taking advantage of the great ball players the team possesses. Leipzig has one of the most promising groups of defenders in Europe, with players who’ve been with the team since their promotion and some up and coming talent that has the potential to become the best in their position. Nagelsmann has enabled his centre-backs to have more of an involvement in possession. Take Dayot Upamecano has a prime example. In 18/19, the young Frenchman was averaging 41.8 passes per 90. Last season that went up to 67.4. When you discount Bayern Munich players, no one has made more passes into the final third than Upamecano. Nagelsmann is taking advantage of the talent at his disposal. We already knew all of Leipzig’s defenders were comfortable on the ball, but now we know they can aid in transition, as well as in defence. 

Until Flick arrived and changed Bayern for the better, it was becoming difficult to argue against Leipzig being the best-attacking team in the league. Nagelsmann has always enhanced every attacker he’s worked with. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann deployed such an attacking system to help the rather average forwards he had to work with at times. In 18/19, his Hoffenheim team were second in the league for shots per game with 18 but were quite unlucky when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net. The 32-year-old is now working with some of the best-attacking talents in Europe, which included Timo Werner. Werner’s final season in Germany turned out to be his best. His coolness in front of goal and creativity made him one of the deadliest forwards in the world. Christopher Nkunku had a real breakout season, assisting the most goals in the team and excels at finding space between the lines. Even Patrick Schick, a player who’s struggled for form since leaving Sampdoria, had his most productive season to date and became Werner’s preferred strike partner. 

Embed from Getty Images

Nagelsmann having the number of talented defenders to choose from alongside one of the best holding midfielders in the league in Konrad Laimer, allowed him to play an extra attacker in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer has been outstanding in midfield. His physicality, drive on the ball and creativity gave the team an extra boost when playing against those deep blocks, while also having the work-rate to help his team when needed. Sabitzer has gone back to being a real goal threat too, scoring 9 and assisting 7. He might not make the headlines like some of his teammates, but his importance cannot be underestimated.

I’ve talked highly of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, so why are they only getting a B? I guess it goes down to my own expectations. I wasn’t expecting them to win the Bundesliga, but I was at least hoping for Leipzig to stay on Bayern’s tail for a lot longer than they did. The problem seems to be how vulnerable they can leave themselves at times. There have been multiple occasions where Leipzig deservedly drop points. A four-game stretch which included defeats to Freiburg and Schalke, where Leipzig was beaten in the quality of chances created by two teams who don’t possess the same elite attackers. The way Leipzig overload the opposition with players pushing forward can leave them vulnerable to teams who can counter them through fast, vertical balls ahead. Their young crop of defenders doesn’t yet possess the in-game intelligence as some older defenders, which will come as they develop.

Next season will be huge for Leipzig. It’ll be their first season in the Bundesliga without Werner leading the line, and it puts a lot more pressure on the other players to deliver the goals. I fully expect Leipzig to spend that money as wisely as ever, but an apparent drop-off is expected when you lose a player of Werner’s ability. Nagelsmann is used to losing his best players, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Leipzig does remain as competitive as they were last season. 

Borussia Dortmund — D

Borussia Dortmund’s window for winning a title is becoming even smaller. BVB have spent a lot of money on players who will help right now as well as the future. Mats Hummels returned to the club, adding some needed experience to a backline which collapsed when facing an immense amount of pressure. Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt arrived for decent fees to give Reus and Sancho even more support in the final third. There were of course questions in how you fit all of these players together, but the number of options Dortmund had at their disposal instantly made them title challengers again. Sancho was only going to get better, Hakimi was still there for another year, and Reus just came off his most productive season in years. Bayern was at their weakest, and no other team possessed the same level of talent as Dortmund. 

It made my expectations of Dortmund a lot higher. They’re getting desperate, and it’s showing. Anything below a title challenge or a cup final should automatically mean the season is a failure. Still, their performances in the second half of the season do offer some encouragement, especially with how inconsistent they were during the hinrunde. Dortmund stuck with their 4–2–3–1, but looked so slow and were lacking that speed which made them surprise challengers in 18/19. Brandt wasn’t starting enough, and the number nine position still seemed so uncertain, with Paco Alcacer looking better off the bench. Dortmund wasn’t winning against teams they usually steamroll. Paderborn, Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Union Berlin all managed to stop Dortmund picking up three points. 

Embed from Getty Images

January was the big turning point for Dortmund, and not all of it is down to Erling Halaand’s arrival. Lucien Favre opted to change from the shaky 4–2–3–1 to 3–4–3. The system benefitted a lot of players in the team. The full-backs, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi turned into deadly attacking options. Hakimi was back playing on the right, and became a driving force with his incredible speed and dribbling to breeze past opposition defenders. Guerreiro became an excellent goal threat, ending the season with an impressive 8 goals and 2 assists. The centre-backs also benefitted from this change in formation. Dortmund usually uses their centre-backs to play line-breaking passes through midfield. Issues began arising when these passes were being intercepted, leaving Dortmund very vulnerable. Having someone of Piszczek’s experience in the backline really helped, especially when Akanji was as bad as he was at times. The attack, of course, benefitted from with an extra man in defence. It allowed Sancho and Hazard to play more like second strikers than typical wingers, and Brandt was given the freedom to move all over the pitch to find pockets of space to exploit. 

Halaand was a massive difference-maker in the number nine position. Not only due to his age, but how good he is right now. Halaand, similar to Zion Williamson in the NBA, looks as if he was born in a laboratory. The former Salzburg forward is fast, strong, incredible in the air and can score all types of goals. It makes him the perfect number nine right now, with the only major drawback being his lack of defensive work rate and chance creation. But the system seems to be built for their new superstar. Dortmund isn’t a team that defends through pressing from the front (they’re 9th in the league for passes allowed per defensive action with 11.70). BVB primarily win the ball back through counter-pressing in midfield and quickly playing it to their talented attackers. Halaand is also surrounded by some of the best creators in Europe. Sancho, Hazard and Hakimi all reached double figures for assists, allowing Halaand to play more as a poacher. 

If you just look at their results from the new year onwards, Dortmund would be second, but the season still resulted in zero silverware and more question marks on where Dortmund are actually going. Dortmund has spent a lot of money on players to help the team win now. Axel Witzel, Matts Hummels, Thomas Delaney, Thorgan Hazard and Emre Can alongside some of the veterans already in the side, meaning they have to make the most of the talent they currently have. I’m more optimistic about Leipzig’s future than I am Dortmund’s. Leipzig has a young and innovative manager with a group of young players who still have room for improvement. Dortmund’s team right now doesn’t look like it’ll be together for much longer. Hakimi’s loan has expired, Sancho is likely to move on, and I have no idea if Hummels can remain a starter for another season, with his physical abilities declining. Massive question marks loom over the manager. Lucien Favre has done a lot better than I ever expected of him, but next season could be his last. This is their last chance to win the title again before the team completely collapsed either through sales or age. 

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

When Marco Rose was announced as Gladbach’s new coach after the departure of Dieter Hecking, it was hard for me to contain my excitement. Gladbach had come off another season where they failed to show consistency from beginning to end, looking certain for top four in December but dropping down the table as the season progressed. Rose’s arrival felt like a real sign of intent, even when last summer included the sales of Thorgan Hazard and Michael Cuisance. The former being the team’s best scorer and creator while the latter a potential star in the making, leaving the club to join arch-rivals Bayern Munich. 

Gladbach spent the money from these sales wisely, while taking some risks in young attacking players. Ramy Bensebaini and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose at Salzburg) added some much-needed creativity and drive from full-back. Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo arrived to effectively replace Thorgan Hazard’s output. Both were gambles in different ways. Thuram had only played for one of the worst sides in Ligue 1, so transitioning to a bigger and better team could have been a challenge. Embolo had already played in the Bundesliga since 2016 for Schalke. However, the Swiss attacker has struggled for form and injuries. A change of scenery could have helped Embolo, but he’s a player you don’t want to rely on throughout the season. Both have had great seasons. Thuram contributed to 18 goals in his debut season in Germany while Embolo contributed to 13 and played over 1500 minutes, the first time he’s done that in his career. 

Embed from Getty Images

Last season was the most consistent Gladbach have looked for a long time, and a lot of that goes down to how Marco Rose has improved the players and the style. What made Rose at Gladbach so enticing was the number of talented players he was working with. You have some of the younger talents in Denis Zakaria, Florian Neuhaus, Laszlo Benes and the previously mentioned Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo. All have either been highly touted for years or have shown glimpses of brilliance. The squad also contains some older talents. Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl, Yann Sommer and Christoph Kramer were there to help give the side some needed experience and leadership. Rose managed to get incredible output out of many of these players. Denis Zakaria finally started to look like the elite talent we all knew he could be. Patrick Herrmann contributed to 12 goals, the most he’s provided since the 14/15 season. What was most impressive was the way the team still managed to remain consistent even when missing key players. For the last few games of the season, Zakaria, Thuram and Plea were all unavailable, meaning Rose had to deploy a front line including Jonas Hoffman, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann. A lineup which would’ve been scrutinised had it been under any other manager. 

Rose’s Gladbach is actually pretty similar to Nagelsmann’s teams in a sense. Both focus on transitioning the ball as quickly as possible. The Foals do it through the full-backs, especially Lainer. The Austrian defender plays more akin to a winger than a defender, topping the team for shot assists, passes into the penalty area, successful crosses and progressive passes. Lainer has been a creative hub for the team, and while I have my issues with him regarding speed and defensive effort, it’s hard to deny he has been a success. Thuram is the other significant addition who gave Gladbach another dimension. The team went from averaging 13.2 aerial duels per game in 18/19 to 16.7 last season. Thuram is a very unique winger. He has the acceleration to flourish against full-backs while having the size and strength to cause matchup problems. The team loved sending those long diagonal balls straight to Thuram. The Frenchman is a very efficient attacker and formed a deadly partnership with Alassane Plea. Gladbach didn’t score the same crazy amount of goals as Leipzig, Bayern and Dortmund. Still, considering the difference in talent, credit has to be given the coach and players for being able to keep up with such fierce competition. 

The only area where I worry for Rose’s team is defence. Monchengladbach faced 13.7 shots per game, putting them at about league average. They had the 3rd best defensive record in the league, conceding 40 and only bettered by Leipzig and Bayern. However, when you look at the post-shot xG, Gladbach starts to come off as very fortunate. They should have conceded around 47 goals based on the chances they were giving away, which is extremely rare. This miraculous record can all be credited to Yann Sommer being the best keeper in Europe. When ranking goalkeeper seasons in the last decade, David De Gea (17/18), Lucasz Fabianski (18/19) and Alisson Becker (17/18) all spring to mind as some of the best goalkeeper seasons in recent history. Yann Sommer is another to add to that list. If it weren’t for some of his heroic performances, I doubt Gladbach would be playing in Europe’s elite competition next season. 

Gladbach is the team I’m the most optimistic for next season. The team was gradually improving throughout the season, so I expect Rose and his players to match the big three throughout the rest of next season. The younger players are only going to improve, and the more experienced guys are still at an age where they aren’t on the decline. There’s the possibility of Zakaria or Thuram being moved on for massive profits, which wouldn’t be the worst idea if a suitable replacement is already brought in. 

Why Bundesliga Clubs Have Looked So Good in the Champions League

The Champions League has returned with a bang, but not for the same reasons as usual. We regularly see Spain’s top two teams and the English teams stroll through the first round of the knockout stage, but this year is different. Barcelona looked poor against Napoli; Juventus failed to have a shot on target against Lyon, and data lovers’ favourite team, Atalanta, absolutely walked over Valencia. The holders Liverpool managed to lose their first leg against Atletico Madrid; while Pep Guardiola managed to completely out-smart Zidane to take his Manchester City side into the second leg with a 2-1 advantage.

Manchester City’s victory was unbelievable, considering the XI that was selected. But for now, we’ll stick to the most interesting talking point which came out of the first group of games, being the impressive performances by the German teams. RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all won their matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, with a combination of the right tactics and player quality.

We’ll start with Bayern Munich, who disposed of Chelsea in such a comfortable fashion. When comparing the line-ups and the players available, it’s hard to even call this a challenge for the Bundesliga champions. Chelsea was missing their best midfielder in Kante, their best winger in Pulisic and Tammy Abraham wasn’t fully fit. Even though Bayern was still playing Alaba at centre-half, since Sule is out with a long term injury and Hernandez isn’t at 100%, the rest of Bayern’s team were first-choice.

Bayern took a straightforward route in this game, with the forward four very close together and was waiting from quick, long balls from the midfield. Thiago and Kimmich would consistently drop between the defenders and send a long ball straight to Lewandowski or Muller, with Coman and Gnabry close by to support them. This worked so well because Chelsea looked so disorganised, and Bayern playing quickly forced them to consistently make the wrong decisions. Coman’s early chance manifested thanks to Barkley losing the ball in midfield, and as soon as Coman receives the ball, Rudiger and Christiansen quickly run towards him, opening a one-two between the Frenchman and Muller.

Muller was by far the best player on the night. Repeatedly, he would look to receive the ball around the 18-yard box, to drag players towards him and open up space for Gnabry or Coman. The German ended the game with the most shot assists (5) and had some of Bayern’s best chances to increase that lead.

The other reason for Bayern’s dominant performance was their quick counter-attacks. Whenever Thiago or Kimmich would retrieve the ball in midfield, their first thought would be to look up for one of their teammates in space or making a forward run. If not, they’d play it back to the defenders and wait for the opportunity to arise. Bayern’s first two goals came from these same scenarios. Thiago recovers the ball and quickly plays the ball to a running Gnabry, who spots Lewandowski making a run into the channel. Gnabry passes the ball, but instead of shooting, Lewandowski smartly plays the ball back into Gnabry path, ultimately catching the Chelsea defence off-guard.

Embed from Getty Images

As mentioned, Chelsea did play a weak line-up, and Bayern benefitted from that. Mount, Barkey and Giroud were occupying the same spaces throughout the game and made life so easy for Bayern’s defenders. Giroud did have some moments that did trouble an old Boateng and Alaba. But Chelsea’s lack of width enabled them to stay very tight and force Chelsea to create low-quality chances. It was reminiscent of the number of times Bayern played Arsenal and effortlessly beat them. Bayern loves playing London-based teams.

Let’s move onto Rasenballsport Leipzig and their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. This was Germany’s most infamous club’s first game in the round of sixteen and demonstrated why they should be playing at this level every year.

Going into the game, some of the pundits made comments on the nickname Nagelsmann received when he broke onto the managerial scene; ‘Mini Mourinho.’ I still don’t know how he got this nickname, but I’m not too fond of it. Nagelsmann is the complete opposite of Mourinho in how football is played. Mourinho is completely reactive; aiming to neutralise the opposition and relying on his attacking players to figure it out for themselves. Nagelsmann looks to win the ball higher up the pitch, catching his opponent at their most vulnerable. There’s a lot of consistent patterns you’ll see in his teams. His Leipzig team is direct and able to attack with speed. The German tactician prefers the use of diagonal long balls since they can cause dysfunction with their unpredictability. Nagelsmann ensures his players know their roles in the team.

Leipzig was outstanding against Tottenham, but they shouldn’t have been allowed to be that good. The first half was a story of Tottenham giving Leipzig the time to transition at their own pace, with Ampadu having the time and space to send long balls into the wingers and full-backs to quickly move the ball into the final third. The only time I even noticed Tottenham try to press was when you’d see one of the wide central-midfielders run to quickly close down Angelino or Mukiele, which cause problems too. It left one of the forward players open to receive a through ball or a quick pass to their feet. It was a very classic Mourinho performance in a knockout game; begging that opposition wouldn’t punish them for their passive defending, and hope their forwards could do something to win the game.

Embed from Getty Images

I can sympathise with Mourinho with the number of players he was missing with injuries, but Nagelsmann faced issues as well. Granted, they weren’t as high-profile as missing the likes of Kane or Son; however, any team missing Upamecano, Konate and Orban, Leipzig’s starting centre-halves, was going to be weaker. Nagelsmann had to play Klostermann and Halstenburg, two full-backs, in a back-three alongside Welsh youngster Ethan Ampadu, who’s barely kicked a ball on loan at Leipzig.

What was most problematic for Tottenham was the speed in which Leipzig was transitioning. Nagelsmann’s players were hitting the ball quickly into the front three, or using Sabitzer and Angelino’s excellent dribbling ability to take advantage of the space a defensive Tottenham team were giving. It was the most dominant 1-0 victories in recent memory, with Leipzig arguably deserve more than the single goal they bring back to Germany. Werner had an excellent chance in the first half, while Schick had a couple of fantastic opportunities to sink any hope Tottenham had of advancing to the next stage.

Part of me did expect Leipzig to struggle in this game. They’ve been second best in most of their top of the table clashes on the domestic scene. They did face a lot more shots in this game than expected, but that was because they had their away goal. They weakened their press in the final half-hour of the game, with stakes in the league remaining. My worry for Leipzig in the second leg is how they’ll approach it. Mourinho has nothing to lose in this game, meaning Tottenham have to attack away from home. Does Leipzig allow them to and hit them on the break once space appears, or bring the game to them again? It’ll be fascinating to see.

And last but certainly not least; Borussia Dortmund managed an imposing 2-1 victory over one of the favourites, Paris Saint-Germain. Lucien Favre nailed his game plan for this season-defining fixture. He attempted to thwart Tuchel’s ambitions for the season through attacking down their flanks, which are covered by the defensively poor Larvin Kurzawa on the left, and Thomas Meunier on the right. Dortmund was pressing high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball and counter-attack exceptionally quickly, putting PSG in uncomfortable positions. Dortmund was helped by the sheer quality of their forward line, with Sancho finding space all around the opposition third and Haland’s speed and power being too much for the PSG defenders to handle at times.

Embed from Getty Images

You could easily write off Bayern and Leipzig’s wins to inferior opposition; teams who were missing key personnel and were always going to struggle. But Dortmund’s win was different and helped prove a point to why the German clubs have been the most impressive. One area that PSG will always get criticised for is their mentality. Why do they always look so good in Ligue 1 and in the group stage, but ultimately falter when facing teams in the knockout rounds? This same point was brought up yet again after this game. Dortmund was prepared and stuck to their game plan, while PSG looked overreliant on their attacking stars to bail them out of trouble again. A lot of this goes down to the newly found competitive nature of the Bundesliga this season. Last season, Dortmund did manage to take Bayern pretty far into the season, but that was because Bayern’s misfortune, instead of Dortmund deserving it. Dortmund responded to their second-place finish through adding experienced guys like Hummels, Brandt and Hazard; and extra additions in Haland and Can arriving in the winter. Not only have Dortmund had to go up against Bayern in the league, as per usual. But RB Leipzig took steps forward in challenging for a title; Borussia Monchengladbach had a solid start to the season, and Bayer Leverkusen have even stayed pretty close to the top of the table. Dortmund had struggled in December, which forced a change to the 3-4-2-1, to help keep the team less vulnerable at the back, while getting the best out of Hakimi, Hummels and Sancho.

The more significant point is Dortmund had to make critical acquisitions and changes to their system to improve the team, and they wouldn’t have noticed those issues had their domestic opponents not exposed them. PSG do not have that kind of luxury. They are so far ahead of their domestic opponents in every regard that it can be challenging to have systems and new ideas adequately tested, to know if they would work against better opponents.

This is the main reason to why the three Bundesliga clubs have looked so good in this year’s competition. The overall improvement in the opposition they face has forced German teams to improve in every regard on the pitch. There are more games where the big teams have to extensively prepare for, to certify their credentials for the title. Dortmund’s expensive pursuit for the title; Leipzig and Gladbach picking up the most promising coaching talents in Europe, and Bayern going back to what made them so good is not only good for themselves, but it keeps their opponents on their toes.

Revenge for Bayern? Chelsea vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is another of the many tasty clashes in this year’s Champions League. Chelsea’s young and hungry side under Frank Lampard, against a weaker, yet still deadly Bayern Munich team under Hansi Flick. The last time these two met in Europe’s premium competition was back in 2012; a game where Bayern was outdone by an extremely defensive Chelsea. Will the result be the same; or will Bayern get their payback? Let’s find out.

This season for Chelsea was arguably their biggest since Roman Abramovich acquired the club at the turn of the millennium. The Blues were under a transfer ban for breaching UEFA’s rules of signing players under eighteen. It meant they couldn’t offer the near-unlimited pot of cash they’ve been able to offer every season. What made matters worse for Chelsea was the expected departure of Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, which left a massive creative void in their team from the get-go. The team already had apparent issues under Sarri. They only way to address their problems in defence, full-back and striker was from within.

It’s why Frank Lampard’s appointment was genius in a way. It had nothing to do with the football (which was far from perfect at Derby), but the effect it would have for the players, and especially the fans. Chelsea has always come across as having one of the most impatient sets of fans in the league. They weren’t willing to give Conte or Sarri the time needed to improve a group of players that weren’t nearly good enough to win a title. Lampard is a legend at that club, who would at least keep the fans on his side, no matter how bad the performances got. He also seemed willing to play the young players who were desperate to show they had something to offer. Chelsea’s academy had been seen as an afterthought for years, only there to make a profit on homegrown players. The higher-ups at the club always said they wanted to see the youngsters given a chance; which made the appointments of Sarri and Conte baffling. Both coaches who demanded support in the transfer market and who stuck to a small core of players. I just wanted to see Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and especially Tammy Abraham, given a chance in the first team. They all showed how they were good enough to play a full season in the Championship, and in Tammy and James’ case, be the best player on their team.

Embed from Getty Images

The young players have been the story of the season and for good reason, but some of last season’s underperformers have really turned it around. At the beginning of the 18/19 season, a midfield three of Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho looked unstoppable. However, in practice, it didn’t live up the high expectations set by people like me. Originally it was about Kante. Many fans still saw Kante as that midfield destroyer which helped Leicester win the league in 2016. Kante proved he was an exceptional passer, with a high level of match intelligence in making runs into the penalty area. Sarri realised this and turned Kante into the player he was always meant to be. The problem was Jorginho, and especially Kovacic.

Jorginho was criticised for not getting enough goals and assists by many pundits, but that’s not what he does. Jorginho is one of the best in starting attacks. His xGBuildup has always been great, with the Italian top of the Chelsea squad with 11.15. The defensive side of the game was his issue. A lot of teams (Arsenal being the best example) aggressively marked him out of the game, and Jorginho just seemed to lack the ability to change his game and adjust, similar to what the likes of Thiago Alcantara or Kevin De Bruyne would do. Kovacic under Sarri can best be described as restricted; stuck in a system that didn’t allow him to show the best parts of his game. Kovacic is one of the best dribblers in the league but looked uncertain of what he was actually supposed to be doing in Sarri’s system. Lampard has reinvigorated both of these players; justifying the combined £100 million spent on the pair. They’re both playing to their strengths. Jorginho is still starting attacks, as well as putting in a lot of defensive work. Kovacic has looked the player we’ve all wanted to see in England, putting up an insane amount of dribbling and off the ball work. A real asset to the team.

Embed from Getty Images

I’d say Chelsea have performed how I thought they would. They’re in the top four race; given a lot of their younger players minutes and been a joy to watch, especially during the first half of the season. This is where the problems lie for them now. The blues’ overall performances have dropped off a lot since their 2-1 defeat to Manchester City. Since then, the results have stopped coming, and their firm grip on fourth place has loosened. If it wasn’t for Tottenham and Manchester United underperforming, I doubt Chelsea would still be in the Champions League spots. Why exactly have they been a lot worse? Chelsea has had defensive issues all season, but a lot of that is down to the open style they play and Kepa Arrizabalaga being the worst goalkeeper in the league. These issues have been present since the first game of the season. The reason why Chelsea’s form has dropped off is down to their attack, or lack of it. Lampard has managed this team rather poorly in terms of the minutes being shared. It’s the same issue present under Sarri, but a lot worse. Abraham, Hudson-Odoi and Mount have been heavily relied upon through vast stretches of the season. These guys are still really young, and Lampard has looked close to burning them out. Abraham has struggled with slight knocks, which has made his level of performances drop as the match-days pass. Mason Mount started the season in fine form, but he’s looked exhausted over the last couple of months. I don’t want any of them to suffer the same fate as Rashford; a young player relied upon so heavily that his manager will do anything to have him on the pitch, even to jeopardise his future.

Let’s move onto Bayern Munich, who look unshackled under new manager Hansi Flick. The former Germany national team assistant has got this Bayern team pressing again, and the players look a lot happier than under Kovac. There have been some results where Bayern have been unlucky, their draw to Leipzig and defeats to Leverkusen Monchengladbach were games where Bayern had the better chances. It was a classic case where, on another day, Bayern would have left with the three points. Since November 9th, Flick’s first game, Bayern have undoubtedly been the best team in Germany. They’ve achieved the most points, have the best xG difference and are matching their xPTS. Their results are back to matching their high level of performances not seen since Heynckes’ final season.

Besides their increased intensity (they only allow 6.35 passes per defensive action), Flick has transformed some of the players in this squad; either back to or into world-beaters. Let’s start with Muller. The World Cup winner epitomised a great German attacker. He might not be as silky on the ball as Brandt; or as fun and dynamic as Leroy Sane, but it’s hard to argue against Muller being Germany’s most intelligent attacker. The way he finds perfect shooting opportunities in the box or picks his other attackers with a fantastic pass is nearly unrivalled. Muller has always performed, but previous managers simply didn’t know what to do with him. Muller doesn’t have the pace or trickery to play as a traditional winger but doesn’t play like a regular number ten. Flick simply solved this problem by playing him as a winger and a midfielder, depending on the opposition. Coutinho might be better than Muller at many things. But Muller’s pressing and work-rate, combined with his efficiency, making him a favourite of Flick’s. He’s already racked up 14 assists in the league this season and tops the team for shot assists.

Embed from Getty Images

Alphonso Davies has arguably been the breakout star of the Bundesliga. There was an amount of uncertainty surrounding this move. It was interesting to see a prospect from MLS join one of Europe’s elite, in a squad severely lacking in wide talent. But funnily enough, Davies has mostly played as a left-back, allowing David Alaba to cover at centre-back. From performances alone, you couldn’t tell Davies was playing out of position. He’s putting in a lot of defensive work (over 6 tackles and interceptions) while still being a lot of fun in the final third. The Canadian international’s speed and skill have practically given Bayern another winger. Since he regularly starts Bayern’s attacks further away from the opposition half, his involvement in ball progression is apparent. He tops the team for xGBuildup with 13.03 (since Flick’s first game) and tops the team for completed crosses. I don’t think anyone expected Davies to look this good at only 19.

I struggle to see Chelsea advancing to the quarter-finals. Bayern is playing their best football since not seen since before Kovac, and Lewandowski has looked unstoppable. Lewandowski has unarguably been the best forward (that isn’t called Messi or Ronaldo) in the last 5 years. Lewandowski does everything you want from your striker. He takes a large number of shots, with many inside the penalty area, while holding the ball up well in the box. My favourite part of Pole’s game is how he has this art of playing the defensive line to perfection. Lewandowski has scored a lot of goals where you just have to question if he’s even onside; only to watch the replay and see his sharpness shine, always that extra yard faster than his opponents. There have been apparent comparisons between Lewandowski and Timo Werner; the two leading scorers in the Bundesliga. The big difference for me is Lewandowski makes the players around him better. Even when Lewandowski is having an off-day, you can trust him to drag defenders to open up space for his teammates.

If these teams were drawn together during the group stage, I think the match would have been a lot closer. However, Chelsea has gotten a lot worse in attack, while their defensive issues have remained ever-present. Bayern looks miles ahead of their last round of 16 game, being their spineless defeat to eventual champions Liverpool. I have no idea if Flick will remain at the club after this season, but he is an option that is at least worth considering.

 

 

 

Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

Embed from Getty Images

Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

Embed from Getty Images

Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

download

Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

Embed from Getty Images

Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

Embed from Getty Images

Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

Embed from Getty Images

So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

It’s a question that many have asked since Nagelsmann was announced as head coach back in 2018. The 32-year-old managed to turn Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into regular top 4 challengers. The number of goals he got out of the likes of Belfodil, Szalai and Uth made me wonder what he could do with genuine elite talent. We’ll be looking at Leipzig’s start to the season, to see why they are currently at the top of the table.

Leipzig’s history is short, yet full of controversy. Before the Red Bull takeover, RB Leipzig were formally known as SSV Markranstadt and playing in the 5th division of German football. The exact reasons for choosing Markranstadt isn’t certain, but I can guess it’s down to a few things. The club were stuck in the 5th division of German football, and right next to them was the city of Leipzig, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. It was an untapped market and gave them the chance to invest in a club which could become a global brand, providing a city with a football club to match its size. I can imagine RB Salzburg was in the owners’ thoughts, making, socially, a clear path from Austria into the Bundesliga. From their formation in 2009, it took them only 6 seasons to reach the Bundesliga, climbing the football pyramid with ease, thanks to a clear plan and massive investment.

It’s difficult to talk about RB Leipzig without even mentioning why nearly every fan in Germany despise them. It all begins with the name. The ‘RB’ stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to lawn ball sports. It ensured they didn’t break the league’s strict laws of no branding in club names, but through abbreviation, could keep their brand recognition. It’s things like this that really infuriate German fans, putting the importance of corporate needs over the fans, a part of the game that Germany empathise. While Red Bull’s lack of subtlety is frustrating, it’s the way they managed to work around the 50+1 rule. It was first inforced in 1998, to ensure football fans wouldn’t be treated as customers, remaining the majority voice at their respective clubs. Bundesliga clubs do possess a lot of members, with Dortmund having over 140,000 fans who pay an annual fee of €62. Once again, Red Bull found a way around this. RB Leipzig only have 17 members, all Red Bull employees, paying over €800 annually. It ensured they could legally play in the Bundesliga through bypassing all of their rules, without having the same routes as other clubs in Germany.

Football is a working-class sport, originating from hard-working men attempting to take a break from their lives through sport. It had the easy viewing for everyone to get into but had that extra level of sophistication, which made it extremely popular Germany, Austria and Hungary. Red Bull made it look so easy to abolish real fan ownership and build a club in their own image.

I sympathise with these views, but part of me finds it really hard to hate a club when they are just so good at finding talented players and managers. Their first season in the Bundesliga included some of the brightest talents in Europe. Naby Keita broke onto the season and dominated the midfield through high defensive actions and showing himself to be one of the best prospects for any Champions League club. Marcel Sabitzer was always seen as one of Austria and Red Bull’s brightest prospects, and moving to a more competitive league helped his development. Their crown jewel was young German forward Timo Werner. At only 20, he was alongside more experienced forwards like Aubameyang and Lewandowski in the race for the Golden Boot. While full of future prospects, they had players who were there during their stint outside of the Bundesliga. Emil Forsberg arrived as a promising 21-year-old and proved to be a fantastic creator. Yussuf Poulsen and Diego Demme both came in 2013. I’ve expressed my love for Poulsen, having a skill set that combines well with any goalscoring forward. Being coached by Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig were aggressive, energetic, young and plenty of fun to watch during the 16/17 season.

Embed from Getty Images

They’ve remained relatively consistent since their first season in the Bundesliga, finishing 6th in 17/18 and 3rd last season. Finishing 3rd and returning to the Champions League is a positive season, but it did feel like a transition into a new era, spearheaded by Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim manager is one of my favourite coaches in Europe, being able to turn a weak Hoffenheim side into a fun yet effective side in Germany. However, what was holding him back was the personnel. Last season, he was stuck with Ishak Belfodil, who was basically moving clubs every season and only managed 4 goals for Werder Bremen in 17/18. Nagelsmann’s teams create a vast amount of chances that it’s difficult for any forward who starts over 20 games not to get at least 10 goals. Mark Uth might be the perfect example of Nagelsmann supercharging strikers. The German contributed to 22 goals in 17/18, earning him a move to Schalke once his contract expired. However, he only scored 2 goals in 15 games in his first season for Schalke. If Nagelsmann could get a lot of goals out poor to average players, it makes you wonder what he could do with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, who just had the best seasons of their careers.

The defence was the other area which did hold Nagelsmann back. His sides have usually played a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 with a very high line. To perform a system like that, you need to have genuinely elite defensive talent, something the 32-year-old just didn’t have at Hoffenheim. Last season, Hoffenheim gave away more penalties than any other side with 7 and gave away the most fouls per game with 13.9. In teams that play high-lines, you expect a lot of fouls to be made, in an attempt to recover the ball when the line is beaten, but the frequency in which they were taking down their opponents is concerning. Now at Leipzig, he has four extremely talented centre-backs. Willi Orban has been at the club before their promotion in 2016. While the club captain is an essential figure for the team, he backs that up with being a terrific defender, comfortable in possession and commanding his backline. The French trio of Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahima Konate are all extremely promising defenders. It’s a testament to how good Red Bull are at spotting talent. They arrived for a combined fee of £23 million, with Konate arriving on a free transfer. The club could manage to sell these players for over £70 million each, showing how they’ve remained to find value in the market, even with such a well-known brand like Red Bull behind them. All are comfortable on the ball and possess extreme athleticism to help them cover the distance needed to play in a Nagelsmann side.

Embed from Getty Images

So how have Leipzig played in the first few games of the Bundesliga? While I don’t think they’ve been the best team in the league, they’ve been the most impressive. The main reason for this is because of the opposition they’ve had to face, with the Red Bull-owned club already playing Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayern Munich in their opening 6 games. I’ve watched three of these games and so far have been impressed with what I’ve seen. Nagelsmann has been extremely flexible in terms of formation and personnel. Against Frankfurt, Nagelsmann lined his side up in a 3-4-3, to match Adi Hutter’s team in terms of formation. Thanks to Leipzig having extremely athletic defenders, it allowed them to double-up on Frankfurt’s wing-backs Filip Kostic and Erik Durm, their opponent’s most prominent attacking threats. In breaking them down, Leipzig used Christopher Nkunku and, after an hour, Emil Forsberg, to run into the space that was left from Frankfurt’s marauding wing-backs. The pair completed 5 dribbles, showing how effective they were in moving the ball into the opposition half.

Their game against Borussia Monchengladbach saw some changes, with Nagelsmann switching to a 4-4-2 and bringing in Kampl and Forsberg for Mukiele and Nkunku respectively. These changes allowed them to deal with Gladbach’s weaknesses, being their lack of width and the full-backs. Rose usually lines his side up in a 4-3-1-2, with Thuram often drifting to the left. Leipzig countered this through their compact shape. It made it difficult for Rose’s players to break them down, and with the press from Leipzig’s front men giving them no time on the ball, it showed just how much work Rose has to do in turning this side into a Champions League regular. Their defenders lacked mobility and Leipzig used that to their advantage. Poulsen and Werner were consistently making diagonal runs into the box, making it very difficult to defend against Nagelsmann’s side. Werner’s hat trick was a combination of superb chance creation and elite finishing. Leipzig haven’t been topping the table in terms of shots and chance creation, but their forwards are consistently getting chances in fantastic areas. Even if Werner’s shots are of weak locations, his finishing is unrivalled in Germany, meaning he will be able to put all sorts of chances away.

Embed from Getty Images

The two games so far have shown Leipzig to be flexible, aggressive and clinical. Like every team in the Bundesliga, the games against Bayern Munich were going to show just how good Leipzig were when facing better opposition, and for 45 minutes, it did not look good. I haven’t spoken about it yet, but in all their games so far, Leipzig’s press is consistent. Whatever formation was deployed, they would always press in a 4-2-4, with Forsberg moving over to the left, Poulsen and Werner in the middle and Sabitzer on the right. They plan to force their opponent into the flanks. He’s tried this against Bayern before, to some success. In their 3-1 defeat to the champions in August 2018, Nagelsmann used Joelinton and Szalai to keep pressure on the central defenders and force them to play the ball to the full-back. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and wide midfielders would then aggressively press Bayern, and for a lot of the game, it was effective. The problem was Bayern were just too much for Hoffenheim, but trying a similar tactic against them once again might work considering the players Nagelsmann now has to work with. But that game was Kovac’s first game in charge of Bayern in the league. The team have since grown in quality and showed this at the Red Bull Arena. When Leipzig did try and press Bayern from the front, Bayern’s midfield duo of Kimmich and Thiago, the best midfielders in the league, found space and exploited the room that was left from Leipzig’s pressing. Both were at their usual best in this game, Kimmich especially, who created 6 chances from midfield. It wasn’t just in midfield where Leipzig were exposed, but in attack, where Lewandowski’s goal perfectly showcased this. Whenever one of their forwards were in possession, Bayern were quick to outnumber them, usually making it a three against one, to recover possession. This is what happened for Bayern’s goal. Sabitzer had three men around him, and when dispossessed, Klostermann attempted to recover the ball, but Muller was quick to get it back. A fantastic pass from Muller and a great run from Lewandowski to show some naivety from Nagelsmann, and Bayern continued to dominate the first half. Leipzig did get back in the game through a Forsberg penalty, but the half didn’t scream optimism.

Embed from Getty Images

The second half is where Nagelsmann shined in his tactical adjustments. His players were being completely outclassed in the centre of the park and needed to fix it. He did so by taking off Klostermann and bringing on Diego Demme, to add numbers and ensure they could compete with Bayern. They switched to a 4-3-3, with Mukiele moving over to right-back. This was when Leipzig started creating chances, while remained stable at the back. Yet, they still weren’t exceptional. A lot of the opportunities they created just weren’t of high quality. Mukiele had a decent chance with a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box, but it was a routine save for Neuer. Sabitzer attempted to a shot from long distance, and while it did have some spin on it, it wasn’t going to trouble Germany’s number one. While this approach might have worked against a weaker team, Bayern are more than that. Thiago and Kimmich are so difficult to simply bypass. This game felt like a lesson for Nagelsmann.

So, can RB Leipzig win the Bundesliga this year? They definitely have a chance, but Bayern look too good to beat at the moment. Leipzig still have room to improve. Amadou Haidara hasn’t played much this season, and Tyler Adams is still yet to return, a player who could seriously make a difference in the middle of the park. Nagelsmann will have to be more open to rotation his key players if he wishes to compete on all fronts. This team is very aggressive, and I worry how often they might be caught on an off day, similar to how easily Schalke beat them at the Red Bull Arena. Nagelsmann should either change the approach for specific games or use the vast number of players in the team. Ademola Lookman and Matheus Cunha have rarely featured, and definitely have a part to play this season. If Leipzig wish to win the league this season, they’ll have to hope Bayern’s form begins to plummet and Dortmund remain unlucky. On the bright side, I do expect Leipzig to improve over the next couple of years, and the team is still young enough to stay competitive. Bayern still have a massive rebuilding job on their hands, so even if Leipzig do falter, their chance will come.

Should Tottenham Fans be Worried? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group B

The second group of this year’s competition, while not as competitive as others, still could be full of surprises. Two teams, you expect to progress and two that have been difficult in the past, there is still a chance for an upset

Red Star Belgrade

The Serbian side have garnered a reputation for being one of the scariest grounds to visit. Passionate and aggressive fans in an old stadium make an atmosphere some rarely experience in the modern game. We first saw Red Star at their best in recent memory in their surprising 2-0 win over Liverpool. It could be placed on Liverpool having an off game, but 2 first-half goals mounted a lot of pressure on the eventual winners that they couldn’t overcome. 

I fully expect Red Star to continue in their consistent enjoyment of causing problems for teams during their visit to Serbia, but it still won’t be enough. They’ll continue to struggle away from home, and while Marin, Van La Parra and Pavkov have their moments, It’s improbable they’ll escape this group. 

Bayern Munich

Bayern under Kovac have been tricky to describe. They did deservedly win the Bundesliga once again, but many issues were exposed. Weaknesses in midfield, lack of players in the wide areas and an overreliance on Lewandowski showcased a dominant team with so much work needed in keeping the side competitive in the future. 

Bayern’s first plan of action was to resolve their defence through the added additions of Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. It’s strange how they’ve spent so much money fixing their defence when it was already the best in the league. Clear areas were needing of improvement, but I can understand their desire to add numbers. Hummels and Boateng were approaching the latter stages of their careers, and Kovac seemingly wanted more athletic defenders than the options at his disposal. Pavard and Hernandez were World Cup-winning defenders, capable at playing at either full-back or at centre half. 

Their acquisitions would have made more sense if they actually resolved the issues regarding wingers. Robben and Ribery finally departed the club and left huge holes that needed to be fixed through the transfer market. Bayern’s summer was dominated through the continual pursuit of Manchester City forward Leroy Sane. The German international would have been a sensational signing, giving a perfect winger, able to create and score. Unsurprisingly, The Premier League champions were unwilling to sell, and it left Bayern in a real predicament. Bayern are one of the few big clubs who are usually reluctant to pay more than their valuation. We’ve seen Manchester United, Barcelona, PSG, Liverpool and Juventus spend too much on individual players in their goal of being the best in Europe. Bayern are more traditional in a sense and do not want to get involved in the mess that is the transfer market. While it is respectable to have such an approach, sometimes beliefs just have to be sacrificed if you want to compete with the best teams around. 

Embed from Getty Images

We even saw how they aren’t nearly as frightening as they once were in last year’s Champions League. Bayern were the first team to be absolutely ripped open by Ajax. It was the first time since in years we’ve seen Bayern struggle so much against opposition that isn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona, and it continued in the round of 16, where they were drawn against Liverpool. Their performance in both legs was poor. Bayern went to Anfield with conservatism in mind, opting to stop Liverpool instead of playing them. The Bavarians have been so imperative at the Allianz for years, that it made sense to take a point and attempt to beat the Reds back on their own turf. The problem is they were playing the second-best team in Europe, known for their ability to tear open big sides like Bayern, and were comfortably beaten by the eventual winners. This game displayed just how much needed to be done in turning Bayern back into the juggernauts they were under Heynckes and Pep.

Nevertheless, I expect Bayern to win this group. They will struggle when the round of 16 arrives, but for now, they’ll be at their usual best. They’ve started the season in extraordinary form, and I expect Kovac and his players to ease past a relatively weak group.

Olympiakos

After missing last year’s competition, Olympiakos return after qualifying in extremely comfortable fashion, beating Viktoria Plzen, Krasnodar and Başakşehir while only conceding a single goal, while scoring 13. There is a possibility they could cause a threat to either Tottenham or Bayern, but it’s improbable. Their best attacker, Konstantinos Fortounis, suffered an ACL injury back in July and isn’t returning until 2020. It leaves them with Mathieu Valbuena, Daniel Podence and Masouras as their main attacking threats, which just isn’t enough to worry their opponents. It may sound harsh to write them off completely, but I cannot see Olympiakos escaping this group at all, but will most likely finish in 3rd if they manage to overcome Red Star. 

Tottenham Hotspur

Mauricio Pochettino’s side spectacularly reached the Champions League final. Their historic comeback to beat the neutral’s favourite team Ajax will go down as one of the best comebacks in Champions League history, but their whole season can be best described as overperforming. They were laughably placed in the same title-chasing bracket as Manchester City and Liverpool by Christmas when they were never close to them. Spurs were overperforming expected goals throughout the season. The only reason they managed to finish in the top four was down to their strong start, because their form during their second half of the season was relegation worthy, losing to Bournemouth, Burnley, Southampton, West Ham and Manchester United. 

Embed from Getty Images

Tottenham finishing in the top four and reaching a cup final should all be credited to their manager. Pochettino managed all this without signing any players and missing crucial personnel through vast stretches of the season. Not only that, he had to work without any competent midfielders. Spurs went from a generally fun side to watch to be more direct and efficient, due to their lack of midfield talent. When attacking, they would continually skip the midfield and attempt to play it long to the attackers, which worked well considering their situation. The reality is that Tottenham should never have reached that far in the Champions League. They narrowly escaped their group and got lucky with wins over City and Ajax. 

After a summer which saw significant improvements in midfield but weakened in other areas, I’m expecting Spurs to struggle again. They’ve started the season poorly, and their performances against Newcastle and Aston Villa highlighted some glaring issues in attack. I still expect Tottenham to escape the group, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them limp over the line in worrying fashion. 

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 #2 – Tottenham Title Challengers?

Bayern Munich’s Defensive Rebuild

I’ve reiterated this multiple times in the past but Bayern have needed to rebuild a majority of their team. They remain, and continue to be, the best side in the Bundesliga and while they have consistently won the competition, their weaknesses have finally been exposed after the Champions appointed a manager who didn’t have the same experience in winning league titles. It meant that Bayern had an awful start to the season and by December, only gained 36 points, 6 behind Dortmund and left them struggling. However, in typical Bayern fashion, they managed to get back to their usual routine and finished the season only losing one game after Christmas.

It seemed after years of safe signings, Bayern finally decided to make a statement, by bringing in the World Cup winning full back partnership of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard for a combined £100m. While they primarily play as centre backs, these players have been much needed additions to the side. Jerome Boateng and Matts Hummels were a fantastic partnership for both club and country, but as they began ageing and Boateng’s injury problems were only getting worse, it meant they could not persist with the former international defenders in their starting back line. Bringing in Pavard and Hernandez gives Bayern versatility and athleticism, two qualities that were slowly deminishing in defence.

Embed from Getty Images

While it will be exciting to see the young pair starting for the Bundesliga Champions, what makes it more exciting is the effect it could have on the table. They are a promising pair of defenders, but lack that same title winning experience that has remained in that defence for years. On the short term, it could leave Bayern rather vunerable in those rather tight games, where vital blocks or last ditch tackles could ensure the 3 points. This is by far the most exciting Bundesliga season for a long time.

Seagull’s Step Forward

Chris Hughton’s sacking at the end of the season was seen as controversial at the time, with many neutrals baffled at why Hughton was let go, but I thought it was the right decision. Brighton were awful last season, only surviving thanks to their opponents lacking the same quality as they possessed in some areas of the pitch. They were in the bottom five for shots, dribbles, possession and pass accuracy. They were lacking any sort of attacking quality all season and suffered because of it.

What made this so much more frustrating is that Brighton’s head of recruiment, Paul Winstanley, helped the Seagulls sign some very interesting players and show the rest of the league that they are not going to sit back and be happy with survival. Bernardo, Bissouma, Andone, Gros and Montoya have all been picked up for very reasonable fees, yet were never given real opportunities under Hughton. While Bernardo eventually established himself as the first choice left back, the rest were taken out of the team for players who were favoured by the manager. While Jahanbakhsh faced a lot of criticism for failing to score all season, the sight of seeing Anthony Knockhaert still starting for Brighton is painful to say the least.

Embed from Getty Images

Brighton’s appointment of Graham Potter highlights just how ambitious they are. He is a coach who gets his sides playing a good brand of football, focusing on tactical flexibility and build up play through the wide areas. This could givea new lease of life to so many of the players bought while Hughton was in charge. Bissouma and Andone could truly stand out for their new manager and hopefully living up to their potential. Brighton have combined an ambitious manager with ambitious signings and I cannot wait.

Chasing the Top 6

With United continuely looking underwhelming, Arsenal lacking funds and Chelsea with a transfer ban, it has left an opening for one of the chasing pack to overtake their competition, so let’s quickly look at the three teams that could clinch a European spot.

Let’s start with Everton, who after a rocky debut season under Silva, look like they could be ready to return to the European finishes they were getting under Moyes. They have a solid full back pairing in Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman, the former is everything for Everton in attack while the latter has done pretty okay after suffering a terrible leg break back in 2017. The midfield is another area in which they excel. Idrissa Gueye has been one of the best destroyers in the Premier League since his arrival back in 2015. His defensive numbers elite and enables Everton to quickly win the ball further up the pitch. One of the issues with Everton’s midfield in the past was the lack of ball progression and now with addition of Andre Gomes, it seems to be resolved. I have had my fair share of criticism towards Gomes in the past, but when given a midfield partner who can do a majority of ball recovery, it allows the former Barcelona midfielder to focus on transitioning the ball through dribbling. he’s been completing 1.5 dribbles from deep, the highest for his team. The improvement he has given to the side has never been more clear than in the big games. Gomes gives that confidence and style to the midfield in those tough games against better opposition, and has allowed Everton to remain competitive and actually bring the game to their opponent. Gomes should never join a super club again, but he will excel if he remains at these mid table clubs, where his quality is arguably better than his teammates.

Richarlison is another who has given Everton the goals they desperately needed. He ended the season with 13 goals, the joint highest for his side. He isn’t as technically gifted as other Brazilians, but offers something completely different. He is physically strong, which is what made his time adapting to the speed of the English game so easy. Richarlison is excellent at finding space in the box. It’s why his best position is easily on the left wing, because it allows him to make those late runs into the box, with 60% of his shots coming inside the penalty area. For a player still so young, he is very different to other players at a similar age, able to find better shooting positions. 

Embed from Getty Images

The biggest issue regarding Everton challenging for European football is the easily the centre forward position. Calvert-Lewin is a very good player, but will not give you that 15+ goal tally you’re looking for and Cenk Tosun is just not a good player. Gylfi Sigurðsson is also a massive problem. While he did score 13 and assist a further 6, it’s his lack of involvement in build play that make him a liability. If Everton do one to return to being considered a threat to the top 6, these are issues they have to resolve.

Let’s move on to Leicester, who are by far the most likely to break into that top 6. The foxes have been making intelligent moves in the market in recent years, and some of those signings have been vital in taking Leicester from defensive underdogs, into a team to be taken seriously. They have arguably the second best full back pairing in the league with the incredible Ricardo Pereira and defensively solid Ben Chillwell. They epitomise the perfect balance teams are looking for in their full backs and are one reason why Leicester are so good at creating chances. Pereira and Chillwell, combined, complete 3.2 dribbles and create 2.2 chances a game. The width they offer is such an improvement over their previous full back pairing of Simpson and Fuchs and has been their big step in evolving their side beyond their title winners.

Embed from Getty Images

While Everton’s midfield does keep them competitive in big games, Leicester arguably has one of the best midfield trios in the league. Wilfred Ndidi is one of the best ball winners in Europe, with the Nigerian making a ridiculous 6 tackles and interceptions per game. He played every game for his side and while isn’t the most technically gifted player, he has been the sole reason why that midfield has functioned since his arrival in 2016. The recent arrival of Youri Tielemans has given them a fantastic ball progressor for a very reasonable price of £40 million. Thanks to Ndidi doing all of the defensive work in that midfield, it has allowed Tielemans to show off his incredible range of passing and find space on the edge of the box to take those long range shots he favoures. He’s been creating an impressive 1.2 chances from deep and only Maguire and Ndidi have completed more passes per game than the Belgian. His arrival has given Leicester the added bonus of being able to quickly switch the play, and having a composed and talented passer in the middle of the park. While Ndidi and Tielemans are fantastic for Leicester, James Maddison is by far their most important midfielder. He made 100 key passes last season, the highest in the league. He formed an excellent relationship with Jamie Vardy, and was consistently providing chances for the rest of his teammates. He is great at finding space in between the lines and causes opposition defenders a lot of problems. Maddison has taken that step up into the Premier League like he has belonged there from the beginning.

The biggest issue with Leicester is their wide talent. While Albrighton is a useful player to have in the squad, Demarai Gray has consistently shown how he isn’t good enough to be starting for Leicester and shows a wastefullness that shouldn’t be in this side. Rodgers has opted to playing Harvey Barnes in the wide areas and while he is a good dribbler, he doesn’t have the pace to give that unpredictability that many good wingers have. It would be interesting to see how much Southampton would ask for Nathan Redmond, a great dribbler who possesses a lot of pace to cause defenders problems. He has recently been deployed as an attacking midfielder, but could still offer the same production in a wide area. It’ll be exciting to see if Rodgers can take an attacking side like Leicester to the next level.

Last, but definitely not least, is West Ham United. The East London side were by far the most fun side in the top half of the table. Everton were truly bad at times and Leicester weren’t exactly entertaining during the first half of the season. West Ham, while inconsistent at times, have a blend of aggressive characters and technically gifted players that has allowed them to take points away from Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. While some impressive showings, especially both of their games against the Red Devils, showed them to be a force for the top sides, they also showed just how bad they can be at times, with defeats to some of the worst sides in the division. West Ham are the only side who could concede 3 goals against Huddersfield, yet are the only side who can win that same game.

After Declan Rice’s breakout season, it begged the question who will partner him in midfield. Mark Noble has not been good enough for years now and Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez should not be relied on in the slightest. Rice is a very good passer and reads the game pretty well for his age. He will usually drop deep to give an option to his defenders and has been instrumental in helping West Ham keep possession. However he has been relied on heavily in midfield. No other play in the Hammers have put in more tackles and interceptions than Rice and has the highest pass accuracy out of any player to start over 10 games. It’s clear how important he is for his side, but needs a midfield partner who could contribute more than what Noble is at the moment. This is what made the arrival of Pablo Fornals so exciting, because he is exactly what West Ham needed. Fornals has been on the radar of many clubs since his days at Malaga, where he showed himself to be a versatile midfielder, comfortably playing as a 6 or a 10. Last season, he was putting in 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, as well as 1.6 key passes completing 1.4 dribbles. Rice now has a player beside him who can do a bit of everything. He can offer more in defence than Noble, while also offering so much in ball progression.

Embed from Getty Images

Fornals arrival is key, but if West Ham wish to achieve anything this season, it is all down to the form of Felipe Anderson. His arrival last summer came out of nowhere, and for a club record fee, meant there was a lot of pressure on the Brazilian to perform. He is easily the best player from outside of the top 6. While there are many fantastic players in and around the mid table clubs, Felipe Anderson is a step above in the way he is able to do so much on an off the ball. Every team in the top 10 (excluding Wolves) has a player that carries his team in an attacking sense. Arsenal have Aubamayeng, Liverpool have Salah, United have Pogba and West Ham have Anderson. He tops the West Ham side for dribbles and key passes, displaying the reliance on him in the final third. In so many games this season, we’ve seen Anderson run with the ball through numerous players, make that pass that cuts through a defensive line or shown a moment of superior quality that you have to admire. What makes his overall game even more impressive his how much he does off the ball. Last season, Anderson made 3.6 tackles and interceptions per game. He has never failed to put in the defensive work that his side have needed, especially with their frailties in midfield.

West Ham are another side that are lacking a goalscorer. With Arnautovic departing the club after controverial circumstances, it has made a striker a number one priority for the Hammers this summer. It seemed Maxi Gomez was going to be that man, but after the Uruguayan pulled out of the move in favour of joining Valencia, it means West Ham need to look elsewhere. They have been rumoured to be interested in Sebastien Haller. The Frenchman is a fantastic target man, but I feel it could be a step below for him. He should be playing in the Champions League, with his creativity and dominance in the air making him a vital player for Frankfurt. If West Ham managed to pull this off, it would be one of the signings of the summer.

If I had to place a bet on who would finish in the top 6, it would be Leicester. West Ham will be a lot of fun, Everton could cause some problems but Leicester have a more complete squad. Their midfield is good enough to win a league title and they have players around them that are good enough to push them ahead of Arsenal or Manchester United.

Spurs’s Title Push

Onto another Premier League side, let’s talk about Tottenham. I have high expectations for the North London side in the upcoming season. They reached a Champions League final and finished inside the top four without signing a player while some of their key players suffered from injuries. Some of the players deserved a lot of praise for stepping up, with Sissoko, Son and Rose helping Spurs in some of the more difficult games of the season, but Mauricio Pochettino was by far the reason why Tottenham are playing in Europe next season. His intelligent in-game adjustments and getting the most out of players who should not be near the starting eleven is fantastic. He managed to get output out of both Lamela and Llorente during the season, two players who I thought were finished. While Pep and Klopp amassing the highest points totals in the history of the league, Pochettino was easily my manager of the year.

While they did reach a Champions League final for the first time in their history, there was an element of luck involved in their run to the final. They only scrapped past Manchester City after a saved penalty, a controversial goal from Llorente and a disallowed goal. They went against the neutral’s favourite Ajax and won, primarily down to Ajax showing some awful finishing. It was impressive that they managed to get to the final, but the aim should be to deserve to get there, to be one of the two best teams in the competition.

Embed from Getty Images

After 18 months of no signings, Tottenham decided to break that deadlock with a real statement of intent. After links to Lo Celso and Ceballos, Tottenham’s first signing was French midfield powerhouse Tanguay Ndombele. A player I have spoken on plenty in the past, but in case anyone doesn’t know much about the player, he is arguably one of the best young midfielders in Europe. He is versatile, comfortable in possession, a good dribbler and is a very good creator from deep. He can either allow his teammates to attack, or join the attack himself. He is the perfect player to replace Mousa Dembele, and for £55 million, is a very reasonable price in today’s market. He could be one of the players to help push Spurs closer towards Man City and Liverpool and ensure they are not in the same league as Arsenal, Chelsea and United, fighting for Top 4. They do need more than Ndombele however. Kane’s injury worries are only getting worse, Vertonghen cannot play as many minutes as he did last season and the right back area needs looking into. There is still plenty of work to do for Pochettino.

Lyon Fulfilling Their Potential

Lyon have been one of the many nearly sides for years now. They have been one of the best sides in France in developing young, French talent with Lacazette, Benzema, Tolisso and most recently Ndombele all gaining acolades playing for the club. It’s one reason why they have remained such an attractive prospect for countless young players. They have produced many players through their youth system, but most recently they have focused on signing players from other clubs and increasing their value. It can be seen most recently with Ferland Mendy. The young French full back was signed from Le Havre for £4.50 million was sold for ten-times that amount. It isn’t only young players they target. They’ve also began giving second chances to players who have failed at clubs in the past. Jason Denayer arrived for less than £5 million and ended up having a very good 18/19 season, quite surprising to see from a player who was on loan at Sunderland not so long ago. Their squad is built similar to what you see from Ajax, a side full of sellable assets and experienced players looking to get substancial minutes and allow that younger talent to blossom.

One issue I’ve had with Lyon over the last couple of years was how inconsistent they have been. Their performance in the Champions League group stages last season perfectly displays how they could be fantastic in one game, yet look poor in others. They were one of five sides to go unbeaten, however they only managed a single win, the first game in the competition against Manchester City, where Lyon were fantastic. They were poor against Hoffenheim in both legs, with Lyon struggling away and squandering a two goal lead at home with their opposition down to ten men. It’s clear they have a team full of talented individuals, so what was the problem? It was arguably Bruno Genesio. I always saw him as a fine enough coach, but it can be very frustrating when a manager is gifted with such talented players, yet doesn’t seem what to do with them. His Lyon side were relatively defensive, relying heavily on their talented attackers to carry them. It explains how Marcelo, Denayer and Mendy have flourished in a defensive system, while Traore, Cornet and Depay have all struggled at times.

Embed from Getty Images

The appointment of Sylvinho could be very interesting. With the sale of Ndombele and Mendy, it gives Lyon a lot of money to spend. They’ve already brought in Thiago Mendes from Lille for £18 million. The Brazilian, while on the older side, puts in a solid amount of defensive work and is a fantastic passer, making 1.8 key passes per game last season. While not as versatile as Ndombele, he will perform well at the base of midfield and give the side a player just as comfortable on the ball as the Frenchman. Not much is known about Sylvinho as a manager. He could continue the same defensive style that Genesio played or push for a more attacking system, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Is the League More Important? Liverpool vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League Preview

With the first week of fixtures over, let’s start looking at next week’s games, starting with by the most interesting, Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and title challengers and last year’s finalists Liverpool. It’s a game between 2 European heavyweights, but do they both even want to win this tournament?

We’ll start with Liverpool, who are arguably having their best season in the league since Suarez’s time in Anfield. A combination of a forward line whoj just get each other and defensive improvements have truly made them worthy challengers, but not deserving of a title. If their closest opponents were not this one in a million Manchester City side, I’d say they would definitely earn they praise. When talking about Liverpool, their summer window was one of their highlights. They fixed a majority of the issues I had with their squad. They fixed their hard working midfield by bringing an excellent defensive midfielder in Fabinho and a one in a million in Naby Keita (even if he hasn’t been at his best so far). The best part about bringing in these players is the added competition they’ve given. Wijnaldum and Milner have both improved this season, and have became regulars in the side. While I don’t like Wijnaldum in the slightest (his inconsistency and underwhelming numbers just make him not very useful player to me), it’s hard to deny he has had his best season at Merseyside. Milner is another who is in the form of his career. He is been the best creator in that midfield and balls to the full back have been intrusmental. I do say they haven’t deserved to be how close to city as they have, but they deserve credit for that. Klopp has weakened his press and put Salah as the point man in the team, and it’s been so successful. Firmino still leads the press, but it gives Salah the freedom to lead the line, and he might be in the best form of his career. He leads his team in every category, shots, chance creation and dribbles, and keeps that attack ticking with his pace and movement. The most important element of this side is the new found flexibility. When you move Firmino in a deeper position, it really helps give that midfield an option and doesn’t leave such a gap between the forward line and the midfield. It’s been a success, and now Klopp has even more options on how to set up his side. While their league form has been sensational, their performances in the Champions League have been worrying. Their defeats away to Paris, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade were very worrying, because it highlighted their weaknesses and their occasion to just forget the basics of football. Away games in the Champions League are tough, and Liverpool just dropped off. They were taking less shots and giving away way more big chances than they usually do. Their usual aggression and general effort just seemed to drop off, especially against Napoli. It’s left them with clear weaknesses, that if you deal with the midfield, it makes them so much easier to handle. They are still one of the best sides in the competition, and will be very hard to stop.

With Salah already highlighted. let’s look at 2 other players that will have an influence in this game, starting with Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutchman has single handedly fixed that defence and given them a monsterous aerial prescene and a great distributor. Liverpool were chasing Van Dijk for months, and finally landed their man for £75 million last January. He has arguably been one of Liverpool’s best ever signings in the Premier League era. He is just so reliable and leads that back line and has improved every defender who plays next to him. The best thing to say about Van Dijk is he is yet be dribbled past in the Premier League. That is absolutely incredible. He will be needed in a game against an opponents with true European pedigree, and Liverpool need a leader, especially at the Allianz. While I do like Van Dijk and mostly like Salah (the diving hasn’t helped him recently), I love Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is the reason why that front 3 click so well. His pressing, creativity and work ethic make him the perfect partner for Mane and Salah. He has been so consistent during his time in Liverpool, He has contibuted to more than 15 goals in every domestic season for the Reds, and is a favourite for Jurgen Klopp. While Salah and Mane were great in the Champions League last season. He played every game and arguably gave his best performances. He contributed to 17 goals in 13 starts. He gave out the highest shot numbers and creative figures, and was the stand out performer for a majority of Liverpool’s games. Whether he is on the ball or off it, Bayern should be worried for what he can do to them.

Moving on to Bayern, who haven’t had as bad of a season as many have attempted to point out. The best way to describe it is unfortunate.  Just looking at thier xPTS, it shows that Bayern should be 8 points clear ahead of Dortmund, but thanks to a few unfortunate results and Favre breaking xG as usual, Bayern are 5 behind Dortmund and just in front of Gladbach. I’ve covered the negatives multiple times in the past so why not look at the more positive side? Well they still top the Bundesliga for shots, possession, pass accuracy and face the least amount of shots. They are still a very good side, but a lack of recruitment has made this squad weak in some areas. Niko Kovac is doing a good job, but has had the problem of relatively poor backing from the board have given Kovac criticism that isn’t entirely his fault. Bayern have an average age of 27,3, the highest in the Bundesliga. It’s worrying when their closest competitors, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, have average age’s of 23,9 and 24,9 respectively. While signings like Goretzka, Gnabry and Tolisso show that they have thought ahead in some areas, there are still players in this side that should be looking at moving on. Robben and Ribery are leaving in the summer, which is long overdue. Both have been some of the best wingers of the century, but they shouldn’t be relying on these players when they are both in their mid 30s. Some of their defenders also need to be looking at replacing. While I think Boateng and Hummels are still great defenders, one of them should move on, most definitely Boateng. The World Cup winner has struggled with injuries, and has relied on his physicality for years now. Hummels does not, which makes him more useful as he ages. Even with Pavard coming in the summer, they need to start truly future proofing the side, and now with Koman and Gnabry being the only attackers in the side that can be seen as young, their next few summers could possibly be the most important in the club’s recent history. I do think Bayern have been hugely unlucky to not be top of the Bundesliga, but their problems are all their own.

While Lewandowski is by far their biggest threat, with the forward scoring the joint most goals in the group stages, and his shot numbers being very good with 4 per game, it’s too obvious. We’ll instead look at two other players that will cause Liverpool plenty of problems. The first being, as previously mentioned, Kinglsey Coman. The Frenchman has had his difficulties while playing for the champions, with his game time limited thanks to Robben and Ribery’s continued persistence to remain as key players, it has meant he isn’t given as much game time as he so rightly deserves. Why does he deserve it? Well he has confortably been their best wide player. With Robben, Ribery and Gnabry all not being at their best, it has made Coman vital to this side. Even with the winger missing a majority of the season due to an injury he sustained in the first game of the season, Kovac as seen Coman as a player that must remain part of his first team plans. He put in a man of the match display against Augsburg, which saw him score 2 and assist another, which have been his only goal involvments this season, but his numbers have still been very positive. His xG90 and xA90 combined this season is a good 0.64, the highest in his career. He has only made 11 appearances this season, but it shows just how well he has played under Kovac. He has been unbeatable at times, with his pace, dribbling and chance creation all incredible this season. He has to play every game, but it’s a shame his injury record is still a worry. He’s now 22, which means it is about time for him to truly show the potential he’s promised for so long. Finally, let’s discuss Thiago Alcantara. The Spaniard has been one of the best midfielders in Europe for the past 3 years, but like Coman, he has also had his injury problems in the past. This hasn’t stopped the Spaniard in being almost a complete midfielder. He averages 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, completes 2.2 dribbles and averages 82 passes a game. Without Thiago in the side, they lack a player who isn’t afraid to get on the ball and help transition to attack, while relieving pressure off the defence. He is one of their most important players, and Bayern will need to get him on the ball as much as possible.

If Liverpool want to win this tie, they must attack down the flanks. If Bayern’s 3-1 loss against Leverkusen has taught us anything, it’s that they struggle when dealing with fast wingers, and Liverpool definitely have some of them. Bailey and Bellarabi cause Alaba and Rafinha plenty of problems, with the wingers completing 5 dribbles between them. Even with Kimmich coming back, it doesn’t change the fact that because Bayern advance their full backs so far forward, it leaves so much space for wingers to exploit. When Bayern struggle against teams, it’s against those who have more energy and hit them in the wide areas. Liverpool should deploy their 4-3-3. This kind of game is made for Firmino. His pressing will be key in dealing with an aging back line and a goalkeeper who is having his worst season in the his esteemed career in Neuer. Liverpool have been good this season, but it is time for them to turn on the spark of their incredible run last season, where their forwards that their best performances, and show this Bayern side that they aren’t top dogs anymore in European football.

However if Bayern want to advance to the next round, they must get Thiago on the ball as much as possible. I mentioned this before, but he is an excellent midfielder and if they are to get anything out of this game, Thiago needs to put his mark on this game. Modric and Kroos proved that if you play midfielders with game intelligence and great transitional play, it truly makes it hard for Liverpool. They cannot play anyone who isn’t afraid to run the length of the pitch. Coman. Gnabry, Rodriguez and even Goretzka have to play. Kovac might have to sacrifice everything that Pep has built and established, if they want to advance.

I’m going for Liverpool to advance here, and quite comfortably. This is still a good Bayern side, but this Liverpool side are still favourites. On their day, they can beat anyone, and they have the players and energy to break this Bayern side. The game at Anfield could be a battering, and it could be a massive statement for the Reds. Both want to win their domestic campaigns arguably more than this trophy, so it will be interesting to see how both will set up.

 

Are Dortmund Doing The IMPOSSIBLE? Top 5 League Talking Points

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

Bundesliga

Dortmund extend their lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankfurt pummel Schalke

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

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

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

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

La Liga

Barcelona’s home record ruined

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

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

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

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

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

Sevilla take on in form Espanyol

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

Paris put pressure on Henry

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

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

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

Depay’s dazzling display

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

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

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

Premier League

The Manchester Derby

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

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

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

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

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

Wolves continue run against Top 6

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

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

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

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

Serie A

Inter humiliated

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

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

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

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

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