Good Business in January? A Review of the 2020 January Transfer Window

Travelling back to 2018, where it finally seemed like the January transfer window wouldn’t be the same dull affair. This window saw huge money signings in Philippe Coutinho, Virgil Van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte, as well as the transfer saga surrounding Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund, and whether they could keep their star strikers. It remained eventful throughout and felt like a change in how transfers would be conducted in the future.

However, I guess context is vital for some of these moves. Van Dijk and Coutinho’s moves to Liverpool and Barcelona respectively were always going to happen in January, considering they weren’t completed in the summer before their transfers. The two clubs also ended up spending more than initially intended, just to have their new players earlier. The transfer merry-go-round of Aubameyang’s move to Arsenal could only happen if the Gunners could offload Giroud. With Dortmund interested in Batshuayi, it made sense for Chelsea to pick up Giroud, as another option alongside Morata. Even Arsenal ended up overspending on Aubameyang. He is an extremely talented forward, but spending £50 million on a 29-year-old, wholly reliant on pace, wasn’t wise from a club who weren’t high spenders like their rivals.

My point is, is the only reason that that January window was so exciting was because of the big names moving. Yet most were either supposed to move the previous summer or part of another deal. Usually, the only clubs who buy in January are the ones sitting at the bottom of the table, who are looking to add someone to save them from the drop. Most clubs don’t want to deal in January because they don’t want to overspend on players when they can get them cheaper only six months later. The other reason is how long it can take players to settle at their new club. Whether it’s tactically or socially, you won’t see these players at their best until the following season.

Let’s look at some of the most significant moves during the window, and judge whether these signings will work out:

The Chase for Bruno

The Red Devils have a thin squad, to say the least, especially with the injury to their most valuable player, Marcus Rashford. Midfield additions were needed, which made the links to Bruno Fernandes quite strange. It’s clear that Fernandes is talented, but Liga NOS has always been difficult for judging talent. The fact that United was willing to spend over €50 million on the Sporting playmaker is baffling, mainly because they give this impression of a club not willing to spend. Why pay so much money on a huge gamble, when there are so many gaps in the team?

The January window is a gold mine for outcasts of big clubs. We’ve already seen Diego Demme move to Napoli, adding some steel to a rather defensively-weak midfield and Emre Can return to Germany, joining Dortmund to replace Julien Weigl. Both of these players were signed for less than €25 million. My point with United is there’s definitely value in the market, but the club seemingly has tunnel vision. Once they set their sights on one target, they won’t stop their pursuit until the deal is done, or when there is no chance, it will happen.

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The fact that United decided to sign anyone in January did surprise me. However, they’ve clearly resolved the wrong position. United needed an elite number ten, but they currently have players who can occupy that position. It was way more important to fix their striker problem or their lack of midfielders. I think the Bruno Fernandes deal was going to happen no matter what. This team looks exhausted, and defensive midfield reinforcements could help them at least remain competitive in a season where top four is still possible.

Tottenham’s Refresh

While United remained a talking point throughout the window due to how long the Fernandes deal took to finalise, Tottenham arguably had more to do. Kane is suffering from a long term injury, as well as the injuries to Sissoko and Ndombele meant arrivals were needed, just to give them bodies. This was vital considering the eventual departures of Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose. Tottenham used to have the most stable squad in the league, but now they are the biggest mess.

The striker situation was vital since Spurs have zero first-team strikers if Kane isn’t available. Tottenham was heavily linked to two forwards, being Islam Slimani and Krzysztof Piątek. Both were more old fashioned forwards, guys who flourish when the ball is given to them in the box. Piątek offers next to nothing excluding his shots, while Slimani can be an aerial threat. Signing any of these guys just seemed so unlikely to me, and as usual, it’s because of Kane. Every forward joining the club will know they aren’t guaranteed consistent minutes, something Tottenham can’t offer because of Kane’s role. If he’s fit, he’ll always play.

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Instead of going for a striker, they decided to add another wide player, bringing in PSV’s Steven Bergwijn. The Dutchman is a very exciting forward, able to create, dribble and score. It’s the type of winger Mourinho loves to have. A pacey winger with a broad skill set, similar to Willian or Di Maria. The best part about this deal is how it enables them to play Son as the number nine, while not losing their pace and penetration from the wings. When Son has performed as the focal point, there’s always been a lot of pressure on Moura to be the primary threat out wide, something he has failed to do. Bergwijn adds much-needed competition, while indirectly fixing a big problem when Kane doesn’t play.

Signing Lo Celso on a permanent deal was Tottenham’s best bit of business. The Argentine has finally started playing consistently and has looked fantastic over the last month. I knew he was going to be good, but not this good. Gedson Fernandes adds the same depth Sissoko offers, but that deal stinks of Jorge Mendes. I doubt Tottenham will make it permanent.

The sales might be problematic if more injuries hit this team. Both Rose and Walker-Peters wanted to leave for different reasons, but allowing both to move, leaving Aurier and Davies as the only recognised full-backs is crazy. Tottenham managed to fix a significant hole while opening up another in the process. We’ll touch on the Eriksen deal later. Overall an exciting window for Tottenham, but I do worry about them on the short term.

The Scudetto Race

Inter were by far the most active team in the transfer market. The fact they’ve managed to stay this close to Juventus, with such an inferior squad in critical areas, is quite astounding. The wing-back positions did need added competition. Conte has a reputation for placing the most average of players as his wide options. They offer the main width for the team, while still needing to be hardworking to help out defensively. The arrivals of English veteran Ashley Young and Premier League winner under Conte, Victor Moses, excellently show the type of players Inter want. Young and Moses have primarily been utility players over the last few years. Young is still a pretty good crosser, able to play on both sides of the pitch, while Moses has the strength and dynamism to be a threat consistently. Both signings will keep them competitive this season and possibly next season. Biraghi has been slightly underwhelming, Candreva is clearly past it, and Asamoah is still struggling with injuries. These signings keep them stacked in arguably their weakest positions.

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Christian Eriksen’s move to the San Siro was by far the most significant in Italy and made a lot of sense. There’s no debating that Eriksen’s performances dropped dramatically over the last couple of seasons. This is clearly down to the player wanting to leave, probably because of the lower wages Tottenham offer. It is a shame that the fans did turn on him, after the level of performances he put in between 2015 and 2018, but he needed to leave that club. Inter have required a genuinely elite trequartista to keep Lukaku and Martinez firing. Brozovic is more of a deep-lying playmaker, Barella plays more as an advanced eight, and Sensi prefers late runs into the box than linking attack and midfield. Eriksen is still a fantastic passer, able to progress the ball at an elite level while creating a high amount of chances for the players in front of him. A less aggressive league might be better for the Danish playmaker, allowing him to exploit more pockets of space. Inter now arguably have a starting forward line as threating as Juventus and Lazio, which could be enough to clinch the title.

Dortmund Staying Competitive

When discussing the business done by Bundesliga clubs, Dortmund is the only place to go. They were the club who managed to sign the most wanted prospect in Europe, Erling-Braut Haland. While it did involve the sale of superhuman sub Paco Alcacer, they now have a player perfect for the way Dortmund want to play. They primarily score and create chances through their incredible talent out wide and in the number ten position. Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt, Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho are some of the best players in their respective positions. It means Dortmund don’t necessarily need some world-class, well-rounded striker. All they need is a guy who is going to consistently put the ball in the back of the net.

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Erling-Braut Haland fits this role perfectly. As of February 2nd, Haland is on 7 goals in just 3 appearances, which has made him the quickest player to reach 7 goals in Bundesliga history. Haland has an unrivalled size, speed and match intelligence at such an early age. His finishing has been the part of his game which has stood out. Haland, during his short career, can put away all kinds of chances. Whether a first time finish, a simple tap in, a scrappy goal or from the tightest of angles, Haland will find a way to put his name on the scoresheet.

Emre Can was another big signing for Dortmund. Mainly down to the sale of Julian Weigl to Benfica, Dortmund needed another body in midfield and managed to find the perfect player for that. Unsurprisingly, Can struggled for game-time under Sarri, and failed to make his Champions League squad for the season. Can is a massive improvement over Weigl in terms of what Favre wants from his midfielders. A solid passer, an excellent ball-winner, hardworking and versatile; Can will help give Dortmund some needed depth in midfield, allowing them to stay competitive throughout the season.

 

The Sacking of Pochettino: Where Did It Go Wrong and Where Do Tottenham Go From Here?

Before even discussing the whole Tottenham situation, let’s talk about Ajax, and more specifically, Rinus Michels. I consider him one of the greatest and most influential coaches in the history of the game. He was a primary factor in Ajax’s dominance in the early seventies, as well as Holland’s fantastic run to the 1974 World Cup final. There is no doubting his importance to how the game is even played today, with the Dutchman’s emphasis on players interchanging positions, ball-playing defenders and an extreme press. His first job on his arrival in 1965 was to avoid the drop, which he did through installing a robust training regime, which pushed his players to new levels. Ajax went on to win 4 league titles and reaching 2 European Cup finals, winning their first in 1971. However, as we now know about pressing teams, it’s very demanding on the players. They eventually reach a point where the constant work needed to put in can be too much, and they become sick of it. This drop off is exactly what happened with his Ajax team once Michels departed to Barcelona, and Stefan Kovacs was appointed. The players were at a stage where they didn’t need to work as hard as they were. They were European Champions at this point. All they needed was someone who would let them express themselves and continue to dominate. Two European Cups in two seasons later, the players became tired of Kovacs, with training and match preparations not at the same level as they were under Michels.

The point of that rather long story is because, on a somewhat smaller scale, it’s a replication of what happened at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino. He completely turned the club around, taking them from an inconsistent mess of a side to title challengers and then European finalists. No more struggling to challenge for the Champions League spots and relying on individual talents to carry them. Instead, they were a great team, defensively solid while still being a lot of fun to watch in-possession. Pochettino showed himself to be an excellent coach, turning the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela into great players through using a demanding, aggressive and enjoyable style of football. Between 2015 and 2018, Tottenham were arguably the second-best team in the league. Alongside Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pochettino side was one of the frontrunners in using pressing as a useful tool in defending and winning the ball high up the pitch.

Everything was going so well for Tottenham under Pochettino in those first three years, but the beginning of the end can actually be traced back to the summer of 2017, and the sale of Kyle Walker. The England right-back wasn’t precisely a world-class talent, so selling him for £50 million did make sense. Still, they failed to replace him adequately, with Aurier arriving to add competition to a defensively-weak Kieran Trippier. This might not have been a massive issue at the time, but looking back, it’s clear where a lot of problems would later arise.

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I think the problems became more apparent in the summer of 2018, a transfer window in which Tottenham failed to sign a single player. There was already a lot of questions regarding if that Tottenham side needed additions and if the squad was good enough as it is. It’s easy to look back now and criticise the club for not adding new players, especially with the gaping hole in midfield that was opening as Dembele was turning into a shadow of the player he was. One of the reasons why teams sign players is to freshen things up. That Tottenham squad had been together for four years. Rarely is there a team that can stay motivated for that long. Clubs need to continually add new faces in the dressing room. It keeps the senior players on their toes, knowing there will be a player ready to take their place in the starting eleven if their form begins to slip. The added competition has kept Manchester City, Juventus and PSG competitive on all fronts, with depth in all positions. Tottenham aren’t on the same level as one of these superclubs, but not signing a single player comes across as insanely arrogant, especially when the team was in desperate need for midfield additions. 

The 2018/19 season was by far Pochettino’s most impressive as a manager. He was stuck with an inferior squad to the one he had in the past, which included injuries to key players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli throughout crucial points of the season. Spurs were not good last season, but Pochettino somehow managed to get enough out of his team to get top four as well as reach a Champions League final. He did this through nearly sacrificing a lot of what made his Spurs side so good for 3 years, instead opting for a more adaptive and reactive approach to his team. Pochettino was more or less changing his tactics depending on the opponent, whether it was formation or personnel. Their surprise 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 2018 does showcase this rather perfectly. During this game, Pochettino changes his formation a lot, switching between alterations of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1. The message was becoming apparent. This team, especially after an exhausting World Cup year, were not at the level to be showing the same intensity as they did in the past.

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Spurs were not good last season, in fact in the second half of the season, they were awful. At the time it was easy to defend their terrible form in 2019 because of their run in the Champions League, which was a lot different to their domestic form. In Europe, Spurs managed to beat Dortmund home and away, somehow progress past Pep’s City and displayed so much fight and heart to edge past the neutral’s favourite, Ajax. Tottenham were not the second-best team in Europe last season, they weren’t even top five, but Pochettino managed to get everything out of the players he had. During buildup, he would regularly bypass the midfield of Sissoko and Winks, due to their lack of ability in ball progression. With Kane injured, it was the best way to utilise Fernando Llorente’s strengths, placing quick players around him like Son and Moura. Their performances in the Champions League were extraordinary compared to their league form, which was truly atrocious. Convincing defeats to Bournemouth, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham showed Tottenham at their worst; games where chance creation was lacking and Pochettino’s players just didn’t look nearly as solid and organised as they did back in 2017. They were facing 12.9 shots per game last season, a considerable increase from the 9.4 they were facing in 17/18. The Athletic even notes:

“Spurs’ pressed sequences increased in absolute and relative terms over the first four Pochettino seasons. From 11.6 per game in 2014-15, joint-eighth in the league, to 15.6 in 2017-18, the second-most in the league, at their pressing peak.

Then, last year, a dramatic drop down to 13.2, their lowest since Pochettino’s first season, and only the 10th highest in the league. That tells the story itself.”

The numbers, performances and results all paint this picture of a manager willing to do anything to take Spurs to win something. Their final defeat to Liverpool, a make or break game which could have defined Pochettino’s legacy at the club, instead highlighted the leap in quality between them and their opponents. That final season seemed to have taken every last ounce of energy out of Pochettino, which makes it more baffling to why he decided to stay. 

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Even with the much-needed additions of Tanguay Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, the sale of Kieran Trippier did leave a massive hole at right-back. Llorente also departed the club in the summer, meaning there was no one to cover for Kane, who has become half the player he was before his infamous ankle injury. I still thought Tottenham would quite easily get into the top four. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea still had clear holes in their team, and Spurs have been one of the most consistent sides in the past four years. It made sense to think they would finish there with the signings of two of the best young midfielders in Europe. 

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Tottenham were terrible last season, but have somehow been even worse in 19/20. So far, Tottenham have only managed 3 wins 12 games, a shambolic amount of wins considering the talent at their disposal. Those 12.7 shots faced last season has risen to 14.8. They’re 10th for shots taken per game and lacked any cohesion in the final third. Their defence has become noticeably bad, but in terms of chance creation and shot location, they’re just as useless. Tottenham are 17th for non-penalty xG with only 13.15, with only Palace, Newcastle and Norwich behind them. The players have looked out of ideas on numerous occasions. Their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle was one of the worst performance I’ve seen during Pochettino’s reign. They were narrow and failed to create anything of substance against one of the worst teams in the league. Their 3-0 defeat to Brighton was somehow even worse. Spurs were comfortably second best in every area, allowing Brighton to create plenty of quality chances, while Spurs failed to create anything of note. Vertonghen and Alderweireld were beaten far too easily for Connolly’s goals. Kane and Eriksen were poor, and they were simply beaten by a better team.

After failing to win since the end of September, Pochettino was given the boot. It’s divided the footballing world, especially with Mourinho arriving as his replacement. I do think Levy is to blame for some of the issues in the dressing and the lack of transfers during 2018, but it’s obvious the players were clearly tired of all the work, as seen by their pressing numbers dropping. But it’s not only the players, but Pochettino also seems to face exhaustion. He was considering leaving the club after the Champions League final if the result went in their favour. This is similar to what happened at Espanyol. During his final press conference in Spain, Pochettino said: “I have been in the world of football for many years and understand that a coach has a sell-by date.” Even with the outside factors, the relation between Pochettino’s Tottenham and Michels’ Ajax are clear. Players will only perform in these intense systems for 3-5 years before it starts to decline.

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So is Mourinho going to be the Kovacs of Tottenham? Well, I don’t think Mourinho will be as bad as many believe, but I don’t think it’s going to work as well as Levy and Mourinho want. The former Chelsea coach does have a considerable advantage compared to his start at United. The majority of Tottenham’s players are ready to go now. Kane, Moura and Son are at a perfect age while Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Rose offer much-needed experience that Mourinho craves. The constant fitness and training done under Pochettino means Mourinho can focus more on the tactical side of the game, something he has always favoured. He has a lot of players who I can see him liking already. I can see Sissoko playing in those big games because of that size, aggression and speed he can offer in midfield, and Son and Moura are both very flexible in where and how they can play. Mourinho has two things he has to do on the short term; fix the defence and fix Kane.

Even if United’s defence was awful in Jose’s final two seasons, he still earned a reputation for creating a solid base to start building from. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are better than the defenders he had in Manchester, so expect the same robust and resilient backline we saw at Chelsea and Inter. The right-back area is an obvious problem, but Mourinho has never attacked with two full-backs. He’ll likely use Rose as his primary attacking full-back, and choose Foyth, Sissoko or Aurier to fill in on the right-side.

Kane is the biggest problem. Many like to paint this image of Kane as this complete forward, bringing others into play as well as scoring bundles of goals. But this is simply not true. Kane was at his best between August 2017 and March 2018, before that ankle injury against Bournemouth. He was not only taking a high volume of shots but taking them in great areas. He scored 24 goals in 29 games, taking over 5 shots per game with an xG per 90 of 0.88, the highest of his career so far. The ankle injury isn’t even the most significant problem to why Kane has fallen out of that top three forwards bracket. He needs to stop dropping so deep, and actually focus on getting in the box. His shot numbers have dropped massively down to 2.7, and his xG per 90 is down to 0.44. Kane is literally half the striker he was in 2017/18. Mourinho has always gotten a lot out of his forwards. Whether it’s an old-school forward like Milito, a young hardworking striker like Benzema or an all-rounder in Zlatan. Mourinho could be the perfect guy to reinvigorate Kane and turn him into the player he used to be. 

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As for Pochettino, I’d recommend taking a year off. This whole Spurs’ situation seems to have drained him. Just like Pep after departing Barcelona, Pochettino could do with the time off, to rethink his approach and recuperate after a very long five years. He will have plenty of jobs when he decides to return to football. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and possibly Paris Saint-Germain could all be looking for a coach next summer. Pochettino has proven he can build a team, get the best out of his assets and improve his teams in defence while bringing an entertaining style and aggressive press with him. Tottenham needed a fresh face in the dugout, just like Pochettino needs a new environment. 

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview: Spain Vs Russia, Croatia Vs Denmark

Another day, another round of 16 preview. Let’s take a look at the 2 games on Sunday, where we’ll see the hosts take on the 2010 winners, and a great Croatia team take on an underwhelming Denmark side.

Spain Vs Russia

This could well an truly be the most interesting tie of the day. Both teams have looked very good at points, while also showing some significant weaknesses. Let’s start with Spain, who go into this game as the winners of Group B, winning 1 and drawing 2. Talking about this Spain side without mentioning the early sacking Lopategui is difficult. While you can criticise the decision or agree with it, it has added an unnecessary pressure to this side. They were already tournament favourites for me, but losing the man who cruised them through qualifying and didn’t lose a single game, it will always be a what if. If the new Real Madrid manager was still in charge, would we have seen a much better side than we are seeing? We’ll never know. I think Spain haven’t looked at their best in this tournament. They seem to struggle to break down sides who play a low block, and they seem unable to get the best out of their forward, Diego Costa. Costa is a very specific forward. He is great at bringing in others into play, while also being incredible in the air. The issue is he doesn’t exactly fit into the way Spain want to play. Spain like to play a very patient possession style of football. It’s about overloading the midfield and the more technical players like Isco, Iniesta and Silva. They are all players who are able to find those pockets of space and use pick passes to put defenders in difficult places and exploit them. Costa works better in a counter attacking system. While he isn’t very fast, it’s his aggression and size that are his biggest benefit. You could argue they did overplay it against Morocco. I disagree. It seems to be the best way to break these low block teans down. While Spain haven’t shown their best, they still have been very good.

Russia have easily been the surprise package of this tournament. Even with their very old defense and injury list, they have definitely benefited from being the home team. You could argue that is their biggest strength. They seem to play with this fearlessness, as if every play just want to make their country proud. Their best players have easily been Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev. Both have been the best players Russia have produced over the years in talent. While Cheryshev’s club career did drop off a cliff after his time at Real Madrid, he has definitely performed in this world cup, scoring 3 goals. However while his club career has dropped, Golovin’s is only on the increase. The CSKA Moscow midfielder was sensational throughout the group stages. He did have a very good season for his club, but the issue is it’s hard to judge quality in Russia. However he has proved us all wrong. He has been the centre piece for that team. He has added that extra bit of quality and his ability on the ball has been excellent. He’s been averaging 2.5 key passes per 90, which has earned him 2 assists. His number of passes has dropped from Moscow, but his key passes have doubled. It shows how he is playing in a much higher position, and it definitely has benefited his team. After the 3-0 defeat to Uruguay, there are question marks on whether they can beat the former champions, but being a home nation always gives you that advantage.

For Spain to beat Russia, they need to make those centre halves as uncomfortable as possible. Their age and lack of mobility is their biggest weakness, and having such magnificent technical players could be key in getting right past them. They also have to get Costa on the ball much more. He will definitely help bring others into play and open space for his teammates. For Russia to shock us all, they need to show courage and play in the same mold they have all tournament. Make sure Golovin continues to be key and get him in those dangerous areas. Even if it would work, I still think Spain will get through his tie.

Spain 3-1 Russia

Croatia Vs Denmark

Both teams in this tie have reached my expectations. I expected Croatia to blow their group away, for simply having a great midfield and a solid defense. Denmark escaped their group, however it is clear that their over reliance on Eriksen is a huge issue. Croatia were very good in their group. They were only one of three teams to earn maximum points. They have a very good squad of players, with their midfield being easily their best area on the pitch. Next to Spain, I think Croatia have the best midfield in the tournament. They have a good balance in dictators and ball recovery specialists. Modric and Rakitic are brilliant dribblers and creators, however they struggle to play in a pair. This is wear Brozovic comes in, he has been the hard working player who has given his teammates a solid base, and give Modric and Rakitic less pressure. They dominated against Argentina because they completely outclassed them in that area. It has been excellent to see and why they have seen to be one of the favourites of the tournament.

Denmark actually have some very talented players. They possess some real talent in Pione Sisto, Youssaf Poulsen and Andreas Christiansen. However their best hope of getting anything out of this tournament is Christian Eriksen. He has been excellent for both club and country in the last year. He has contributed to all 2 of Denmark’s goals in the tournament, scoring one and assisting another. They have played some very good football in the tournament, and have used their forwards very effectively. Poulsen seems to play more as a second striker, while Sisto plays more as a traditional winger. It gives them a very good balance, and with Jorgenson very effective in connecting play, it has given them a good approach. I haven’t been paying too much attention to the Danish, so I will be interested in how they approach this game.

For Croatia to secure their place in the quarter final, they will need to take advantage of their midfield numbers. There will definitely be space between the midfield and the defense, with Denmark playing a very attacking 4-3-3. The likes of Perisic and Rakitic will need to get into those half spaces and help move the ball further up the pitch. Denmark have also given away 2 penalties, which means getting these players in bad areas could result in favourable decisions. For Denmark to beat the 98 semi finalists, they will need to take advantage of their more pacey players. Vida and Lovren are not exactly the greatest defenders, so using the pace of Sisto and Poulsen, could put these players in very comfortable positions. Eriksen will also be key for Denmark. Getting him on the ball as much as possible will be beneficial. I can still see Croatia getting through this one very easily.

Croatia 3-1 Denmark.