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

Los Blancos’ Return 

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

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

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

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

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

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

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

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

Barca’s Ageing Squad

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

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

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

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

 

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #1 – Lampard to Change Chelsea?

With the season returning in a month (it cannot come any quicker), there are already so many players, teams or managers who could do something special next season in taking their team to another level. These are twenty things you should be keeping your eye on next season. There isn’t a particular order, but it does include some teams I have discussed in the past. I thought I’d split them up into four parts so it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

Atletico Madrid’s rebuild

After a hugely disappointing season in both La Liga and in the Champions League, this might be one of Atletico Madrid’s most important seasons to date. With the futures of Griezmann, Rodri, Partey, Oblak and Morata all in a cloud, and Hernandez already departing the club, this is arguably their most significant rebuild since the summer of 2015. An ageing defence, their best attacker leaving a potentially losing their whole midfield paints a picture of a team that needs a lot of reinforcements this summer.

It isn’t just signings, but the manager. I have a lot of respect for what Simeone has done with Atletico Madrid over the last 5 years, but his tactics seem to be showing their age. Their defence will always be reliable, but it is in attack where the problems have consistently been. Players have been brought in for a lot of money, talented ones that have shown a lot of promise at their previous clubs, but as soon as they arrived in Madrid, that form went out of the window. We’ve seen Lemar, Costa, Carrasco, Gaitan, Gameiro, Mandzukic all fail after succeeding at their previous clubs. Since their title win, they have continually sacrificed attacking output to ensure they have remained stable at the back. This isn’t a way to win a league title. Simeone seemingly forgot what won him the league back in 2014, which was a huge goal output from Diego Costa, who scored 27 goals. Griezmann managed 15 with Morata managing 6.

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The massive rebuild is a chance for Simeone to return to a more attacking style. With the arrival of Europe’s next big superstar in Joao Felix, this could be the perfect chance for Atleti to start looking like the title challengers we all want them to be. Madrid and Barcelona are both looking miles ahead of their competition in terms of talent, so this could be Simeone’s chance to surprise them once again.

Julien Nagelsmann’s Leipzig 

Without a doubt, the Bundesliga looks to be the most exciting league to watch next season. All of the top 6 in Germany have an exciting coach. Favre’s Dortmund defying xG as usual, and Adi Hutter getting the best out of a Frankfurt side with impressive attackers are 2 teams I haven’t put on this list, solely for not wanting to crowd this list with the Bundesliga.

We’ll start with by far the most talked about young manager in Europe and his arrival to arguably one of the best-run clubs in Europe. Nagelsmann did miracles at his former club, turning Hoffenheim from relegation candidates to Top 4 challengers with a squad full of mediocrity. His teams were fantastic at creating chances for the forwards and were so adaptable. It begged the question of what could he do with a talented team which has the best scouting network around. Leipzig have a fantastic young group of players and could see the best form out of the likes of Werner and Poulsen. If Nagelsmann managed to get over 10 goals out of average forwards like Mark Uth and Belfodil, it’s crazy to think what he could with some genuinely elite attackers.

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What I’m looking forward to seeing from Leipzig is the output from the midfield. While Nagelsmann did do wonders with his former club, he never indeed possessed any top-level midfielders. Florian Grillitsch is very good, but he had to rely on players like Sebastian Rudy because he lacked any elite defensive midfielders. He now has Amadou Haidara and Tyler Adams, the most promising midfielders in the Bundesliga, and both developing through the Red Bull machine, with the pair coming from RB Salzburg and NY Red Bulls respectively. Both are great box to box midfielders with massive defensive numbers. It’ll be interesting to see if Nagelsmann can form one of the best midfielders partnerships in Europe, and push Leipzig to be the Bundesliga title challengers they could so easily be.

Marco Rose in the Bundesliga 

Austria has become one of the leading innovators in Europe, as it was a century ago. They have had managers like Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl coach in their first division, with systems focussing on pressing, attacking football. The next in this line of up and coming managers is Marco Rose. While Nagelsmann is an exciting appointment, Borussia Monchengladbach bringing in Rose is arguably the most impressive managerial signing of the summer.

The Austrian built a fantastic team in Salzburg that focused on full backs pressing extraordinarily high and crowding the centre. On paper, they set up in a 4-3-1-2, but when watching them play, their midfield can adapt to match their opponents and the current circumstances. This is slightly dependent on having midfielders who are physically spectacular, with the likes of Haidara, Schlager and Samassekou putting in an insane amount of defensive work. It’s a system that requires players who are tactically flexible and can cover a lot of ground. It’s similar to pressing systems deployed by the likes of Pep and Klopp, but there is much more intensity, that it suffocates their opponents.

Most of my viewings of Rose’s Salzburg side all came in Europe, where they were excellent. They managed to win every game in their Europa League group containing Celtic and RB Leipzig. Rose’s side managed to beat talented opponents using a superior, more effective approach that stopped the opposition from playing their favoured way. They could outnumber you in the wide areas, press your centre back and block of the passing lanes. They were one of the best sides in the competition two seasons on the bounce.

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It’ll be fascinating to see what Rose will bring to the top flight in Germany. Monchengladbach have been underachieving for some time now and have needed an elite coach like Rose to push them closer to those Champions League spots finally. I think he will like a few of the players he will be working with, guys like Plea, Zakaria and Elvedi could be significant in what Rose will want to implement. Monchengladbach were quick in giving their manager the players to fit his system, with Breel Embolo coming in as a very athletic and versatile forward, and Stefan Lainer joining from Rose’s former club as a much-needed improvement over Lang. Monchengladbach are easily the team to watch next season.

Lille’s Young Side in Europe 

PSG have been the expected champions of Ligue 1 for years now, with Lyon or Monaco coming in second. This changed this year, with Lille finishing as the runners up in France. This came as a surprise considering they were close to relegation under Bielsa on numerous occasions. The arrival of French manager Christophe Galtier seems to have changed the way the club plays and operates. They are a defensively solid side with players who are so dangerous on the counter-attack and are very difficult to deal with. Only PSG managed more goals on the break than Lille’s 10. Galtier managed to get the best out of a messy situation and got them performing. Lille continued to sign young talent but weren’t spending nearly as much, with Bamba, arguably their best signing, arriving for nothing. Combine that with the free acquisitions of Jose Fonte and Rafael Leao, and you have a team taking astute, low-risk signings.

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It’s given them the platform to allow them to sign players for nothing and sell them when their stock increases. We’ve already seen this with the recent sales of Thiago Mendes, El Ghazi and Kone how they can turn a profit on their players. They’ve picked up a sensible model of how to operate in the transfer market, and with a rather pragmatic style of football, leaves it more comfortable for players to adapt to the system. Not only are they smart in selling players, but bringing in talent. The signing of Timothy Weah is a stroke of genius and another export from PSG’s academy, one that cannot stop producing talent. He could potentially be the striker I’ve previously mentioned they’ve poorly needed. They’re returning to Europe after a 5-year hiatus, and this could be the chance for Lille to show Europe how good they are when it comes to player recruitment.

Chelsea Under Lampard

This might be the most significant power move Abrahamovich has played since bringing Jose Mourinho back to the club. The arrival of Frank Lampard might seem premature, and its primary purpose seems to be to give Chelsea fans something to smile about since their transfer ban. From a non-football perspective, it makes sense. It is insanely unlikely the Chelsea fans will turn on their manager like they usually do when the manager is one of their greatest ever players. Lampard will not put up with some of the poorer attitudes witnessed in the Chelsea dressing room in recent years. The Blues are going to have a tough season, suffering from the same problems they have had for a long time. A squad full of talent in some areas but incredibly weak in others. The departure of Eden Hazard has left this team, and the Premier League, without their most talented player and the man who has dragged Chelsea in an attacking sense since his arrival, that it’ll be fascinating in what Lampard will do to get this attack working without the Belgian superstar.

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By far the most enticing prospect of having Lampard in charge is what he will do with the younger players. It’s been a desire from everyone to see this trophy winning youth side produce players who actually play for the Chelsea youth team. I’m not expecting 30 players to be handed debuts, but the most promising players to at least are given a chance. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Ethan Ampadu to be given an opportunity in the Premier League, to see if they can add something to a team that I criticised under Sarri for not having players who were willing to change the system. This could be Lampard’s chance to show everyone at Chelsea that the club can produce Champions League level talent who can start for Chelsea, instead of resorting to the transfer market for every issue.

5 Players Who Have Started the Season Well

While there have only been around 5 games in each game played, there are already players who are in electric form. So let’s go through some players who have had good starts to the season. There will only be 1 player per Top 5 league, to add variety.

Ligue 1 – Dimitri Payet

Starting in France, Dimitri Payet has to be here. While Paris have won every game they’ve played (no surprise there), it does take a lot more to impress me, because of their superior talent. But Payet is by far good enough to play for them. He is has been the key player in a Marseille side that has been incredibly interesting to watch. Marseille over the last couple of seasons have transformed into a team that was Europe’s next giant to fall, into a side that are only on the way up. Marseille have mostly been making smart business. It was something I would not have expected, with most new owners trying to fix a team instantly, but in Marseille’s defense, they’re signings have been very good. Just last summer, Marseille signed Amavi on a permanent for only £9m and brought in Kevin Strootman to replace the outgoing Zambo Anguissa for the same price. They have a blend of solid players and players with a lot of skill. Payet is the lynch pin for the whole project. The ex West Ham midfielder has been a sensation since his return to Marseille, and has continued his form into this season. In the first 5 games, he has managed 3 goals and 2 assists. Payet has been one of the best creators in Europe since 2014 and has shown it, making an incredible 4.4 key passes per game this season. A huge issue for Payet himself over the last few years is the lack of talent in front of him. His incredible creative ability has been wasted with average talent like Germain, Mitroglou and Andy Carroll being in front of him over the years. It makes it even more impressive to see that Marseille have already scored 14 goals in 5, which is 2.8 goals a game. Payet is the reason why Marseille are so good going forward, and will continue to be vital in that area. If he can stay injury free (which has been a problem for him at times), then he could drive Marseille into the champions league positions.

Serie A – Allan

There haven’t been any outstanding performances from forwards so far this season. Ronaldo hasn’t hit the ground running as expected, Icardi is yet to score a league goal, Dybala’s game is getting sacrificed for Ronaldo’ benefit, and Immobile has only managed a goal so far. Looking away from the forwards, there has been one midfielder who has excelled so far this season, and that is Napoli midfielder Allan. The Brazilian has been one of the best ball recovery players, and also one of the best carries of the ball. He is excellent at quickly transitioning play and hitting an opposition quickly. This season has brought out some more qualities out of Allan. Napoli have looked weaker since the departure of Jorginho, because his replacement just hasn’t been performing for me. Don’t get me wrong, Zielinski is a good player, but I don’t he suits the role of controller of the game. He is a better attacking midfielder, who takes a lot of shots and helps the forward three. It just comparing Jorginho and Zielinski this season, the Pole has been dispossessed 1.6 times, while Jorginho only 0.8 times. I bring this up to show why Allan has performed so well. Allan has had to do even more work in middle of the park to compensate for the loss of his midfield partner. Allan is putting in nearly double the tackles in from last season, from 2.8 to 5.5, but because of his high tackles numbers, he is committing more fouls (with Zielinski losing the ball more it’s clear to see why). Even creatively he has improved, with his key passes doubling to 1.6. While Napoli have not shown their best this season, it’s good to see their most industrious midfielder still playing to his best.

Bundesliga – Ondrej Duda

It might be strange choice, but with Bayern being their usual boring perfect self, and Dortmund starting okay, it’s actually Hertha I’m most impressed with. They sit at second place with ten points, and after getting seven points out of Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Schalke, they have to be given some credit. This form will not be consistent, but I’ll give credit where it is due, and the player that gets most of the credit will be Ondrej Duda. The Slovakian has scored 4 goals in 4 games, and there are a few things to be impressed by. The first seems to be his versatility. He has started already in central midfield and in the no 10. Being able to play in both positions does tell you a lot about the player, and the importance of him in the team. But what’s most impressive for the player must be that he has started the season in general. Duda’s time with Hertha has been nothing but injuries. He only managed 9 starts last season, after struggling with fitness. Seeing the player finally put a string of games together is great to see. After his brace against Schalke, he came out and said he doesn’t think he ever scored more than a single goal in a game before. It just goes to show how good he is playing at the moment. His performance against Schalke is the one I’m going to highlight. Lazaro said after the game that Duda’s game was to put pressure on Sebastian Rudy and to make sure he is ineffective, and to see that Rudy only made 18 passes with a bad 61.7% pass accuracy, he clearly did his work. He also scored both of the goals, with the first showing his how good he is at late runs into the box, and the second being a brilliant free kick. He was by far the best player on the pitch, and has been the best player in the Bundesliga so far.

Premier League – Eden Hazard

Not even a debate here, Hazard has been absolutely incredible since June (where he was robbed of the player of the tournament), and has carried that form on into the new season. He has already scored 5 in 6 games so far this season, which included his first hat trick in 4 years. Hazard is a player that just doesn’t get the credit he deserves. His ability to perform under so many different manager’s just shows his talent and flexibility. Players like Alli, Sterling and Zaha are great players in the system they play, but Hazard is able to perform under any manager. He is by far the best attacker in the league. The problem for Hazard is the managers he’s played under. Guys like Benitez, Mourinho and Conte are all defensively minded managers. He has never been able to express himself under an attack minded coach, until now. Sarri is playing him in the Insigne role (his job to create and score) and he could even be performing better than the Italian. Hazard no longer has the sole responsibility of driving the team up the pitch, because of Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic all having plenty of control in the midfield, meaning Hazard does not have to drop so deep. His numbers this season have went supernova. While his dribble numbers have dropped, it’s because he is staying further up the pitch now. He doesn’t have to drop so deep to receive the ball anymore. His shooting numbers have went up from 2.1 to 2.7. His passes per 90 have went from 32 to 57, his pass accuracy as went from 83% to 88%. His key passes have stayed roughly the same too. There is still a question mark on whether he can keep these numbers up, mainly because Sarri still needs time for system to be perfected. I am not doubting the player at all, but Sarri needs time and it could mean some inconsistent performances from Chelsea. It’ll be interesting to see how he progresses this season.

La Liga – Ousmane Dembele

While Bale and Benzema have been excellent at the start of the season, I’m going for Ousmane Dembele. The world cup winner has started the season brilliantly. He didn’t have the best debut season after his £135.5m from Borussia Dortmund. He suffered an injury that kept him out for 3 months, and then Valverde just wasn’t playing him. He stuck to a very safe 4-4-2, which didn’t give much of a chance to Dembele. But Valverde has changed it up this season, going to a more Barcelona style 4-3-3, with a front 3 of Messi, Suarez and Dembele. He has been excellent this season and is finally showing his worth after many doubted him. Dembele is chiefly a creator, not a scorer. But is doing both at the moment. He already has 3 goals in 5 games. His ability to beat a man and pick one of the other forwards is by far his best skill. His stats show just how well he’s been performing for the Champions this season. He has been making 2 key passes per 90, taking 2.8 shots, completing 50% of his dribbles, and completing 1.2 crosses per 90. He’s just had a great start, and for the sake of football Barcelona, let’s hope he keeps it up.

Hazard to WIN Player of the Year? Top 5 Talking Points From The Top 5 Leagues

Bundesliga – Leipzig’s 5 goal thriller. Mönchengladbach Keep Pushing

Leipzig have not been so great this season. They began their season with a defeat to Dortmund, and then drew against newly promoted side Fortuna, a team they should be beating. But they finally got their first win, with a 3-2 victory over Hannover, thanks to goals from Werner and Poulsen. Leipzig went for a more defensive set up here, starting 3 in midfield, with Kampl being the only real attacking threat from it. It worked in a way, with Leipzig winning more tackles and aerial duels. It didn’t stop Hannover’s threat however, with the away side getting more shots and dominating possession, with 68% in their favour. It was a scrappy game for Leipzig, but having a clinical striker like Werner is what gets you through tough games like this, when you are not at your best. Werner was particularly good in this game. He only touched the ball 34 times, but still managed 6 shots. It shows how he was getting in good areas when taking shots, because of the lack of build up play he was involved in. Hannover will feel hard done by here. They should have won the game based on how much of the ball they had, but just failed to capitalise. Asano had 6 shots, yet only got 1 on target and failed to score. It’s the difference between the two sides. Leipzig seem to be missing Keita. His ability to cover the defence and advance the player, just isn’t seen in the current side. It is a big season for Leipzig, so let’s see where they go from here.

Mönchengladbach have started the season very well so far. Their 2-1 win over Schalke keeps them unbeaten, and puts them at 5th in the Bundesliga. It was a very equal in most ways. The possession was split evenly in half, and both sides had similar shot numbers. The difference in this game was that Mönchengladbach took their chances. Ginter wasn’t marked for the first goal and was given a chance, and he took it. Schalke just didn’t do the same. While Ginter did score the opening goal, one player who had an excellent game was Alassane Plea. The Frenchman was key in linking the attack, with his 4 key passes being the highest for the home side. He also completed 2 dribbles. While his shot numbers weren’t the highest, only managing a single one goal, he was instrumental in keeping their attack ticking. As for Schalke, it seems they will get out of this rot soon. Their forwards just haven’t been performing, resulting in their only goal in this game being their third this season. Mark Uth did manage to get 3 shots on target, but didn’t manage to score. Eventually the ball will start to hit the back of the net, and when it does, they will finally start fighting for the top 4. What makes it even more difficult for Schalke now is they have Bayern next, and judging by not only their form, they also have a Champions League game, which could not help in their hope to stay competitive in the Bundesliga.

La Liga – Girona Win in Style

It wasn’t exactly an eventful week in La Liga. I’ve already spoken enough on Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. With Madrid dropping points, Atletico continuing their awful start, and Barca winning again, there just isn’t much to add. So I thought let’s take about the most exciting game of the weekend, being Girona’s win over Celta Vigo, which ended with Girona beating their opponents by 3 goals to 2. It was definitely a deserved win as well. While Celta did control the game, it was a great counter attacking lesson from Girona. They only managed 11 shots compared to Celta’s 20, but they made their chances count. Christian Stuani in particular was excellent. The Uruguayan only managed 3 shots on target, but still scored a brace. He has been excellent for Girona since his arrival from Middlesbrough. He scored 17 last season and seems to be continuing where he left off. Girona’s defending in this game was very balls to the wall. What sums that up is Stuani’s contribution. He managed 3 tackles from an attacking position, showing how much of a team effort it was. However when talking about defensive work, one cannot leave out Álex Granell. The Spanish veteran managed a frankly ridiculous 12 tackles and interceptions in this game, while also making 3 key passes, the most in the side. On a side note, the 2nd goal from Stuani was excellent showing of a counter attack done right. They moved so fast and made quick short passes to move the play up. Girona are a good side, and it’s good to see them win games like this, by playing a very straight to the point way of football. As for Celta, on another day they would have won this, but they were exposed. Girona noticed that they were weak on set pieces and in the air in general. They exploited this through crosses. The first two goals came from the full backs advancing far up the pitch and just putting in a ball in the box. Celta tried a similar way, to take advantage of Maxi Gomez’s superior aerial ability, but didn’t work. Hugo Mallo, the Celta Vigo captain, attempted the most crosses for them, yet out of the 7 crosses he managed, only 1 caused significant danger. Like I said, on another day, it could have went their way. But it cannot be argued that Girona deserved the victory.

Ligue 1 – Lille’s Great Start. A Payet Inspired Win

With PSG cruising the league as usual, let’s put some focus on a side who have started excellently, being Lille. The 2011 Ligue 1 champions have started the season in great fashion, already getting 3 wins this season. While their wins haven’t came against tough opponents, they are scoring goals and doing well defensively. They beat Amiens 3-2, with Pepe getting all three goals. He was absolutely great in this game. He managed 5 shots on target, made 3 key passes, and completed 2 of his dribbles. He played in the game more as a striker than a winger. He was constantly getting in central positions, which explains why he was able to get so many shots on. He also won the penalties he converted. He is now on 4 goals in 5 games, and his opposite winger, Bamba, is on 3. Both are performing well for their new side, and look to help push Lille back to their successful period when the likes of Hazard, Cabaye and Gervinho were performing in that side.

Marseille had another good week. They followed their dramatic win over Monaco, by beating Guingamp 4-0. It was definitely a deserved win, They had much more possession, allowed their opponent zero chances to attack, and completed 86% of their passes, compared to the away side’s 75%. This is Marseille’s third win of the season, leaving them on equal points with Lille, and 5 behind Paris. While they are not in a good place to challenge for a title, it will leave with an advantage in the fight for top 4. Back to the game, Marseille actually didn’t score until the second half of the game, and for a reason. They failed to capitalise on the many chances they were creating in that first half. Mitroglou notably missed a header from a couple of yards away, which perfectly summed up Marseille in that first half. However in the second half, they just came out with a a bang. Marseille took their chances against a Guingamp side that just couldn’t keep up with them. The midfield partnership of Strootman and Sanson performed very well, with the pair completing a combined 15 tackles and interceptions. They did a great job in shielding the back four. Their captain, Dimitri Payet, was another who performed excellently. He was at his creative best with the Frenchman making 5 key passes. His goal was by his highlight. It was easily the best goal scored this season. It was as if it was a cross more than a shot, but yet still got it in the goal. What a great talent, who will always be remembered as the player who should have been at a higher level. While Payet was fantastic, Thauvin was the man of the match. The world cup winner scored two and had a great game. He was a constant threat on that right side, and was key to Marseille getting over the line. He has been their best performer in their recent resurgence. In this game he showed that, by completing 3 dribbles, and making 3 key passes. It just shows how much of a complete winger he is, being able to score, dribble and create. He is the whole package. Marseille have a big season ahead of them, and they have started it in great fashion.

Premier League – Hero Hazard. Villain Vorm

Chelsea have been very good at the start of the season. Sarri was able to fix a majority of the issues that Chelsea had at the time. He brought in a very good goalkeeper to replace the unhappy Courtois, one of the best game controllers in Jorginho, and a guy I’ve been wanting to see move for so long in Kovacic. However while all three have been good in their first season, one cannot compliment Chelsea without discussing Eden Hazard. The Belgian has been on fire since the World Cup (where he should have won the player of the tournament) and has continued his form into the new season. In his previous four, where he only made brief cameos in the first two games, he has contributed to four goals. He has been in the form of his life so far. In this game he more than doubled his tally, scoring his first hat trick in 4 years (and getting me plenty of points in fantasy football). It was the icing on the cake for his recent form. He was so involved in this game, getting on the ball 97 times, more than midfield star Jorginho. Hazard has always been key in driving the attack, but this is just insane. He is now carrying the attack on a new level. He completed 3 dribbles, scored all of his shots on target, and had an 89% pass accuracy, the third highest on the pitch. It was a perfect performance from Chelsea’s key man. With the way he’s playing, he could end the season as the player of the season.

While Hazard was the hero, Michel Vorm was far from that. The Spurs number 2 was at fault for the first goal and had an overall poor game as Liverpool won at Wembley, flattering Spurs with a 2-1 victory. Spurs continued to struggle against the top four, as again, they seemed to not know what they are doing. The full backs were travelling too far up the pitch, leaving Salah and Mane all the space in the world to press the centre backs, giving them no options to move the ball. However the biggest talking point by far is the continual poor form of Harry Kane. The golden boot winner has been absolutely dreadful at the start of the season. He just looks doesn’t look sharp, with the forward failing to get into good positions in the final third and seems to pass the game by. He reminds of Wayne Rooney in his later years at Manchester United. He lost his pace as the years went on, and just couldn’t lead the line in the same way. I am not saying that Kane has lost his ability, but he just isn’t playing as a traditional number 9 this season. He is dropping far too deep, instead of leading the line. Compare him to Icardi. The Inter captain has been compared to Kane over the years, because both started scoring an insane amount of goals at roughly the same time. However the difference is Icardi does not get too involved in build up play, and instead waits in the box and looks for space to exploit. Kane had a 16% conversion rate last season, and Icardi had over 25%. It proves that Icardi takes better shots than the Englishman. Kane needs to start playing as more traditional number 9, and allow the build up play to be done by the more creative players. A bad day for spurs, but a worse day for Kane.

Serie A – Ronaldo Finally Scores. The Sampdoria Show

By far the biggest talking point is Cristiano Ronaldo finally scored his first 2 goals for Juventus. The Portuguese forward scored a simple tap in to start, but then ended a good counter attack with an excellent side finish. He was a threat throughout the game as well. He has his usual incredible amount of shots, with the forward taking 9 shots. Which was more than half of Juventus’s total shots (14). This could be the boost he needs. Many expected Ronaldo to hit the ground running. While it has taken longer than expected for him to begin his scoring account, it will now push him to continue to score more, and break even more records. On another note, Douglas Costa was the opposite of a professional on the pitch. Never should a player hit or most of all spit at an opposing player. He should have been banned for more than 4 games, but a punishment is still a punishment. It will hopefully prevent players from doing these unacceptable actions no longer.

Sampdoria followed their absolute beating of Napoli, by beating Frosinone by 5 goals. They were better than their opponent in every department. Sampdoria had more possession, more shots, completed more tackles and had a better pass accuracy. The stand out performers again were their forward two. Quagliarella and Defrel have created one deadly partnership so far this season. Defrel bagged a brace, while his partner in crime scored and assisted. Both of Defrel’s goals were excellent. The first was a well taken volley, while the second was a great individual effort. While his goals have been impressive, what’s surprised me the most about the striker has been his work rate. Any player who starts alongside Quagliarella has to cover more yards, simply because the Italian has not got many years left in him, and needs to safe his energy. Defrel did this job to best of his ability, while contributing in an attacking sense. He made 4 tackles in the game, the second highest in the game. He is just the perfect partner for Quagliarella. Sampdoria’s run now is a difficult one. They have Fiorentina at home, and then Inter Milan. Getting points against these two could show us all where Sampdoria are heading this season.

2018 World Cup Team of The Tournament – Kante, Hazard, Godin

Now with the tournament coming a close, let’s look at the players who have impressed the most.

Goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois

No matter how much I wanted to place Pickford here, I cannot ignore Courtois. The big Belgian has been absolutely brilliant for his team. I have always seem Courtois has just a very good keeper, not on the level of De Gea or Oblak, but still a very solid choice for a top side. However in this tournament, he is starting to make me rethink that. Against Brazil, he made a brilliant 9 saves, which is one of the highest amount of saves in a single game. Compared to his club career, Courtois is making more saves in every area of the pitch, showing how this world cup has brought he best out of him. With Madrid looking for a new keeper, it could be what has given him the motivation.

Right Centre-Back – Raphael Varane

While attacking might be a huge question mark over this current France team, what cannot be doubted is how brilliant they are defensively. A huge part of that has been their defensive partnership of Varane and Umtiti, and while the Barcelona man has been very good, it’s his El Classico rival who has been the most impressive. Varane has been the leader in a back four lacking experience. Having a player so young who has won 4 champions leagues is such a positive for the team. Not only has he been a real leader, he has also lead by example. His biggest strength is his athleticism. He is able to recover the ball so quickly and help in counter attacking situations. His performance against Belgium was especially brilliant. He really helped stop Belgium from getting the goal they so desperately needed. Even against Uruguay, he scored the winner to send France to the semi finals. A great tournament from a great player.

Centre-Back – Diego Godin

By far Uruguay’s best player, Godin helped drag a very poor Uruguay team out of their group. Not only was he solid defensively, but was also trying to drag his team forward on the pitch, because of his teammates’s lack of urgency. Uruguay were so good defensively throughout the tournament, and it was thanks to Godin. He was brilliant in all of the group games, and also against Portugal. The defeat to France cannot be solely blamed on him, but he wasn’t at his best that day. Still, he was exceptional throughout the world cup.

Left Centre-Back – Harry Maguire

Harry Maguire arrived in Russia after playing every single minute for Leicester last season. He showed brilliant positional sense and was very good on the ball. While I did think he would have done fine, I never expected to be as impressive as he was. He was especially great in the knockout rounds, easily being one of the best players against Columbia and Sweden. He won an amazing 12 aerial duels against Columbia, and scored the first goal against Sweden. He was one of England’s best performers, and deserves his place here

Central Midfield – N’golo Kante

It’s a testimont to how good Kante, that we now almost have a ‘Kante Role’ in teams now. Players who are given a license to do their defensive work, without disrupting the teams shape (examples being Torreira, Herrera, Ndidi and Allan). He has shown his usual brilliant energy and tenacity, while also adding some real quality on the ball. His biggest criticism was his inability to distribute the ball effectively, however that has changed. Throughout the tournament, Kante would be seen making these huge long balls and driving the play forward. He is now looking like the perfect box to box midfielder. His performance against Argentina was very good. He really showed his opposition how a central midfielder should play.

Central Midfield: Luka Modric

Not even a debate needed here. Modric has been the key player for Croatia. His ability to dribble out of tight spaces, get into great positions to assist his teammates, and his solid workrate have all came in handy for a team already filled with technical talent. Even with all of Croatia’s games going into extra time, he was still able to play through them all, at 32 years old. An incredible player and he will easily go down as one of the best midfielders to play the game in the modern era.

Right Wing-Back – Sime Vrsaljko

While Trippier would be the obvious pick, I’ll be going for Vrsaljko. The Europa League winner has been a key player for Croatia. Filling Srna’s boots is a hard challenge, yet he exceeded expectations. Even with Modric performing excellently and Rakitic also excelling, Croatia still preferred to play a more crossing game. It didn’t bring the best out of their team in my opinion, but Vsaljko still performed. He was a huge driving force for Croatia and was always helping in attack while doing his defensive work. His only assist in the tournament was for that Perisic equaliser against England. A perfect moment for a player who was brilliant.

Left Wing-Back – Lucas Hernandez

While I think Hernandez did perform very well, he is mainly here out of a lack of options. Just looking at the semi finalists, Young didn’t perform, Strnic was good, but not great, and Belgium didn’t have a stand out left back. Hernandez falls right in here. I’m not taking away from him at all. He, like France, were excellent defensively and he even provided some very good width. Playing as a fullback with an inverted wide player in front of him is very demanding, so seeing in still show some consistency in his performances is really impressive. The young defender was averaging 2.3 tackles per game, just highlighting how good he was in his own half. A good tournament from a player who still has plenty of promise.

Left-Winger – Ivan Perisic

Many journalists and pundits seem to be forgetting about the Inter Milan winger. But Perisic has been stellar. Perisic has all the qualities to be a perfect winger. He’s two footed, a brilliant dribbler, can cut inside and is able to create. He showed all of these qualities in the semi final, scoring and assisting to put his team over the line in a real tight game. While he will be remembered for his handball, he was still excellent for Croatia. He ended the tournament with 3 goals and an assist. A great return for a player who is nearing his twilight years. If it wasn’t for Modric, he would be remembered as the stand out performer for the runners up.

Right-Winger – Eden Hazard

While I am completely fine with Modric winning the golden ball, I do think Hazard was the best player at the tournament. He shined in a very fluid Belgium attack. He was absolutely brilliant throughout for Belgium, and performed in every game for Belgium. In their defeat against France, he was by far their shining light, constantly beating his man and attempting to create for his side. He was excellent in the group stages, putting two excellent performances against Tunisia and Panama. He was averaging 2.5 shots per game, 2.5 key passes, and a monsterous 6.7 successful dribbles per game. He was brilliant in every department. He ended the tournament with 3 goals and 2 assists. A great return from the best player at the tournament.

Striker – Kylian Mbappe

The golden boy winner gets place in this team. While leaving out Griezmann and Lukaku is difficult, Mbappe has to be in this team. He was the pace and power for France, who gave them that extra bit of flair in the forward department. What is so impressive about Mbappe is how direct and mature he is. Just comparing him to young players like Rashford and Werner, Mbappe is so clinical in his finishing. He plays like an experienced forward, instead of a teenager. Mbappe has been key for France throughout his tournament. His perfect runs, no nonsense dribbling, and cool in front of goal. He’s been the spark in an otherwise very pragmatic team. He will become a great of the game.