La Liga, next to Serie A, is probably my least favourite out of the top 5 leagues. While part of it is down to myself being unable to watch the games legally, I have other problems. It’s primarily down to my distaste for Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two clubs that dominate all discussion in Spain. Nevertheless, let’s look at the teams and players who will stand out in the 19/20 season, for good or bad reasons.
Outside Shout – Sevilla
While the signings of Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias have pushed Betis as top 4 contenders, I’d back Sevilla to do even better. I’m not claiming Sevilla are title challengers in any sense of the word. But with the quality and quantity of signings, they are arguably in a fantastic position to finish in that 4th spot.
Sevilla had a mixed 18/19 season. After a fantastic start to the season, which saw them top of the table at the end of November, it all fell apart. They dropped out of the top 4 after only winning 2 games between the start of December and the 10th of March. It meant the Europa League was their best chance of getting back into the Champions League. However, this ended in disaster, losing to Slavia Prague in the round of 16. This culminated in the sacking of head coach Pablo Machin, which left Sevilla with another rebuilding job.Embed from Getty Images
Who else to be at the helm of the tough task than Monchi. The Spaniard departed the team in 2017, joining Roma. However, after an unsuccessful stint with the Giallorossi, he returns to bring back the same magic he did for years. With all the top clubs desperate to bring in a director of football, there aren’t much better than Monchi. The value he managed to find out of the transfer market, especially Ligue 1, was remarkable. The likes of Lenglet, Gameiro, Banega, Navas, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves were all discovered by the former Sevilla midfielder, showing his eye for talent is unrivalled. While his time at Roma wasn’t auspicious, with the Italian side dropping down the league during his two-year spell, returning to where his success began is the best thing for both parties.
With Joaquín Caparrós diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, the search for a new head coach was on. Julien Lopetegui was appointed head coach on the 4th of June, and I’m unsure what to think about it. Judging him based on a problematic four months at Real Madrid is unfair, considering how little he was backed in the market. While he was very successful with the Spanish national team, his managerial experiences at club level are not the most comforting. His most notable job was with Porto, where he finished 3rd with £57 million spent on 18 players, 7 of which were Spanish.
Joining a club that isn’t as insane as Real Madrid, where he will be given more time to take Sevilla back into the Champions League, will be fascinating. Lopetegui has always favoured a classic 4-1-2-3, a formation that Sevilla have not been playing in recent seasons. Lopetegui needs to resolve some of the consistent issues with the side, in defence and now upfront. Sevilla have sold two of their best assets in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben-Yedder, meaning Lopetegui can start from scratch with the current core of players and plenty of new arrivals.
Sevilla did some of the best business in the window. They went out and resolved their most significant issues, being wide talent and defenders. Monchi targetted plenty of players from Ligue 1, with 4 of their 11 signings coming from the French top flight. Rony Lopes has left the sinking ship known as Monaco to finally play for a club where his talents can be showcased. Ocampos has arrived from Marseille, and while I’m not his biggest fan, I acknowledge he does offer a lot in terms of dribbling and physicality. Sergio Reguillon comes after unfairly being pushed out from Real Madrid. This is a delight to see because Sevilla have finally picked up a good left-back after years of being so one-sided, even if it is just a loan deal.Embed from Getty Images
Their best signing, by far, is Joan Jordan. The Spaniard had a very successful spell with Eibar, earning him a move to Sevilla. This is such an improvement over Vasquez and Mesa. The midfielder is solid defensively and offers a lot of ball-progression. This is one of the most sensible signings of the window, and I’m surprised other clubs weren’t showing interest.
Sevilla have made some signings where I have my doubts, but right now, they are in a great position to get that 4th spot. A balanced experienced yet youthful team that possess the qualities to challenge the other top sides in La Liga.
Overachievers – Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid’s summer can best be described as a mixed bag. Losing their best attacker in Griezmann, their best midfielder in Rodri and the hugely impactful Diego Godin was huge. While they did pick up over £200 million from only 3 of their sales, it meant a lot of work was needed to turn this into a Champions League squad once again. Atletico recruited without any sort of consistency, which is understandable. They brought in a mix of young talent in Felix, Lodi and Hermoso to keep the squad fresh on the long term, combining that with the experience of Trippier, Herrera and Felipe. It allows them to remain competitive in the short term while also giving them a future in two of their most important positions; attack and defence.
In concept, I do like a lot of their business, but during a closer examination, I have my doubts. Let’s start with Joao Felix. The teenage sensation arrives for a gigantic £113 million. There is no doubting the forward is talented, but substantial game time is something lacking in his repertoire. The 18/19 season was Felix’s first season of top-flight football and displayed some promising qualities. His shot location was generally fantastic, and his technical ability is undeniably excellent, but factors come into my reservations on this transfer. The first is Liga NOS. The Portuguese top-flight is difficult to judge when it comes to talent. Your club might pick up a Bernardo Silva, Alex Sandro or a Willy Boly, or end up with a Mangala, Jackson Martinez or Enzo Perez. Joao Felix could be just as useful as Griezmann, or even better, however, there is a likely chance the pressure on him might be too much. Felix is one of the only pacey forwards Simeone can use. There is no other player like him in the squad, with Morata and Costa both preferring the ball in the air. Atletico have paid a lot of money to seemingly beat the competition and remind the rest of Europe they are a threat.Embed from Getty Images
I’ve expressed my doubts about Marcos Llorente before, and my opinions on Trippier and Felipe aren’t nearly as negative as many. Simeone has a reputation of supercharging defenders, and I think he will find the value out of the pair. They definitely didn’t need to spend that much money on them, especially on Felipe, but they’re decent acquisitions in terms of the players they are getting. I like Hermoso and is arguably their best signing in the window, with the defender performing well in a similar system at Espanyol and still has time to improve.
So why are they, my overachievers? Most of their squad are recent summer arrivals and as noted, aren’t all likely to succeed. Simeone has a reputation for grinding out results better than any other coach in the game. He rarely uses the exciting talent given to him, and it makes me wonder if Simeone will just stick with his compact system, only to remain close with the top two. Atletico will finish the top four but will look bad doing so.
Underachievers – Barcelona
Barcelona have lost their traditions in recent years. While they have never been likeable, you could at least respect them for putting more faith in youth than big-money signings. However, the same luxury signings they seemingly mocked Real Madrid for making are now the players they want. This has culminated in a squad full of different players, and not in the right way. This team lacks pace in the attack and balance in the midfield. Even though I dislike the Griezmann signing, They did end bring in an understudy for the ageing Jordi Alba and one of the best midfield prospects in Frenkie De Jong. This squad is a general improvement over last year’s title winners, but many problems remain.Embed from Getty Images
Ernesto Valverde is by far the biggest and most frustrating problem at the club. I actually had a lot of respect for what he did during his first season. He turned Barcelona from a free-flowing, direct and pacey team into a very defensively solid and efficient one. It wasn’t the most entertaining watch, but it was working and kept Barcelona better than the rest of the league. In spite of their title-winning season, only losing a single game in La Liga, the fans were not happy. They didn’t just want to win, but in a way that Cruyff would be proud of. While insanely smug and arrogant, I can understand. Barcelona have the best player ever to grace a football pitch. Seeing him in the best attacking side in Europe and playing to his fullest while his career to starting to wind down is essential. Messi is the only reason why Barcelona have won the league under Valverde. While Messi hasn’t been at his untouchable best like he was back in 2011, this has been his most impressive time at the Nou Camp. In his thirties, he is still carrying his side more than ever before, and it’s comfortably established him as the greatest there is.
Barcelona have the best side in the league, but mediocre squad building and the wrong manager has made them weaker than they should be. They’ll underachieve through not playing to their potential. They will most likely win the league, but not nearly as comfortable.
Best Transfer – Frenkie De Jong
This is arguably the most of outstanding signing Barcelona have made since Ter Stegen. The former Ajax central midfielder was fantastic both domestically and in the Champions League, where he was vital in Ajax reaching the semi-final. He has so many qualities that persuaded Barcelona to pick up his signature. De Jong is an allrounder. He is good defensively while possessing a great passing ability and solid dribbling numbers. It allows him to be versatile in how he plays, whether as a ball-progressor or even or a centre-back. His ball retention is by far his best quality. During their dominant victory over Juventus, the old lady attempted to man-mark De Jong out of the game. This didn’t work; however, with De Jong dropping so deep that it made him difficult to mark. He would consistently receive the ball and dribble right through Juventus’ deep block. He was one of the most challenging players to dispossess in Europe.Embed from Getty Images
There isn’t even debate on whether he starts. De Jong has to play whenever he is available. The Dutchman, alongside Arthur, offers a young central midfielder with more risk on the ball than his teammates. Rakitic is not as adventurous as he once was, Busquets has been overplayed for years, and Vidal hasn’t really worked out in Barcelona since his arrival. De Jong’s versatility would allow him to not only excel wherever he plays but to give Busquets and Rakitic a chance to be rested. De Jong’s arrival has zero drawbacks and is by far their best business since Luis Suarez.
Potential Flop – Munas Dabbur
Sevilla’s business overall was fantastic, but their forwards were always going to be difficult to replace. Los Hispalenses lost 3 of their starting forwards in Ben-Yedder, Silva and Muriel. It left them with only Munir as a starting striker, leaving them with a lot of work to be done. I have my doubts about Luuk De Jong, but he can play as an effective target man. It’s their acquisition of Isreali forward Munas Dabbur where my suspicions are raised. The former Salzburg striker was fantastic during his time in Austria. Dabbur was a well rounded forward who could score as well as create. He was excellent in the Europa League, where he scored 8 in 10 and helped guide Salzburg to winning every game in their group. It’s obvious Dabbur has talent, but excelling in a league where Salzburg are a level above everyone else means there is an instant reason to be worried. He’s also 27. Usually, when taking a talented player from a weaker league, they need to be at an age where they can improve or have re-sell value. As per usual, I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Dabbur leaving the club in a year.
While there was plenty to discuss regarding the clash between Switzerland and Portugal, it is this fixture that is by far the most exciting. Both teams here escaped groups that were seen as a challenge. It’s a surprise for them to even be here, yet they fully deserve it.
Let’s start with The Netherlands. It can be difficult to argue just how important the Dutch have been for football. Their innovations during the early 70s with Total Football, a brand of football which changed how the game was played. Rinus Michels, the manager of Ajax during this revolutionary period, wanted the pitch as small as possible when the opposition had the ball, and to make the pitch as big as possible when his side had the ball. It’s a system that encouraged pressing and movement. Players were coached to cover multiple roles throughout the team. It was an evolution from the famous Hungary side that humiliated England in 1953. It was how football was meant to be played and the achievement of a club with a plan.
Their history on the international front has been fascinating. In 1986, Michels came back to manage the national team, leading them to win their first international tournament, Euro 88. While they had some success during the 90s, reaching the semi-finals at Euro 96, they failed to stay the dominant side they were in the previous decade. Their golden generation, which included many from that famous Ajax side who lifted the Champions League in 1997, failed to win anything on the international front.
The 2010s have been a forgettable decade to the say the least for the Dutch. While they reached the World Cup final in South Africa, they sacrificed 40 years of a Total Football style in favour of kicking Spain, a side who were the embodiment of what Cruyff and Michels taught so long ago. After failing to qualify for the last 3 international tournaments, the Dutch seemed lost. But like the success of the national team in the past, you can always look to Ajax for a boost. With generational talents in Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt, it has given them the boost they’ve needed. A solid base to build the rest of the team around, and to find success in the future.Embed from Getty Images
I’m not Koeman’s biggest fan, but the impact he has made on his national team is hard to argue. He’s built a team that has balance throughout the squad. The experienced and young, the technically gifted and hard-working. But what persists throughout the side is what the Dutch are known for, players who can fill multiple roles. Daily Blind, Memphis Depay, Frenkie De Jong, Quincy Promes. These are players have played in different positions throughout their career. They’ve added fluidity to the side, making them unpredictable in the final third. Koeman has added more unfavoured players to the squad, with Martin De Roon being the most notable. The Atalanta midfielder, while offering zero in the final third, is great defensively and allows the more expressive players to push forward. Koeman has been gifted with by far the most talented players since the end of their golden generation, but he deserves credit for making this group of players function as a team.
The Netherlands were placed in a very tough group, facing the former World Cup winners Germany and current holders France. Both of their opponents have arguably some of the best talents in the world to choose from. While their first game ended in defeat, losing 2-1 to the World Champions, it was their next game against Germany back in the Johan Cruyff Arena that showed they were ready to compete. They humiliated the Germans with an emphatic 3-0 victory. It was the game in which Koeman brought in De Roon, which made a huge difference. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions in this game, giving them a defensive presence in midfield. It allowed Frenkie to play a less restrictive role, constantly looking to get on the ball and keep possession from a dangerous German side. The Netherlands then went on to beat France and showed a lot of fight to come back and earn a valuable point against Germany. It sealed their place in the semi-finals, the most deserving result for a national team which has finally shown the quality they have always been known for.
While Van Dijk, De Ligt, De Jong and Wijnaldum are all going to play a role in this game, Depay is by far the Dutch’s most important player. After his poor stint in England, he moved to Lyon to revive his career and return to the form he showed for PSV. In a Lyon side which includes Fekir, Aouar, Ndombele and Dembele, Depay has emerged as their most important player. He thrives in a role where importance is placed upon him and was the sole reason why Lyon remained competitive at the beginning of the season. His goal contributions were near non-existent after the new year, but his numbers remained high. He leads the line effectively for Koeman. His flexibility as a striker makes him very difficult to deal with. He has the pace the reach those long balls usually played into the channels by the centre-backs, the strength to hold the ball for his teammates and the confidence to take on an entire team on his own. He adds that star quality to a forward line which has lacked it since the retirement of Van Persie. His impact will be hard for England to suppress.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s move onto their opponents. After their defeat to Iceland in 2016, it highlighted a consistent problem that had been failing England for a long time, being their focus on players over the system. One reason why England won the World Cup back in 1966 was because of the balance in that side. Charlton and Ball were able to produce in the attacking end because they had Manchester United’s defensive midfielder Nobby Stiles protecting the back four. It has been a simple concept of building a team that England have seemingly forgotten how to do since that triumph. The constant debate regarding Lampard and Gerrard in midfield, forcing Scholes out wide and persisting with a 4-4-2 when the system was far outdated, with managers choosing an extra midfielder to help keep possession. England had star power, but managers who seemed too afraid to make the right decisions, that were best for the team. You simply cannot play Gerrard and Lampard together without a defensive midfielder (it made Carrick’s consistent absence baffling)
They made these same mistakes at Euro 2016. While Hodgson has been an important coach in his earlier years, introducing pressing in Sweden, he seemed to succumb to the same pressure as managers in the past have. He played a strange midfield including Alli, Rooney and Dier. An odd choice considering Alli had never played in that position before. His choice to play Sturridge as a winger was even more baffling, a player who has never been a dribbler or creator throughout his career. Hodgson resigned after their embarrassing defeat to Iceland, an end to an era which produced the same mistakes as previous managers.
Southgate’s appointment was an uninspiring choice, to say the least. It seemed like the safest choice for England to make. A coach who failed to take a talented group of players out of the group stages in the European Under-21s Championships, relegation with Middlesborough and lacked any charisma that made the former England international fail to stand out.
England were placed in a safe qualification group, while they never truly stood out, it did give Southgate time to experiment. Nobody knew how the Three Lions were going to line up in Russia until their friendly against Costa Rica. It was the first time England started with a back three and the first time England looked to have a plan. It gave them enough numbers in defence while allowing their attacking players to flourish.
While they never played the same attractive football we saw from Belgium and France, they were efficient and were playing to their strengths. Southgate made a lot of smart decisions to get the best out of the players in his possession. He played a back three containing Maguire, Stones and Walker. All three possess strength and athleticism, allowing them to cover a lot of ground. Walker and Maguire would consistently push up to help give options to the midfielders, and most importantly to make sure that Trippier and Young could push up without the same space they leave at club level. Southgate ensured his side took advantage of set pieces. While simple, set pieces are a chance to score, and with his side still not fully accustomed to the system, they were good opportunities to get a goal. They reached the semi-finals, but some of their weaknesses were exposed. They lacked pace in the side, which meant England lacked bite and couldn’t trouble a Croatia side which contained a lot of older players.Embed from Getty Images
However, in hindsight, it was a short term solution for the purpose of showing the country what this side can do. They inspired their fans for the first time in 20 years, to give hope for a team that was still growing. Many players who featured heavily in Russia would not remain as key figures for Euro 2020. They needed to evolve and turn into a side which could play a more attractive style of football. Trippier, Young, Lingard and Walker would all not be started with such frequency.
The Nations League was the first time we could see what Southgate had changed since their success in Russia. He changed from a defensive 3-5-2 to a more standard 4-3-3, which enabled his side to attack with more unpredictability down the wide areas. A lot of players benefited from this change. Sterling was placed in a role where he could play to his strengths instead of playing as a second striker. Marcus Rashford was given a more important role in the setup, instead of merely being Kane’s backup. They impressed in their win over Spain and fought hard to come back against Croatia. The future seems clear from Southgate and is looking more positive.
There are still concerns, however. I mentioned how some of the players who featured in the world cup will begin to be faced out, but Southgate hasn’t done that yet. Trippier and Walker are still included in the setup. It’s frustrating when Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka have been fantastic, but aren’t being given a chance in the XI. While Declan Rice was given a chance, there are so many talented young players who could have a future in the setup. Abraham, Maddison, Mount and Barnes all deserve a chance for their country.
Sterling has been by far England’s best player since the World Cup. He has reached a point where he should be in the conversation for one of the best players in Europe. He’s a great dribbler, intelligent and a solid creator. While he was always promising, it was the arrival of Pep Guardiola that changed Sterling. He took away that overthinking. When he would receive the ball, Sterling would usually take a few touches before making his next move. Pep took that out of his game and made him so much more direct. Sterling is now far less predictable. With Kane still recovering from another injury, England will put their faith in Sterling to help score the goals.Embed from Getty Images
If The Netherlands wish to progress to the final, they have to win the battle in midfield. England only possesses a couple of players I would consider real central midfielders, being Delph, Henderson and Rice (Dier is better as a centre back). Koeman has one of the top 3 young central midfielders around in De Jong. The now Barcelona midfielder is so versatile in how he can be played. He’s very reminiscent to Luka Modric, in how he is a great creator while being one of the best players at transitioning the ball into the final third. His best performance was in Ajax’s 1-1 draw against Juventus. Allegri attempted to place Bentancur on him to limit his effectiveness. De Jong just kept dropping between the centre backs and dragging Bentancur into places he did not want to go. The Dutchman is an intelligent player and can avoid pressure easily. England tried to stop Spain from building play by aggressively pressing Busquets. While effective on an ageing midfielder, this will not work on De Jong. The Netherlands need to get their maestro on the ball as much as possible if they wish to beat a tough England side.
If England wishes to come out victorious, they have to focus on the wide areas. The Dutch usually start Dumfries and Blind as their fullbacks. It’s an area where England can exploit. They have a lot of pace in the team, with Sterling, Rashford and Sancho offering a threat against their defenders. Blind has never been quick throughout his career and Dumfries has been exposed for being positionally poor. He is great as an attacking outlet, but space can be found behind him. It’s why Sterling could be so important. Not many fullbacks in Europe have been able to deal with the winger. He is the key to unlocking the backline.
While England will be a threat, I think the Dutch will be the side to progress. Their weaknesses aren’t nearly as obvious as England’s. The Three Lions are likely to play without Kane. He has been so important for his country, offering a great range of passing and a forward who can do nearly anything. While Rashford has improved a lot this season, he isn’t nearly as his good as his teammate. The Netherlands are in incredible form right now and seem unstoppable.
With everyone making their team of the seasons and discussing which players should take the award of player of the season when it comes to a close, we’ll instead look at young players across the big leagues in Europe, and make an XI of players who have stood out for their sides. We’ll mainly focus on players in the top 5 leagues, with some obvious inclusions from other leagues, so let’s get started. Important is they have to have been 21 when the season started, so if players who are 22 are here, then you know why.
Goalkeeper – Gianluigi Donnarumma
There aren’t truly many options for this position, but we’ll go for AC Milan number one Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Italian has went to further establish himself in a Milan side that are still trying to find their feet. While his teammates are inconsistent to say the least, he has remained one of the best players in the side. He is a good distributor, commands his box and has put in some excellent performances for Milan. One of his stand out performances had to be against Genoa. The 20 year old made 8 saves, and had a 93% pass accuracy. His future still seems to be as bright as it was when he broke onto the scene as a 16 year old.
RB – Aaron Wan-Bissaka
My love for Wan-Bissaka isn’t hidden at this point. The Crystal Palace defender has been the best full back in the Premier League this season. His crazy high 6.2 tackles and interceptions per game, comfortably the highest in the team and the second highest in the league. He has only been dribbled past by less than 10 players in the league, highlighting just how good he is in those one-on-ones, and his anticipation shines. I even highlighted the Englishman last season for his great performances, by putting him in my team of the season for players outside of the top 6, and seeing him succeed is just so gratifying. Wan-Bissaka actually came through the ranks as a winger, which explains why he’s such a good dribbler, completing 1.7 per game. With Manchester United and Bayern Munich looking at right backs, it makes the prospect of Palace keeping him nearly impossible.
CB – Matthijs de Ligt
I cannot imagine anyone arguing with this choice. De Ligt’s transformation from a small kid playing in the Europa League final against Manchester United, to one of the best young defenders the world has ever seen has to go down to hard work and a brilliant mentality. Playing for arguably the best club in Europe for developing young players, it has given him the platform to succeed and show the world what kind of player he is and can be. His performances in the Champions League have been fantastic. He has shown a calmness and maturity that you don’t see from many players of his age. His distribution also needs to be admired, with the 19 year old completing 63 passes per game, with a 88.2% accuracy. It’s an area which many elite clubs are looking to improve, and he showing all of these things at an age where it gives him years to still improve. If Van Dijk’s record remains this summer, I will be very surprised.
CB – Ibrahima Konate
Leipzig have been a recent breeding ground for young defenders, with Upamecano, Mukiele and Bernardo being recent talents to blossom for them. Konate is another prospect to shine for them. He’s already beeing touted for a big move to Arsenal and it’s earned. With Leipzig playing such an offensively minded system, stand out defenders are needed. Konate is both athletic and a great reader of the game, with the Frenchman making 2.3 interceptions per 90. Thanks to their defenders being so high up the pitch, it leaves them vunerable to long balls towards opposition strikers. It makes the importance of aerial dominant defenders important, and Konate fits the bill. The Frenchman has a respectable 67.3% aerial win percentage, showing how he can deal with the threat. His passing could be better, with a defender’s ability on the ball a sought after part of their game. He is still only 19, meaning his future remains very bright. He’s been one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga and has stood out in a side full of promising players.
LB – Achraf Hakimi
When discussing Real Madrid’s systemic failure this season, it can be aquainted to making bad decisions. Whether it is selling their best player and not replacing him with a player of similar quality, or in Hakimi’s case, letting a player leave who could have definitely had an effect on the side. The Moroccan international has been the boost that Dortmund needed. With constant injury problems related to Schmelzer and Guerreiro, adding a player who could help with giving the side width, and most importantly, moving the ball. Hakimi is an excellent dribbler, and was nearly the opposite of his full back partner, Lukasz Piszczek, who defensive first. It gave Hakimi a lot of responsibility on a side of the pitch that didn’t have the same consistency as the other. He relished this role, and has been one of the most sought after full backs in Europe. His ability to play on both sides makes him so useful to have, but its his dribbling that is so great. He’s completing 2 dribbles per 90, which is great for both a full back and a young player. He is isn’t a stand out creator by any means, but that isn’t his role. He has to get his side far up the pitch, using his athleticism and ability on the ball. He ranks 4th in the squad for passes completed per game. He is essential in Dortmund’s attempts to move up the field, with not many young players in the world being so adept at passing in a possession that rarely sees that quality. A must for this side
RM – Jadon Sancho
Rumours are already surfacing, linking Jadon Sancho with £100m moves to the Premier League, and I would definitely pay that. Sancho is having a similar break out season that Mbappe had in that final season at Monaco, which saw the Frenchman earn a £170m move to PSG. Sancho is having a similar season to that. The teenager is one of only a handful of players who is in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s turned into a very good dribbler and creator. Sancho was always seen to be a player who destined for great things, but for him to do it this rapidly is just incredible. His shot numbers stand at a decent 1.6 per 90, but he’s completing a crazy 3.9 dribbles and making 2.6 key passes. Those are top 10 players in the world numbers, and he’s doing it for a title challenging side in a respectable league. His xGP90 is sitting at 0.58, which is roughly a goal contribution every other game. This shows just how promising the young winger is, being able to have such a stamp on a side full of talent in his first true season. His numbers are spectacular, but there’s more to him than that. His maturity, intelligence and his risk taking is what makes him such a desirable prospect, and arguably the break out star of the season.
CM – Frenkie De Jong
The Eredivise has had this huge problem with analysing talent. Players can have truly excellent seasons, but thanks to the standard of the league, you have to take it with a grain of salt when looking at their numbers and involvement. This current Ajax team has been trying to break that rule, and no one has done so more than Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman came off the back of a very good 2017/18 season, and decided to take that to the next level. It’s earned him a £75m move to Barcelona, and will add so much to a side that has been needing a player like him for a long time. De Jong is a true all rounder. He is averaging 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also completing 80 passes, creating 1.4 chances and completing 2 dribbles. These are numbers similar to a peak Modric, who was helplessly embarassed by De Jong. While his numbers in the Eredivise have been outstanding, it’s his performances in the Champions League that have really taken the headlines. He dismantled Real Madrid in their own turf, and when playing Juventus in the Johan Cruyff Stadium, he made it nearly impossible to take him out of the game. Every time Bentancour tried to get near him, De Jong would just drop between the defenders to receive the ball. Since he is such a good dribbler, he can just get the ball and walk right through the opposition defence, with no one able to get a finger on him. He’s attempting 1.8 dribbles in the Champions League per match, and is completing 78% of them. Those are peak Moussa Dembele numbers, a player who was famed for his dribble success rate. De Jong will be a superstar, and has everything to put him down as a potential great.
CM – James Maddison
Moving back to the Premier League and for the final time, let’s look at James Maddison, who has had a spectacular season. The former Norwich midfielder took the step up the Premier League, and already looks like he belongs here. With Leicester losing Mahrez, they needed a creator and someone to help with moving the ball into the final third, and Maddison has fitted the bill. He is creating more chances than any other player in the league with 3.3 key passes per 90. While Leicester have been inconsistent to say the least, Maddison has put in good performance after good performance. His chance creation is incredible, but his dribbling should not be forgotten here. He’s completing 1.5 dribbles per 90, which is good for a player who has been played behind the striker. He reads the game well and has created a great relationship with Jamie Vardy. He constantly wants to get on the ball and is always looking to make positive moves. The only problem is his shooting. His shot map is a mess to say the least, with Maddison taking shots in bad places. A coach needs to try and wipe that out of his game, and ensure he is not wasting chances like that. The future is bright for Maddison, and could be the real central creator that his country has been looking for.
LM – Joao Felix
I mentioned how some leagues have created this impression of risk, and Liga Nos might be the most infamous. Whenever you see an Oblak or Nelson Semedo, you’ll see a Perez or a Jackson Martinez. It’s a league that doesn’t create the same teams that you see in Holland. The sides are usually good defensively and efficient in attack, which makes attackers especially a huge risk. While there have been many failures, Joao Felix doesn’t look like one. The Benfica attacker has had a great season, breaking the record for youngest player to score a hat trick in the Europa League, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. His best performances have all come as a striker, where he has scored 12 and assisted 6 in 18. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high, but when he’s played, it’s usually been with Seferovic, who’s taking roughly 2.6 shots per game (Felix is at 2.4). There has been more to his game than this. He’s also creating 1.1 chances a game, the fourth highest in the squad. His general anticipation and maturity is what has made him stand out, but I think any move for him this summer would be premature. he doesn’t seem to be showing the same insanity in terms of elite numbers, but there is a top level player here. He just needs to play more games before making the step up. A great start for Joao Felix in his break out season.
ST – Kylian Mbappe
Who else? Mbappe is now in the top 5 players in the world for me. Only Messi and Neymar can be argued to be more perfect attackers than the World Cup winner. He’s taking 4.7 shots per 90, with 3.5 coming in the box. He’s taking more shots in the box than most players are taking in a game. He’s had some stand out performances this season, with his hat trick against Lyon earlier in the season being arguably a career high. While he is arguably at the level of Messi and Neymar, he doesn’t have the same wow factor as they do. This is a complement if you can believe, because it makes him more direct and attack with less patience about it. Going on would be pointless because everyone knows just how good Mbappe is. He is player everyone in the world wants.
ST – Luka Jovic
Last but not least, we’re returning to the Bundesliga for our final player. Jadon Sancho has been on the lips of every Bundesliga viewer, but Jovic has been fantastic. I’ve watched a lot of the young Serb since those 5 goals he scored earlier in the season, and he just keeps impressing me. He’s taking shots in great areas, he’s two footed, good in the air and puts some real power on his shots. A small detail there but it’s great to see someone who looks like they want to break the net whenever they score. His xG contribution per 90 stands at 0.90, which is elite levels for a player who hasn’t had much experience at the top. In hindsight this could have been predicted. His xGP90 was 0.74 last season, showing how in little game time, he was still having an incredible effect on his side. The only thing he needed was a manager who was going to start him every game, and that is what he’s got. Jovic looks to be the next super star striker in Europe, similar to Kane or Aguero. It won’t be long until he’s playing for Europe’s truly elite.
I wanted to wait for both legs to finish, to gather thoughts and to reassure that I had the time to get these out. Since doing the previews, I thought it would make sense to discuss the games, starting with by far the most interesting game so far, a battle between underdogs Ajax and holders Real Madrid. We’ll go through each leg and finally discuss the situation of each team.
Let’s start with the first leg, played in the Dutch capital. This was a game many were looking forward for, because of how well Ajax represented themselves in the group stages, where they drew twice to Bayern Munich. Ajax showed this quality against Madrid. They put out a line up similar to their line up against the Bundesliga champions. They played Tadic as a false nine, with Ziyech and Neres adding support from the flanks. While they were the much better side, they struggled to deal with the players in the wide areas of the pitch. Bale, Vinicius, Benzema and Carvahal all cause Ajax a lot of problems. But it didn’t stop Ajax from playing their game. While their forward line deserves a lot of praise just for the amount of chances they were creating, with Neres, Tadic and Ziyech creating a combined 8 chances, Donny Van de Beek deserves a lot of credit. He has been playing as a very hard working number 10, putting in a lot of pressure on the opposition defence, and works to ensure that Madrid were unable to reach Kroos and Modric as easily. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions, with only Mazraoui putting in more defensive actions, and created 4 chances. His workrate and ability to add a bit of grit to a side full of talented players. While they did play well, they just couldn’t get in behind Madrid, and Ziyech was quite wasteful in some areas.
Madrid weren’t great. For a majority of the game, they were without the ball and were mainly focusing on attacking the wide areas. It’s understandable because this is Mazraoui’s breakout season, and while Tagliafico is a very good full back, does focus more on attacking. Mazraoui was excellent in this game, but there were occasions where Vinicius did get the better of him. Speaking of the Brazilian, he was great in this game. He is just so unpredictable, and adds this raw energy to Madrid. He is probably the first player to do so since Di Maria. I do think he is getting way too much praise, but there are signs he could be a player who has a future at Madrid, but doesn’t have the same maturity as a Sancho or an Mbappe. It was such a Madrid performance. They famously never play well in these knock out games, but use their elite players to drag them through these tougher games. Zidane understood this, and while Solari seems to have attempted this, with giving Ceballos and Llorente some chances in the XI. The difference is he doesn’t have the same attackers as Zidane had, making him force to use Benzema way too often. Even though Benzema was okay in this game, he just isn’t good enough to carry this attack, and has never shown the ability to be able to. Their best performer was by far Sergio Ramos. For the past 5 years, they main defensive strategy is to hope that Ramos drags them out of being an awful defensive side. He did this against Ajax, putting in 7 tackles and interceptions and 5 clearances. Ramos has such a presence on the pitch, that it makes him excel when being relied on like this. It left Madrid with an advantage going into the second leg, with the chances of Ajax progressing seemingly very low, so low in fact, that Ramos decided to get himself book delibaretely just because he trusted his side to progress with ease.
Oh how wrong Ramos was. Madrid were outclassed by every sense of the word in this game. Let’s begin with the now former champions, who were just awful in this leg. I mentioned how poor Madrid are without Ramos, and they just showed once again how disfunctional they are without their captain. It’s very reminiscent of their defeat to Juventus last season. If it wasn’t for Benatia losing his head near the end of the game, Ramos would have been at fault for Madrid exiting the competition. It amazes me how he even thinks this was a good idea. I’m not going to blame Solari for Madrid being awful defensively. They’ve been bad in that department since Mourinho left the club. Relying on Sergio Ramos magic is not a way to build a defensive structure. The problem they suffered from was a huge lack of midfield protection. It’s something that has became more apparent as the years are going by. Casemiro was hugely disappointing in this game. He has been one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe since his sudden emergence into the Real Madrid side back in 2015. This was by far one of the worst performances I’ve seen the Brazilian put in. When Kroos and Modric are putting in more defensive actions than him, there is a clear problem. Van De Beek and Tadic were also given so much freedom to move around in the final third, and Casemiro wasn’t being his usual aggressive self. Kroos and Modric weren’t exactly good either. Kroos’s mobility has always been non existent, and when he is making defensive errors, it’s not helping his case. No matter how good he is at transitioning the ball in the final third, it’s getting to a point where his defensive vunerability is starting to get a lot worse. While Modric is an excellent footballer, he is now 33. It’s been shown before with players like Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville and Mikel Arteta, that when you age, your basic football ability just kind of vanishes. Frenkie De Jong was sensational in this game, and was everything Modric wasn’t. Modric didn’t have his usual drive and that bit of everything he offers. It looked as if the batton was passed to the next generation of players.
To move on to Ajax, they put in one of the best performances in the Champions League I’ve ever seen. They approached Madrid without fear and weren’t willing to allow them to get into the game. With Ziyech. Van De Beek and De Jong all made it difficult for Madrid to even transition the ball. By far their best player on the day was Dusan Tadic. The Serbian is having the season of his life after leaving Southampton, and has arguably been the best player in the Champions League, and this performance showed it. The balls he put through for Neres and Ziyech were simply outstanding, and his goal was one of the goals of the season, for the build up and the finish. In this game, Tadic was at his best, creating 5 chances, having 2 shots on target and completing 3 dribbles, numbers of a player who doesn’t know how to slow down.
Madrid massively underestimated Ajax, and it’s hard to even understand why. They showed against Bayern Munich that they can go toe to toe with any side around, but this is Real Madrd we’re talking about. A side full of arrogance, that they have constantly lost games in the Champions League, but thanks to Ronaldo always firing them ahead, it jusified it. Now with him gone, they don’t have that cutting edge anymore, and will now hopefully learn from this mistake. Ajax meanwhile are flying. While their rivals PSV seem to have won their fingers on the Eredivise title, Ajax have done themselves proud in Europe, and it’s good to see the teachers of football give one more lesson.
While I’ve already previewed 3 very exciting games, with 4 other games which haven’t even been mentioned yet, this game does catch my interest. A game including the current Champions League holders, against former champions Ajax, who are currently having a new lease of life.
Let’s start with Ajax, who after having a disappointing 2017/18 season. They finished runners up to PSV Eindhoven, and failed to even qualify for any European compeition. They saw to quickly fix the problems they had last summer, by bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daily Blind for a combined £24m. They needed to improve their league form, while replacing Justin Kluivert in the process. Both have been very good this season, and when you add that with 2 of the best young talents in world football in Frenkie De Jong and Mattijs De Ligt. It gave them this balance of experience and youth, and showed that they had finally learnt from their past mistakes. Ajax have been simply incredible in the league. While their defeat to Feyenoord wasn’t their lowest point of the season, it has still been a very good domestic campaign. It’s just a shame that PSV have been even better. Nevertheless, they have still managed to score 72 goals, 1 more than PSV and 25 more than Feyenoord. Both top sides are in a league of their own at the moment. The difference between the two this season has so far been the Champions League. While PSV were stuck in a group of death, Ajax were given a group that gave them a chance of getting out. The group included Bayern, Benfica and AEK Athens. They came out of the group as one of the few teams to go unbeaten. Their biggest achievement of their campaign so far was their showings against Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions were shown up twice by Ajax, thanks to a tactical masterclass by manager Erik ten Hag. He used Tadic as a false nine, and Bayern has absolutely no idea how to handle him. They have shown enough evidence this season to prove that they can pull off anything, and could truly surprise everyone.
Speaking of Tadic, the Serbian must be recognised as one of his sides biggest threats. He has been magnificient since arriving in the capital, and showed this in the Champions League too. He played every minute of Ajax’s Champions League campaign, scoring 5 and assisting 1, while stats dropped from his numbers in the Eredivise, they were still very impressive. He was creating 2 chances a game, completing 1.7 dribbles and making 1.3 tackles a game. While his shot numbers weren’t great, but as a false nine, his role was more to bring others into play, which worked. He is a very talented player, is finally given the chance to show it in an attacking side. While Tadic, De Jong and Huntelaar have all been stand out this season, there is only one player who stands out, Hakim Ziyech. The phrase “too good for their league” has been used many times over the years. Whether it’s Celtic going unbeaten, Neymar getting a goal a game or Giovinco getting a goal contribution a game in MLS, there are different examples, but the one that cannot be argued is that Hakim Ziyech is way too good for the Eredivise. To briefly go over his numbers, he’s been awarded the man of the match 9 times this season, he’s taking 6 shots a game, making 4 key passes a game, completing 2.7 dribbles and even putting 1.8 tackles a game. These numbers are Messi like. He obviously isn’t nearly as good as Messi, but my point is that he is taking this league for a joke. He’s only 25 and it’s amazed how not a single club is looking at him. He should be starting for an elite side, not playing in a sub-par league. He has still shown his incredible ability in the Champions League too. He’s still taking 5 shots a game, and creating 1.8 chances a game and completing 3 dribbles. He is a superb talent and could cause Madrid massive problems.
Now onto the holders Real Madrid. This season has gone as badly as one could have expected. I’ve discussed previously where everything went wrong with Lopetegui, so how is Santiago Solari doing? Well he’s doing okay. They have risen to 2nd in the table and haven’t lost in the league since the 6th of January. They have gained massive ground on Barcelona, and while that is impressive, context is very important. La Liga has arguably been at its worst for a very long time. Villarreal, Valencia and Bilbao have been rather underperforming or just been plain bad all season. Everything bad with Real Madrid this season jut always goes back to last summer. Their failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo might be the dumbest decisions of the past decade. The argument was made that the goals would spread out more evenly, thanks to Ronaldo being such a vocal point, that players like Benzema and Asensio eneded up sacrificing their game to help him. The problem with this argument at the time and especially now is the goals they were replacing. They weren’t replacing 20-25 goals, they were replacing 50. Madrid needed to bring in a guy with a huge reputation, like Icardi, Kane, Dybala or even Griezmann. A guy who will take that responsibility and embrace it. They didn’t do this however, and now look like so much less of a threat than they were. With Bale failing to have the impact we all thought he would, it has left Los Blancos with the requirement of bringing in a forward this summer. Let’s quickly touch in Solari. Not much blame can be placed on him, because a lot of the problems all go back to Florentino Perez. Solari has done some good things. Thanks to some of the senior players in the squad rather struggling for form or with injuries, it has left Solari with choosing to bring in the fringe players, to see what they can offer. Llorente, Ceballos and Requilon have all played a decent amount of minutes, and some of them have shown they can have a say in this side. He’s got Madrid winning again, but they just don’t look good doing it. This is a huge game and this could define their season.
Let’s look at 2 of Madrid’s biggest threats, starting with Luka Modric. The debate still continues on whether the Croatian deserved the Balon d’or. The quick answer is always Messi and always will be Messi. If Messi is still playing he should win it every single year. Since there have been 6 occasions of the Argentine not winning it then the award shouldn’t be taken seriously. I am happy he has won it. It was about time that Modric got the credit he deserved for being one of the best midfielders of the decade. He is one of the most complete midfielders the game has ever seen, and while Xavi and Pogba will always be my personal favourites, Modric is right up there. Modric did have a slow start to the season, but he cannot be blamed much for that. He wasn’t given much of a break after his Croatia side’s impressive run to the final of the World Cup. At the age of 33, he needs to be used more sparingly, but it shows just how good he is. Without him, their midfield just doesn’t function as well as with him there. Only captain Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have started more games in La Liga than Modric. Even after his slow start, he has still been very impressive. He never stands out in any statistic, but he is solid in most departments. Out of the Real Madrid squad, only the full backs complete more dribbles than him. Only a handful of players create more chances than him and take more shots. He adds so much to your midfield that he can just fit into any team comfortably. Even with Ajax’s impressive midfield talent, they will find it difficult to deal with him. Vinicious Jr is a player who does need to be highlighted here, with Isco, Bale and Asensio all having arguably their least productive seasons, and it’s given the young Brazilian his chance to shine. he has been good in his 12 appearances in the league, and shown moments of real talent. While he isn’t as exciting as Mbappe, Jovic or even Sancho, there is definitely a talent here. We can go into the crazy decision to spend £40m on a player who has never started a game of football, but it’s had an effect on him. Imagine having your future planned out, without barely having to kick a ball. His game for me needs so much improving, mostly to do with his movement and his decision making. But he has been getting plaudits for his recent performances, and they are justified. His chance creation and shooting have have made him a useful player for Solari. He’s still so raw and adds this aura of unpredictably. It’s something they havent’t had for a long time, since Ronaldo’s winger days. He could be a real problem for Ajax in the wide areas.
If Ajax want to beat the current holders? They must attack them in the wide areas. If Marcelo starts, it will leave Madrid exposed on his side. While his attacking contribution is still solid, he has been caught out defensively a few times this season, and is finally starting his age. If Neres or Ziyech can just commit to staying wide, it will make their chances of getting through. They also have to play their game. They proved against Bayern that they are able to play against the best around, if they just be confident and believe in themselves, they have a huge chance of advancing. This Madrid side isn’t the same possession side as it was. Ajax can beat them. Get De Jong on the ball and he will drive through that aging Madrid side
But if Madrid want to keep their title, they must play the ball in the air. With Ajax having a small side, it makes them easier to push off the pitch. They are also inexperienced, so make sure to use the dark arts of football at their worst. Ramos does this all the time, so hope, like Liverpool, and will be key if Madrid want to get through. Madrid have never been a side that win pretty, but know how to win. Even on an off year, they have the players to get through these huge games. It’s what they do best. I think they will advance to the next round, but Ajax will really give them a tough game.