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

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

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

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

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

The Chase for Bruno

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

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

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

Tottenham’s Refresh

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

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

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

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

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

The Scudetto Race

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

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

Dortmund Staying Competitive

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

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

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

 

Predictions for Serie A – 19/20

Last, but certainly not least, is Serie A. While not my favourite league to watch, there are still plenty of things to look forward to. With the Milan clubs under new management, Napoli ready to challenge Juve and Atalanta now in the Champions League, let’s go through who will stand out and who will fall behind.

Outside Shout – Roma

After their fantastic 16/17 season, which saw them finish with over 90 points, there was supposed to be light at the end of the tunnel. Nainggolan had a stand out season playing as a forward, Mohamed Salah reached his potential and Dzeko had arguably his best season since winning the title with Wolfsburg. The season did end in the departures of club legend Francesco Totti and manager Luciano Spaletti. However, the arrival of Monchi did present a future where they could remain competitive with Juventus. The appointment of Eusebio Di Francesco, who finished 10th with an interesting Sassuolo side, seemed to be a promising choice as Spaletti’s replacement.

However, Roma became a lot worse over the space of a few months, and for obvious reasons. Nainggolan’s goal output vanished, and Salah’s departure was huge. This was the same season where Dzeko began to decline in terms of goal output. The problem Roma have had since Monchi’s arrival, and even after the Spaniard’s time as head of recruitment, is their failure to replace their best assets. The 17/18 season epitomised this perfectly. With Salah, Rudiger, Totti and Parades all departing, finding adequate replacements for them was vital. However, they opted to take 4 low-cost gambles on players, in an attempt to highlight how good Monchi is at finding those diamonds in the rough. Cengiz Under, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Patrik Schick and Rick Karsdorp all arrived for a combined £44.3 million. While the financial risk isn’t bad, there was a lot of pressure on the young players to succeed. It just hasn’t worked out for any of them, with the reliance on the older players still prevalent. Under is arguably the most significant success out of the bunch, with the Turkish winger starting over 15 games in Serie A in each of his two full seasons. While his game time is impressive, considering he was 20 when he arrived, he still has a lot of work to do in regards to development. He’s an average dribbler with a weak shot selection, with Under often going for a spectacular effort over what’s best for the team. The other three have suffered from other problems. Karsdorp has struggled with injuries since day one. Pellegrini just doesn’t seem in favour at the club, and Schick just couldn’t replicate the form he showed at Sampdoria.

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After last season, which saw Di Francesco sacked following a defeat to a relatively weak Porto side in the Champions League and a defeat to arch-rivals Lazio. Monchi shortly followed him out the door, showing how the whole project was a massive failure. This was such a shame because a majority of football wanted to see Monchi work his magic in Italy, and hopefully lead to Juventus’s dominance finally being toppled.

So where do Roma go from here? Well, there have been some optimism in terms of their recruitment. Paulo Fonseca has finally arrived in one of the top leagues. His work with Shaktar earned him plenty of plaudits, getting the best out of their model in discovering some of Brazil’s most promising talents. His arrival coincided with a window full of smart signings and risks. Spinnazola and Zappacosta are reunited since leaving Atalanta and give Roma two attack-minded full-backs with more athleticism than their options in the past. Veretout and Diawara arrive to add even more talent in that midfield. Veretout is a reliable creator with the habit of gathering plenty of yellow cards, while Diawara was once one of the hottest prospects in Italy. He signed for Napoli with the expectation of succeeding Jorginho, but never got the game time required for a young player. This move to Roma could be his best chance at finally playing games, and showing why he was rated so highly at Bologna. These good signings blend well with some intriguing risks. Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrive after being pushed out by Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer and Unai Emery respectively. There’s a good chance they’ll fail, but they’re only on loan, meaning their failure wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen.

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It’s difficult to predict how good Roma will be. In an ideal world, all of their signings could work out a top 4 push would be entirely possible. There is still a chance that these risks don’t pan out, and Roma finish behind the Milan clubs once again. Nevertheless, Roma are a team you have to watch this season.

Over-achievers – Inter Milan

Antonio Conte is a fantastic coach and can turn any side into an organised, well-drilled machine. While his Chelsea side did have a very mediocre second season under the Italian, that can primarily go down to a lack of backing in the market. Conte turned two underachievers in Chelsea and Juventus into title winners and some of the best sides their respective leagues have ever seen. I must admit, however, this Inter team is arguably the most challenging task in Conte’s career as of yet. The Nerazzurri have been a mess for years now, due to poor recruitment, which lead to multiple investigations from FFP. My biggest issue with Inter has been the overreliance on their more established talent to drag them over the line. Dalbert, Gagliardini and Keita Balde were all extremely underused last season. Lautaro Martinez did eventually get the game he so very much deserved, primarily down to the controversy surrounding Mauro Icardi.

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The absolutely dreadful signing of Nainggolan and Icardi finally tiring Inter with his drama seemed to have changed Inter. Before the start of the season, Conte made it very clear that the pair of misfits had no future at the club, and had to leave. They did, alongside Miranda, Joao Mario, Perisic, Dalbert and Ansaldi. Many of these players overstayed their welcome, and their departure meant a better and less drama-filled future.

The reason why Inter Milan are my potential over-achievers this season is simply down to the magic of Conte. If Inter do manage to reach the top four, it’ll primarily go down to the Italian. He will fix this Inter side and will find as much value out of many of their less talented players. Inter do not possess the same talent as Juventus, Napoli and arguably their local rivals. However, a good defence can carry you through large chunks of the season.

Under-achievers – AC Milan 

Milan’s summer recruitment was on a whole, impressive. Bennacer, Leao, Hernandez and Duarte highlighted a summer with a focus more on younger talent, with the oldest arrival being Ante Rebic, who’s still only 25. This new focus mixed well with the appointment of Marco Giampaolo. While his league finishes with Sampdoria were slightly underwhelming, his ability to get the best out of young players seemed to be exactly what Milan were looking for. The Italian helped bring the best out of talent like Joachim Andersen, Lucas Torreira, Milan Skriniar and Bruno Fernandes. His Sampdoria side played a more enjoyable brand of football than Gattuso’s Milan, who scored less than Giampaolo’s former club. With the new young arrivals, as well current talent like Piatek, Paqueta, Calabria, Donnaruma and Kessie, this side, if kept together, could be a side to reach those Champions League places once again.

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That is precisely why they’re my under-achievers this season. There is a lot of promise in Milan, but this is definitely a transitional season. It’s all about finding the best system to fit all of their new players. Piatek has to be the player to watch. He has done well since arriving in January but could be taken to the next level under Giampaolo, who managed to get 26 goals out of a very old Quagliarella. He is the key to what Milan do in the next few years. Depending on the performances on the pitch, this could be the start of something big from Europe’s most successful clubs.

Best Transfer – Hirving Lozano

I tweeted back in June that if Napoli did manage to bring Chucky Lozano to Serie A, it would be the signing of the summer. Even though I loved De Ligt’s signing, Lozano is just so perfect for Napoli. Ancelotti’s side were excellent last season, but the weaknesses in their team were becoming apparent. Callejon and Mertens were starting to show their age and right-back still had a massive question mark, even with Malcuit’s impressive form. I wasn’t sold on a majority of Napoli’s business over the summer. The rumours of Milik possibly leaving were confusing considering how good he was last season, and they massively overspent on Kostas Manolas. I mentioned in my preview for Napoli’s season that they were the favourites to sign James Rodriguez. If they did, they’d comfortably be the favourites to challenge Juventus. However, they couldn’t agree on terms with Madrid. Missing out on him was huge and would have taken them onto the next level.

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One benefit or downside depending on how you see it, with Ancelotti is he can give a group of talented players the push they need to succeed. He can quickly devise a system to get the best players into the same team. However, Napoli still wasn’t nearly as good as their final season under Sarri. If they wanted to compete, they needed an elite winger, someone to replace Callejon on the long term, and Lozano fits that profile. The Mexican international was fantastic during his 2 years with PSV, contributing to 50 goals in the Eredivisie. He was a perfect attacker, being able to create and score, while also possessing elite dribbling. He’s such a direct player and represents everything good about Ancelotti’s Napoli side, just like Jorginho did with Sarri’s. 

Potential Flop – Alexis Sanchez

Manchester United’s worst signing of the decade was easily Alexis Sanchez. It wasn’t only his consistently poor performances on the pitch, but the effect he had on the rest of the team. Both Pogba and De Gea wanting pay rises due to their importance to the side, while the best-paid player was sitting on the bench. Sanchez needed to leave for the sake of everyone involved. While United are still paying half of his wages, he has finally departed the club for the season, joining Inter on loan. Sanchez could rediscover the form he showed for over half a decade, with a change scenery being what he needs. However, I’m genuinely not a fan of this move in the slightest. It’s as backwards as PSG signing Mauro Icardi when they made it clear they were done searching for superstars. Sanchez represents everything Inter wanted to change. A superstar with a big ego, who has the potential to be a huge problem. 

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

De Ligt Joining Europe’s Elite 

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

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

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

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

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

Leverkusen’s Best Chance

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

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

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

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

Napoli’s Scudetto Challenge 

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

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

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

Conte Fixing Inter

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

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

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

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

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

PSG’s Change in Approach

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

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

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

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

5 Real Madrid Players Your Club Should Sign

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

1. Mariano Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

2. Jesus Vallejo

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

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

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

3. Lucas Vazquez

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

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

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

4. Sergio Reguilon

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

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

5. Dani Ceballos

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

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

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Romelu Lukaku and Overperforming Expected Goals

Stats have always had an involvement in football. Many like to believe that the use of statistics in football has only been relevant since Opta began using them back in 2003. The beginning of statistics can be traced back to after the Second World War, with Charles Reep attempting to prove how the W-M formation should be played, by highlighting how many goals and attacks were scored by 3 passes or less (he’s also seen as the founder of long ball football). It has gained mainstream recognition in the current decade. Shot locations were highlighted, passes in the final third, saves per goal, chance creation. These are some of the stats that have been seen as very useful for proving the strengths or weaknesses of certain players. One statistic that has been revolutionary in the past couple of years has been expected goals. It is a metric that can determine the strength of the chances being created. It can help highlight how well players are doing in front of goal. When you watch a game of football, it can be clear which side deserved to win. Expected goals gives a number to that, making it simpler to understand how some games were played in case you didn’t have the time to view it. While many have some serious dislike towards expected goals, I don’t think it is as impactful as many want to believe, simply a tool to help analyse football even further.

One use of the tool is to analyse strikers, especially their finishing. When a striker underperforms his expected goals, it shows how he is missing chances that he should be scoring. However, if they are overperforming expected goals, it shows how a player is scoring chances that many other players couldn’t, proving they’re elite finishers. We’ve seen this in the past with Harry Kane. He is arguably the best striker on Europe, and consistently overperforms expected goals. Last season, he finished the campaign with 30 goals, but xG predicted he should have scored 26. It just further highlights how good of a finisher he is. Another player who has shown himself to be an elite finisher is Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian forward has been one of the most consistent strikers in the Premier League, never failing to score less than 10 goals a season, since his loan move to West Brom. While he did perform very well under Roberto Martinez, it was his final season for Toffees that showed why clubs were ready to spend huge amounts of money on the forward. He scored 25 goals under Ronald Koeman, but xG showed he should have scored 16. He was scoring chances from very difficult areas. Many of his goals that season were headers too. Headers are always less likely to go in compared to a shot from a stronger foot. Lukaku had a fantastic season, which persuaded Manchester United to spend £75 million on him. However, it is already well documented that Lukaku hasn’t been at his best for the Red Devils. Let’s look at what’s went wrong for him.

Lukaku had a solid debut season. He scored 16 goals in the league and was one of the better performers in a United side that was inconsistent, to say the least. His build-up play was showing improvements and began looking like more than the strong poacher we all knew him to be. The issue he had under Mourinho especially was he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Mourinho has had a history of preferring strikers who are able to hold the ball up effectively and bring others into play. While Lukaku does have the strength and size to match up with some of Mourinho’s most effective forwards, he has never had the technical ability to do so. He is at his best when balls are played through to him, instead of to his feet. He has always used his physical dominance when chasing balls to push opposition players away. He has always been a lethal finisher, with physical traits that gave him an advantage over other poachers in the game. He was being called Chicarito with a gym membership last season, and it can be hard to argue that to an extent. Poachers are something we do not see much of anymore. Managers want strikers who are able to do so much more than score goals. It’s why players like Giroud, Benzema, Costa and Griezmann have earned so many plaudits in recent years.

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While Lukaku’s buildup player will be a criticism for the rest of his career, the most worrying part of his game at the moment is how he is doing in front of goal. United have had a massive creativity issue for years now, with fullbacks being relied on for chance creation, fullbacks like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, players who haven’t been good creators for the last 5 years. it means Lukaku is feeding off scraps to an extent, but the player does deserve some criticism. He has been criticised for not asking questions of opposition defenders and it’s easy to see why. So often in games, Lukaku will drop deep to receive the ball, taking the easy option instead of making threatening runs beyond defenders. It’s why Rashford has been such a breath of fresh air whenever he plays. He is a player with pace and stamina to burn and is constantly making runs into the channels, trying to make defenders uncomfortable. Lukaku isn’t doing the same, and United are losing that bite in the final third, whenever Lukaku starts on his own. There is still some sympathy to be had for the player. After a long season for United, which saw him barely be rested by Mourinho, he then went to the World Cup and played nearly every game for Belgium. Like Kane, he showed a lack of sharpness for the first few months of the season. He was rushed back thanks to Mourinho constantly complaining about his issues with the squad. What Lukaku needs at the moment is a serious break, to recover and come back to his best.

Solskjaer has rumoured to be selling some high-value players in the squad, with Lukaku being among them. Inter Milan are the club with massive interest in the striker, with Antonio Conte wanting the striker while he was at Everton. Do I think he would succeed in Italy? He would fare much better over there than he would at United. Serie A isn’t nearly as demanding as the Premier League, which would put less pressure on elements like pressing and buildup play. Inter have been playing to Icardi’s strengths for years, so it wouldn’t be much of a change in having a similar player. His shot numbers and key passes have been declining since his time in Manchester. A change of scene might be exactly what Lukaku needs. He is still one of the best finishers in Europe but needs a side who is willing to play to his strengths.

5 Players Who Could FIX Manchester United’s Defence

United are on a real resurgence at the moment. Oli Gunnar Solskjaer has just broken an English record for the first manager to win his first 5 games with a +2 goal advantage in each game. A strange record broken but it is still impressive nevertheless. United are currently attacking better, moving the ball faster and overall look happier. It wasn’t going to take a master tactician to improve United. They just needed a coach who was going to make the players happy, and not alienate half the squad with pointless masculinity tests. Ever since Solskjaer has arrived, Pogba has gone into supernova, and putting in some of the best performances of his career, Rashford is looking like the striker I never thought he could be, and even Matic is looking competent again. But one area that needs changing no matter what happens in the next 5 months is the defence. United’s pool of defenders just isn’t good enough. Even looking at last season, United might have kept the most clean sheets, but that wasn’t down to the defenders and the way United sat back. It was down to David De Gea having the best season a goalkeeper had ever had. Now that De Gea has came back to earth, it has exposed United’s defence to being average at best. It’s time for this back-line to get reshuffled, whether it’s now or in the summer. Let’s look at the players currently at the club, and go on to see where they need to improve.

Victor Lindelof

A player who didn’t exactly start his United career off in the best of ways, making an awful mistake to gift Huddersfield with a huge win over the Red Devils. After the occasional start last season, he has truly shown why United spent so much money on a relatively unknown player. You just have to look at his man of the match display against Newcastle. He was so calm on the ball, which is a massive boost for United, having a defender who doesn’t look so nervy whenever the ball is near his feet. He has shades of Alderweireld in the way he distributes the ball. He created 2 chances against Newcastle. That is crazy considering he is a centre back! He suits exactly what you United thrive to be. The biggest issue is his aerial ability. It’s a problem that just cannot be avoided. While he can read the game relatively well, he just struggles when balls are played in the air. This can be seen from his aerial with percentage. While elite defenders like Van Dijk and Sergio Ramos win 71% and 70% respectively, Lindelof wins 57%. It’s a clear weakness to a player with a very good skill set. Not only is he staying, but he has to start.

Conclusion – Starts Every Game!

Eric Bailly

While Lindelof started poorly and came into his own, Bailly has almost went into reverse. He was signed almost out of no where, only being at Villarreal for less than 2 years, before making a big £30m move to United back in 2016. I had no idea what to expect, but in his first 2 months, I was incredibly impressed. His composure, speed, aggression and intelligence made him stand out among a group of defenders with zero ability on the ball. However injuries arrived. From memory I remember one during United’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, which kept him out for a couple of weeks, and in his second season he missed most of the winter period again, coming back to rescue United against Liverpool. While his recklessness can let him down, as seen against Bournemouth. He barely gets dribbled past, wins a majority of his tackles, and is great when needing to make a recovery tackle. He’s still only 24. I would definitely keep him around, and hope he can regain the form that looked so promising when he arrived.

Conclusion – Keep as a squad player

Chris Smalling

An ever present under every manager since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Smalling has been able to keep his place in the side, based on bring the best out of a bad bunch. He excelled under Louis Van Gaal, with the Dutchman’s style and set up massively protecting Smalling. Soon as he was given as much protection under Mourinho, he was massively exposed for his inability to deal with small agile players, like Hazard and Sterling, who can run circles around him. He is great at dealing with aerial threats, but that’s it. He can’t distribute effectively and is getting too old to be able to learn more. While he could be a decent squad player, it’s time for this club to finally grow a pair, and not settle for average. I wouldn’t be surprised if a team in the lower half of the table would be interested.

Conclusion – Sell

Phil Jones

Injuries, clumsiness, slow, dangerous. Just some of the words to describe Phil Jones. I would go into detail but by now it’s so obvious she should be sold.

Conclusion – SELL IMMEDIATELY

Marcos Rojo

Another who was plagued by injuries. He was a player I wanted gone from United after his first season. He was just a defensive nightmare throughout his time under LVG. It included the worst left back I’ve ever seen. After Shaw’s leg break, Rojo filled in at left back for a majority of the season, and was just awful. Truly, truly awful. He did have a very good debut season under Mourinho, including an incredible performance at home against Spurs. But I just think he’s a liability in the squad. His injuries and mistakes mean he cannot remain in Manchester. I would sell him January for anyone who would be slightly interested.

Conclusion – Sell immediately

Axel Tuanzebe

Who a small majority of you are asking? Well Tuanzebe is a current prospect who is on loan at Aston Villa. Many Villa fans have been heaping praise on the young defender, for his calmness on the ball and his maturity at such a young age. I can completely understand where they are coming from. Every time I’ve seen him play I notice just how cool and relaxed he looks. He can read the game well and is a very good distributor of the ball. He is completing the most passes for Aston Villa with 49. However he has a similar problem as Lindelof, he just isn’t great in the air. He is playing in a league where a majority of the times do play it high, which is going to make it more difficult for him. He is still only making 2.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, which seeing as he ranks high in his defensive actions, is more of a sign of the team he’s playing for. He is definitely not going out on loan next season, and with Bailly being consistent with injuries, he could be useful to come in during the busy winter period. I’m unsure if he would want that role though.

Conclusion – Keep as a back up

After going through the current crop of players, it’s c lear that with the average age of the remaining players being 23, it’s clear some experience is definitely needed. While having such young talent is useful, some of these players still need guidance and a leader beside them, to bring the best out of them. Another quality that is definitely needed is some aerial dominance. As mentioned, Lindelof and Tuanzebe both aren’t great in the air, and need a player who can deal with that threat. They also need to have some ability on the ball, as seen with my criticism of Smalling and Jones. These are a lot of criteria’s to fill here. Not all will fill them, but a couple definitely will. Let’s go through them, from best fit, to some good options.

Kalidou Koulibaly

When Liverpool signed Virgil Van Dijk last year, it was seen as a genius bit of business. Van Dijk was the definition of a defender at his peak. He has everything to succeed at the top level, having an amazing range of passing, superiority in the air, able to read the game well and is even very useful at set pieces. While I would love to argue that Liverpool have been pretty lucky this season to even be at the top of the table, Van Dijk has still been a massive improvement at Merseyside. I bring this up because I thnk Kalidou Koulibaly would have a very similar impact.

The Senegalese international’s rise to the top as been a great story. He began his career playing in the second division of French football, playing for Metz. He was only 18 at the time, but he went on to start 16 games, and then 21 in the following season. He only stayed for 2 seasons, signing for Genk in 2012 for £1.1m. He then went on to further establish himself in Belgium, putting in some very good performances in the Europa League. He made 7 appearances in the 2013/14 season, and put in some great performances in their run to the round of 32, after losing to FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Koulibaly put in 5.3 tackles and interceptions, made 4.3 clearances and 2.4 aerial duels. He was only 21 at the time. They were great signs of a player with plenty of potential.

His time at Napoli can only be seen as an absolute success. His first season was under Rafa Benitez, a season where he performed very well. Even though he was playing for a better side, he still managed to have better defensive numbers, was barely getting dribbled past and his pass numbers truly started to blossom. He finally started to show why Napoli seemed to think he was ready for the big stage. After Benitez departed for Madrid, Maurizio Sarri arrived. This was the start of all the praise the defender began to receive. He fitted a difficult and demanding system perfectly. He was fast and strong enough to be able to deal with the constant counter attacks Napoli would face, due to their players being so high up the pitch. It also helped that he is an excellent distributor. This season, the defender has been averaging 4.9 long balls per game, with only Raul Albiol beating that. It shows how good is range of passing is, helping his side keep hold of the ball, and allow their midfielders to receive the ball at higher areas of the pitch. It’s an essential quality to have in a defender in the modern game, giving more flexibility in how to approach different games.

He adds that high level in defence to a United side in desperate need of it. His presence and ability will not only improve the team, but improve the players around him. Those incredibly close games, like that game against Tottenham, would have been so close. United face way too many shots. With the likes of Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Wolves all facing less shots than the Red Devils. They are allowing their opponents to create chances in good areas. Having better players does help to fix this. It will allow the manager to approach games with less fear, because they have defenders who aren’t going to be caught out and allow the opposition players to take advantage of it. Koulibaly is at an elite stage and is in his prime years. While £95 million is a lot for any player, if they can get him, they should.

Toby Alderweireld

While this may seem boring, it just has to be done. United’s long chase for the Belgian has became tiring at this point, and while discussing him might be a bit safe, it’s easy to forget why the Red Devils wanted Alderweireld so badly.

I like to think of Alderweireld as the worst mistake made by Atletico Madrid and in maybe Southampton to an extent. Back in 2014, fresh after winning La Liga and reaching a Champions League final, Alderweireld was sent out on loan to Southampton. It’s easy to see why however, with the Belgian only starting 10 games in the league that season. Atletico had the best defence in Europe that season, with Godin and Miranda forming an aggressive and tough defence, one that Alderweireld just couldn’t fit into. In hindsight, leaving the club was definitely the best idea. He isn’t a player who is fantastic in the air, or never put in massive tackle and interception numbers. He didn’t fit the Simeone system, and it was time to move to a club that fitted his style.

His arrival in the South of England was one of many smart deals done by Southampton that year. The sales of Lovren, Lallana, Shaw, Lambert and Chambers gave them plenty of cash to splash in the market, and replaced them very adequately, and in some cases, improved them. Sadio Mané and Dusan Tadic were brought to add some creativity and flair to a side that just lost its best attacker in Lallana. Bertrand arrived from Chelsea to fill in at left back, and became a very good player in the process, and Pelle and Long arrived to fight for a place upfront. They took players from all over the continent, in a bid to outsmart some of the clubs at the higher end of the table. By Christmas, Southampton were 2nd in the table, and their smart business practices seemed to have paid off.

Alderweireld was one of the highlights here. His distribution and reading of the game made for a perfect partner to the more aggressive Jose Fonte. At the time, many saw Fonte as the superior player. His numbers show that, making 5.3 tackles and interceptions and making 5.5 clearances. But now thanks to hindsight, it’s clear to see that Alderweireld was given his teammate the freedom to be doing all of the destroyer work. Alderweireld might have been putting in less defensive work (Fonte also had the advantage of playing more games. 37 to to his teammates 26), he was completing more long balls and was giving away less fouls. There are usually two types of defenders. The more aggressive type, like a Chiellini or Ramos. These are players who will rush out and put pressure on the attackers. The sweepers have to fill in for the space that the destroyers leave behind. David Luiz, Gerard Pique and of course, Toby Alderweireld all fill this quota. They are the more intelligent players usually, and are key to a defence functioning. It puts less pressure on their partners, knowing that if they fail to make the challenge, someone will be there to make the recovery tackle. It was no surprise that after Alderweireld left the club to return to Atletico Madrid, Fonte was never able to recapture this career high.

His first season at Tottenham was simply outstanding. He played all 38 games, registering 4 goals and 2 assists. The curious question is how did a central defender get 2 assists? Well this leads into Alderweireld’s best quality, his passing. The 30 year old has arguably the best passing ability out of any centre back in Europe. Both of his assists that season came from balls right over the top to Dele Alli, landing straight to his feet, gifting him a chance at goal. This exact move happened twice, and it shows why he became so valuable. Before his arrival in the 2015, Spurs’s defence was seen as a massive weakness. During the 2014/15 season, Tottenham conceded the 5th most goals in the league with 58, more than the likes of Sunderland and Burnley, who were relegated that season. After Alderweireld arrived, they conceded the joint least amount of goals with 35. This could be down to Pochettino just improving his team and improving in all departments, but Alderweireld still deserves plenty of credit. His calmness and great reason of the game gave Vertonghen, Rose and Walker more freedom in a way. Rose and Walker didn’t have to worry as much in a defensive sense, giving them a licence to attack without having to worry about being caught out by opposing winger. While the England pair did get plenty of benefits with Alderweireld’s arrival, it was Vertonghen who gained the biggest boost. This wasn’t the first time they have played together. Both play for Belgium and they also played for Ajax in their younger days. Their time in North London together created one of the best defensive partnerships in recent memory. This isn’t to discredit Vertonghen in any way. He is one of a very small group to win player of the month as a defender. He was finally given a competent partner in defence, who would allow him to not worry when he steps put to intercept the ball. One player was able to bring the best out of an entire defence, and Alderweireld deserves all the credit for that.

I bring all of this up because they all back up exactly what he would offer to United. Whether it’s Solsjkaer or Pochettino managing the club next season, they need a leader and a great distributor. Alderweireld ticks all of these boxes very effectively. He will give not only his defensive partner (most likely Lindelof) a calmer and experienced head beside him, but will give the full backs the reassurance to bomb forward, and finally get to good positions to support the forwards. There is a problem here however. The first being his age. Alderweireld is now 30, putting him in a position where improving is unlikely, and declining is very unlikely. You don’t know how some players adapt as they age. Will they stay consistent in some cases improve, like Chiellini and Xavi, or decline at a rapid pace, like Ferdinand or Iniesta. Spending money on an older player is always a risk, but this actually brings into the next positive. The Belgian will be available for only £25 million. Even if there is a chance he will decline, you hope by then the younger players will be ready to step up. Alderweireld might not be my first choice, but I would have no issue with him playing at Old Trafford, but there are definitely better options now.

Kostas Manolas

Onto a player who has only recently became a possible option, Manolas has became a very good defender during his time in the Italian capital. While he wouldn’t be my first choice, I would have zero complaints if he was brought in. His time at Roma has largely been a success. He arrived in Rome with a lot of pressure, with Manolas arriving to replace outgoing defender Medhi Benatia. Benatia was one of the best players in Italy that season, and losing him was problematic. He was signed for £10 million from Olympiacos. Looking back now it can be seen as a real bargain. He was also heavily linked to Arsenal before moving to Serie A, showing how he had impressed more than his current club. It was his displays the 2014 World Cup that got the attention of some big clubs in Europe. Greece weren’t exactly impressive in that tournament, but he was still able to make a very good impression. His very traditional, physical style of defending is one reason why many clubs were so interested. He arrived that just after the World Cup, playing under Rudi Garcia for 2 years. Roma were runners up in both of those seasons, and Manolas was a key figure during those very good finishes. His great interception numbers showed why he is considered such a good player. It’s by far the best part of the game. He was making 2.5 interceptions per 90, with only the late Davide Astori making more. Manolas also made 30 appearances that season, more than any other defender. He quickly showed himself to be the most reliable defender in this side.

This form continued under their next manager Luciano Spaletti. The current Inter manager highly favoured Manolas, to the extent of trying to sign when he became the new Inter manager back in 2017. He said:

“I want Manolas to stay at AS Roma, I’ve told him already. He is physically and mentally very strong. He arrives everywhere on the pitch, sometimes he exaggerates with sliding tackles.”

Roma were one of the most fun sides in Europe in that final season under Spaletti. Many players in that side, like Nainggolan, Salah and Dzeko went supernova. While Manolas wasn’t nearly as good as his attacking teammates, it was still arguably one of his better seasons. It did help that his defensive partner this season, Federico Fazio was having the best season of his career. Roma were also very flexible this season, playing 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. It shows that Manolas is very adaptable. Koulibaly has predominantly played a 4-3-3 during his time in Napoli. When you have a player who has had a history of playing in different systems, it helps with whatever the manager wants to do going into individual games. If it was Pochettino coming in, he would like to have someone like Manolas. The current Tottenham manager who has previously fiddled with different systems and formations, makes players who can quickly learn these systems, would be massively beneficial.

While my first preference for a central defender would be Kalidou Koulibaly, I would have no problem with the Greek international coming in. It does seem like he does want to leave the club, with Manolas being increasingly close to leaving back in 2017, with Zenit coming very close. He doesn’t have long left on his contract, which explains why his release clause is only £32 million. The problem is that this release clause doesn’t actually activate until the summer. His agent is also Mino Riola. The man has had an involvement in many recent Manchester United deals, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. Dealing with him is a problem, and he famously will rinse your club for all he can. I just look at that pricetag and think it’s too hard to pass up on. Transfermarkt value him at £40.50 million and they usually value players in their twenties quite accurately (Potential isn’t usually considered and instead only look at what they’ve done). He would definitely improve Manchester United.

Milan Škriniar

With the 3 more experiences players done, let’s at younger options. If the club do not want to invest heavily in players who do not have a high resell value (even if this model can be frustrating at times). Lets start with Milan Skriniar. The Slovakian originated from Sampdoria’s young talent machine, which includes Patrick Schick, Lucas Torreira and Mustafi all being some high profile sales. With the last 3 players, there were clear reasons for why these players were signed. Koulibaly, Alderweireld and Manolas all showed their talent at their previous clubs, but Skriniar is different. He was apart of a very average Sampdoria side, and the Slovakian defender wasn’t exactly stand out in his final season. He is was only putting in 2.2 tackles and interceptions per 90, and putting in 1.4 aerial duels. These aren’t stand out in the slightest, but the problem is defenders are very difficult to judge from numbers. Midfielders are simpler because you can see what kind of midfielders they are just by seeing what their numbers show. Defenders can be in different systems so tackle and interceptions are useful, but don’t tell the whole story. There were still other parts of his game that were very impressive. He was an excellent distributor. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any of his teammates with 91%, and was fourth for his side in passes completed. He was great when bringing the ball out from the back (the theme of all the players on this list). He wasn’t spectacular, but showed enough promise to earn a move to Inter Milan the following summer.

During his time at Inter Milan, he shown himself to be one of the best defenders in Serie A. His signing made so much sense at the time. Miranda wasn’t getting any younger, and he needed a partner who was younger and more athletic. Miranda’s defensive numbers dropped massively during Skriniar’s first season, going from 4.9 to 2.7. This is because Skriniar seemed be given the more aggressive role, with the Slovakian committing more fouls and winning more tackles than he was at Sampdoria. Miranda had a more reserved role, to help allow Skriniar to play with more confidence, to not have to worry about making mistakes, when he has one of the best defenders of the last 10 years beside him.

It does open up a very good question. Is he ready to be the leader of a title challenging team? A reason why he has excelled is because he has had an experienced head like Miranda next to him. United do not have that luxury. The club have 2 young defenders, who both would excel if they had a top level defender beside them. Skriniar is younger than Bailly and Lindelof, so is he ready to be the main man? I would say he is. Skriniar has the most starts out of any outfield player for the Nerazzurri (only Handanovic has made more). His numbers have stayed relatively similar to his breakout season, and he looks like he just keeps improving. He is already the defender who is trusted the most, so how couldn’t he excel in Manchester?

Nikola Milenkovic 

Last but not least, let’s look at by far the youngest option. I mentioned with Skriniar that Manchester United in the past have looked at the resell value of players, as seen by the club’s refusal to sign Alderweireld because of his age. He’s a player I have spoke about before near the beginning of the season. I highlighted how good he is on the ball and in the air. Now months later, has anything changed? Well not exactly. That isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. I wasn’t expecting him to keep up his early form, considering it was his first time starting consistently for Fiorentina.

Let’s go over by far his biggest strength, being his aerial ability. Milenkovic is 6.4ft. The man is a giant. and it shows from his aerial duels. He attempts 4.8 aerial duels per game, and wins 60% of them. In the Fiorentina squad, only his defensive partner, Germán Pezzella has won more aerial duels than the Serbian. He is also putting in a very solid 3.3 tackles and interceptions for his side. He also rarely ever gets dribbled past, only 0.3 times a game. The defender has all the qualities to become a complete defender. He is tall, strong, fast, confidence while also having a humbleness about him, and he has a great ability on the ball.

One of his stand out moments of his short career was his performances in the most recent world cup. Serbia had a lot to be excited about in Russia. Key players like Mitrovic, Matic and Milenkovic-Savic all came into the tournament in great form, and with other solid players like Tadic, Kolorov and Ivanovic making it a strong side all over the pitch. Even with these well known players, it was Milenkovic who stood out among his teammates. He was one of only 5 players to play every minute at the world cup for Serbia, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s important to remember that before the world cup, Milenovic wasn’t a starter for Fiorentina, so this was the first time we could all see how good the young defender was. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any player to play more than 90 minutes for his country, made the most clearances and won the second most aerial duels. This was his break out tournament and showed why there was so much promise surrounding Milenkovic.

So where does he fit in at Manchester United? Well firstly he will add that aerial prowess that the team desperately needs. Lindelof is a great reader of the game and excellent distributor, but he struggles against teams who play a more physical and direct style of play. Milenkovic is not only tall and strong, but he is also very fast. One problem I’ve realised this season regarding the defender is he has actually spent a majority of the season playing as a right back. While he isn’t as good as he is playing as a centre back, he was actually still very impressive. At a young age, Nikola Milenkovic actually used to be a sprinter, which explains why he is still adept at playing at full back. It’s a demanding role in modern football that needs players which have great athleticism. Milenkovic is surprisingly fast considering his size, and he’s done a fine job in a position he is not accustomed to. I bring this up because it would help if Solskjaer was still the manager. The team will always be defensively vulnerable because of how high up the pitch they play. Having Bailly, Lindelof and Milenkovic, three defenders with pace to burn, makes it easy to deal with any dangerous counter attacks. While I did mention previously mention that having a more experienced defender would definitely make more sense (and is still think it’s the right decision), I highly doubt Manchester United would sell Rojo, Jones and Smalling all in the same window. The club seem to have a problem with selling players, because of their contracts. They have given all these players big money contracts because of how long they’ve been at the club. It’ll be so hard to sell them because no one is going to want to pay for players over 27 with limited ability, and pay their huge wages. The club have put themselves in a difficult position. Signing someone like Milenkovic would ensure that players would be able to make those recovery tackles. He will also give us a real aerial threat at set pieces. While we are second in the league for set piece goals with 11 (it is including free kicks), we still seem very lacklustre at moments where the team should be taking advantage of a great chance to score. He takes 0.8 shots a game. It isn’t massive in the slightest, but it’s nearly double of Chris Smalling’s 0.5, which is the highest out of United’s defenders. It’ll give the club an extra advantage in an area they need to improve at. Liverpool are at the top of the Premier League and have scored the most goals from set pieces. They are a must for a team that wants to compete for a league title. Milenkovic would apparently cost €45 million. It’s a figure that United can definitely pay. While it would be a risk considering he’s only 21, but it could be a genius move on the long term.

Is The Serie A Title Race Already Over? Top 5 League Talking Points

Bundesliga

The Revierderby

While Dortmund’s game against Bayern is always a huge fixture, their game against Schalke is arguably just as big. Both sides are only a 23 minute drive away. They are both located in a real working class area and this derby has produced 152 meetings, with Schalke coming out as the better of the pair. Going into this game, it was clear that while Schalke have picked up some form in recent weeks, Dortmund were the favourites. While it was close, it was Dortmund who came out as victors, thanks to goals from Thomas Delaney and Jadon Sancho. Schalke did bring the game level thanks to Caligiuri’s penalty, but it just wasn’t enough.

Let’s discuss the victors, who weren’t great on the day, but still managed to win the game. The Veltins-Arena is not an easy ground for Borussia Dortmund, with their last win coming in October 2013, so the fact they were able to pick up the victory is still very impressive. However their performance wasn’t their best showing. They only managed 3 shots on target. Schalke managed the same but they have a valid reason being they lack forward options at the moment, with Mark Uth and Breel Embolo both picking up injuries. Dortmund didn’t have any massive injury troubles going into this game. They started all of their big performers, with Reus, Sancho, Alcacer and Brunn Larson all starting as their attackers. Reus was very good on the day. He has been revived this season, and while isn’t the brilliant winger in his earlier days, he has evolved as a player, similar to how R9 changed from a player who relied solely on physical power, and instead used his technical prowess to his advantage. Reus is the leader in this young side, and knows what it means to play for the club. In this game he created 3 chances, more than any other player on the pitch, and got the assist with a delightful free kick into the box. Other than Reus, their attackers weren’t good enough on the day. Both Sancho and Brunn Larson were lack lustre, but they are young players. This is a game that is so hard to predict, and it can be overwhelming. Paco Alcacer was arguably the worst out of the three. He didn’t manage a single shot on target, and was taken off for Mario Gotze. While Dortmund should be happy with the win, it wasn’t vintage from them. Lucien Favre has garnered a reputation for completely misleading xG. They are currently top of the table, yet xPTS claims they should actually be 2nd, with Bayern as the comfortable leaders. They are actually the luckiest team in the league, with Favre’s side only expected to score 27, 12 less than they have actually managed. Dortmund have been very good this season, there is no denying that. But with Bayern being more dominant, Hoffenheim taking more shots and Leipzig having a better defense, it does show how maybe they’re fortunate to be where they are. I still hope they can keep it up. The Bundesliga has been very boring for a while now and it needs this refresh. Not only does it throw Dortmund right back at the top, but it will make Bayern really reconsider how well they think they’re ran.

La Liga

Atletico Madrid show quality against in form Alaves

Onto La Liga, which has had a predictable, yet interesting week. The high scoring game between Levante and Eibar, but let’s look at Atletico Madrid. They have truly disappointed me this season. With the huge additions they made in the summer, it was expected for them to finally push on. They have been fine enough. They still have a very good defense, but Simeone has faced some real problems. The first was his midfield. Since the loss of Gabi, a player so similar to Diego Simeone, it was as if there were two of them. The signing of Rodri from Villarreal was so good. I’ve already gone through previously why he’s so good, but there was doubt he could be the guy to replace Gabi. But after a start to a season which lacked minutes, he has finally found his place in the side. Only Koke completes more passes a game than Rodri. He also completed the most tackles in the side and the most clearances out of any midfielder. He holds the ball very well and is a great shield for the defense. I bring this up because he was one of Atletico’s best players on the day. He scored, completed more passes than any other Atletico Madrid player, and made 3 tackles and 8 clearances. He was very good on the day, and it seems Simeone finally has put his trust in him.

The Rojiblancos were deserving of the victory. They created better chances, and kept Alaves quiet and unable to create real substantial chances. While Alaves did take more shots, they only managed 3 on target. Atletico Madrid are one of the best sides in Europe at ensuring the chances you make are poor ones. It is why they are such a good side, and even with aging defenders, they are still rock solid at the back. One of their stand out defenders in this game was Santiago Arias. The Columbian was brought in as a replacement for the departing Sime Vrsaljko, and has been a worthy successor. He had a very successful time at PSV, where his dribble numbers and attacking threat were his most notable attributes. He was very good in this game, and showed all these qualities. He created 2 chances, more than any other defender, and even got an assist. It was a very good display from a player who will need plenty if he is to replace Juanfran.

Let’s quickly touch on Alaves, who while didn’t deserve the 3 points, they still had some chances in this game. Ibai Gomez managed more shots on target than any of his teammates, with 2. Alaves have been fine this season. While they don’t score many goals, they take the chances they get and play a very direct style. They can seem old fashioned, with Alaves being near the bottom of the table in shots, possession and pass accuracy, but right now they are just taking advantage of the state that is La Liga right now. The league is a mess, which has left teams like Alaves and Levante to climb the table, in times where they really shouldn’t be this high. While they are having a good season, it’s mainly because of how bad some other sides in La Liga have actually been.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 will not be spoken about this week. The yellow vests protects have brought up security concerns. France is not exactly the happiest nation at the moment. 5 games have been suspended this weekend, including the game I most looking forward to, St Etienne against Marseille. It is still unsure when these games will be played, but I will cover Ligue 1 when it eventually comes back.

Premier League – Manchester City stunned by Sarri

Arguably the game of the weekend, Sarri was the first manager in the Premier League to truly dismantle Pep’s side. While City did dominate, Chelsea took their chances and limited City to create chances that aren’t as high quality as usual. It was arguably the most interesting game of the season.

Let’s start with Chelsea, who were truly great on the day. They came into this game in arguably the worst of situations. They lost 2 in their last 3, with their win coming against Fulham, a side even United could put 4 past. There was reason for worry, and even in the first half that worry was still there. City dominated and definitely should have got on the score sheet, but Chelsea rode their luck, and thanks to a goal from N’golo Kante and a late header from David Luiz, the blues managed to get the win. When I say that City dominated that first half, it was no exaggeration. Kante’s goal was Chelsea’s first shot on target. It’s Kante’s 4th goal contribution this season, the same as he’s managed in his last 2 seasons for Chelsea. While he is still learning his new role of box to box midfielder, it cannot be argued that he is definitely showing progress. While both Kante, Hazard and David Luiz will be remembered for what they did going forward, the man of the match was comfortably César Azpilicueta. The Spaniard was a monster at the back, that if you just add up all his defensive actions, he made 24. That is unheard of and it could be the first time I’ve ever seen a player amass that many. No matter where he plays Azpilicueta will always be one of the most consistent players in the side. He is just a delight to have for any squad. What Chelsea did so well is actually realise they are a lesser team than Man City. They might have played a 4-3-3, but in defense, it looked more like a 4-5-1. They were fine to have less of the ball, because they knew they could score a goal at the perfect opportunity. Both Kovacic and Kante are incredibly athletic, and could definitely help transition. It’s was a great approach from Sarri, and seems to be doing well at Chelsea, playing a different style to many of his predecessors.

This did seem like a huge off day for Manchester City. The champions dominated the first half, but late in the game they failed to get back a goal, and the pressure seemed to have got to them. The biggest talking point of the game was Man City’s lack of striker. Pep after the game said he was happy with how they played and the how his side set up, but I disagree. While he has played a striker-less team before, it just didn’t work here. Sterling just doesn’t have the same ability as someone like Jesus, to get in behind and make very intelligent runs. Sterling has been incredible this season, but it’s more as a winger, not a striker.

While Liverpool might be top of the table, City are still comfortably the better side. Every result they have had all been earned, with no luck to speak of. Let’s hope the better side actually win it this year.

Serie A – Juventus extend lead at the top

With Serie A going back to its one horse self, let’s look at their Friday night battle against Inter Milan, a side who have massively disappointed me so far this season. They have a very good manager, and made additions that should have seen them skyrocket up the table, but have been labouring on. While Icardi and Brozovic have been their usual great selves, Perisic, Nainggolan, Candreva and Vrsaljko have all underperformed this season. Perisic has always been their main creator, so having him slow down is a massive problem. Luckily, Keita Balde has been in good form recently and has helped his side. However even Keita couldn’t make the difference, with Juventus winning 1-0.

Inter had 2 incredible chances to get ahead, but thanks to Icardi creating them, instead of being on the end of them. Gagliardini hit the post and Skriniar hit it over the bar It meant they didn’t have their most clinical striker taking the shots. Other than those two chances, Inter only managed a single shot on target. They were wasteful in the final third and but the fact they created the chances they did, does earn credit. Vrsaljko was arguably their best player. While he hasn’t been as good as I expected, he did definitely bring his a game in this one. He completed 2 crosses, more than any other Inter player, and had their only shot on target. He was arguably one of the only highlights from a defense that wasn’t good on the day. xG had this game at 1.41 to Juventus, and 0.95 to Inter.

Let’s move on to the victors, who while weren’t great, still managed to get the job done. It’s classic Juventus. They are a winning machine. They have a team full of players who know how to win games, through the more dirtier side of the game, with players who have played at the top level for a long time, and know what it takes. They were good in this game, creating better chances than their opponents, with their forwards performing very well. Paulo Dybala was very impressive on the day. He created 3 chances, took 4 shots and even completed 4 crosses out of his 5 attempted, which is frankly ridiculous to see a player be that accurate. Mandzukic scored the only goal, and also had the most shots on target, and created 2 chances. Ronaldo wasn’t stand out in his game, but it’s good to see his teammates performing even when their main man isn’t. However another full back stole the show, this time it was João Cancelo. The Portuguese, while disappointing in Spain, has simply been brilliant since arriving from Valencia last summer. He was signed permanently by Juventus in the summer, after his loan spell with Inter came to an end. He has arguably been the signing of the season in Serie A. He created 3 chances, made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and got the assist with a delightful ball to Mandzukic.

It’s hard to see how Juventus aren’t favourites for practically every competition they’re in. They have a deep squad, quality in every position, and huge competition for places. I still think their midfield is a bit weak. It’s the only thing truly holding them back from being the best side in Europe. While Atalanta and Napoli might be more fun to watch, Juventus are winners, and that is what’s most important when winning league titles.

How Good is Emery’s Arsenal? Top 5 League Talking Points

While illness did restrict me from talking about last week’s talking points, let’s look at this week. I’ll start to lessen the amount I discuss, just to make sure they are out at a reasonable date. Let’s start straight into it.

Bundesliga

Werner wins game for Leipzig

With Dortmund and Bayern winning rather uneventfully, let’s look at Leipzig. When they arrived in the Bundesliga a couple of seasons ago, they started off like a rocket, actually ahead of Bayern by Christmas. While hated by the Bundesliga fans, they are ran so well and with Nagelsmann coming next summer, this season seem to only be a transition, to make sure they have a satisfactory season and stay in the Top 6, however they’ve actually been incredible. They currently sit in 3rd and have been an absolute wall at the back. While they didn’t start off well, conceding 4 against Dortmund in the first game and conceding 2 against Hoffenheim, they haven’t actually conceded since their game against Hoffenheim. That was at the end of September. They have been incredible defensively and have surprised everyone.

Let’s move on to the game in question. RB Leipzig beat in form a good Borussia Mönchengladbach side 2-0, with Timo Werner scoring a brace. On paper, this would have been a very difficult game for RB Leipzig. Their opponents put 3 past Bayern Munich and only Dortmund have scored more than their 30 goals. They’ve been in incredible form and were going to be tough to hold back. However Leipzig got the 3 points, scoring two and making Mönchengladbach look like an average side. The victors created twice as many chances, and were very effective on the counter attack. They used the likes of Werner, Poulsen and Bruma to use their pace to break Mönchengladbach quickly. While Bruma was underwhelming, Poulsen and Werner were at their very best. They are probably one of my favourite striking partnerships in Europe right now. Werner is a goalscoring machine, being one of the best players in a one on one. While Poulsen does lack that killer instinct, he is brilliant in the air and a solid creator for his German partner. Both goals just showed how well they work together. Poulsen won the ball in air and gifted it Werner in a good position to carry the ball, which he eventually scored. The second was an excellent showing, with Poulsen getting on the end of a long ball and gifting Werner with an open goal. In this game, Poulsen created more chances than anyone else, and won 3 aerial duels, with only Konate winning more for his side. I always wanted to see a better goalscoring rate from Poulsen, but I finally see why Leipzig love him so much. He helps the team around him in such an effective way. It could actually explain why Werner was so poor in the world cup. He didn’t have his partner in crime to give defenders a difficult job, to give Werner more space to get in behind.

This season was not supposed to be this important. Ralph Rangnick however has kept them so competitive, and arguably better than they’ve ever been. It makes the arrival of Nagelsmann even more exciting.

La Liga

Madrid dispatch Valencia

With Barcelona just failing to show consistency, it’s left La Liga in a weird place. Sevilla drew to in form Alaves, and the Blaugrana were able to win 2-0 against strugglers Villarreal. However focus this week will be on Madrid, who cruised past a frustrating Valencia with a 2-0 victory. Solari’s arrival stunk of panic and hope of a Zidane scenario, where he will hit the ground running and motivate the squad. But after a humiliating defeat to Eibar, and an underwhelming victory over Roma, it hasn’t started out as well as everyone hoped. This win was an impressive one.

Madrid started the game with a very different starting XI. Vasquez was brought in on the right side, with Bale shifting to the left. On paper, Vazquez seemed to be playing to keep Guedes and Gaya, two very attacking players, quiet. This turned out to be true, with Vazquez putting in 6 tackles and interceptions in this game. He truly put a shift in for his side, and helped them get the win. He also scored late in the game to seal the win, showing how he helped Madrid in both departments. While the chances to their attack were interesting, their midfield was very different. With an injury to Casemiro, it forced Modric to play alongside Ceballos and Llorente. All three were fine on the day, with Ceballos standing out with the Spaniard making 7 tackles. It does seem as if Solari wants to use these younger players. There are plenty of reasons why. The first being both Llorente and Ceballos will add some sort of defensive stability in the absence of Casemiro, and the other, more believable one, is egos. A problem a lot of top clubs have is the amount of egos in those dressing rooms. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Madrid all famously have teams full of players with high demands. Whether it’s Sergio Ramos being Perez’s mouth piece, or James Rodriguez criticising his own manager after a couple of months, it seems Madrid players love to have their way. Playing young players who are desperate to play pleases not only those players, but the fans. Madrid fans, like their players, are very irritating. Their showings of white flags and booing of players like Ronaldo, who did so much for them, paints such a bad picture. They prefer when they see guys like Asensio and Ceballos play. It’s because most Madrid and Barcelona fans are also huge national team fans. They want not only their country to succeed, but to succeed with their players.

Let’s quickly touch on Valencia, who were not good on the day, or all season. Their drop off has been staggering to say the least. With Champions League football returning, and signings like Wass, Gameiro and Batshuayi all looking exciting, everything seemed to be on the up, but it’s been far from that. Last season they were extremely lucky. They started off with Simone Zaza in hot form until the New Year. After his drop off, Santi Mina came in and carried on from his teammates great start. They are struggling in front of goal and that cannot be understated. While they have been defensively solid, with only Atletico Madrid conceding less, they cannot stop drawing games. They’ve drawn a total of 8 games in La Liga, which at this point of the season is crazy. To show I crazy it is, only Bilbao have drawn as many games as Valencia, in all the top 5 leagues. They just cannot kill games off and it’s easy to see. None of their forwards have scored more than 2 goals, and they’ve all looked poor. Santi Mina just cannot hit the back of the net at the moment. Rodrigo’s numbers have stayed the same, but is having a similar problem. However the biggest drop off has to be Gonzalo Guedes. The former Benfica forward has been a shadow of the player he was last season. His dribbling and key pass numbers have dropped off a cliff, and just seems to not have the same confidence and fearlessness as last season. When I said that Valencia were lucky last season, it mainly stemmed from how they over performed xG last season. It’s the complete opposite this time. They are arguably the unluckiest team in Europe at the moment, with xPTS saying they should have roughly 23 points, which would put them in 3rd. It’s honestly incredible how they’ve changed. Marcelino is a good coach however, and there is a high chance he will turn it around.

Ligue 1 –

Lyon play entertaining draw with Lille

While PSG finally dropping points might be interesting, my distain for that club and most of their players leaves me not wanting to give them attention, so let’s look at Lyon and Lille. Both sides have been good this season, with Lille looking back to their best and Lyon finally getting some form after a relatively slow start. On paper, this was going to be a must watch, and I’d say it was.

Let’s start with Lille, who started the season off so well, have finally started to slow down. They haven’t won a game since the end of October, and have since lost to PSG and lost in the Coupe de la Ligue to Strasbourg. The most worrying signs have been the form of Bamba and Pepe. I said both have been arguably the most inform players in Europe, but have since slowed down. Pepe hadn’t scored since their defeat to PSG, and looked so poor against Nice. Bamba has also really slowed down, with the Frenchman not scoring since the 6th of October. While not being at their best in recent weeks, they started his game off like a rocket. Thanks to goals from Loic Remy and Nicolas Pepe, it gave them a deserved 2 goal advantage. While both were good on the day, with Pepe finally putting in those shot numbers expected by now, Thiago Mendes stood out. The Brazilian has been a consistent name on the team sheet this season. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions in this game, and created 5 chances. Lille were very much playing on the counter attack, and Mendes played his role brilliantly. The home side only had 28% possession, and Mendes only completed 21 passes, meaning he created roughly a chance every 4 passes. What a very effective performance from the midfielder.

Let’s move onto Lyon, who clawed back after conceding two. They didn’t create many chances, but that can be explained by their desperation to win the game in the second half, meaning the chances you make aren’t usually the best ones. One player who stood out in different ways was Memphis Depay. After releasing releasing his strange yet brilliant 5 million Instagram followers rap, he followed that by missing a penalty. It’s just so poetic. He was still good on the day however, creating 4 chances and had 5 shots. He just seems to be unable to slow down at the moment. After a start which I vividly remember calling underwhelming, they seem to finally be back on track. This squad has some very talented players, and it won’t be long until their talent is taken from them. They have to make this season a memorable one, because it could be the end of this promising team

Premier League

The North London Derby

By far the biggest game in Europe on the weekend, Spurs went to the Emirates to play their biggest rivals, Arsenal, and to see where both are at this stage of the season. It was Arsenal who came out as the victors, with the Gunners cruising past a nervy Spurs side 4-2. The first half was interesting to say the least. After Vertonghen giving away a very unnecessary hand ball, Aubamayeng slotted home the following penalty. After a fightback from Tottenham, Arsenal eventually ran out winners.

Let’s start with Arsenal, who arguably put in their best performance of the season. While they will always seem to be defensively suspect, they played the game well and especially their midfield. Both Xhaka and Torreira were very dominant in this game. Over the years, the biggest criticism of Arsenal has been their lack of bite in midfield. Players like Coquelin, Elneny, Flamini and Arteta have all been criticised for just not being good enough. But since Torreira’s arrival, they’ve seriously stepped up. While Torreira isn’t a great creator, his aggression, fight and speed make him such an effective partner to Xhaka. Let’s quickly touch the Swiss international. Since he’s been starting with Torreira, he has been given less responsibility in a defensive sense, and allowed him to carry the ball and help transition. The problem Xhaka has had is he has been playing with Ramsey in the last couple of years, a player with nearly zero defensive responsibility. It left Xhaka with a lot to do and he just isn’t mobile enough to do it. Torreira has transformed him and made them arguably the best partnership in the league. I said before the season even started that Torreira is an excellent player and even called him Arsenal’s best signing, and it’s good to see my predictions coming true.

Arsenal are finally looking like evolving. They became passive and were always written off before the season even began. Now with Emery, they have added some bite and resilience to a side in need of it. He seems to have actually turned Arsenal into how they were in the 90s, where they didn’t win by much, but were solid and had big players all over the park. They were threatening from the word go, and scares oppositions in the tunnel. There is still so much work to do however. Emery still needs to figure out how to get Aubamayeng and Lacazette in the same side. He also needs to add some width into his team. Iwobi seems to be the only player in this side who you’d count as a winger. They’ve been linked to Nicolas Pepe, a player I have covered extensively, and would definitely be a needed addition in January. While those are important matters, it’s their defense which needs the most improvement. While they have improved slightly, they are still arguably the worst side in the top 6 in a defensive sense. They face much more shots than the top 3, and don’t even put in as much tackles and interceptions as expected. xPTS says they are actually the luckiest team in the league. The Gunners are on 31 points, when they are only expected to get 22, which would place them 9th in the league. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are signs that the future could be bright.

Let’s quickly touch on Spurs, who just didn’t turn up in this game. The Emirates has always been a real unlucky ground for them, with their last win there coming in 2010. There was always doubts if Pochettino’s side could hold their nerves and get a victory against a side which has been incredibly lucky. If the Premier League was ranked based on half time results, Arsenal would be bottom. It meant that Spurs needed to start the game off with a bang and try and shut up shop. They failed to do so, and it cost them. It’s as simple as they didn’t turn up. It’s been a consistent criticism under Pochettino, how one game they can go to Old Trafford and walk all over Manchester United, and then suddenly lose to Watford the next. Spurs are a great side, but they have these occasions when the pressure gets to them. This game sums it up. Even when Spurs were better than their rivals, Arsenal still were able to put up a performance when Spurs came to town. Something needs to be fixed in the way they approach these games.

Serie A

Serie A is really starting to liven up with some incredible fixtures. This week, Inter Milan visited struggling Roma, to play the most played fixture in Serie A history (117 times).

Let’s start with the home side, who have not been great this season. Their defense seems to have gotten worse since last season, which only conceded 28 goals last season. They have already conceded 18, which isn’t a good sign from a team that relied heavily on their defensive resilience. While their 24 goals scored is a respectable amount, it’s arguably their most positive aspect this season. Only Juventus take more shots on target than Roma. They have been slightly unlucky. If they sort their defense out, they should be back to their best.

Let’s move on to their game against Inter, where they were able to salvage a draw, thanks to an amazing goal from Under and a penalty from Kolorov. The game was slightly in Inter’s favour, with the away side having more shots and having a majority of the possession. Roma definitely had chances however, with Florenzi hitting the post early on being a game changing moment. The Giallorossi as a team were very good. It’s a performance they needed, after losing to both Udinese and Real Madrid, Di Francesco needs to keep up with Milan and Lazio for that 4th spot. Patrick Schick definitely helped his side on the day. I haven’t been impressed with him since his arrival from Sampdoria back in 2017. While his game time has been minimal, he just hasn’t given enough reason for Dzeko to not start. He won 6 aerial duels in this game and created 2 chances, including the Florenzi miss previously mentioned. While he didn’t take a shot, he was still effective for his side.

Inter were the side that probably deserved the 3 points. Both Icardi and Keita Balde have continued their great form into this game, with both scoring. However their best player was arguably Marcelo Brozovic. Croatia has had a golden age of midfield talent, with Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic all establishing themselves at the top level. While all are excellent players, Brozovic has been absolutely sensational this season. He has solid defensive work, with an incredible range of passing. The Croatian has actually been averaging 7.8 long balls per 90. He is a key component in Spaletti’s side. He keeps them moving and helps dominate in the midfield. In this game, he created 4 chances, had more touches than any Inter player and completed the most passes. He is truly an elite midfielder, and I’d be surprised if clubs like Paris and United aren’t keeping their eye on him.

Are Dortmund Doing The IMPOSSIBLE? Top 5 League Talking Points

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

Bundesliga

Dortmund extend their lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankfurt pummel Schalke

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

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

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

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

La Liga

Barcelona’s home record ruined

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

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

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

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

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

Sevilla take on in form Espanyol

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

Paris put pressure on Henry

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

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

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

Depay’s dazzling display

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

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

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

Premier League

The Manchester Derby

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

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

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

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

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

Wolves continue run against Top 6

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

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

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

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

Serie A

Inter humiliated

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

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

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

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

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

Are Manchester City Unstoppable? Top 5 League Talking Points

Goals goals goals! This week contained many big scorelines, so let’s get into the usual detail of the leagues, and see what’s new.

Bundesliga

Hoffenheim walk over Leverkusen

By far one of the most interesting matches of the weekend was Hoffenheim’s comfortable victory over Leverkusen. Originally Hoffenheim were seen as a quite defensive side under Nagelsmann when he took over. However in the last couple of seasons, the young German tactician had turned his side into an extremely direct side that attack with incredible speed. This game just highlights the ferocity of Hoffenheim.

While Leverkusen outshot and dominated the game (it was their home game after all), they failed to capitalise on their dominance. Julien Brandt had a very good chance to get Leverkusen back in the game, but hit his shot wide.

What won Hoffenheim the game was how clinical they were in front of goal. While Leverkusen have been poor this season, they are still a side full of talent. Hoffenheim needed to take their chances if they wanted the three points, and they definitely did so.

Expected goals had this game 1.89 to Leverkusen and 1.93 to Hoffenheim. While it doesn’t show the final result, it highlights how well Hoffenheim finished on the day. The forward two of Reiss Nelson and Joelinton worked so well together. Both scored on the day, including Joelinton scoring a brace and Nelson scoring an excellent finish near the beginning of the game. While the Brazilian did score 2, Nelson was very impressive. The Arsenal loanee created 2 chances, scored, and even made a tackle and an interception. It was a very well rounded performances from a player who is still so young.

With Sancho getting many of the headlines, it’s good to see another Englishman in Germany doing so well. Not only does it show how good these players are, but also about the league and the coaching. Both Sancho and Nelson are performing so well because of the coaches they are playing under. Many ignorant pundits say it’s about going abroad to show off quality, when it isn’t. It’s about joining a club that is willing to put faith in your ability and teach you a different system. While fullbacks are arguably the most important position in football, it’s young attackers who are getting chances because they usually do not require as much discipline and knowledge of the game defensively. It allows them to blossom and that I hope they continue to do.

Freiburg surprise again.

Onto a more surprising match, Freiburg actually did carry on from their surprise victory over Mönchengladbach, by getting a point at the Allianz against the reigning Champions.

I said after their win over Mönchengladbach, that they will have to hope that they give the same performance and hope to surprise the Bundesliga, and they did. After the game being goaless for a large majority of it, it was Gnabry who broke the deadlock. But thanks to a very late goal from Höler, Freiburg earned a very good point.

Their goalscorer, Lucas Höler was excellent on the day. The German was part of a side that were resilient and held off a very average Bayern side. Höler scored his only shot on target, created 2 chances, completed 2 dribbles and most impressively, made 4 tackles. It just shows how the entire fought so hard in this game, to take advantage of an out of form Bayern side.

Speaking of Bayern, this really wasn’t the performance that Kovac would want to see. I do sympathise with him in some way. He lost both Tolisso and Coman to injury. Both Frenchman would have seriously helped him in the situation he is in. Tolisso was arguably Bayern’s best midfielder last season, and Coman is extremely talented, but injuries seem to keep holding him back. It means he has to rely heavily on both Robben and Ribery, two players who should be on their way out, yet remain to be key players in the side.

Bayern have had the same problems since their last champions league win. Ever since Dortmund dropped off, they had no challenge and by the time the crunch champions league games arrived, the players struggled because of the sudden step up. This is the first time where Bayern are finally challenged, they seem to be unable to keep up. The lack of challenge over the years is the reason why Robben, Ribery and Rafinha are still key players in the side. Bayern would have realised back in 2016 that these players cannot keep starting as many games. They let Douglas Costa go because he was unhappy with his place in the side. Bayern have cruised the Bundesliga for too long, and are finally being punished for it.

La Liga

Barcelona lucky

Barcelona had an incredible week last week. They disposed of Inter without Messi, and cruised past Real Madrid with way too much ease, without Messi. Their players have seriously stepped up since their best player received a relatively short injury. However against Vallecano, they can call themselves fortunate to say the least.

At one point, Real Vallecano were 2-1 and minutes away from getting the 3 points, however thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, the Blaugrana got the win they might have not deserved. Let’s talk about the home side first, who really impressed against the Champions. While Barcelona dominated as everyone expects, they might have used to it as well as they should. Vallecano had more shots and completed twice as many dribbles. That could been because without Messi, who takes a majority of their shots and completes and an incredible amount of dribbles, but you still expect them to be better.

For Vallecano, their stand out player was arguably Adrian Embarba. The Spaniard was excellent on the day, creating 3 chances and completing 4 dribbles. He was a driving force for his side on the day. Alejandro Gálvez was another who held strong in the game. He completed the most defensive actions in the game, including 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 clearances. He was one of the key reasons why they were so close to winning the game.

Now let’s start about how Barca failed to win this game comfortably. I believe it’s the fault of their wide players, Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha, were just below average on the day. Valverde will continue to confuse for the rest of his time as manager, but choosing to play Rafinha, a guy he tried to sell in the summer over Ousmane Dembele will never seise to confuse me. Rafinha and Coutinho are just not wingers. They both do not have the pace and drive to be able to stretch a defense.

I called Rafinha one of the heroes after his solid performance against Inter Milan, but I thought that would be a one off game. He has continued to start, despite looking worse in every game I see of him. Coutinho is a very good creator. His ability to find that killer ball to break open a defense makes him one of the most useful players in Europe. While he did play as a winger under Klopp because of how interchangable that front three were, it worked. But more is desired from him under Valverde, and he just shouldn’t be playing there. I have no idea how many times I have to say this but Dembele really should be starting every game for Barcelona. At the beginning of the season, I said he was the most impressive players in La Liga. He started the season off on fire, and yet after winning so many games for Barca, Valverde still doesn’t start him or seem to trust him. His speed, trickery and raw power would put him into any side in Europe, yet he can’t start over two players who are out of position. Decisions like this are why many Barcelona fans really do not like Valverde at all, and I can understand that. He needs to realise that to win games, risks have to be taken as a player. If you limit a player, like Dembele who relies heavily on his natural ability at beating opponents and creating chances for his side, it will make the team weaker and predictable. Barcelona will have to step up if they wish to win the Champions League, because let’s face it, that’s what they really want.

Betis and Celta Vigo play a memorable draw

This next match infuriated me, because I decided to watch AC Milan scrape a victory than watch this goal fest. The game in question is the entertaining draw between Real Betis and Celta Vigo, which ended 3-3.

Both sides have turned into real entertaining sides in La Liga, and two I usually keep an eye out when looking at upcoming fixtures. Both have quality players, making this fixture even more exciting (and even more puzzling on why I chose Milan over this). This was very close, with both sides having a similar amount of shots (14 to Betis and 15 to Celta) and XG putting this game at 1.73 to Betis and 1.69 to Celta. It shows there wasn’t much separating the sides. A huge surprise of this was who stood out. Both teams have experienced players who guarantee consistency. However it wasn’t players like Aspas, Carvalho, Mallo and Bartra who stood out, in fact it was the younger players, being Lo Celso, Firpo, Méndez and Beltrán.

Let’s begin with Betis’s young stars. Lo Celso was absolutely superb in the game. The Argentine has slowly turned into one of my favourite players in Europe at the moment. He came to light when he was selected to start for Paris against Madrid in the Champions League. It was the first time I ever heard his name, and he stared in the defensive role, playing as a destroyer alongside Verratti. He was strangely unused at the world, thanks to Sampaoli’s incompetence in charge. He is now being commonly selected because of his versatility and energy. I’ve been more accustomed to seeing him as a defensive midfielder, but in this game he played as a wide attacking midfielder, and he remained excellent. He took 4 shots, created two chances, completed 2 dribbles, made 3 tackles and got an assist. He is still only 22 and is showing amazing versatility and maturity. It’s crazy how Tuchel let him go out on loan. Another Betis player who shone in this game was young wing back Júnior Firpo. While his attacking output wasn’t there in this game, that can be explained by the player he was playing against later. Firpo’s defensive work in this game was definitely there. He put in 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 4 clearances. He helped Betis remain the defensive wall that they are, on a day where they needed it.

Now onto the young stars of Celta. Let’s start with Brais Méndez, who by far the best player who started the game for Celta. The Spaniard is only 21 years old, and gave a real top class performance against a solid defensive side. He was playing against Firpo, and while he did well in keeping Mallo and Méndez quiet, it didn’t stop Méndez from having an excellent performance. He had 4 shots, 2 on target, made 2 key passes and won 2 aerial duels. Celta have been known recently for finding talent and helping them flourish, with Aspas, Sisto and Mor coming to mind. Méndez seems to be another player who seriously looks impressive at a young age.

Another who performed well on the day was Fran Beltrán. The midfielder is 19 had a great game against one of the best teams in La Liga. He made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and a key pass. He made more defensive actions than any other midfielder on the pitch, and credit needs to be given to him for doing this at such a young age. He hasn’t exactly been incredible this season at all, with his creative play needing plenty of work. But that doesn’t matter. At this age, what is important is that he is playing games at the highest level. Eventually he will become more adventurous in his play. Right now he players as a pretty effective destroyer. Celta could have a player on their hands if he continues to play games. He’s already started 10 games this season, so they must have a lot of faith in him. He was signed from Vallecano in the summer, and it could possibly be one of the bargains of the season.

While I don’t expect both of these teams be challenging for top 4 or anything, I do hope they earn success, whether it’s Betis doing well in the Europa League, or Celta upsetting some of the bigger sides. Let’s hope they can continue on this and earn even more plaudits for their style and flare.

Ligue 1

Montpellier walk over Marseille

Let’s start with by far the most satisfying victory of the weekend. Montpellier continued their good start by comfortably disposing of big guns Marseille. Not long ago, we all thought Marseille were back thanks to their excellent run the Europa League last season, and finishing in the top 4 back again. It seems they are back to underperforming.

Let’s not take credit away from the victors however, because after their 3-0 win over Marseille, they now sit in 2nd. Thanks to PSG beating their closest competitior Lille, Montpellier now are above them on goal difference. While the title race is already over, Montpellier have now swept aside one of the harder games of the season, leaving them full of confidence. They outshot their opponent, put in more challenges and created better challenges. They really showed why they are in 2nd place in the league, with them attacking fast taking their chances well.

The man of the match was comfortably Paul Lasne. Montpellier lined up in a 3-4-3. This was genius from Zakarian. This formation is perfect in dealing with a 4-3-3. It allows the wing backs to press the opposition full backs, and completely nullify any wide talent. This worked brilliantly, with Lasne and Aguilar putting in a combined 11 tackles. It was a showing on how important wing backs are, and Lasne was the epitome of this. The Frenchman put in 7 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. He also made a key pass and scored the final goal to seal it. A great performance in a game where they needed a top quality performance.

Now onto Marseille. Saying they had an off day is an understatement, because this isn’t the first time this season where they have failed to show up. I’m slowly becoming tired of constantly criticising their strikers, so let’s criticise their defenders instead. Adel Rami was pretty bad on the day. The Frenchman can go down as one of the worst players to ever win a world cup, and this game isn’t changing my mind. He was at fault for the first goal, not marking Laborde and gifting him a free header. He also didn’t put in a single tackle or interception in the game, showing how easily he was exposed by opposition in this game. Marseille have now conceding 21 goals in Ligue 1, the second worst total in the division.

Another who was quite disappointing was Florian Thauvin. I have expressed my fondness for his player on numerous occasions, but today wasn’t his game. While he did have 3 shots and complete 3 dribbles, he was disposed 7 times and had a 65% pass accuracy. He was completely neutralised in this game, and summed Marseille’s attack on the day. They failed to created chances, and out of the 11 shots they had, only 2 were on target. Thauvin an extremely talented player, but he is just not thriving in this side at the moment. It doesn’t help with the constant changes being made to the side. He has tried different formations and moved player in numerous positions, even trying Payet as some false 9 last week. Questions marks have to start be asked about how Garcia is managing this side. They have been terrible this season. If it wasn’t for how quickly Monaco fell of a cliff, so much more pressure would be Marseille

St Etienne and Angers play a classic

While La Liga and the Bundesliga had plenty of goals, Ligue 1 might just out do both of them. Nantes were victorious over Guingamp with a 5-0 win, and Nîmes getting a 4-0 away win over Dijon. However the match that outshined both of these was St Etienne’s 4-3 win over Angers. This game was very tight, and had everything. Late goals, own goals, good finishes and was an overall entertaining spectacle for the neutral. St Etienne dominated the game, but that’s mainly due to the fact they were playing at home, and were chasing the game for a majority of it. St Etienne did deserve to win the game, based on them creating better chances, with the home side having less shots outside the box, and more in the penalty area.

However while St Etienne did deserve the win, it was an Angers player who stood, and that’s Flavien Tait. While Reine-Adédaïde stood out with his 6 dribbles completed, he just wasn’t as effective in the final third as his teammate. Tait was indeed excellent on the day. He put all of his shots on target, made 2 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was in fact only one of two players in this game to get 2 goal contributions, with the other being the centre half Pavlovic. He was the best player on the pitch and it’s a shame he was on the losing side.

St Etienne still had some stand out players. By far their best player was Newcastle flop Remy Cabella. He is one of many players who just wasn’t suited for the Premier League, and is back in France and finally flourishing again. He played just behind Wabhi Khazri in this game, and was excellent. His very lean frame helps him slide and turn on the ball with such speed. He is a good creator who can also beat his man. This game showed both of those. He created 4 chances and completed 2 dribbles. He also got an assist for his work and was a key reason on why St Etienne got the 3 points.

St Etienne could actually finish in the top four this season. With Marseille, Lyon and Monaco all looking below par, it could leave an opening for teams to take their place. St Etienne have quality players in midfield with Khazri and Cabella, and players like Subotic, Perrin and Debuchy are reliable in defense. It could be a very important season for a club with such history in France.

Premier League

Manchester City do it again

What I mean when I say do it again is another 5 goal thriller from the Champions. This is fourth time this season they have beaten someone by a 5 goal margin. The team on the end of their beating was Mark Hughes’s Southampton.

I’d like to add just how terrible Southampton are and I’m dying to know what happened to them. They used to be a side who found talent in places no one else was looking, like signing Mané, Tadic and Van Dijk from clubs and leagues no one was paying attention to. They hired good coaches, like Pochettino, Koeman and Puel. They were developing players at a good pace and getting insane profit on them (just look at Liverpool’s entire side). Mark Hughes is truly a terrible manager and I’m tired of seeing being given good jobs based on a reputation made of sand. He will ruin any club’s defense, and relies heavily on individual talent in the forward lines. He is also incredibly frustrating to watch in interviews. Statements like we gave them too much respect mean absolutely nothing. They are statements said to fill space and make it sound like Hughes is being insightful. I hope Southampton sort themselves out. I was so fond of them and now they have turned into your usual short term club with no idea what to do after survival.

Now onto Manchester City, who were absolutely sensational on the day again. While Raheem Sterling will get all the plaudits, and justifiably so, it’s Sergio Aguero who stood out for me. The Argentine will go down as one of the top 5 strikers in Premier League history. His consistency is unrivalled and the way he’s been able to evolve his game at a stage in his career when that’s usually difficult deserves so much credit. This game showcased this step up in the way he plays. Aguero was always a poacher, but he seems to have turned into a perfect all rounder. He scored and got 2 assists. He had 4 shots, completed 4 dribbles and created 4 chances. These are stats we’re never used to seeing Sergio Aguero put up. What Pep has done with him is short of incredible. He turned an already world class finisher into a world class player.

This leaves City in an incredible position. They are comfortably ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool when discussing goal difference. They have a big squad and even without their best midfielder, are still walking over opposition. The Manchester Derby is next, and this is a chance to put on a show against their biggest rivals. This could really show how far ahead they really are.

Overachieving Bournemouth halted

Bournemouth have always frustrated me. While I do think it’s impressive they are still in the division, they seem to avoid criticism just because of their size. Last season they were terrible. Only Stoke conceded less goals, and they put in the least amount of tackles and interceptions in the league. They almost allowed opposition to score past them. Nathan Ake was the player of the month 3 times for them. If that doesn’t sum up their story, I don’t know what will.

However it seems to be different this season. When I saw where they were sitting in the Premier League, I just assumed they were overachieving and eventually they would hit reality. However looking at XG, it does seem they are performing as they are expected to. They aren’t lucky in attack or defense, and are performing at their level. So what has changed? Well firstly it’s penalties. The Bournemouth are the second most fouled team in the division, and it’s shown with how many they’ve scored from penalties. They have scored 5, more than any other side. They take the chances that are gifted to them. They have also changed the way they play. They’ve turned from a wannabe possession side, into a really good counter attacking side. They have incredibly fast players with King, Wilson and Frazer being able to move the ball so quickly. They now soak up pressure so well and attack so quickly. They seem have finally fixed their biggest problems.

Looking at this game however, Bournemouth should have been further ahead than they were. They had a few chances at the beginning of the game, that if they took them, would have comfortably won the game. They took the early lead thanks to Calum Wilson, who now is the only English player in the league to have 10 goal contributions. While Wilson was good, Fraser continued his brilliant form into this game. He had 2 shots on target and created 3 chances. He has by far the surprise package of the season.

Now onto United, who were absolutely terrible in the first 20 minutes, but thanks to a usual turn around in the second half, managed to get the 3 points. Many said that Lerma absolutely pocketed Paul Pogba. When it couldn’t be further from the truth. If he truly did, then how did Pogba maneged to have 3 shots, create 4 chances (the most in the match), and completed 2 dribbles. I’m just assuming the old school pundits want to push the narrative because of their dislike towards the Frenchman. United created a lot of chances in this game and were better than Bournemouth in the full 90 minutes. XG put this game at 1.89 to Bournemouth and 2.98 to the Red Devils. Maybe it can be said that United probably should have won by more.

After another nothing performance from Nemanja Matic, it asks the valid question of should he be dropped? And he definitely should. United’s defense is terrible, but their forward line is very good. In an ideal world, United would start with a midfield of Pogba, Herrera and Fred. Pogba is a creative hub and can drive your midfield so effectively. Fred is an energetic player who keeps the ball pretty well, and wins the ball well. The Brazilian won 5 tackles against Bournemouth, the most out of any United player. Herrera is personal favourite of mine. He has a lot of bite and is great at winning the ball. United should focus on outscoring the opposition, instead of trying to sit deep.

While Pogba was great in this game, Anthony Martial was the man of the match. While I criticise the Manchester United board for a lot of things, but stopping Jose from selling Martial was by far their best decision ever. He is in fine form this season, and thanks to the heroics of the Frenchman, United claimed the 3 points. The goal was his 5th in 4 games, the first time he’s scored in 4 consecutive games. He’s been fabulous since his Newcastle, and continued this against Bournemouth. He had 4 shots, created 2 chances and scored the equaliser. He’s just reminded Jose how good he is.

Serie A

Inter hit five

Another league, another goal fest. This time it is Inter Milan. Who absolutely walked over Genoa in this game. Inter now haven’t lost since the 15th of September. Before this game, they absolutely smashed Lazio 3-0. They are in super form right now and seem ready to take 2nd off Napoli. They won 5-0. While that is impressive, what is the best part is Icardi didn’t even score. Inter have been incredible at creating chances for Icardi, and they became incredibly over reliant on him. Spaletti rested Icardi for this game, with assumption of the importance of the Barcelona game being priority.

New signing Lautaro Martinez started this game, and he wasn’t exactly impressive. He had 5 shots, but didn’t manage one on target. He is still 21, so wastefulness in front of goal is still expected. He’s the understudy of the best striker in Europe at the moment, and will definitely improve over time. While he wasn’t great in front of goal, Roberto Gagliardini was. The Italian scored his first brace in Italian football, and showed why he is one of the most promising players in Italian football. He scored both of his shots on target and created 3 chances. Let’s hope he can put a stamp onto this side.

The man of the match was quite comfortably Jõao Mario. The Portuguese has been a bit of joke in recent years. His time at Inter started so badly, that he had to join West ham on loan for a short period to regain form. This game showed why Inter bought him in the first place. He created 4 chances and ended the game with a goal and 2 assists. An improvement from a player who seemed to be on the way out.

Let’s take a quick second to point out just how bad Genoa were defensively. For every goal they seemed to just make the wrong decision. They gifted Nainggolan for a free header, they stepped out too late, allowing Politano to finish his chance pretty easily. If Martinez and Perisic finished their chances, it would have been 7. It actually blows me away how this side were able to take points away from Juventus and then put in a terrible performance like this. Inter still deserve plenty of credit, but this was a shambles from Genoa.

Torino show Sampdoria reality

While Lazio and Napoli also put up amazing wins, Torino are the ones I’m highlighting here. It’s been difficult for Turin based side since their 2016/17 season, where Andrea Belotti went supernova and scored 26 goals. He definitely overachieved but because of the board’s happiness in his season, they were asking for an absurd €100m for the Italian. It was an example of player who should have been sold, because it was the first time Belotti ever got those numbers in the league. United and Chelsea were interested, but instead went for Morata and Lukaku respectively, who were cheaper than what Torino were asking. They ended keeping their star forward, and to say last season was underwhelming is an understatement. He played three less games than his stand out season, yet managed less than half of the goals. He could be down to the team, but it is still disappointed considering he was being spoken as a triple figure player. He now has 4 goals in 10, and is looking better than last season already.

The reason I bring this up is because of the performance he put in against Sampdoria. Torino can be called lucky to have won this comfortably. The game ended 4-1 to Torino, and performed well against a good Sampdoria side in their back yard. XG had this game at 2.24 to Sampdoria, and 1.93 to Torino. Torino won this game thanks to their excellent finishing and the very good chances they created.

Belotti really gave a performance reminiscent of his break out season, scoring a header and a penalty that he won. Headers were something he specialises in. The rooster is excellent in the air, winning 5 aerial duels in this game alone. His height and incredible jump make him a difficult player to deal with. He also has 5 shots on got 3 on target. It was a very good game from a player who I hope goes back to his best.

As mentioned before, Sampdoria should probably feel hard done by to some extent. They created good chances and could have got back into this game. When mentioning teams who were surprising their league, I said while Sampdoria are doing well, eventually this will stop. It seems to have happened earlier than expected. They have no lost 2 on the bounce and not won since the start of October. They now sit in 11th, which is where about you expect them to finish.

One player who seriously stood out for them was Albin Ekdal. The Swede was a real presence in midfield for his side. Lucas Torreira was a massive loss for Sampdoria. The Uruguayan was excellent at ball recovery, while also doing at transition and distribution. Ekdal filled all of these roles. He completed 4 dribbles, while also making 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. He had a great game considering the result.

Both of these teams aren’t expecting to open Serie a wide open or anything, but sometimes it’s good to put the spotlight on sides who have a good week, when others might not. Let’s hope these teams continue to have solid seasons.