Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Zidane is a Problem! – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group A

The competition I never stop talking about has finally returned, full of the same juicy fixtures that excite all football fans. There are plenty of talking points in all of the groups, and group A is no exception. While this group doesn’t look competitive on paper, the specific context has made it slightly more open. On a side note, there will be particular clubs (like the first one here) that I don’t know that much about, so apologies if I lack any depth with specific teams.

Club Brugge

Starting with arguably the weakest side in the group, let’s look at Club Brugge. The Belgian club finished runners up in their domestic league, allowing them to qualify through the third round. Their place was finally secured after victories over Dynamo Kyiv and LASK. 

They’ve become a European regular in recent years, with their performances last year being better than expected, finishing third in a tight group including Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. While smashing Thierry Henry’s awful Monaco was a surprise at the time, they still managed to stop Atletico and, most impressively, Dortmund from scoring. They didn’t necessarily offer much in attack, yet they shouldn’t be looked down upon by any side. Last year, they adapted to their opponents, changing to a 4-4-2 to suppress Dortmund’s attacking talent, then switching to a 3-5-2 to stop Simeone’s side. 

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Their summer window saw three of their first-team players leave the club, with Wesley and Nakamba both joining Aston Villa, and Danjuma joining Bournemouth. Yet, the summer did include the arrival of Philippe Clement as head coach. The former Brugge player arrived after winning the league with Genk and started the season well with his new club, getting 11 points out of a possible 15. They’ve looked the best side in the league and are arguably in a better position than last season to reach the round of 16.

However, even with their strong start to the season, I don’t expect Brugge to escape this problematic group by any stretch. It’s still tough to tell just how good the Belgian top-flight actually is, to know if their players are genuinely talented or just performing well in a bad league. Two of the other teams in this group are arguably favourites for the competition, making it very hard to expect any surprises. They’ll most likely finish bottom of the group, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the big sides frustrated away from home. 

Galatasaray

With data being available from the Super Lig, it makes predicting how they will play a lot easier. Galatasaray have been one of three big names in Turkey, alongside Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, to consistently partake in the competition every year, yet barely make an impact. This primarily goes down to the reliance on players who simply aren’t good enough to be playing at the top anymore. Turkey has been seen as one of the many favoured retirement leagues, due to the clubs willing to pay the high wages of ageing stars. We’ve seen Pepe, Quaresma, Fernando, Van Persie and now Falcao all move in search of one last payday. 

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What makes Galatasaray so much more enjoyable this season is a slight change in that tired approach. In fact, the club have brought in Jean Michael Seri, Mario Lemina, Emre Mor and Florian Andone all arrive on loan this summer. Their profile is different to who you expect to be coming in Turkey. All are under 28, are in their peak years and are ready to contribute now. While Seri and Mor have had minimal impacts at their previous clubs, Andone and Lemina were let go when they were clearly good enough to be playing in the Premier League. I expected Manchester United or Tottenham to pick up Lemina, yet unfortunately, he has joined a club where you have to feel his talents are slightly wasted. 

Yet, they’ve paired those attractive acquisitions with two ageing stars in Falcao and Steven Nzonzi. While Falcao has something to offer, I do not like Nzonzi’s signing at all. The Frenchman was very poor for Roma last season, being a shadow of the player he was at Sevilla. I don’t expect his legs to suddenly work as they used to, making it hard to believe he will succeed in Turkey.

The club have had a mixed start to the season, but I fully expect them to finish third. Their chances of escaping this group rest entirely on how well they perform at home. If Ryan Babel can continue with the form he has displayed in the past year, there is a chance one of the big sides will be left disappointed.

Paris Saint Germain

Now onto a team I have some knowledge about. Paris have been one of the most frustrating teams in the Champions League in the past 5 years. From giving up a 4 goal lead against a weak Barcelona side to letting an injury-riddled Manchester United team come back and win in the Parc des Princes. It’s always been a slight mystery to how PSG keep consistently fail in Europe. Personally, I think it’s been a combination of poor recruitment and individual mistakes in the big games. PSG’s signings before deadline day were generally excellent. The midfield finally was given some steel in Herrera and Gueye, two players known for high tackle and interception numbers, with some dark arts to help hold onto leads. They are both turning 30 this season, but they definitely offer something for Tuchel to deploy against tougher opponents. Pablo Sarabia arrives for a bargain £16 million after a stand-out season with Sevilla, where only Messi assisted more goals than the Spaniard. With Di Maria ageing and Neymar not playing enough, adding another creator for a very reasonable amount made a lot of sense. As mentioned in my Ligue 1 preview, Diallo was my signing of the season. PSG, like Sarabia, took advantage of a player being extremely undervalued by their club and took Diallo for as much as Dortmund bought him for from Mainz. 

However, I still have my doubts on whether PSG can finally have an effect on this competition. It all begins with just how poor they were at the end of last season, where they just couldn’t put the title to bed. It was a poor finish which also saw them lose in the Coupe de France final to Rennes, a team that comfortably beat Tuchel’s side at the start of this season. Even with the clear steps forward they’ve taken in terms of resolving some of their most pressing issues, they’ve still failed to address their most significant issue, being full-backs. Last season Tuchel said that the full-backs weren’t good enough, and funnily enough after failing to recruit there once again, they still aren’t. The whole Neymar saga seemed to turn their attention away from fixing their most significant issue, and it’s hard to see PSG as a serious contender once again. 

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What makes things even worse for Tuchel is injuries. During their 4-0 win against Toulouse, Mbappe, Cavani and Diallo all suffered injuries. While Diallo’s wasn’t something to worry about, Mbappe isn’t returning until October, and a question mark still resides over Cavani’s return. This is a huge problem that is difficult to ignore when predicting how they will do in the group. Mbappe is everything to Paris. He is the attacking player that can add that moment of magic to any game. We saw this last season against Manchester United, where his blistering run through Bailly and Lindelof allowed him to finish past De Gea efficiently. Without the young Frenchman, Paris lose their ace.

I mentioned before how I liked PSG’s business up until deadline day, where they made one final deal which baffled me. I liked Keylor Navas’ arrival a lot, who needs to be appreciated by one big club before he retires. My issue is with the loan signing of Icardi. I’ve said before that all clubs should stay away from him. He is not worth the trouble for anybody, and if PSG do decide to sign him permanently, I worry if they’ll ever be able to get rid of him once he begins causing problems. His quality cannot be questioned, but in a summer which saw Leonardo state the club were moving away from the superstar approach from the past, it’s strange to see the club sign one of the worst ones out there in terms of all the off-field problems he will bring. 

Nevertheless, PSG will escape this group. The other opposition, bar Real Madrid, shouldn’t be too much of a problem for them and I fully expect Tuchel to figure out a way for his side to continue performing at the same high level without Mbappe for the first couple of games. 

Real Madrid

The record champions go into the competition with familiarity. Zidane is back in the dugout, with plenty of expensive additions to add to an ageing squad that just isn’t good enough to be winning the Champions League anymore. Their new additions made a lot of sense in terms of their importance. Eder Militao joined an ageing defence and can also play right-back. Ferland Mendy is one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe and is an ideal replacement for Marcelo. Luka Jovic is by far the most interesting of the new arrivals, with his goalscoring earning him plenty of praise in Germany, making him a great choice to bring much-needed goals to the side. Eden Hazard arrived for an insane amount of money, and while they have definitely overspent, there is doubt he is an improvement over what they had. 

I liked their business, but there are still plenty of problems in the side. The first being Zidane. After Lopetegui and Solari failing to get Madrid contesting with Barcelona and overseeing an embarrassing Champions League run, Zidane returned with all the power given to him. I’ll definitely credit Zidane for getting his way, but Madrid bringing him back just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. My worry with the Frenchman’s return is how willing he seems to completely ignore the new talent, and continue using the players who should start being faded out by this point. Zidane’s treatment of many players is frankly awful. At one point, Isco seemed to be his favourite player at the club, and suddenly his game time was gone, similar to what’s happened with James Rodriguez. The Colombian playmaker was thought to be the first player out of the club as soon as the window began, but he’s still there, with Zidane seemingly changing his mind. While the treatment of the pair is confusing, how he has acted towards Bale and Jovic is even worse. Zidane publicly stated that Bale was not in his plans, hoping the Welshman would leave the club after having arguably his worst season for Madrid. However, once again he has changed his mind, with Bale now staying. There were rumours Zidane was far from a fan of Luka Jovic, with the Serbian seemingly likely to go out on loan. While Zidane did deny those rumours, it is worrying when he wants to get rid of a player after one injury in pre-season. 

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I just worry that Zidane will continue to ruin the reputations of the players that gave him success at the beginning of his reign. After the sales of Llorente and Kovacic, as well as Ceballos going out on loan, we’ll still likely see the same old midfield of Modric, Casemiro and Kroos. The trio should not be starting together anymore. Modric is now 33 and is unable to do everything to the same level as he once could. Kroos is such a liability out of possession that even Casemiro won’t be able to cover for him adequately anymore. What makes their situation even worse is how Ramos still remains to be so important. Their club captain is now 33, and I worry that his evident decline will hinder not only the team but his reputation. This is my problem with Zidane. His reliance on these older players does not only limit them in moving on but could ruin their legacies. He’ll still be starting Benzema and Marcelo week in, week out until they are unable to run anymore.

Madrid’s failure to recruit midfielders and the many injuries throughout the squad means they are at their weakest in years. If PSG can get their act together, I can’t see Los Blancos topping this group. 

Are Napoli Favourites for Serie A?

While Madrid is spending a fortune on talent, the Neymar transfer saga and Bayern Munich looking to future proof their squad, it seems Serie A has been left in the dust. It’s strange considering Italy is by far at its most intriguing since Allegri joined Juventus back in 2014. There has been a lot of managerial turnover in the last couple of months. After having an underappreciated short time at Chelsea, he has arrived in Turin to give Juventus a more attractive style. While I have already spoken about how I think this move doesn’t make much sense, you can at least admire the optimism. Both Milan clubs have also seen changes in managers, with Conte replacing Spaletti after his struggles in taking Inter to that next stage, and Milan bringing in Marco Giampaolo who saw success with Sampdoria through developing their younger talents. Roma are the final top side to see a change in their coach. After Monchi and Di Francesco failed in the capital, former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Paulo Fonseca who has been a top target for many other top clubs for a while. It means many of these clubs are in a state of instability, with their new coaches needing time to adjust with a new group of players and employing their preferred systems. It means only three clubs are not going through a transitional period, being Atalanta, Lazio and Napoli. Gasperini has done miracles in finally getting his side into the top four, securing Champions League football for Atalanta for the first time in their history after coming close on numerous occasions. They could be a threat once again next season but are unlikely to challenge for the title. Initially, it seemed Juventus have chased Lazio for Simone Inzaghi, but they were unwilling to their manager leave for the most hated club in the league. Le Aquile are in a similar position to Gasperini side. They will not be challenging for Serie A but could be a problem for the other top clubs with their attacking approach to games. It leaves Napoli has the most secure side in the league, so let’s look to see if they are capable to finally ending Juventus’s dominance in Italy.

Ancelotti’s appointment last year made a lot of sense. His predecessor built a team playing arguably the best football seen in Italy since, coincidently, Ancelloti’s Milan side full of elite playmakers. This was easily Napoli’s best side for a long time and needed a combination of elite talent and a coach to get that talent performing to its potential. Ancelotti has had a history of getting the best out of teams full of talent with Italian being one of the very few managers who can handle the egos seen in the game today. He built an exciting side through deploying 4 playmakers in the same team with Kaka, Serginho, Rui Costa and Seedorf and finding success. He did similar work at Chelsea, where he brought the best out of Anelka, Malouda, Drogba and Anelka. His has seen success wherever he has gone but has come across issues in some of his most recent jobs, most notably Bayern Munich, which saw club legend Arjen Robben criticising some of Ancelotti’s methods for lacking intensity. It’s understandable why the players were having issues with Ancelotti. Bayern had appointed him right after Pep, arguably one of the most demanding managers in recent history. Ancelotti is excellent at getting the best out of sides packed with talent but might struggle in more demanding leagues. It’s why a return to Serie A for a team who have a core of players ready to start winning. While they were a pressing side, it wasn’t their main approach to games as you’d see at Liverpool or Salzburg, instead focusing on possession. This is a more suitable style for the former Madrid manager, enabling his current group of players to perform at the same level they were under Sarri.

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Ancelotti couldn’t possibly keep Napoli playing the exact same way, so how has he added his stamp on the side? He has substituted the slower build-up play into a more direct style, making transition much more fluid and attempting to make them less predictable. This can be seen by a couple of things, the first being the signings. Dani Ceballos, Fabian Ruiz and Giovani Lo Celso have all been developed into top talents by Real Betis. While Ceballos and Lo Celso have had struggles at bigger clubs, Ruiz has been a success. He was one of Ancelotti’s first signings when he was appointed and was a transformative signing. He perfectly summarises the contrasting styles between Sarri and his successor. Ruiz arrived as Jorginho’s replacement, yet couldn’t be more different. The Spaniard excelled as creative number 8 for Betis, combining fantastic dribbling, creativity and solid defensive work, while Jorginho possessed a tremendous pass, a good reading of the game and retained the ball well. Jorginho was immobile, but it worked thanks to Serie A not being as aggressive as the Premier League and the slower pace of the league has turned Ruiz from a knife into a sword. While he hasn’t started as many games as I would wish, he contributed to 9 goals from 20 starts, an impressive return for his first season with a Champions League-level club. The departure of Hamsik means that there are even more minutes to go around and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ruiz becomes a key player for Napoli next season

Replacing Jorginho with a more direct player was one way of changing how Napoli plays, but the other difference was the flexibility in formation. Ancelotti quickly released he didn’t need to set up his side in 4-3-3 because they didn’t need to build up possession in the same way without their Italian maestro. They quickly changed to a 4-4-2, and it was a genius move from Ancelotti. It was built on an energetic and powerful midfield duo of Ruiz and Allan. Both are great at ball recovery and fantastic in transition, with Allan being an elite dribbler and Ruiz, as previously mentioned, is an excellent creator from deep. It emphasises just how direct Napoli have become under their new manager, taking away the regista and inserting more physically threatening players. The strength in midfield is a benefit due to the change of formation, but the real boost has been in attack. It has (as expected) allowed Ancelotti to field an extra attacker, usually Milik playing alongside Mertens or Insigne. All have been given plenty of opportunities to play, with the three all starting over 20 games in Serie A.

Milik’s transformation to a critical member of the squad has been fantastic to watch. He arrived back in 2016 after the sale of Gonzalo Higuain for nearly £30 million to give that needed firepower. However his first season in Naples was cut short after suffering from a long term injury, which forced Sarri to deploy Dries Mertens as a false nine, which worked so well, in fact when Milik eventually came back, he couldn’t get back into the side. What made things even worse for the Polish international was a second long term injury suffered in his second season, forcing him to miss 29 games. What has been fascinating about him is he hasn’t stopped scoring. He played just under 1000 minutes under Sarri, yet managed 10 goals which is astounding considering he only started 10 games. His shot numbers are high, he is good from set pieces and is pretty creative for a striker. He isn’t a fantastic dribbler or excellent in the air, but Napoli plays to his strengths and has brought the best out of him. Milik has never necessarily struggled for Napoli but has finally finished a season without a serious injury.

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After going through the difference Ancelotti has made, let’s look at how he has done in his first season for Napoli, which is mostly positive. I thought they were again the best side in Serie A. With Juventus having an awful season in terms of entertainment value and quality and the Milan clubs showing their lack of direction on the pitch, it made it very easy for Napoli to stand out. They were one of the most dominant sides in possession, outshot all of their competition, including shots on target. They completed more passes than any other team in Serie A and were creating more chances than any other side. On paper, they were clearly better than their opposition, and expected goals show that, with understat.com showing them to have the highest xPTS in Italy, 2.57 ahead of Atalanta in 2nd. They slightly overperformed by 4 points, but that is nothing compared to the 19 points Juventus overperformed by.

Starting from the defence, they primarily defended through pressing. All of their players have the mobility and can cover large areas of the pitch. It’s why Zielinski and Callejon have mainly been the first choice wingers. They are energic players and are assisted by their teammates in pressing teams in the wide areas. It’s similar to how they were defending under Sarri, but the pressing, in general, has looked more aggressive and is using the fitness and energy of the whole team to their advantage.

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Napoli have stayed very similar in defence, but it’s in attack where it has looked interesting. In build-up play, Sarri’s side usually kept possession through the centre backs, fantastic passers Albiol and Koulibaly, and Jorginho, waiting for space to open up and play through the wide areas, with the other two midfielders pushing forward. Ancelotti has effectively taken the middle man out of that build-up, with the centre backs now quickly hit the ball into the channels for either the fullbacks or wide players to receive. While a small change, it has made Napoli much quicker in the build-up and has effectively adapted to attacking without their key midfielder. This change highlights Ancelotti at his best, being able to get the best out of what he has been given and making an effective attack.

One of Sarri’s most significant faults as a manager is his lack of rotation. It’s down to him preferring a very small group of players he likes, and will only change if faced with injuries or suspensions. This can be seen in his final season for Napoli, where only 13 players started over 10 games. With a team full of talent, it’s an issue Ancelotti has attempted to address. Ancelotti’s debut season saw 17 players play over 10 games, a vast improvement for the players. He turned Zielinski from a squad player into a vital member of the squad, with only Koulibaly playing more minutes than the former Empoli midfielder. He has been used effectively as a wide playmaker, with a substantial defensive contribution and 1.6 key passes per game have shown why he has been heavily favoured by his manager. It’s in the forward area where his squad rotation has been most impressive. As mentioned, Insigne, Mertens and Milik have played a similar amount of games. This was unimaginable at the beginning of the season.

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Insigne has been one of the best wingers in Europe for the past 4 years, and the idea of him taking a lesser role was insane to imagine, but it has worked for all players involved. Milik’s impressive form has made it nearly impossible to drop him, with the striker scoring 17 goals in 27 starts. Ancelotti has seemed to be more careful in how often he has deployed Dries Mertens. The Belgian international became a vital player for Sarri but has seen his game time decrease under his new manager. It’s thanks to Mertens now being 32 and is at an age where Ancelotti doesn’t want to rely on him too heavily. The Italian has also historically preferred to have a more traditional striker has his first choice, with Inzaghi, Benzema, Lewandowski and Drogba performing very well under him in the past. While Mertens did transform himself into a very good poacher, Milik is 7 years his junior and has the same energy and intelligence in the box as his teammate. It seems Ancelotti has attempted to push Mertens away from his importance to the side slowly, and put more emphasis on using Milik.

Before looking at if this side is ready to face Juventus for the title, we have to discuss the potential signing of James Rodriguez. The Colombian is my favourite number 10 in Europe and will go down as one of the underutilised players in the history of the modern game. He’s been fantastic whenever he has played, but managers have preferred other players over him, making it difficult for him to nail down a starting place. After a season that didn’t see enough game time for a player of his talents, there seems to be only one man that can fix that, and that’s Carlos Ancelotti. Rodriguez was fantastic in his debut season under Ancelotti and after his struggles under Zidane, went to join the Italian again at Bayern. He excelled again, with his chance creation being outstanding, even during his last season under Kovac, he was still Bayern’s creator. In only 13 starts in the Bundesliga, The former Monaco midfielder contributed to 10 goals, creating 2.6 chances which were the most for his side. He even showed a solid defensive work rate too, consistently tracking back in more pragmatic Bayern side. Napoli already possess gifted playmakers, but Rodriguez is a next level player and could fit in well in Ancelotti’s system. The Italian has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 before, which is perfect for James. The argument could be made that his arrival could limit Insigne’s game time, which is likely. However, as mentioned previously, Ancelotti has given a healthy amount of minutes to all of his forwards, and all seem pleased with the game time they are getting. James can play out wide as a playmaker if needed and can arguably play in a 4-3-3 as an advanced number 8. He has had a history of playing multiple positions at club level, so finding a place for such a quality player has to be done. He’s insanely gifted as a footballer and has one plenty of trophies, something he could bring to a group of players who have struggled to win in the past to earn the silverware.

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With the possibility of Juventus having a down year, there isn’t a better chance for Napoli to win Serie A. They have had a season to adapt to Ancelotti’s more direct style, they have a right blend of young, prime players and the more experienced and with the possible addition of James Rodriguez. It has given them that star quality that could finally break Juventus’s dominance. Ancelotti is at his best when given players who just need that extra push to succeed, and there isn’t a team that needed it more than Napoli.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Juan Mata and the Slow Decline of Number 10’s

Not so long ago, the number 10 was seen as one of the most valuable and sought after positions in world football. They were seen as the creative hubs of the side in charge of chance creation, but like many elements of football, it was just a trend. Thanks to managers either preferring the side to be more defensibly solid from every area of the pitch, it meant the once favoured attacking midfielder was replaced. Many players who were born to play as a number 10 had to adapt or be left behind, and many did so. Marek Hamsik turned into a goalscoring number 8 for Sarri, Dries Mertens turned into one of the best poachers in Serie A, and Di Maria already turned into a very good winger. While these are some of many players who succeeded in transitioning into another position, there are still some players who aren’t having a similar success. Oscar left Chelsea thanks to not being able to have a role in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, Mesut Ozil seems to not be wanted at Emery’s Arsenal and James Rodriguez looks to be struggling for Bayern, even with his good performances. It’s a shame that these players are struggling, but it’s just how football works. It’s a sport that goes through trends and right now it’s a position that isn’t favoured.

The player who we’ll be talking about, regarding this decline in the desire for an attacking midfielder is Juan Mata. He arrived in England in 2011, when he was signed by Chelsea for £26m from Valencia, and was truly loved at Stamford Bridge. He won the player of the season twice in both of his full campaigns, and truly lit up the league. His departure from Chelsea is still seen as rather baffling. Mourinho let him go because he didn’t think he did enough defensively to start over Oscar. After their relationship soured, he joined Manchester United for £37m. While many do not like Mourinho, me included, he was right on this. It became even more apparent when Louis Van Gaal joined the club in the summer of 2014. He originally found game time difficult, with record signing Di Maria slotting right in at the beginning of the season, however he did eventually find a space on the right side of a 4-1-4-1. While his numbers were never spectacular, he still contributed under Van Gaal with some important goals and kept the side moving the ball in the final third. He played in every Premier League game in the Dutchman’s final season, and his numbers showed this to an extent. He completed 47 passes a game, the second highest in his United career, was taking 1.5 shots and rarely was getting dispossessed. His chance creation was low at 1.4 but that’s more of a problem with Van Gaal’s incredibly pragmatic system. The problems that Mata was suffering from during his time at United were struggling to fit his skill set in a side that didn’t have the space for it. Players like Jesse Lingard and Henrik Mkhitaryan offered more off the ball and were quicker. Mata couldn’t play in the middle because he didn’t have enough defensively to play as a number 8 in a 4-3-3, and couldn’t play outwide because he didn’t have the pace and dribbing. While Mourinho did use him more than any expected him to, the issues didn’t get better as he aged. His disadvantages have became even more apparent under Solsjkaer. The former United striker wanted to impliment a pressing style in the side. While this did bring the best out of the likes of Rashford, Lingard and Herrera, Mata is a play who has not had the same boost. Mata just doesn’t have the same speed and energy as Lingard, and whenever he replaced his teammate, it just showed how out of his depth Mata seems to be in this sort of system. Mata is and always will be one of the most technically gifted footballers United have seen in the last 10 years. His reading of the game, combined with his ability at finding space in the final third make him a useful player, but not in the team that United aspire to be.

It’s discussions like this that make football sound harsher than it can be; adapt or be left behind. While this usually happens with managers, Mata highlights just how prominent it can be with players. This isn’t to say that number 10’s are prehistoric, but at this moment they are just out of trend. It means players, like Mata just have to try and find a way to continue to perform at the top level. Many players have figured this out, but unfortunately some can’t, and must wish they were born earlier, so they could truly have the great career they deserve.

Top 5 Best Performers Of The World Cup (As of Game Week 2)

After 2 games, let’s see which players have performed for their respective countries, and shown their ability to the world.

5. Romelu Lukaku

When it comes to strikers, the choices were between Kane or Lukaku, and because all of Kane’s goals have required near zero skill, I’m giving it to Lukaku. The Belgian forward has been superb in the opening 2 games, scoring 2 braces. He is now averaging 17 goals in his last 10 for Belgian, which is an absolutely incredible record. He has worked so well in that front three, with Mertens and Hazard beside him. Mertens has given so much of the ball work, and Hazard has given his usual trickery. Lukaku has been getting in those positions and adding that perfect finish. While I like to criticise Martinez for so many things, one of them isn’t his use of Lukaku. My issue with Lukaku at United is how he is used as a target man. While he can be used that way, he is much more effective when running in behind, using his size and pace as his biggest advantages. Lukaku seems to be the favourite for the Golden Boot, and it’s justified. I don’t like to count penalty goals when discussing top goalscorers, because it doesn’t show the skill of that certain striker. Lukaku’s goals have all been from open play, and all have shown his ability in the air and in front of goal. What a brilliant performance so far from the big Belgian.

4. Carlos Vela

Mexico are usually a team to be threatened by. They have always possessed quality players all over the park, and this World Cup might be the last for many of their mainstayers. The likes of Hernandez, Ochoa, Guadrado and Herrera have all been great servants to the National Team. One of those said servants I would like to highlight would be LAFC’s Carlos Vela. The former Arsenal Winger has been absolutely key for his side in this world cup. Since moving to the MLS, Vela has actually been incredible. His has been the fulcrum of his side, being the main creator and goalscorer for a brand new club. He has carried his superb form over to his national side, where he has been key in Mexico’s games against Germany and South Korea. Looking at his stats, it is clear to see how superb he has been. He has been averaging a ridiculous 3 key passes per 90 and 3 dribbles completed per 90. He is also shooting 1.5 times on target per game. He was especially key in the first game against Germany, where he had the freedom of the pitch, with Kimmich going forward as much as he would. It meant Vela could tear the rest of that defense apart. He has by far been Mexico’s best player, and got what he deserved with a goal against South Korea. Well done Carlos!

3. Isco

I wholeheartedly believe that Isco is the fourth most talented player on the planet (the three ahead should be obvious). Only Messi is able to dribble out of tighter spaces than him, and his importance in that Real Madrid side cannot be emphasised more. He took a world record signing Gareth Bale out of the team and made Zidane rearrange his entire set up to accommodate the Spaniard. His importance for Spain also cannot be more emphasised. While there are plenty of talented players in that team, with Koke, Busquets, Ramos, Costa and Silva all showing in the past their world class ability, Isco is easily the best out of a great bunch. Already in this world cup he completed 140 touches in a match, which is the second highest. It shows his importance to the side because of how often they want him on the ball. While his key passes aren’t as high as they usually are, dropped to a 0.5 from a 1.7. the most interesting stat to take would be his passing in general. It has risen from 50 passes per game to 99. It shows how he keeps things ticking in this Spain side and helps them dominate games so effectively. Isco has been absolutely superb in helping Spain dominate their way through games, and let’s hope he continues it.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal have been pretty bad so far in this tournament. Their midfield contains a 30 year old Moutinho and William Carvalho, a player not known for his ability. Someone along the lines of Ruben Neves or if Danilo was available would have been much better. Even in attack they haven’t been too great. Guedes is a player I really like, but so far hasn’t shown that same ability he did at Valencia. However there is always one player Portugal can always rely on to drag them out of any situation, and that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has always struggled in World Cups. The Balon d’Or winner only managed a measly 3 goals in 3 different world cups for his country. However after his success with the national team and with his club, he seems more motivated than ever to finally do it on the big stage. He doubled his overall tally in the first game, scoring a hat trick against their neighbours Spain, including a fabulous free kick where Ronaldo finally learned how to take free kicks again. He then got the goal that helped seal the win against a much better Morocco side on the day. What is most impressive is his shot numbers. Ronaldo seems to be taking less shots but taking them in much better places. His shot numbers have dropped from 6.3 to a 5. While that is still incredibly high, it is showing how he knows that taking the right chance in a much inferior team is the right thing to do. Ronaldo will always be that player who keeps impressing me in some way, and he has done it again.

1. Luka Modric

My love for Luka Modric is so hard to put in to words. If someone asks me what a perfect midfielder is, I simply ask them to watch Modric. He can simply do everything a midfielder can do. He can tackle, read the game, dribble, create, dominate, shoot, he is simply well rounded in every department. Croatia themselves have a pretty great team. They have the best midfield in tournament, with Modric playing alongside Rakitic, Brozovic and Kovacic. They have a midfield full of players who can do different things, and it gives them plenty of options. Modric scored the penalty that won Croatia their first game of the tournament, and then put in a man of the match performance to beat a very poor Argentina team. He dominated that midfield with so much ease and continued to show his class. Throughout this tournament he has done so much defensive work, putting in 4.5 tackles and interceptions per 90, a vast improvement from his 2.7 for club. But it goes to show why Modric is just so good. He never had to do that defensive work because Casemiro would do that for him at Real Madrid, but at 32 he still shows that he can do anything without hesitation. His creative numbers have dropped as a result of his defensive work, with his key passes dropping from 1.5 to 1 (this could also be due to a small pool of evidence). His goal against Argentina just showed his pure elegance. He just bends it on the outside to fool Caballero and win the game for Croatia. He is such a huge part to this side and if Croatia do anything significant, it will be because of their midfield maestro.

Honourable Mentions: Aleksandr Golovin, John Stones, Jose Gimenez, James Rodriguez.

4 Best Individual Performances in The World Cup (2002-2014)

After talking plenty on what to expect in the 2018 world cup, let’s go back in time and look at 4 of the best individual performances we’ve seen in the modern era of world cups. This competition gives a platform for players to show the world what they can offer. It has given players, managers, and fans some memorable moments. Let’s look at the players who have given them these memories.

Diego Forlan

Diego Forlan is a perfect example on how some players just don’t work in some leagues. While United fans remember him in a fond way, with his famous brace at anfield, the rest of the premier league thought his time in England was a forgettable one. But that was until his move to Villarreal, which transformed the forward. He was absolutely brilliant in the 2004-05 season, where he won the award for most goals scored in La Liga, scoring an incredible 25 in 38, which also was the joint highest in Europe, sharing it with Thierry Henry. In fact he was the last player to win the Pichichi award before Messi and Ronaldo won it for 10 years straight, up until Forlan’s international team mate Luis Suarez broke ended their reign of goals in 2015-16. Forlan however did drop off in his next two season, but he wasn’t to blame for that. The Yellow Submarine did have many changes in the following season, including players and managers. He did score 19 in his last season, before his move to Atletico Madrid. He led the line brilliantly for Atleti. Scoring 23 in his debut season, and creating a deadly partnership with a young Sergio Aguero. In his following season, he won the Pachichi award again with a ridiculous 32 in 33 games. In the season leading up the World Cup in South Africa, he scored 28 in all competitions as Atletico Madrid won the Europa League. Forlan went into the world cup in great form, and among one of the deadliest forwards to watch, with David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Drogba and Robben, all in great form leading up to the World Cup. Forlan was easily the best forward at the competition. He scored a solid 5 goals in 7 games, with his incredible volley against Germany winning him the goal of the tournament. He partnered a young Luis Suarez and showed him a real striker’s performance. He captained the side in every sense of the word. He would drop deeper to to retrieve the ball, he would take the short free kicks, which lead to another brilliant goals against Ghana, and was still able to show his great ability in the box. His moments of magic even helped him equal a record for most goals scored outside the box, with three. Forlan carried that Uruguay side, winning the game with 2 goals against the host nation, scoring against Ghana to take the game to penalties, and almost won the final game against Germany. He won the golden ball for the tournament, and will go down as one of the most spectacular performances in World Cup history.

Fabio Cannavaro

Italy went into this tournament in a very peculiar way, right after the Calciopoli Scandal. Many teams in playing in Serie A, including Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, were all accused of match fixing, painting a very negative image of Italian football. They were the villains of football and the expectations for the Gli Azzurri were very low. The whole country’s morale was at an all time low, but all that changed. Italy showed the world that they are still an excellent team, despite all of the negativity surrounding them. They went into Germany full of league winning players. The best goalkeeper of all time in Gigi Buffon, a brilliant midfield in Gattuso and Pirlo, and brilliant forwards in Del Piero and Francesco Totti. While all of these components were brilliant, it was the defence that stole the show. Italy have always been known for their solid defenders. The likes of Nesta, Baresi, and Maldini all will be remembered as some of the best in their positions. But the one I will be highlighting is a certain Fabio Canavarro. Canavarro was an ever stay in Serie A. He begin at Napoli as a youth player, before moving on to Parma in 1995 and making over 200 appearances, forming a brilliant defensive partnership with Buffon and Lillian Thuram, before a big move for €23m to Inter Milan in 2002. His time at Inter however was not as successful. His first season was relatively successful, finishing runners up to Juventus and getting to the semi finals of the champions league. However his second season was not as successful. Cannavaro struggled with injuries, and when fit was playing out of position. All this factored into the Italian looking back at his time at Inter as a failure. After 2 season he then went on to Juventus, which brought life back into Cannavaro. He won defender of the year in both of his seasons in Turin, and in his second season won player of the season. Cannavaro went into this tournament in his peak, and showed the rest of the world why he was the best defender in Italy. Italy through out the tournament only conceded 2 goals, one against Mexico, and the other against France in the final. In fact his performances against France and Germany were some of the best performances from a defense in history. He commanded his back line with such authority, and went into every single tackle as if the game depended on it. His leadership and ability to lead from the back gave Italy the confidence and motivation to get to the final and win the whole thing. The confidence and form of the captain showed with him overcoming his weakness, his height. Cannavaro is actually quite small for a centre half. Standing at just 5’9, he is at a real disadvantage compared to other defenders, but when watching him play in those last two games, you would have never known. He was still winning the ball from two touch opponents in Klose and Henry. He was able to still keep those two out. He ended that year with not only a World Cup, but also the Balon d’Or. He was by far the best performer of the tournament and one of the best defenders of the 2000s.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo will always go down as one of the best footballers of all time, while also going down as a player who didn’t quite hit his peak. If he didn’t suffer those severe injuries at Inter Milan, he would have easily went down as the best footballer of all time. It’s very fascinating to look back at his career. He actually was in the world cup winning squad of 94, but because of his age, didn’t get a look in. He then arrived in Holland to play for PSV, which began his goalscoring greatness. He scored a whopping 42 goals in 46 games. After 2 seasons, he then left for Barcelona in 1996, where his career really kicked off. He was only 20 when he arrived, and in his only season there he scored 34 in 37 games. He then left for another challenge, Inter Milan. He arrived for a world record fee of $27m. His time at Inter was a clear success, scoring 49 in 68. This was the start of a clear issue for R9, being his injuries. In his youth he was a fast, explosive and powerful player, who could tear apart any single defence in the world. At Barca and his early years at Inter, he was a complete forward. He was able to hold the ball up, able to drift out wide to stretch a defence, or even stay on the last man. But those two knee injuries will go down as some of the most shocking moments in football. A player with that much talent, and with limitless potential, was given a barrier that he couldn’t break. That isn’t to doubt him as a player, in fact he was still a world class player, but not at the same level as he was. Ronaldo ended the tournament with 8 goals, with 2 in the final. The best way to compare both young Ronaldo and older Ronaldo, is his performances in the 98 world cup and the 2002 world cup. In the former, he was at his best. He was using all of his best assets, being his pace, power and explosiveness. While at the 2002 world cup, he had to play more reserved and use his brilliant movement and time his movement perfectly. One plus for Ronaldo was having Rivaldo next to him, it meant Ronaldo didn’t have to focus on connecting midfield to attack, he could just stay central and wait for talented players like Ronaldinho and Carlos to gift him the perfect ball, which worked. The connection between R9 and Ronaldinho was amazing in the final. On so many occasions, Ronaldinho would see the perfect run made by Ronaldo and gift him a great ball. That first goal summed up classic Brazil, with Ronaldo giving one brilliant finish. The ground Ronaldo made for that second goal, to get on the end of Kahn’s mistake, was perfect once again. Ronaldo transformed his game so effectively in that world cup, and proved while he might not be as explosive, he was still just as talented in front of goal as ever.

James Rodriguez

And finally the one player who is still currently playing at the top level. James Rodriguez is one of the only players to have his career completely transform after the world cup. Before the cup started, football experts new the ex Porto midfielder very well, after his big money move to Monaco. But both of those clubs do not play on the big stage, meaning many of the mainstream football audience did not have a vast knowledge on the Columbian. The difference between Rodriguez and the rest of the players on this list, is the timing of their world cups. Forlan, Ronaldo and Canavarro were all in their prime and had shown the world before how good they were. Rodriguez on the other hand was only 22. He still had his whole career ahead of him. Rodriguez won the golden boot that tournament, with 6 goals. While it doesn’t sound incredible, Columbia only reached the quarter finals, which means it’s even more impressive how good he was. Rodriguez won best player after the group stages were over. With his incredible 8 goal contributions in 2 starts, James proved that Brazil was going to be his tournament. He then scored one of the greatest goals of all time against Uruguay, with a volley so perfect, it could never be replicated. Even after all the brilliant performances he put in, he was still not able to take Columbia past a very average Brazil side. His huge influence at that tournament was exactly what Real Madrid needed. They needed a big Galactico to help remind everyone that Madrid are still the top dogs. While he stint in Madrid might not have worked out, he still averaged a goal every 3 games. He is now currently playing at Bayern Munich, where he has added an extra bit of class to a position they didn’t have many reinforcements. Let’s hope James can replicate that same form in the world cup in Russia.