PLAYER ANALYSIS: Fred and Risk Versus Reward

One of the big take-aways from Manchester United’s 19/20 season is the change in issues. Under Jose Mourinho, many (including myself) thought Mourinho was a massive problem because United did have a lot of talent, but the manager failed to get the best out of them. Players like Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were playing below their level, primarily down to a fallout with the manager, inconsistent minutes or being played out of position.

Solsjkaer deserved criticism for a lot of choices he has made, but one area in which I think he’s surpassed his predecessor is streamlining his squad. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have had their best seasons for the club, thriving in the spotlight that needed filling after the departure of Romelu Lukaku. Both players had massive questions marks over them. Could Rashford develop a better game to match his desire on the pitch; and could Martial show that killer edge in the box that we only saw glimpses of under Mourinho? The pair were finally given the trust needed to perform, and have been the highlight for Manchester United during a turbulent season.

There is one huge question that has loomed over Anthony Martial in particular. Is the high reward worth the risk? Martial is the best finisher at the club, isolates opposition defenders well and has improved his hold-up play throughout the season. But that does come at a cost. Martial is very selfish. When running towards the goal, the Frenchman will always choose to dribble or shoot instead of pass. I personally like this quality in him, and it’s why he is so good in front of goal. But I can’t deny that he has chosen the wrong options multiple times this season, costing United valuable points. When you compare Rashford and Martial, the former has a more balanced game, while the latter’s highs are a lot higher, as well as his lows.

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I bring up Martial and Rashford because it ties in well with another player who defines risk vs reward (and it isn’t Bruno Fernandes). When Fred arrived at the club, I didn’t really have an opinion on the transfer, besides the obvious risk involved. The only time we could see Fred play was in the Champions League, which is a small sample size to judge a player’s ability. It’s what made Manchester United signing Fred so confusing. Over £50 million on a midfielder who was more likely to fail than succeed was not something you expect from a club who usually don’t gamble on players so unknown. When United have spent big in recent years, it’s either been on high-profile domestic talent or big names from Europe’s elite (Pogba and Di Maria are the clear examples here).

I suspect United only signed Fred for the same reason they signed Alexis Sanchez; to beat their city rivals, Manchester City, to one of their rumoured targets. This seems more likely when you look at his debut season at the club. He only started 13 games for the club, and many of those appearances only happened through injuries to other members of the squad. The big problem with Fred was the other midfielders in the team were just better. Fred didn’t possess the same tenacity and bite as Herrera; the same experience and size of Matic or the likability of someone like McTominay. Pogba is arguably the player most comparable in terms of strengths, but there isn’t even a competition in terms of who is the better creative midfielder. Fred’s highlight in his debut season was that night in Paris. It was the first time I can recall the Brazilian showing composure on the ball and did help United show some control in midfield. It was the first sign Fred could be something in Manchester, other than another big-money midfield flop.

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Fred’s sophomore season in the Premier League has been very interesting. Starting on the defensive end, Fred’s numbers are quite surprising. Fred is second for tackles and interceptions per 90 with 3.69, with a majority of his tackles coming in the defensive-third. His amount of pressures is a significant anomaly for a midfielder. The former Shakhtar midfielder puts up 30.2 pressures per 90, which puts him in the top 10 for pressures per 90 in the league (out of players to play substantial minutes). It is quite baffling why Fred’s pressuring so much. The other notable midfielders to put up similar numbers would be Abdoulaye Doucoure, Joao Moutinho and Sean Longstaff. I think the massive difference between Fred and the three players listed would be role and system. Longstaff and Moutinho play in deep-block systems and in midfield three’s, meaning they’re given more freedom in midfield to pressure their opponents, without leaving so much space. Doucoure usually plays in a double-pivot but has been moved up the pitch under Nigel Pearson, now playing as the team’s unorthodox number ten. Fred plays in a double-pivot, usually alongside the more immobile Nemanja Matic or the attack-minded Scott McTominay.

The Brazilian is doing a lot more defensive work than he should be, which is pretty frustrating considering how good of a progressive passer he’s shown himself to be. Fred has completed 140 passes in the final third, the most in the Manchester United squad and 12th out of the whole league. Fred is quite a dangerous passer in a complimentary way. He’s always looking to play the ball forward and help the team through his ball progression. Before Bruno Fernandes’ arrival, Fred was the only player in the squad able to play that midfield-splitting ball, especially with Pogba being absent for a majority of the season. The 27-year-old can not only progress the ball through his passing but through dribbling. Fred attempts 2.18 dribbles with a 77% success rate. He might not be on the level of a prime Moussa Dembele or Thiago Alcantara, but that is still a respectable success rate and shows he isn’t a one-trick pony when progressing the ball.

It’s clear that Fred does offer a lot of positives for a midfielder, but there are obviously some drawbacks to the Brazilian’s strengths. Firstly, his desire to get the ball moving forward does bring out one of his more obvious flaws in his game; his shooting. Fred has this frustrating habit of taking shots from frankly awful positions, giving the ball away and possibly wasting a goalscoring opportunity for his team. He’s only taken 7 out of his 37 shots from inside the 18-yard box. It highlights the real issue of his decision-making. When opposition players put a lot of pressure on him, Fred can be quite erratic. When you compare Fred to someone like Verratti, their passes into the final third are very similar (Verratti has made 162 passes into the final third) but where they differ is creativity. You can make the very credible argument that Verratti averages a lot more passes into the penalty area (Verratti has made 43, Fred has made 13) because the Italian has better players in front of him and is playing under a much better coach. Still, it’s noticeable how wasteful Fred is when you compare how many shots the pair take. Verratti has only taken a single shot in the league, which further establishes just how good the former Pescara midfielder is at doing the role assigned to him. Verratti is not only a great progressor but can aid his team in the final third, something Fred is yet to do. That is the level Fred should be aiming towards, to be that complete midfielder, able to contribute in numerous ways on the pitch.

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The final question to ask about Fred is, are the drawbacks worth it? The Brazilian is a hard-working, energetic midfielder who helps United in getting the ball to the talented forwards. But he can halt attacks as they begin to look threatening if he is the one receiving the ball, instead of delivering. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has undoubtedly taken some of the pressure away from Fred in trying to offer creativity and a goal threat. Yet, it doesn’t address the actual flaws in his game. If Fred was as good in the opposition’s half as he is in his own, the 27-year-old would be one of the most complete midfielders in the country.

Why Bundesliga Clubs Have Looked So Good in the Champions League

The Champions League has returned with a bang, but not for the same reasons as usual. We regularly see Spain’s top two teams and the English teams stroll through the first round of the knockout stage, but this year is different. Barcelona looked poor against Napoli; Juventus failed to have a shot on target against Lyon, and data lovers’ favourite team, Atalanta, absolutely walked over Valencia. The holders Liverpool managed to lose their first leg against Atletico Madrid; while Pep Guardiola managed to completely out-smart Zidane to take his Manchester City side into the second leg with a 2-1 advantage.

Manchester City’s victory was unbelievable, considering the XI that was selected. But for now, we’ll stick to the most interesting talking point which came out of the first group of games, being the impressive performances by the German teams. RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all won their matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, with a combination of the right tactics and player quality.

We’ll start with Bayern Munich, who disposed of Chelsea in such a comfortable fashion. When comparing the line-ups and the players available, it’s hard to even call this a challenge for the Bundesliga champions. Chelsea was missing their best midfielder in Kante, their best winger in Pulisic and Tammy Abraham wasn’t fully fit. Even though Bayern was still playing Alaba at centre-half, since Sule is out with a long term injury and Hernandez isn’t at 100%, the rest of Bayern’s team were first-choice.

Bayern took a straightforward route in this game, with the forward four very close together and was waiting from quick, long balls from the midfield. Thiago and Kimmich would consistently drop between the defenders and send a long ball straight to Lewandowski or Muller, with Coman and Gnabry close by to support them. This worked so well because Chelsea looked so disorganised, and Bayern playing quickly forced them to consistently make the wrong decisions. Coman’s early chance manifested thanks to Barkley losing the ball in midfield, and as soon as Coman receives the ball, Rudiger and Christiansen quickly run towards him, opening a one-two between the Frenchman and Muller.

Muller was by far the best player on the night. Repeatedly, he would look to receive the ball around the 18-yard box, to drag players towards him and open up space for Gnabry or Coman. The German ended the game with the most shot assists (5) and had some of Bayern’s best chances to increase that lead.

The other reason for Bayern’s dominant performance was their quick counter-attacks. Whenever Thiago or Kimmich would retrieve the ball in midfield, their first thought would be to look up for one of their teammates in space or making a forward run. If not, they’d play it back to the defenders and wait for the opportunity to arise. Bayern’s first two goals came from these same scenarios. Thiago recovers the ball and quickly plays the ball to a running Gnabry, who spots Lewandowski making a run into the channel. Gnabry passes the ball, but instead of shooting, Lewandowski smartly plays the ball back into Gnabry path, ultimately catching the Chelsea defence off-guard.

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As mentioned, Chelsea did play a weak line-up, and Bayern benefitted from that. Mount, Barkey and Giroud were occupying the same spaces throughout the game and made life so easy for Bayern’s defenders. Giroud did have some moments that did trouble an old Boateng and Alaba. But Chelsea’s lack of width enabled them to stay very tight and force Chelsea to create low-quality chances. It was reminiscent of the number of times Bayern played Arsenal and effortlessly beat them. Bayern loves playing London-based teams.

Let’s move onto Rasenballsport Leipzig and their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. This was Germany’s most infamous club’s first game in the round of sixteen and demonstrated why they should be playing at this level every year.

Going into the game, some of the pundits made comments on the nickname Nagelsmann received when he broke onto the managerial scene; ‘Mini Mourinho.’ I still don’t know how he got this nickname, but I’m not too fond of it. Nagelsmann is the complete opposite of Mourinho in how football is played. Mourinho is completely reactive; aiming to neutralise the opposition and relying on his attacking players to figure it out for themselves. Nagelsmann looks to win the ball higher up the pitch, catching his opponent at their most vulnerable. There’s a lot of consistent patterns you’ll see in his teams. His Leipzig team is direct and able to attack with speed. The German tactician prefers the use of diagonal long balls since they can cause dysfunction with their unpredictability. Nagelsmann ensures his players know their roles in the team.

Leipzig was outstanding against Tottenham, but they shouldn’t have been allowed to be that good. The first half was a story of Tottenham giving Leipzig the time to transition at their own pace, with Ampadu having the time and space to send long balls into the wingers and full-backs to quickly move the ball into the final third. The only time I even noticed Tottenham try to press was when you’d see one of the wide central-midfielders run to quickly close down Angelino or Mukiele, which cause problems too. It left one of the forward players open to receive a through ball or a quick pass to their feet. It was a very classic Mourinho performance in a knockout game; begging that opposition wouldn’t punish them for their passive defending, and hope their forwards could do something to win the game.

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I can sympathise with Mourinho with the number of players he was missing with injuries, but Nagelsmann faced issues as well. Granted, they weren’t as high-profile as missing the likes of Kane or Son; however, any team missing Upamecano, Konate and Orban, Leipzig’s starting centre-halves, was going to be weaker. Nagelsmann had to play Klostermann and Halstenburg, two full-backs, in a back-three alongside Welsh youngster Ethan Ampadu, who’s barely kicked a ball on loan at Leipzig.

What was most problematic for Tottenham was the speed in which Leipzig was transitioning. Nagelsmann’s players were hitting the ball quickly into the front three, or using Sabitzer and Angelino’s excellent dribbling ability to take advantage of the space a defensive Tottenham team were giving. It was the most dominant 1-0 victories in recent memory, with Leipzig arguably deserve more than the single goal they bring back to Germany. Werner had an excellent chance in the first half, while Schick had a couple of fantastic opportunities to sink any hope Tottenham had of advancing to the next stage.

Part of me did expect Leipzig to struggle in this game. They’ve been second best in most of their top of the table clashes on the domestic scene. They did face a lot more shots in this game than expected, but that was because they had their away goal. They weakened their press in the final half-hour of the game, with stakes in the league remaining. My worry for Leipzig in the second leg is how they’ll approach it. Mourinho has nothing to lose in this game, meaning Tottenham have to attack away from home. Does Leipzig allow them to and hit them on the break once space appears, or bring the game to them again? It’ll be fascinating to see.

And last but certainly not least; Borussia Dortmund managed an imposing 2-1 victory over one of the favourites, Paris Saint-Germain. Lucien Favre nailed his game plan for this season-defining fixture. He attempted to thwart Tuchel’s ambitions for the season through attacking down their flanks, which are covered by the defensively poor Larvin Kurzawa on the left, and Thomas Meunier on the right. Dortmund was pressing high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball and counter-attack exceptionally quickly, putting PSG in uncomfortable positions. Dortmund was helped by the sheer quality of their forward line, with Sancho finding space all around the opposition third and Haland’s speed and power being too much for the PSG defenders to handle at times.

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You could easily write off Bayern and Leipzig’s wins to inferior opposition; teams who were missing key personnel and were always going to struggle. But Dortmund’s win was different and helped prove a point to why the German clubs have been the most impressive. One area that PSG will always get criticised for is their mentality. Why do they always look so good in Ligue 1 and in the group stage, but ultimately falter when facing teams in the knockout rounds? This same point was brought up yet again after this game. Dortmund was prepared and stuck to their game plan, while PSG looked overreliant on their attacking stars to bail them out of trouble again. A lot of this goes down to the newly found competitive nature of the Bundesliga this season. Last season, Dortmund did manage to take Bayern pretty far into the season, but that was because Bayern’s misfortune, instead of Dortmund deserving it. Dortmund responded to their second-place finish through adding experienced guys like Hummels, Brandt and Hazard; and extra additions in Haland and Can arriving in the winter. Not only have Dortmund had to go up against Bayern in the league, as per usual. But RB Leipzig took steps forward in challenging for a title; Borussia Monchengladbach had a solid start to the season, and Bayer Leverkusen have even stayed pretty close to the top of the table. Dortmund had struggled in December, which forced a change to the 3-4-2-1, to help keep the team less vulnerable at the back, while getting the best out of Hakimi, Hummels and Sancho.

The more significant point is Dortmund had to make critical acquisitions and changes to their system to improve the team, and they wouldn’t have noticed those issues had their domestic opponents not exposed them. PSG do not have that kind of luxury. They are so far ahead of their domestic opponents in every regard that it can be challenging to have systems and new ideas adequately tested, to know if they would work against better opponents.

This is the main reason to why the three Bundesliga clubs have looked so good in this year’s competition. The overall improvement in the opposition they face has forced German teams to improve in every regard on the pitch. There are more games where the big teams have to extensively prepare for, to certify their credentials for the title. Dortmund’s expensive pursuit for the title; Leipzig and Gladbach picking up the most promising coaching talents in Europe, and Bayern going back to what made them so good is not only good for themselves, but it keeps their opponents on their toes.

Can Tottenham Compete Without Kane? Tottenham Hotspur vs Rasenballsport Leipzig – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

Next to Paris vs Dortmund and Real Madrid vs Manchester City, this tie is right up there with the games I’m most anticipating. Tottenham under new manager and Champions League winner Jose Mourinho, facing managerial prodigy Julian Nagelsmann and his young RB Leipzig side. This could be one of the closest ties in the competition.

I’ve already gone in-depth on Pochettino’s sacking, so let’s actually discuss whether they’ve actually improved under Mourinho. To simply put it, yes. This isn’t exactly a surprise. The players clearly didn’t want to play for Pochettino anymore. So a fresh face, eager to prove his doubters wrong was always going to improve the team. For the first few games, the players looked reinvigorated, ready to remind the league why they reached a Champions League final.

Since Mourinho and Pochettino have both managed the same amount of league games this season, now is the perfect time to compare their records. Mourinho has managed to earn 23 points, six more than the man he replaced. The defence has conceded fewer goals (15: four fewer goals), and the attack has been just as productive (22: one more goal). Looking in more depth, Tottenham’s xPTS under Mourinho is at 19.14 (overachieving by 3.86) while Pochettino’s was at 17.10. This highlights one of the apparent issues Tottenham were facing at the beginning of the season. It wasn’t just the fact that the results weren’t coming in, but the performances showed they didn’t even deserve to be higher in the table. There have been some games under Mourinho where they’ve been lucky (their 2-0 win over Manchester City instantly comes to mind), but at the same time, they’ve drawn a few where they deserved 3 points.

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On the pitch, Tottenham has already shown some of Mourinho’s apparent traits. He’s already ensured only one full-back pushes forward, while the other sits alongside the centre-backs; to stop potential counter-attacks. In past Mourinho teams, it’d be Marcelo, Maicon, Ashley Cole or Ashley Young. Now, it’s Serge Aurier. The former PSG defender has put up pretty good numbers. Over 5 tackles and interceptions, 1.3 key passes and 1.7 successful dribbles. But that’s mostly down to Aurier being given the freedom to push as far forward as he is. He could easily be improved upon, and actually think Trippier would’ve performed excellent in this system. The right side is a massive weakness for Tottenham, and it’ll be an area in which Leipzig will want to exploit, with Werner and Nkunku preferring to drift to that side.

Left-back has been a position they’ve struggled with since Mourinho’s arrival. Ben Davies was the best option to play there. The Welshman has always been a solid, if unspectacular player, who became more useful as Danny Rose began to pick up regular injuries back in 2016. What made Davies such a suitable option for this more defensive role was his experience there, playing as a third centre-back for his national team. Davies’ only game under Mourinho was in his first, a 3-2 win over West Ham. It was arguably Tottenham’s best performance under their new manager. Davies has the needed recovery pace that Vertonghen lacks whenever he’s played there, while still being a good defender with the necessary experience; qualities Sessegnon is yet to have. Tangana has actually performed pretty well as a left-back, but it’s not his favoured position, and I doubt Mourinho would trust him now Davies is back.

Kane’s injury is a massive loss for Tottenham, leaving them without a first-team number nine to play. The obvious answer is to play Son up-front, but this left another issue. Without Son, a lot of pressure was placed upon Lucas Moura to provide that same pace and danger in the box; something he’s failed to do all season regularly. This is why the signing of Steven Bergwijn was so important. It allowed them to play Son as a striker, without the drawbacks.

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Moving onto Leipzig, who have been very good in Nagelsmann’s debut season. I’ve spoken about Germany’s most hated club numerous times, for how impressive they’ve remained throughout the season. Nagelsmann kept what made Leipzig so enjoyable before, their speed in transition and counter-attacks, and built upon that by adding a possession game. The centre-backs, all at the top level in possession, could push forward and help in build-up play. Upamecano perfectly shows this. The Frenchman has completed the most paces into the final third in the squad with 120, 40 more than second-placed Sabitzer. Nagelsmann has been playing full-backs Klostermann and Halstenburg in defence, because of their speed and ability on the ball. Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim sides were always fun to watch but lacked the defensive personnel needed to play such an attacking style. Leipzig has three of France’s most promising defensive talents in Europe; Nordi Mukiele, Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano. They all possess an extreme level of athleticism for their age, which makes it less likely for them to be caught out through the numerous counter-attacking sides present in Germany.

There is a massive issue with Leipzig’s defence; inexperience. There is no denying that all of their young defenders are great now and potentially world-class later on, but their lack of experience is present. This is why they’ve struggled to get results against the teams besides them. In their first half against Bayern Munich at the beginning of the season, Leipzig was easily the weaker side. Bayern strolled through their press and scored thanks to Muller noticing the amount of space Lewandowski had, ending with the Pole scoring. This isn’t even the only example; Union Berlin, Borussia Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund all outperformed Leipzig in the first half, taking advantage of how slow they can be at the beginning of games. This will be the area Tottenham will be desperate to exploit.

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The main reason everyone was excited to see Nagelsmann manage RB Leipzig was to see what he could do with the forwards at his disposal, primarily Werner. We saw Belfodil, Gnabry and Uth all perform well above their talent level during their spells at Hoffenheim. Nagelsmann has taken Werner to another level. Not only has Werner been scoring more than usual, but his creativity is leaps and bounds ahead of any forward in Germany. This is down to Werner playing more as a second striker. It’s what many fans who don’t consistently watch the Bundesliga don’t realise. Werner either plays in a front two, alongside a more physical striker like Poulsen or Schick, or on the left side of a front three. Werner’s pace and intelligent decision making in and around the box make it sensible to have him less centrally. We saw at the World Cup how Werner struggles on his own, and it limits what he can do off the ball. Under Nagelsmann, Werner is given licence to drop deep, make runs into the channels or play as a natural winger. It makes him so difficult to stop.

Nagelsmann using his magic to turn Patrick Schick back into a goalscorer again does deserve a lot of credit But how Nkunku has become one of the best creators in Germany at only 22 is one of the stories of the season. Nkunku reminds me of the many playmakers Arsene Wenger signed during his last decade at Arsenal. The former PSG midfielder is mature in his decision making and space awareness, making him effective wherever you play him. Nagelsmann has played him in a midfield three, on the left side of midfield and as a number ten, but his performances have remained consistently high. No player in the Leipzig squad has completed more passes into the penalty area and through balls. He isn’t only creating chances, but he’s the best in a team full of talented players at doing it.

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This attack is Leipzig’s biggest strength. Even if they start slow, you can rely on Werner and co to drag the team over the finish line. It’s why I think RB Leipzig will be progressing to their first quarter-final appearance. Tottenham might have the edge in terms of knockout round experience and a winning manager to back it up, but Leipzig has the superior team in terms of style and personnel. There is no doubting this game will be a close one, but Tottenham are at a disadvantage in terms of players, but this could be a real classic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

A lot of people are enjoying just how much United are struggling at the moment, and I can’t blame them. From the start of the Premier League to the end of the Ferguson era, a majority of football fans in England despised the Red Devils. A lot of that hate came from fans who hated their success, which is pretty standard. Most of the big clubs in Europe are hated for being big. Fans love an underdog story and seeing a team dominate makes a generally unpredictable sport, a lot more predictable. The other element to why football supporters dislike them is United’s own fans, another view I can completely sympathise. The title of ‘glory hunters’ has been placed on all United fans since the Premier League’s conception. I’ve spoken to numerous United fans in the past 4 years, and many do not follow the club anymore. I hear it’s because of the lack of entertainment the recent managers have thrived towards, but it’s clear it’s about the lack of trophies. A lot of United fans have this sense of entitlement, which means they deserve a great brand of football, young stars breaking through and winning or at least challenging for the league every season. It’s an attitude that doesn’t matter anymore when their closest rivals are just so far ahead of them. Just like Liverpool after their dominance in the eighties, it’ll take a while before Manchester United are back to battling with the best. I have to bring up the fans because it’s partly their fault that the perspective of Manchester United this season is just so negative. They have a right to be frustrated, but I don’t think it’s been as bad as in the past.

So, do I think United have been terrible? Short answer, no, but long answer, kind of. The best way to explain how United have performed is to go through some of their games, and see where they’ve gone right, and most importantly, wrong.

Let’s start with the summer. United’s approach was a strange one, wanting to stock up on their homegrown quota with primarily targeting British players. They arguably overspent on all of their acquisitions. Daniel James arriving for £18 million was intriguing because it felt like the first time in years since United bought an attacker for relatively low risk. He at least offered versatility and is very young, meaning he could either improve or United could get their money back if it didn’t work out for the young Welshman.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived after a fantastic debut season. He is arguably the best defensive full-back in Europe, but there were apparent issues with signing the former Crystal Palace defender. While the defensive part of his game was never in question, Wan-Bissaka simply wasn’t offering a similar output as the full-backs in the top six clubs. He’s a decent dribbler but wasn’t creating chances for Palace. With United spending so much money on the 21-year-old, you have to hope Wan-Bissaka simply develops into a great attacker, or Solsjkaer can turn him into an excellent full-back.

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Maguire was the final signing. No one can argue that United haven’t overspent on the former Hull City defender, but at the same time, he was a definite improvement. Maguire is a very progressive defender, being comfortable on the ball and a capable distributor on the ball. In transforming the Red Devils into Solsjkaer vision of a more exciting team, having a defender like Maguire would help United when facing those teams who set up in a deep block. He is also fantastic in the air. His size and jump make him not only a great defender when facing taller strikers, but giving any team a considerable advantage on set-pieces, a part of football that many teams are desperate to find more value from. He scored five goals for Leicester, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s when he scored those goals which is noteworthy. He scored winners or equalisers against Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United, gaining Leicester some valuable points. Manchester United have been mediocre at set-pieces for years, so bringing in a threat like Maguire could help in their push for top four. Maguire still has an obvious flaw in his game, and it worries me that the most expensive defender could be exposed by certain opponents. Maguire is slow, noticeably slow. United were likely to field a high line, to bring the pressure onto their opposition and to take advantage of actually having ball-playing defenders. The problem they were going to face is the likeliness of a pacey forward getting the better of Maguire. It is a problem that was obvious at Leicester, but having a more defensive system did protect them from forwards with a burst of speed. A sensible signing, but far from value for money.

These three signings did bring a boost to the club; addressing their most significant issues. It’s something United have consistently never done. Whether bringing in Anthony Martial on deadline day back in 2015 because they forgot they only had a single striker or spending £60 million on Fred when midfield, at that point, wasn’t as clear of a priority as a centre-back. Like me, you can question the value United can get out of these players, but at least they were targetting the right players.

The biggest issue with United’s summer was the players they let go, combining well with the other personnel issues they failed to resolve. Letting Herrera go was by far the strangest decision they made in the summer. The Spaniard did add a lot of defensive output some bite in a team that lacked a bit of character. Not only was letting him go on a free a stupid idea but not replacing him with a player who could bring the same defensive work as Herrera did was by far the worst part of United summer. It meant they were going into the season with an ageing Matic, a disinterested Paul Pogba, an average Scott McTominay and an underwhelming Fred. It was so bad that Pogba would have to play a more restrained role, something he can do, but it isn’t what he should be doing. Solsjkaer would also be hoping that Fred could find some form for the first time since arriving in Manchester. It left United at such a disadvantage. When Manchester City bring in Rodri, Tottenham with Ndombele and Arsenal with Ceballos, it made United’s goal of reaching top four even harder.

Selling Lukaku on paper isn’t the worst decision. It was clear that Lukaku’s type of player wasn’t needed, so getting their money back was the right thing to do, but not replacing him was crazy. I love Rashford and Martial and asking for tremendous seasons out of the pair is realistic, but on the slight chance they didn’t or currently in Martial’s case, injuries, it was a lot of pressure on the rest of the team and especially young Mason Greenwood, who is seen as United’s next breakout star.

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So, after a very mixed summer to say the least, how have United been in the league? Well, unlucky would be the best way to describe it. There are many reasons for this, but let’s go through their league games so far, and see how they’ve performed. Starting with their 4-0 win over Chelsea, which lead to a lot of early excitement. Scoring 4 goals at home against one of their top 6 rivals was huge, but the performance did bring optimism and apparent issues. The first half was a bit of a mess. The players looked incredibly, struggling to break Chelsea down and getting dispossessed rather easily. However, Rashford’s penalty changed the whole game. It’s a simple observation to make, but it forced Chelsea to play on the front foot, which allowed United to play to their players’ strengths, on the break.

The signings of an aerial-dominant Maguire, a defensive machine in Wan-Bissaka and a blisteringly-quick winger in James, that it set up United as a fantastic counter-attacking side, and luckily they were playing against Chelsea, who we now know quite-regularly give away excellent goal-scoring chances. This wasn’t an incredible performance from Manchester United but was extremely sufficient. They had 5 shots on target in this game and put away four of them. This might be the only time United can be described as clinical so far this season

Their 1-1 draw to Wolves is the start of a recurrent theme to describe Solsjkaer’s side: unlucky. Manchester United dominated against a Wolves side who, for a majority of the game, were playing rather negatively, sitting back and allowing United to have their way throughout the game. Wolves could have easily beaten United if they weren’t so safe, but they did help expose some of United deficiencies in the final third. United did have a majority of the ball, but only managed 9 shots with 2 on target. For years, United have struggled to break down teams who set up in a deep block. They even showed this in both of their encounters against Wolves last season, drawing the first game at Old Trafford and losing the reverse fixture. Under Van Gaal, it was down to a tactical plan that simply didn’t work. Under Mourinho, it was down to absolutely no idea in the final third, and now under Solsjkaer, it is quite different.

It’s strange to see United struggle so much when during the start of Solsjkaer’s reign up until the Liverpool game, they looked really good. They were setting up in a 4-3-3, with Rashford, Lingard and Martial playing as interchanging forwards, with Pogba advancing really far up the field. In 10 appearances, Pogba contributed to 13 goals, Rashford with 7 and Lingard and Martial with 4 each. During that strong run, the main criticisms faced, from myself included, was the opposition they were facing. But these were the same type of opponents they just couldn’t beat in the previous 4 years. It was a breath of fresh air to see United not only beating opponents they should be beating but winning with a bit more style. It wasn’t like watching Manchester City or Liverpool; however, it was a vast improvement over the football Manchester United fans had to sit through since Ferguson’s departure. Their attackers were finally allowed to express themselves instead of being held back from the manager’s ineffective systems or personal feuds.

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This game (and most of the games so far this season) just highlight the hole Herrera has left upon his departure. Having a downright weak midfield like this means they have to be protected. Pogba has moved back into a double-pivot, a role that doesn’t play to his strengths because he is receiving the ball far deeper. His key passes are still at a high 2.6 and puts up over 1.5 dribblers per game. The problem is he’s taking fewer shots than before, going from 3 last season to 1.8, highlighting how his role for the side changed from attacker to a deep creator. McTominay has looked okay in midfield, but he seems to be only playing because the players behind him in the pecking order are that bad. Matic is arguably one of the worst signings post-Ferguson, and Fred has been a disaster. McTominay does deserve credit for performing well, but improving on him wouldn’t be that difficult.

Manchester United have been unfortunate to be where they are in the table. They conceded a wonder goal to Ruben Neves and had a penalty saved against Wolves. Their 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace can also be seen as unlucky, with Rashford hitting the post from the penalty spot and a well-taken goal from Van-Aanolt misleading De Gea. If this game were played 10 times, United would win nine of them. The Red Devils dominated this game and definitely deserved more than a draw.

The next game was an improvement in performance, but United failed to get the three points, getting another 1-1 result, this time against the Saints. Southampton are usually a pretty good defensive team, but United did create some good chances, with Rashford having three that could have easily been goals. However, the problem for United here comes back to the midfield once again, but this time it’s all Pogba. It’s pretty well known how much criticism he has faced since his return to Manchester, but that is primarily down to expectations. I think he has been fantastic and United’s best outfield player. He has obviously had games where he has had a minimal impact, but overall he has been great. He’s had to do everything for United, and even more pressure is placed upon him when Pogba clearly wants out. The problem for United is when Pogba is either not playing or pressed out of a game, they can struggle to create any sort of chances. Even against Southampton, where they did manage to reduce his impact, Pogba still made 4 key passes and completed 4 dribbles. Without Pogba, United are half the team they want to be and need him if they want any kind of success this season.

A deserved win against Leicester and an arguably unfortunate result against West Ham (the performance was still pretty bad, but West Ham weren’t entirely deserving of the 3 points) did correctly show just how inconsistent United have been this season. However, you kinda have to feel sorry for Solsjkaer, He is making mistakes himself, and we will get onto that very shortly, but the lack of players he has to choose from is painful. With Pogba and Martial, their best attackers, missing games this season, the players United have to select as their replacements is pitiful. They simply lack forwards. Rashford has been playing with some sort of injury for months, and the likes of Mata, James, Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough to be starting every week, but that’s all that Solsjkaer can really choose. His team will only be able to perform once Pogba, Rashford and Martial are fully fit. Without those three, there is not a single game where United should be considered favourites for a football match.

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So let’s actually get onto Solsjkaer. Like I said before, the first two months of his reign were very good. It wasn’t like watching United return to their treble-winning best, but their best players were playing at their level for the first time in months, which sometimes is enough to carry you on the short term. United’s 4-3-3 worked well with the players they had looked to finally be the right system to fit all of their players. However, Herrera’s departure and his lack of replacement meant Solsjkaer simply didn’t have a midfield good enough to dominate while also allowing Pogba to push forward. He had to go back to the relatively stale 4-2-3-1 because there aren’t many formations that can play to United’s strengths right now. They simply don’t have the full-backs to play a back three, the midfield to play a midfield three or the strikers to play an old-school two-striker system. It’s pretty dull to watch, but until the club actually buy good players, it’s hard to see United changing.

I watched their game against Arsenal a couple of times, to see just how they play, and find out what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s start with United in attack. Firstly, I need to mention that Arsenal were playing Callum Chambers at right-back. While not a bad player, no one is quite sure yet what his best position is. United look to attack down the flanks, starting with the left, taking advantage of Arsenal’s clear weak point. Pogba was being tightly marked by Torreira. The Frenchman would usually drop deep to leave space James to be picked out by one of the defenders, or make the pass himself. The problem with this approach was that James just isn’t good. If Martial or Rashford were playing in that position, United would have been more successful. United wanted to isolate him, but nothing was really coming from it, so they started going down the right side, with Kolasinac being pretty bad defensively. Pereira and Young are bad, with Pereira being so underwhelming when in possession and Young playing at a point where he should be retired. To help a pretty inadequate pair, Rashford was consistently making runs into the right channel, with Pereira dropping deeper to allow Young to pick Rashford out. 40% of their attacks came down the right side, and no one touched the ball more than Young for United. Solsjkaer did set up his team in the right way. They were trying to expose their opponent’s evident weaknesses and consistently attempted to create chances down the wide areas. The problem, as it has throughout this lengthy analysis, has been personnel. If United had better right-sided players, they might have had more success in creating good chances.

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Even on the defensive side, United did pretty well. They played a pretty high line and put a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders, especially Guendouzi. While the teenager is clearly talented, he still possesses immaturity that will eventually be faded out of his game, but right now it is a weakness. At times, United were putting him in a three-on-one situation, and it did work, disrupting Arsenal’s build-up play. United were genuinely good in the first half, but the second half started pretty bad. They were being a lot more direct in possession and lacking that same aggression in the first half. For 15 minutes, Arsenal not only scored but deserved to score a couple more goals, if Torreira managed to get a better connection with the ball. United’s defenders’ concentration dropped, and Arsenal were quick to take advantage of that.

The last 20 minutes of the game was scrappy, to say the least. Both teams were desperately searching for that winning goal, which never came. It was the first time this season where United actually lost on xG. The second half was not good and was the worst United performed all season defensively, especially for their goal, with the whole back four at fault for Aubameyang’s goal. Maguire played him onside, Lindelof was out of position, Tuanzebe lost possession and Young didn’t make much of an effort to stop Arsenal’s Gabon goal machine.

I have been somewhat defensive of United so far. Even including that goal conceded against Arsenal, Solsjkaer’s side has remained pretty solid defensively. They’ve only conceded 8 goals this season, with understat placing them top of the league in terms of xG against. Of course, the inferior opposition they’ve faced has made it easy to look that good, but they’ve still looked mostly good against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all looking to sneak into the top 4. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka’s arrivals have made a massive difference in defence, and merely having defenders who are confident on the ball does make them a better team. The 4-2-3-1 Solsjkaer chooses to deploy could help too, giving the defence a lot of protection. Defence has been United’s problem for years, but finally looks resolved.

The problem with Solsjkaer’s Manchester United is just how bad they are in the final third. Again, Martial and Rashford not being fully fit is holding them back, but the lack of ideas when in the opposition half is hugely troubling. Their general shot quality is poor, and have struggled to create high quality chances for the forwards. Having Pogba roughly 10 yards further back than last season doesn’t help, but United’s general approach in games is reminiscent of the same problems witnessed under Mourinho, being a lack of a plan. The players seem to have no idea what to do. Again, United are good on the counter-attack and signing 3 players that benefit playing in that style does massively help. But United aren’t going to be playing on the counter-attack against every opponent. They will have to bring the game to their opponent, something they’ve failed to do in any game this season. United’s shot volume is high, but the problem is where they’ve taken them. While they rank 5th in the league for shots per game, they rank 12th for shots in the penalty area. They’re 17th for dribbles per game, and 2nd for most times fouled per game. The Red Devils have heavily relied on penalties and set pieces for goals. They are awful at set-pieces. When the only decent chance they created against Newcastle was a corner, that Maguire missed, there are apparent problems. United have been unlucky and are massively underachieving xG for, but that isn’t defending the lack of chances created.

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So if I was Solsjkaer, what would I attempt to do to fix these obvious problems. The midfield is holding them back, so I’d try and put Wan-Bissaka in there. A lot of fans have seen his massive defensive output and decent dribble numbers and think he at least should be tried out there, and I agree. Full-back is a position you don’t tend to want to play when going through the academy. When you look at some of the most prominent full-backs right now, Kimmich came through as a midfielder, Marcelo a winger and Pavard a centre-back. It’s a position you can fill pretty easily, with players who have significant engines and are at least competent defensively. United would look a lot worse in the full-back areas on the short term, but midfield is such a problem that it needs to be fixed immediately. Moving Wan-Bissaka into a more central position would allow United to go back and play a 4-3-3 with good players. The 21-year-old could fill that huge Herrera shaped hole and let Pogba play further up the pitch. McTominay has performed as the more defensively minded midfielder this season, and while he has been decent, I think I’d still look for an improvement. He’s a fine recycler of possession but just doesn’t have the same ambition and confidence in possession Pogba shows. Moving Wan-Bissaka is personally the best method to get United properly playing a 4-3-3, without including Matic and Fred in the starting XI. This change in formation pushes Pogba further forward, and if Martial and Rashford and stay fully fit for most of the season, it would at least make them okay in chance creation and remain solid.

They should definitely get kicked out of every cup competition. They simply do not have the squad to compete in more than one competition. Their league form is becoming embarrassing, and if Solsjkaer does want to push his ideas onto this team, the painful schedule is the last thing this group of players need.

This has been very long, but there was a lot to say here. United haven’t been good, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as under Mourinho. The players being targeted are still a step in the right direction. They’re a lot younger, and Solsjkaer has gotten rid of a lot of players who didn’t fit what he wanted to do, as well as players who shouldn’t have been there. If the United legend did get sacked in the coming weeks, he would probably be remembered in a slightly negative fashion, for the lack of points they’ve gathered since that PSG game. He further shows how stupid the United board are in terms of managerial appointments. I still don’t know what style of play Solsjkaer wants to play, but I’m at least curious to see where this goes. I’d like to see him stay because he could continue to make a more coherent squad since Ferguson, and give future managers a better chance to succeed at the club. Sometimes these lows can lead to massive highs, so let’s hope that’s what will happen with England’s biggest club.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Manchester United: A Perfect Pair

I’ve been a Manchester United fan my whole life and by far my favourite season to follow was the 2016/17 season. While I remember watching the club lift the Champions League in Moscow and failing to beat Barcelona a year later, I began losing interest in the sport for a few years. Thankfully that loss of interest occurred during the Moyes era, which is why that point of time doesn’t hurt as much as it hurts other fans. My fascination with football returned with Van Gaal’s arrival. It felt like a fresh start and a chance to return to the sport I, like many young kids, dreamed of playing.

Moyes was seen as a safe option when he was appointed. A manager who was successful with Everton in keeping them competitive for over a decade. He managed to get the best out of middling players who seen as not good enough for their previous club or too much of a risk for bigger clubs. He was Premier League proven and was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor, but a combination of issues led to the Scotsman being sacked after only 8 months in charge.

The mistakes in the summer of 2013 are well documented. United decided to give Moyes a six-year contract with the expectations being long term success. Moyes was indeed out of his depth at United. Home records broken, humiliating defeats by the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester City and a style of football that was seen as ineffective, to say the least. Moyes is predominately to blame for that horrendous season, but criticism has to be given to Sir Alex and the Chief Executive. Ferguson was desperate to win one more title before his impending retirement, which meant many short term decisions were made so he could achieve that. The signing of Robin Van Persie was essential to that 20th title. It gave United the best striker in the league during his best years, and it weakened a direct rival. While his signing was influential, it wasn’t as needed as many like to believe. Manchester City only managed to score 4 more goals than United in the previous season, it was in defence where United saw problems. Ferdinand and Vidic were still playing regularly during a time where they didn’t possess the speed to keep up with the best forwards in the league. Fergie was desperate for that final title, and history has proven that buying a striker is a much quicker route to success than buying a defender. Ferguson always looked at the future at United and always kept an eye on his players, to ensure they were moved on at the right time. So many of these players needed to be replaced years before Moyes’s arrival, but short term success was seen as more important.

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It brings us on to that infamous summer of 2013. This was Ed Woodward’s first summer in charge at Manchester United, and as mentioned regarding the age of some players, it was vital that it was done right. Woodward was looking to stamp his mark at the club through acquiring some immense talent. The six players who were heavily linked to the Red Devils were Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera, Sami Khedira and Leighton Baines. The likeliness of United even convincing Bale and Alcantara to join them was highly unlikely with the former destined to join Madrid and the latter wanting to play under Pep Guardiola. Woodward’s ambition can be credited, but realism was needed in this situation. It’s the first of so many examples of Woodward desperate for the big names, players who arrive from big clubs and could increase shirt sales, instead of choosing the more realistic offer. It meant that United’s disastrous summer ended with the signing of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini. He arrived with little fan fair and seemed to only be signed because United needed at least one signing. Fellaini struggled under Moyes because he was played usually as a defensive midfielder, a position he has never played before. It was the only place where he could play since Rooney, and Van Persie both cemented their place as the starting forwards. Fellaini’s strength is as a more direct option for the attack, working well off the bench and not as starting central midfielder, He doesn’t possess the mobility or the awareness to cover in that area. Juan Mata arrived in the following January, and while he is a very gifted player, his signing emphasised the scattergun approach Woodward was using. There isn’t a world where Juan Mata and Fellaini can play to both their strengths in the same system for the reason that the pair have contrasting styles. One is a small, intelligent playmaker while the other is a battering ram, a way to exploit oppositions who are weak in the air.

United ended the Moyes era by finishing seventh without a manager and with a squad full of players who needed to be replaced. The following summer saw Woodward do a lot of things right. Van Gaal was signed on the 19th of May, meaning there wouldn’t be any issues regarding the future of the club and could continue with preseason as usual. The signings from the summer of 2014 had some highlights. A number of players at the club like Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Hernandez, Welbeck, Cleverley all departed the club. This was long overdue and it was signalling the end of United’s dominance at the beginning of the century and a chance to move on. The Red Devils brought in Luke Shaw, arguably the most promising full back in the country for a record fee. Ander Herrera was brought after his transfer failing to be finalised the previous summer. Daily Blind arrived to give depth at both full back and central midfield and Rojo was a much-needed addition at centre half.

While they were seen as sensible moves, Woodward couldn’t resist his urge to make the headlines. United broke the British transfer record to bring Champions League winner Angel Di Maria to the club. The Argentine reached 3 finals that year with his performance in the Champions League final earning him the Man of the Match over the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. He is a fantastic player who would offer pace, creativity and elite dribbling who could push United closer the Manchester City and Chelsea. The other galactico who arrived that summer was Radamel Falcao. The Columbian was one of the deadliest forwards in Europe at the time of his arrival. He was signed on loan with an option to buy due to his injury record and would give United another option. United sold both Chicarito and Welbeck that summer, leaving them low on options with Van Persie struggling with consistent injuries and Rooney beginning to show his age. These were two big names that added on top of the solid bunch of signings that would improve the squad. 

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Ironically, the signings who succeeded were the players who didn’t have high expectations. Ander Herrera was fantastic whenever he played in midfield, giving United a player who could play that box to box role and contribute in the final third. In his debut season, Herrera scored 6 and assisted 4 in 19 starts, showing his value to the side. He also was second in the team for tackles per game with 3, with only Valencia ahead of him. He gave a lot to the side, which needed a player who could do a bit of everything. Throughout his career at United, he had the drive to succeed at the club, which other players didn’t. Di Maria was the most anticipated signing and while he did contribute to 13 goals for a side where the manager wasn’t selecting him at the tail end of the season. He ended his time at United after only a season, with his departure clouded with distaste from the fans after refusing to join the rest of the team for preseason. At least that fantastic goal against Leicester will be remembered fondly. Falcao was arguably more disappointing, with the Columbian only scoring 4 goals. He hadn’t looked the same player since an ACL injury that forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup.

After finishing 4th and looked particularly underwhelming in doing so, United looked to the transfer market to fix the problems. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Anthony Martial. While sensible signings, they weren’t the level of signings that United needed. The other clear issue was Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman is a descendant of the Cruyffian school of football. There are either two ways you can take Cruyff’s teachings, either taking pressing and free-flowing approach, as seen with Guardiola or Rijkaard, or you can take the more systemic and organised routes of the system and develop them further, think Arigo Saachi at Milan. Van Gaal took the latter, playing a brand of football that while protected a defence that still featured players who simply weren’t good enough, it made United lack any sort of spark and attacking flair. Five games finished 0-0 in Van Gaal’s final season just highlighting how United struggled to score goals throughout the season. It meant that arguably United’s most exciting signing from the 2015 summer window, Memphis Depay, was destined to fail. Van Gaal demands all of his players to track back and help on the defensive end, something that Depay isn’t good at doing. The winger’s strengths are in attack. He always wants the ball played to his feet, so he can cut inside on his stronger right foot. He is a player who feeds on confidence, and when he was consistently dropped after poor displays, it made it difficult for Depay to succeed.

United fans couldn’t stand watching Van Gaal’s United for another season, and while the Dutchman brought home an FA Cup, it wasn’t enough. A season where United scored only 49 goals, the second lowest in the top 10. Van Gaal’s restrictive football made it nearly impossible to deal with sides that played in a deep block. Rashford’s end season emergence helped in giving Van Gaal a fast and aggressive forward who was scoring with nearly every shot, but a season full of dire performances made it difficult to justify keeping the former Barcelona manager.

One might ask what does all of this have to do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The short term history of how United consistently struggled in the transfer market was to highlight just how significant of a signing Ibrahimovic was to United, and especially for Ed Woodward. His first summer was full of targets that didn’t want to join the club. His second was a mix of shirt sellers and squad players but was a mess in regards to where they all fitted in. The third summer was a failure in how those signings performed in their debut season, with Anthony Martial the only player even remotely a success. Woodward needed to smash his first summer transfer window with Jose Mourinho, with every signing being first team starters.

The summer of 2016 is still the only transfer window where I’d consider Woodward to be successful in recruitment. They fixed every glaring issue in the squad. They added a young promising defender in Eric Bailly who was capable of playing the ball out from the back and added much-needed pace in defence. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived for £27 million to add creativity in the final third. The Armenian was voted the player of the season in the Bundesliga and was an essential signing to boost United’s goals and chance creation. United even went a step further in putting their names on the headlines, with the record Premier League winners breaking the transfer record to bring Paul Pogba back to the club. The Frenchman could add an inventiveness to the midfield and offers a player with a unique skill set that is still hard to match. They were all great signings, but the icing on the cake was easily Zlatan’s arrival.

The Swedish forward was everything United needed on and off the pitch. He a huge personality and possesses the arrogance and hunger for that United have been in itching for since Sir Alex’s departure. From a young age, Zlatan has always had an ego the size of a mountain. From refusing to do auditions for Arsene Wenger at youth level to only agreeing to remain in Paris if the club built him a statue. He is a man who demanded your attention, which younger players could look towards as a role model for the player they should be thriving to be. While many United fans were excited to see a world class forward arrive at the club, opposition fans had their doubts. “He’s only scored in a farmers league” or “he’s past it.” We all heard these criticisms against Ibrahimovic, but both the player and manager weren’t worried. “Zlatan needs no introduction. The statistics speak for themselves,” said Mourinho on his arrival, and he was right. Ibrahimovic had arrived at United after a fantastic final season with Paris Saint-Germain, in which he scored 50 goals in 51 games, 38 of those in Ligue 1, a club record. It was the first time United signed a European superstar striker since Van Nistelrooy, a fantastic poacher but wasn’t effective in linking others into play. Ibrahimovic was the opposite of the Dutchman, with the Swede constantly dropping deep to play as a number nine and a half. His arrogance and personality were personified in how often he didn’t like to remain in a forward position, preferably moving to where the cameras were focused. Ibrahimovic was one of the very few superstars playing in the game, a quality he showed very early on in his United career. His first appearance for the club was in a preseason game against Galatasaray, in which he scored an overhead kick in the 4th minute of the game. While it wasn’t a vintage goal, with the forward’s connection with the ball being imperfect, to say the least, however, the ambition is worth praise.

Zlatan began his United career by showing all of his best qualities. He scored a last minute header against Leicester to win the Community Shield for the club, towering over Wes Morgan, one of the best defenders in the previous season, with ease. His giant character was both literal and metaphorical in this case. He didn’t have the constant effect many expected him to have, but he still managed to appear for the most critical moments. While his first competitive game showed his love for the big moments, his second showed his star quality. United were on track for a straightforward win away to Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth with goals from Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, the game was sealed through the long strike from Ibrahimovic. He simply picked up the ball and scored from a distance United fans were not used to seeing a goal out of nothing like that. It wasn’t the same structured and planned attacks we were used to seeing under Van Gaal. It was the first change of ideas, from Van Gaal’s Cruyffian roots to a more individualistic approach to scoring goals, and Zlatan was the centrepiece. Ibrahimovic went on to score 10 in his first 20 games, an impressive return for his first season in English football and for a side who were still in transition.

Ibrahimovic was a shot machine during his time for United. This isn’t exactly a quality that is stand out for a United player to possess, with Rooney, Ronaldo and Van Persie all taking a lot of shots during their spells at the club. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the Swede was a terrifying forward to face. He was taking over 4 shots a game, an amount no other United player has managed to beat since his only full season at the club. Any player can take a high volume of shots, but Ibrahimovic showed himself to be a lethal finisher from wherever he was shooting from. His xG showed this, and according to Understat, he overperformed his expected goals by 3, and when going through his goals again, it shows. His fantastic chip against Everton that so nearly didn’t go over the line, his low ranged strikes finding their way past the keeper and some fortunate strikes through deflections, his goal threat was undeniable. Ibrahimovic’s knack for scoring goals from everywhere shows from his dominance in the air. Out of the 17 goals he scored in the Premier League, 4 were headers. His strength will always be with the ball at his feet, but his aerial threat was arguably the most threatening of a striker in the league.

While his image has a selfish and arrogant player were well known, he sure didn’t show it on the pitch. Ibrahimovic was an excellent link man for the rest of the players in the team. It was an important inclusion in his skillset. Like his time at Paris Saint-Germain, he helped bring other talented attackers into the fray. In France, it was Cavani, Lavezzi, Di Maria and Lucas Moura and at United, he had Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan. While not being given the same experienced scorers as he had in Paris, there were still fantastic talents at the club that needed space to get the goals. Zlatan was an excellent creator throughout his time at United, assisting some of the vital goals during Mourinho’s debut season, with the highlight being a magnificent cross for Mkhitaryan to finish with a spectacular scorpion kick (even though the Armenian was offside). He liked to find space on the right side and for a good reason. United would usually play either Mata, Lingard or Mkhitaryan on that side, with the three players preferring to come inside due to their history as number 10’s. Ibrahimovic would find space on the far side to help keep the width and use his excellent eye for a pass to find his teammates in the box. His drive to contribute to goals, whether scoring or assisting, was what made him such a lethal player.

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The player he sparked the best on and off the pitch relationship with was easily Paul Pogba. The Frenchman arrived for a record fee, and the pressure on him was indescribable. Every single thing Pogba did was going to be scrutinised, and it made it very difficult for him to play his game to the same effect as he did at Juventus. While his relationship with Jesse Lingard was always strong, he grew to form a formidable partnership with Ibrahimovic. While one was 11 years older than the other, they were both so similar, prominent personalities with love for entertainment through their talents. Pogba was continually looking to send long balls for Ibrahimovic to run to and regularly resulted in goals. In a tight game at Selhurst Park, it took United’s two most prominent players to find the victory. During the final minutes of the match, Pogba had the composure to send a delightful ball to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who scored with a powerful shot into the side-netting. The highlight of their relationship was an FA Cup game against Blackburn Rovers. United were left with the possibility of facing a replay in the competition until Mourinho decided to play his aces. Pogba and Ibrahimovic came on as second-half substitutes and their class shined, with Pogba sending a ball through the Blackburn defence, to give his teammate a simple finish. It was by far Pogba’s best season for United, and it was thanks to Ibrahimovic being his perfect partner in attack.

By far his best performance for United came in the EFL Cup final. It was the club’s first chance to win some silverware under Mourinho (not including the Community Shield) and it was a game defined by a brilliant performance from United’s superstar. Ibrahimovic scored a free kick in the first half, before putting United back in the lead right in the dying minutes of the game, with a fine header from a Herrera cross. This was a game truly won by the former Milan forward and he seemed to cherish the responsibility on the pitch. This was one of the reasons why he was brought to the club, to perform on the biggest stage and push United over the line when they needed a shove.

While the good cannot be argued, he still managed to attract plenty of controversy during his short stint in England. The most infamous being his confrontation with Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings. It was an aggressive game for United in their second fixture against the Cherries. Mings was tightly marking Ibrahimovic throughout the game which seemed to frustrate United’s star striker, to the point where Ibrahimovic was seen throwing Mings to the ground in a show of anger. Things became more heated when Mings stepped on Zlatan’s head, resulting in Zlatan lashing out for a final time, by elbowing Mings during a United corner. With the pair failing to be appropriately booked for their behaviour, The FA quickly punished them, with Ibrahimovic facing a 3 match ban and Mings facing 4. While a moment of madness can sometimes be excused, the childish manner in which Ibrahimovic acted was inexcusable.

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It does move on to another problem with the Swede, being his finishing. I did recently compliment his ability to score from anywhere, and while that is still true, there were a lot of chances Ibrahimovic should have put away yet failed to do so. Out of all forwards in the Premier League, no one missed more chances than the current LA Galaxy forward with 18. This isn’t to diminish his ability as a forward at all. One of the players behind is Sergio Aguero, who is seen as one of the best forwards in the history of the league, yet missed 13 big chances. The issue arises when looking at the chances in isolation and seeing how frustrating he was at times. A penalty miss against Bournemouth, a huge miss at Anfield after a lovely pass from Paul Pogba and a powerful shot aimed directly at Heaton during United’s 0-0 draw at home to Burnley are the few stand out chances he failed to convert.

His United career was cut short after a serious injury suffered in the Europa League quarter-final second leg against Anderlecht, after landing awkwardly on his knee. It was a painful way to end a fantastic debut season. It meant United were to do without their star Swede for the remainder of the season, missing the rest of United’s winning Europa League campaign and some key clashes with Tottenham and Arsenal. While United were a lesser side without him, with Rashford playing as the starting striker, it did highlight one other flaw with playing Ibrahimovic. United couldn’t be as tactically flexible with him in the side. Ironically, United’s most impressive performances during that season, a 2-0 home win over champions Chelsea and a tactical masterclass in the Europa League final, helping United secure a 2-0 win over a young Ajax side. Both games saw Mourinho at his best, using Herrera to man-mark Hazard throughout the game, never leaving the Belgian’s side during the game. While that is a task that could have been achieved with Ibrahimovic, the performance of Marcus Rashford was something that couldn’t have been replicated. Rashford’s raw pace and ability to run the channels made it difficult to see Zlatan do the same thing. United’s young prospect kept constant pressure on Chelsea’s back line and made it difficult for them to effectively build from the back. Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitution, displaying how he was not needed for this victory. Their win over Ajax in the Europa League final was even more impressive, with United playing an extremely direct style, using Fellaini to help quickly transition the ball into the final. The Belgian won 14 aerial duels in this game, showing his importance to United’s first Europa League trophy.

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Unfortunately, Ibrahimovic’s time at United didn’t end with the same shining spotlight as it began. He was allowed to remain at the club for the treatment of his injury and was given a new contract at the end of August. It was made clear Mourinho was not going to use him as frequently as he was used during his first season, with Lukaku giving a younger and pacier forward for a large sum of money. It meant we only saw Ibrahimovic briefly during his final few months at the club, with the spotlight now on Lukaku. One of his most memorable performances was in a disappointing draw at home to Burnley. Ibrahimovic was taken off at halftime for Jesse Lingard, who scored both goals for United. Ibrahimovic couldn’t play with Lukaku in the same team. Both were not mobile enough and it meant a lack of pressure from the forwards. It was the last notable games that Zlatan played for United, until his departure for LA Galaxy in the following January, where he has gone on to score bundles of goals. It was his chance to spread his name to a country that was still in need of quality in the league.

It was a sad way to end such a perfect match. Since Woodward arrived, he was desperate to bring in a true superstar, a player who could sell shirts and show how United were still a European force. After failed attempts to get a marquee signing in his first summer and failing with Di Maria and Falcao in his second, it seemed as if Woodward wasn’t going to get that big name he wanted. Ibrahimovic was the perfect player for Woodward.  A player to show United’s ambitions and the club he wanted them to be. A name known across Europe and could be the push United needed on the short term, similar to when Cantona arrived. He is arguably United’s greatest signing of the decade but it’s just a shame we couldn’t see more of him.

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.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ander Herrera and Improving PSG

With Paris crashing out of Europe in the round of 16 for a third time in a row, questions are going to be asked. What makes this different to the previous eliminations is who they lost to. While losing to Barcelona thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, followed by a defeat to the eventual champions Real Madrid the following year are all understandable, losing to a weakened Manchester United side has no excuse. While Tuchel was unable to choose Neymar, Cavani or Rabiot, his team was still strong enough to progress past a Manchester United side which were injury struck. Manchester United were the first team in the history of the Champions League to overcome a two goal defeat in the home leg to progress to the second round. It’s an embarrassing fact for PSG to face. I’ve already criticised the Ligue 1 champions plenty of times, and for good reason, but it seems this summer they are eager to fix these problems. While their full back areas are in desperate need of surgery, their midfield is in need of depth. With Manchester United failing to secure contracts with key players, it’s given Paris the chance to steal one of their key midfielders in Ander Herrera. Let’s look to see how he can improve PSG.

Herrera has had a very up and down time in Manchester. Primarily used as a squad player under Van Gaal, he did have a solid impact in his two years under the Dutchman. In his first season, he managed to contribute to 10 goals in 17 games, a solid output from a central midfielder. In a midfield consisting of an ageing Michael Carrick and an immobile Fellaini, he added energy and some needed bite to the midfield. While his game time didn’t improve in Van Gaal’s final season, it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho that truly brought the best out of the Spaniard. With Mourinho desperately searching for a player to partner Paul Pogba, Herrera was by far the best. His work rate and reading of the game was unrivalled in the squad, and gave the perfect balance to his french midfield partner. Their partnership brought the best out of each other, with Herrera’s huge 5.3 tackles and interceptions protecting a fragile defence. Herrera is one of the few players in the Premier League who understands how to take advantage of the rules of the game. It’s a common consensus that every Premier League fan hates Herrera, except United fans. He knows the dark arts of the game, like you see from the Catenaccio sides from the sixties. He will take a yellow card for the team, if it helps stop an opposition attack. He will always stay on the ground for longer than needed, and harass referees to help get the decision to go his way. While many authentic football fans do not like this side of the game, winning teams are built with players like Herrera. A combination of huge defensive work and adding that extra bite to midfield is perfect when you want to hold onto a lead near the end of the game, and to help disrupt more possession based sides. PSG’s midfield has missed that energy and aggression since the departure of Blaise Matuidi.

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So what are the issues with the Spaniard? He doesn’t offer enough in the attacking front. It’s strange to see a player who blossomed as an attacking midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa to have a lack of attacking output. Herrera’s drop off in the final third is massive from his final season for Bilbao. His key passes, shots per game and dribbles have all halved since then. While this could be down to a change in role, which is true. He isn’t relied on in an attacking sense anymore, thanks to the dominance of Paul Pogba, but the problem comes when he has to be relied. When Pogba suffered a short term injury during Mourinho’s second season, Herrera replaced him in a 4-2-3-1, playing alongside Matic. The Serbian couldn’t offer anything on the attacking front, and it was up Herrera to bring something to the midfield. United truly struggled during this period, with a stale draw at Anfield, a loss to Chelsea and an embarrassing lost to Huddersfield. Pogba was huge blow and Herrera just couldn’t add the same flair and arrogance as his teammate. It wasn’t a surprise as soon as Pogba came back, United beat a gritty Newcastle side 4-1.

So what would Herrera add to this side? As mentioned they are lacking in midfield depth. They have been forced to play Dani Alves and Marquinhos in that position because they are truly lacking options. Herrera would add a physical and defensive presence to a midfield that has looked shaky at times. It’s a team full of superstars, but having a player who isn’t afraid of doing the hard yards is always needed to succeed. As the famous Zidane quote goes when Makalele was sold to Chelsea. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Marcus Rashford and Fulfilling Potential

There’s always been a question on when do players hit their peak, but the problem is it’s a question with not a single answer. Certain players hit their peak at an extremely young age, similar to how Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are seen as players who never aged as well as many wished, but in reality were at their best in their early twenties. It can work the other way too, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic not showing his best until he was in his thirties. It’s not to say these players didn’t play a role before or after their best years, but they will be remembered for the days where they were unbeatable on the pitch.

In discussion of players hitting their peak, Marcus Rashford is the player who we will be looking at today. The Englishman has been a key member of United’s squad since his breakthrough back in 2016. In a season that consisted of a lack of goals, Rashford coming into the scoring with nearly every shot he was taking was just perfect to see, even if it was not sustainable. His time under Mourinho can be difficult to describe. Some of his strengths truly started to blossom. He showed himself to be a very versatile forward, being able to put in good performances playing on either wing or as a central striker. His strength and power were improving every week, and add that to player who already had pace to burn, it built a recipe for a player with the physique to succeed at the top. While his new found versatility was a good asset, it was seen as block to halt his progression. Mourinho’s lack of trust in Rashford to lead the line for his side meant his chances to play as the number 9 were very limited. He couldn’t learn how to play in his preferred position because he wasn’t as big as Zlatan and Lukaku. It meant that when he was one on one with the goalkeeper, multiple times he would make the wrong decision. The moment that springs to mind would be United’s 2-2 draw to Leicester in the 2017/18 season. It was Rashford up against Schmeichel, and seemed to not know what he wanted to do, and he ended up wasting a chance, taking too long to make a decision. When Mourinho’s United collapsed as expected, Rashford was one of the few players to keep any semblance of a good name, and he continued and even improved on that when Solskjaer arrived. Rashford finally started to fulfill that potential. In the first couple of months of Ole’s reign, Rashford seemed to go out on that pitch with a point to prove. The forward went out on that pitch with a point to prove, to show that he is ready to become the first choice. Rashford’s shot numbers finally started reaching elite levels, with the FA Cup winner hitting 5 shots in many games. His shot locations could definitely improve, but it’s showing a desire to score that he seemed to not have. He was the first player to truly get what Solskjaer was trying to implement, and showed the rest of the league what this United team could be. He combined that excellent finishing from his time under Louis Van Gaal, with the added physique from his time under Mourinho, to make a striker who finally showed just why his old Dutch manager put him in the first team. He’s now taking 3.1 shots per 90 (it would be much if his time under Mourinho was discounted) and is also creating 1.3 chances per 90. Rashford is on a respectable 10 goals in the league, but would be higher if he positive runs were rewarded. Rashford is great at finding space to exploit, and his first thought is always to attack.

However his good form was put to a halt thanks to an ankle injury against Manchester United’s biggest rivals, Liverpool. The forward hasn’t looked the same since, with that risk and energy not being an ever present. Even when looking at United’s historic comeback against PSG, Rashford had a bad game. While he did score the winning penalty, it was clear that he was still struggling with that injury, and it meant that United did miss some great chances to seal the game early. His decision making is still a bit of a concern. While he is fantastic at getting into goal scoring positions, he will occasionally make the incorrect decision. In the first couple of minutes at the Nou Camp, Rashford had a chance to put United back in the game, yet decided to try and lob the keeper, ending with the ball going over the crossbar. It’s very clear where he needs to improve, but those are elements he can improve on over time. Rashford has the blueprint to succeed at the top level, and for now he needs that brake over the summer, to get back to full fitness and show the world next season why Solskjaer trusted him so much at the beginning of his reign.

Why Mourinho Was Sacked. Top 5 League Talking Points

While this week wasn’t as interesting as the last, there are still plenty to talk about so let’s start with Germany

Bundesliga

Frankfurt Outclass Leverkusen

While Bayern and Leipzig all pick up big wins, let’s look at Frankfurt, who continued their great start to the season with a 2-1 victory over Bayern Leverkusen. While Frankfurt have been very good this season, Leverkusen are still a side that can cause any side trouble, with Werder Bremen conceding 6 against them. They also haven’t lost since the 11th of November, so this was a tough task for both sides.

Let’s start with the winners, who won this game, even without their young shot machine Luka Jovic, who started the game on the bench. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. They still had both Ante Rebic and Sebastian Haller, who have been very good this season. Rebic has continued on from his World Cup exploits, with the Croatian scoring 5 and assisting 2. His shot numbers are healthy considering he’s played all over the field this season, and he’s creating 1.8 chances a game, showing how much of a well rounded player he is. While he has been good, Haller has been absolutely brilliant. He’s scored 9 goals and is at the top of the assists chart in the Bundesliga, with 8. If you count the Europa League, he’s in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s incredible in the air and while he has been rather fortunate to have this many goal contributions, he has still been arguably the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Against Bayer Leverkusen, he took 4 shots, created 3 chances and won a ridiculous 12 aerial duels. Dragovic and Tah just couldn’t deal with him, with the pair only winning 3 aerial duels. I wouldn’t be surprised if clubs aren’t looking at him, for bids in the summer. He’s only 24, meaning there is still a ceiling to hit. He was only signed for £6.3m from Utrecht. What a brilliant bit of business from a club that seems to keep impressing me.

While Haller was as good as ever, the man of the match was arguably Filip Kostic. The Serbian was great on the day, scoring and assisting to help his side get the 3 points. He also created 2 chances, made 4 tackles and interceptions and 6 clearances. Frankfurt play in a way where their full backs are pushed so far forward, that they are almost like inside forwards. The first goal showed this, with Kostic assisting Da Costa with a beautiful low cross. It gives their side a constant attacking threat in all areas, and it means players like Rebic and Haller can stay more central without worrying about lacking isolation. But their marauding full backs come at a cost. It leaves them so vunarable at the back. Leverkusen were probably unlucky to not get more out of this game. They started it off so well, with Brandt having two great chances, and Bellerabi having a goal disallowed. They exploited the wide areas that are always left so free at times, and if not for better finishing, would have let Frankfurt pay for it. But they didn’t, and Frankfurt continue on this season, looking to get Europa League football.

La Liga

Betis back on track

While November did include a brilliant victory over Barcelona, it wasn’t a great month for Betis. It was their only win last month, with a draw against Celta and a defeat to a poor Villarreal, it left them in a position where they couldn’t seem to put two wins together. Now in December, they haven’t lost a single game yet, with their only points dropped being in the Europa League. Wins and clean sheets against Sociedad and Vallecano, means they are finally showing how good they really are. This side have a solid defense, and a great midfield. This actually transitions very smoothly to talk about Giovanni Lo Celso. The Argentine is one of my favourite players to watch this season, and has been the best midfielder in the league. While he’s only started 9 games, it is because the horrible Europa League campaign they are also playing in. He’s clearly being saved for those games, and it’s understandable why. Lo Celso is a midfielder who can play anywhere in the midfield. His tackle numbers and great dribble numbers make him a very flexible player, similar to Moussa Dembele or Allan. The difference here is goals. Lo Celso is Betis’s top scorer, and while it’s only with 4, it does show how good he at getting in the box. He also ranks third in the squad for shots per game, and xG says he is achieving what he should be, which shows there isn’t much luck or a purple patch here. This is Lo Celso playing his game, which is just frightening. He’s only 22, meaning there are still plenty of years left.

He was the man of the match in this game, taking 4 shots and completing 4 dribbles. Lo Celso is not a creator. Canales takes that role (and is another who has performed very well), while Lo Celso plays as the player who arrives late in the box, but is also an expert at winning the ball back. It does seriously trouble me why Paris let him go out on loan, and are now forced to play Marquinhos to play as a holding midfielder, a position where Lo Celso could definitely fill in. It would would amaze me if Paris actually let him go. He’s a player with massive potential would offer something different in a midfield which will see Rabiot leave by the summer. He is such a good player and is the reason why Betis are such a threat.

Ligue 1

Monaco Misery Continues

It is fair to say Monaco have been the worst side in Europe. They have went from Ligue 1 runners up, to a side hiring a manager with zero experience, and are now suffering for it. They have conceded the 4th most goals in the league, and scored the 3rd least amount of goals in Europe. They have turned from league winners, to a shambles. This game against Lyon just shows their weaknesses in both areas. They are currently suffering with 16 players out in the sidelines. I can definitely sympathise with Henry in that department. He has been forced to play Raggi as a right back, a player who should really not be at the club at this point. Monaco were truly awful in this game. It may become boring just looking at numbers, but they sum up the situation perfectly. The five highest shot takers in this game were all Lyon players, and the most dribbles were all Lyon players. Falcao actually won 3 tackles, more than all of his teammates. A striker should never be doing that. They had a pass accuracy of 77%. That is just awful. You expect a side, with ball players like Monaco to have at least 80%. You expect lower than that from direct managers like Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. While Lyon managed 21 shots, Monaco managed a poultry 4, meaning Aouar and Depay had more shots than their opposition, with 5 each. This all wasn’t helped from Golovin getting sent off. The Russian decided to throw a terrible challenge in, earning a straight and justifiably got his marching orders. They offered nothing in this game, which can’t be highlighted more than Benaglio getting the second highest amount of touches with 45. It was just a nothing performance from a side that has been no where near average this season.

Let’s quickly look at Lyon. They are now looking like the second best team in Ligue 1, which they are. Their best player on the day was Nabil Fekir. It might be an exaggeration, but he is arguably one of the top 20 players on the planet. Not many attackers can boast his creativity, shot numbers, set piece ability, dribbling and versatility. There’s so much to his game that is makes him such a desirable player to every top club. He could get into any team in the world. This game showed his quality. He scored, created 6 chances and completed the most passes out of any forward for Lyon. He was at his unbeatable best in this game, tearing through Monaco as if they were a light piece of paper. It was a great performance from a player who is just too good for this league. Another who stood out is Kenny Tete. He completed the most tackles and created 4 chances, with only Fekir creating more. His cross for the second goal was fantastic, and showed this determination and fight that he clearly has.

With Paris already seemed to have wrapped up the league, Lyon could seriously shock some sides the champions league. Barcelona are arguably the favourites for the competition, but injuries to their defenders and Luis Suarez’s ability to have an incredible off day, means they are definitely beatable. Valverde’s pragmatism is his biggest weakness, and best quality. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it just doesn’t work. Losing to Roma, failing to win the league because of his complete team change against Levante, and their terrible performance against Betis only last month. It leaves questions on whether they can actually go the distance. They go against this Lyon side. A side full of attacking quality, and a side that showed a lot of versatility in the past, able to play a 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3. It could be a real challenge, as Manchester City found out.

Premier League

Manchester United outclassed

While this is quite late, let’s look at Mourinho’s last game in charge of Manchester United, arguably his side’s worst showing. I compare every single bad performance from United this season to that game against Brighton, where I saw nothing in attacking sense and complete incompetence in defense. Even the games against, Southampton, Valencia, Juventus, Manchester City, Spurs and Derby, they just weren’t as bad as Brighton, but the against their closest rivals is definitely the worst. Allowing Liverpool to have 36 shots, is a disgrace. United just sat back and allowed Liverpool to attack relentlessly. While Liverpool were quite wasteful, with Fabinho, Lovren and Mane all wasting chances, they still created so many chances and were allowed so because of just how bad United were. While United did get a goal back thanks to an Allison mistake, it was not deserved. Liverpool won the game thanks to goals from Xherdan Shaqiri. I think the line up was the start of things to come for United. No Martial, Pogba or Mata meant a huge lack of creativity and spark in the side. It made United so much more predictable and passive in an attacking sense. They lacked Mata’s ability to drift and find space, Martial’s speed and chance creation and Pogba’s pure arrogance. While I like Herrera, he isn’t going to offer anything in a creative sense, and Matic is just not very good. I like Lingard, but he works better when he’s playing off other attackers. Rashford, while he tried his hardest, did struggle in this game. United are an absolute mess, and it truly doesn’t make sense. This side has some of the best attackers in the league. Lukaku was scoring over 20 goals only 2-3 years ago, Martial was carrying United’s attack, Rashford was ruthless in his first full season, Sanchez was linked to every single top during his final year at Arsenal, Mata is arguably as good as David Silva. How this team isn’t scoring more than Arsenal and Chelsea is mind blowing. Mourinho started his time at United so well. Two trophies, an arrogance and swagger with the signings of Zlatan and Pogba, and huge progress to be made. However it’s just been downhill from there. This is written right after Mourinho was sacked, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been appointed. The Norwegian will hopefully bring back the confidence in this side, and make times at Old Trafford much more enjoyable.

While I still do not think Liverpool are near City in performance and quality, credit needs to be given. They were very good against United. It does help that their opponent was so bad, but they themselves were good. Fabinho was their best player on the day for me. While many have given Shaqiri the man of the match for his effect on the game, I think Fabinho did show exactly why Liverpool have been such a solid side this season. While he started slow, he seems to have finally found his place and purpose in this side. Considering he was playing in defensive midfield, he played more as a number ten. He had 5 shots, created 2 chances and 3 dribbles. He got the assist for the first goal, with an excellent ball that cut the United defense open like cheese. He dominated this game and could be a real important player in a season where Liverpool finally seem ready for a trophy.

Serie A

Roma entertain Genoa

With all the big clubs getting typical wins, let’s look at the most entertaining of those wins, being Roma’s 3-2 victory over Genoa. Roma have been poor this season. I still have massive question marks over Di Francesco, and Monchi just hasn’t had the impact all expected him to have. I do think it is a massive shame that Malcom made the wrong decision in joining Barcelona. If he did sign as he was expected to, they would definitely be more of a threat in front of goal. Roma have scored a very good 29 goals, but an injury to Dzeko has left them with a difficult situation. Schick hasn’t impressed in the slightest since his arrival from Sampdoria last season. Instead, they started Zaniolo. The Italian didn’t manage a shot on target in the game, but having the opportunity will definitely help him grow as a player. For the first time this season, I can say Roma’s midfield were very good. Di Francesco chose to start Bryan Cristante and Steven N’Zonzi in this game. Cristante is a player who isn’t full of talent, but he did show what he’s got against Genoa, scoring and creating 3 chances. His midfield partner was even better. N’Zonzi has not been great since his arrival in the capital. He’s started show his age, and struggling with the pace of some sides in Italy. But in this game he was back to his best. He completed 6 tackles and interceptions, and won 8 aerial duels. He is finally showing why Monchi chose to take another risk on him, at an age where he should start to be fading. He hasn’t been at his best this season, but he is still a presence in midfield and hopefully he can find a certain place in this side. With Pellegrini in the sidelines, it was important that the pair stepped up, and they did.

Genoa can truly call themselves unlucky. They had a lead in this game, with the shot monster Piatek and Hiljemark both scoring, but Roma clawed back and got the result. xG had this game at 1.88 to Roma and 2.18 to Genoa. This is mainly due to how good Piatek is. The Polish marksman has been on fire this season, and showed it here. He had 5 shots, with every single shot on target. It’s something you don’t usually see from a forward, being able to hit every shot on target in a game against the second best defense last season. There is no doubt that Piatek is over performing, but he is playing for a side that isn’t exactly a top 6 contender. They don’t create a crazy amount of chances, so it’s very impressive. It’ll be hard for Genoa to keep hold of him, if any big clubs would go for him.