Is Simeone Running Out of Time? Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

After a lengthy absence, the Champions League finally returns with so many juicy fixtures to discuss. I’ll be previewing all of these games, starting with Atletico Madrid facing the holders Liverpool.

Atletico Madrid currently sits outside of the top four, with La Liga featuring some fierce competition for the Champions League spots for the first time in years. We’ve discussed Atletico’s messy summer, which revolved around the sales of their biggest stars. Griezmann, Godin, Rodri, Hernandez, Felipe Luiz and Juanfran all departed the club; a core of talented players, some of whom helped Atletico to the title back in 2014.

Some of their new arrivals have actually been massive success stories. Felipe and Mario Hermoso fit right in Simeone’s defensively phenomenal back-line, and Kieran Trippier has been their second most creative player, only behind Koke. While their signings in defence have all worked out well, as usual, the issues lie on the other side of the pitch.

Embed from Getty Images

Replacing Antoine Griezmann was always going to be a tough task. The Frenchman not only contributed to a lot of goals, but he was very creative and consistently found pockets of space to help advance the play. Griezmann was always suited to a more attacking team, but playing for Simeone did help bring out skills you’d never expect to see from him if he had been playing under an attacking coach.

I always had my reservations on Atletico Madrid’s £135 million acquisition of Joao Felix. The Portuguese prospect did look like an exciting talent, but spending all of the Griezmann money on a player who only had a single season of first-team football under his belt is insanely risky on the short term. Felix could turn out to be a world-beater, but right now he is not contributing nearly as much as Atleti thought he would. Felix has only managed 2 goals and an assist in La Liga. He still looks very raw, not almost at the level of a Jadon Sancho or Kylian Mbappe. Felix has underperformed massively in attack, with Understat showing Felix should have doubled his goal tally. I can sympathise with that, considering the team’s reliance on him and Morata to do something magical in the final third. The problem with Felix is his underlying numbers have been sub-par. He’s making less than a shot assist per 90 and completing 30% of his dribbles.

Embed from Getty Images

Atletico’s most prominent problem coming into this tie is the number of injuries they’re facing throughout the team. Costa, Felix, Morata, Koke and Trippier are all likely to miss this game, leaving Simeone without a first-team number nine. Their attacking options were already quite barren; now it’s insane to think Atletico will even score against the best team in Europe. The worrying part about this is all the injuries are muscle-based. I can’t comment on how this team trains because I don’t know, but it’s troubling to see all of their forwards suddenly pick up injuries around the same time.

I initially chose Alvaro Morata as the player to watch for Liverpool, but now I have no idea. Carrasco might be their biggest threat, considering he is the only player currently in the squad with a modicum of excitement in the way he plays. After Atletico Madrid’s awful display in their second leg against Juventus in last year’s competition, I can’t see them beating a better team with a worse group of players.

On a more positive note, let’s talk about Liverpool. The current holders have been absolutely fantastic domestically, currently going unbeaten and only dropping points on one occasion. Every player is performing at or above their level at the moment. The Reds’ forward line remains one of the best in Europe, with each of their attackers able to turn a game on their own. Their full-backs dominate the ball, primarily progressing the ball through their incredible passing ability and sheer dynamism. Their goalkeeper, Alisson, who has somehow made the best defence in the league look even better, with shot-stopping so good, he’s undoubtedly the best keeper in the Premier League.

Embed from Getty Images

The midfield has always been an area I’ve been hesitant to call good, but after a year, I finally understand why their midfield works. Klopp doesn’t use his midfielders as other managers do; the likes of Pep use them for ball progression and creativity. Klopp uses his midfielders as defenders, to allow the full-backs to push up and not worry about opposition counter-attacks. Klopp prefers progression through the full-backs because, excluding the obvious answer of how good Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are, it still gives them some security in defence. If the pair do manage to lose the ball, they won’t lose it in dangerous areas. It isn’t nearly as problematic as Henderson or Wijnaldum losing the ball. Klopp and Liverpool have built a team properly, getting the best out of their players, in a system which allows them to blossom and cover for their weaknesses.

There is no denying Liverpool are a genuinely great team but are they one of the best teams we’ve seen of the modern game? They’re definitely up there, but I’d probably put Pep’s 2011 Barca, Heynckes’ treble team and Pep’s Centurions over Klopp’s team. Those three sides were insanely dominant while putting in the performances to show it. Liverpool has been the best team in the league, but their dominance doesn’t show in a similar way to the teams mentioned. Manchester City would be a lot closer if they weren’t suffering from a few off games and some bad luck. The area in which Liverpool have benefitted the most is in their opposition. Numerous times this season, we’ve seen teams play Liverpool and suddenly forget how to put chances away. The likes of Southampton, Watford, Wolves, Manchester United and Manchester City all perform under their expected when playing against the soon-to-be Premier League Champions. Is Liverpool to blame for this? Not necessarily. It’s more to point out how they haven’t been the perfect team many are making them out to be.

Yet, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for this Liverpool team. It’s the same kind of respect I have for Mourinho’s great sides or Sean Dyche’s Burnley. I appreciate how well Klopp’s team operates and wins games. Liverpool is a well-oiled machine, capable of competing against all of the winning Champions League sides from the past.

Embed from Getty Images

As mentioned before, Van Dijk is by far their most valuable player, but Mohamed Salah is a close second. The Egyptian forward has been frighteningly good since his return to English football. Many like to point out he isn’t as good as he was during that first season since his goal return has dropped off, but that criticism has zero weight behind it. Salah is still as creative and threatening in front of goal as he was in 2018. The difference is that teams have begun doubling-up on him. It’s why Mane’s goal output suddenly skyrocketed last season. Salah has effectively opened up space for his teammate through sides labelling him as Liverpool’s biggest attacking threat. It’s quite amazing how Mane is even being discussed in the conversation for player of the year, when Salah, among other Liverpool players, have been a lot better.

If Atletico wishes to progress beyond the round of sixteen, they must pray and hope luck goes their way. Also, they must cement enough of an advantage at the Wanda Metropolitano. We’ve seen Liverpool in the past couple of seasons perform below their level during some away matches, most notably against Napoli on two separate occasions and at the Camp Nou. This first leg is vital. If Atletico waste it, they won’t have a chance at Anfield.

If Liverpool wishes to return to the final once again, they must focus a lot of their attacks down the left side. Simeone will be forced to play Sime Vrsaljko, someone who has only started two games in La Liga this season and has suffered from consistent injury problems since his impressive World Cup performances for Croatia.

My money for this would be on Liverpool. Even if they do manage to lose the first leg, I can’t trust Simeone to set up his side in the right way at Anfield, after the awful in which they exited the competition last season. You can’t hope to sit on leads away from home. The strategy doesn’t work anymore, as Barcelona have proved on two occasions. I can see Simeone sitting on a 1-0 lead and hoping Liverpool forget how to score goals, something that won’t happen. Liverpool will be in the quarter-finals once again.

Most Overrated Manager? Ranking All 20 Premier League Managers

I’ve been meaning to do one of these lists for a while, but because of the whole manager merry go round that is the Premier League, I decided to wait for the season to reach a point that contained an element of stabililty. The table doesn’t look like it will change from now on so let’s rank all 20 Premier League managers. There is definitely some controversial choices here, but this list isn’t permanent, meaning these could change by the next year. I do believe that needs be stated, so let’s begin

    20. Scott Parker – Fulham

By far the easiest choice here. This isn’t anything personal against Parker. The former England midfielder has only been in the job for a handful of games, meaning it is difficult to judge him. Parker took charge after both Jokanovic and Ranieri failed in keeping Fulham out of the relegation zone. Fulham do not look like they will be appointing another manager, and right it seems to be damage control. This has been a failure of a season for Fulham, and now Parker has been left in a very difficult position. Let’s hope he can find his feet in the game and recover from being in this circumstance.

    19. Jan Siewert – Huddersfield

Another who has joined a sinking ship, Jan Siewert is another I sympthaise for. His appointment seemes to be in the hope of regaining promotion back into the Premier League, instead of survival. Huddersfield are already one of the lowest scoring teams in Premier League history, and have a squad that is arguably worse than some teams in the Championship. The fact that Huddersfield survived last season was nothing short of a miracle, and now it seems reality has hit them. A poor summer window just showed that this is a side that just isn’t ready for the Top flight, and need time to establish themselves as a bigger club. I have no idea if Siewert is the right manager to do that, but he seems to be a long term fix, rather than trying to fight the inevitable.

    18. Chris Hughton – Brighton

While I do like Hughton as a coach, being able to build a solid defensive structure and having experience in getting sides promoted, the disconnect between transfers and coach seem to be so apparent that it makes Hughton a very frustrating figure. When teams get promoted, what they need most is creativity and to beat the teams closest to them. Brighton did this, mainly down to Pascal Gros bringing the chance creation that he showed at Ingolstadt, and was the main reason why Brighton stayed up. Other signings like Matt Ryan and Davy Propper helped in this regard too. It is clear that whoever is in charge of Brighton’s transfers is incredible at finding great talent for very reasonable fees. They did similar business in the summer, with talents like Bisouma and Jahanbakhsh arriving, but this is where my frustration with Hughton is from. The higher ups at Brighton are bringing in very talented footballers, yet Hughton just isn’t playing them. Bernardo, who arrived from RB Leipzig, has played less games than 30 year old Gaetan Bong. Jahanbakhsh has only started 6 games, while Anthony Knockaert, one of the worst players in the league, has started 15. While guys like Sarri and Guardiola can get criticised for never changing the way they play, Hughton is being gifted improvements over the players he has, and isn’t using them. They have one of the best defences in the league, if Hughton actually decides to start his best players. I just worry for Brighton. I do not like to see clubs who are doing good things struggling because of one man refusing to use his best tools. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hughton is let go in the future at some point

    17. Eddie Howe – Bournemouth

While many might see this and disagree, I do believe he is the most overrated manager in the league. I think there is an element that the English media wants to see an English manager succeed, especially when they are young and have built a football romance story by getting Bournemouth to the Premier League. This doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t a great manager. By far his best quality is building solid attacks. Howe has been given some very good players in Wilson, King, Fraser and Brooks. He uses these players very effectively, and has been able to get all of these players into the same team, and working well. Fraser is only behind Hazard in assists in the league, and has turned into one of the most effective wingers this season. David Brooks is currently having one of the breakout seasons, scoring some important goals and showing himself to be a very flexible attacker. Howe has turned Bournemouth into a fast, counter attacking side, and has shown some adaptability in changing his style. By far the worst part of his Bournemouth side is their inability to defend. Bournemouth have conceded 56 goals this season, with all sides in the bottom four conceding more. It means that Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle, all sides below them in the table, have better defences than them. Newcastle and Manchester United both face roughly same amount as shots as Bournemouth, yet have much better defensive records. It shows that Bournemouth are giving their opponents great chances to score, consistently. The argument is made that they are a small club, yet both Hughton and Benitez, two managers working with more of a budget, concede less goals. Until Eddie Howe learns how to actually build an effective defence, no club will consider him. He is still young however, so there is plenty of time for him to learn.

    16. Neil Warnock – Cardiff 

While his methods of coaching can definitely be questioned, there is no argument that he is a specialist in promotion. His Cardiff side were arguably the worst out of the 3 sides that got promoted last season, yet they still deserved to get promoted. He is an old fashioned coach who likes an old fashioned way of playing, and it is very effective. Before the season started, I thought they would be going straight down. They didn’t seem to recruit in the right areas and were going to have to be very lucky to survive. Somehow Warnock is doing the impossible, and is getting the best out of what he’s got. They are one of the best sides in the league when it comes to aerial dominance. They are good at creating chances too. The Welsh side have taken 1.1 shots a game from inside the six yard area, only 6 teams are ahead of them, and are actually better than Chelsea. Warnock has even been saying at the beginning of the season that surviving was nearly impossible, and he was right. They haven’t been great, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as Fulham and Huddersfield. They rank bottom for possession and passes, yet Warnock has kept them out of the relegation zone for most of the season. From moving Callum Paterson from full back to a striker, dragging every ounce out of 34 year old Sol Bamba, and fitting Camarasa and Josh Murphy right into the side, he is getting the best out of what he has and is giving them a chance of survival. They have been on the end of some huge defeats, that will happen when you have a Championship level squad. What he has done for Cardiff is another achievement for Warnock. Even at the age of 70, he still remains a good manager in improving a side on the short term. I like Warnock, but there are 15 other managers who I think are better.

    15. Sean Dyche – Burnley 

It might sound stange, but there are some clear similarities between Sean Dyche and Diego Simeone. Both build very resilient back lines, use two blocks of four to defend, and require a lot of defensive work from all their players. One other similarity is how they are awful at using more flair players. While Dyche doesn’t have Lemar, Carrasco, Gaitan and Martins as a list of failures, there are stll some clear standouts. Nakhi Wells is the first. He was the first of a few attempts to add something different to his attack. It didn’t work out in the slightest, and is now at QPR. Another player who came in was Steven Defour. At the time, I thought he was a very good signing, but it’s a shame he didn’t play much. Last but not least would be Vydra. The Czech Republic striker had came in after having a steller season with Derby, and like the others, just hasn’t been getting the minutes. Dyche is just afraid to risk that small chance of relegation, in favour of spicing up is attack. While Burnley did really well last season, their drop off was expected. Dyche was defying expected goals. By putting nearly all of his outfield players in the 18 yard box. It tricked the system because even if the opposition were getting in good positions, they were never having clear shots at goal. It did also help that Nick Pope had a great season, and made sure that Heaton’s presence wasn’t missed. Burnley’s luck has just ran out. They have struggled all season defensively and struggle in creating good chances. Without that solid defence, it puts even more pressure on the forwards, and aren’t producing. Dyche does things that I like, but he might need to start changing his methods. It’s a shame too, because this team still contains good defenders, but maybe using Vydra, and not building a defensive system based on luck isn’t a great idea. I trust that he could do this, but if they do not improve, they might be trouble.

    14. Marco Silva – Everton

I liked what Marco Silva had done with Hull. He turned a side that had less than 18 first team players at the beginning to the season, to giving them a fighting chance to stay up. He continued this good work at Watford, where he made a hard working side with a real attacking drive. It didn’t end well for Silva in London. After accusations that he was starting to look unfocused, after interest from Everton, he was sacked by Watford. It was still understandable. These accusations happened while Watford were in dreadful form, so it was quite understandable. He has since joined Everton, where he has been hit and miss. He has improved the attack. The toffees have went from 9.4 shots a game to 12.1. They’ve already scored 43 goals, one less than they managed in the entirety of last season. He has given some consistency to the team and has given the team some flexibility. They aren’t as predictable as they were under Allerdyce. Richarlison has been a huge signing for them. He has continued in getting into great positions, just like he was at Watford. The difference is he is now scoring them. The attack has improved, but the defence is the problem. Setpieces are the biggest concern. By the 6th of February, no other Premier League side had conceded more goals from set pieces than their 11. They use zonal marking, like many sides, but the problem for a majority of the season is they aren’t very good at it. They have improved slightly in recent weeks, but it just hasn’t been good enough. There was always a huge gap between the goalkeeper and defence, meaning it’s simple as one good ball into the near post would gift a team with a goal. As mentioned, Silva has improved in this area, with their 2-0 win over Chelsea showing this, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Their home form has to be better. If they want to be considered European football contenders, they have to stop losing in a ground once considered one of the toughest to go in England. Silva still seems to have a lot to learn in the game, and it’s why he is so low down on this list.

    13. Javi Gracia – Watford

Now onto Marco Silva’s replacement at Watford. Javi Gracia came in with the job of damage control. Watford had a strong start to the season, but thanks to a very poor winter period, they needed a boost. Gracia did that, and after a summer that saw improvements in the goalkeeper and forward departments. For the first time, Watofrd didn’t go crazy in the transfer market, and instead were willing to get the most out of what they had. Gracia has now built a very direct, aggressive and physical side that are deservingly in the top half of the table. They have been quite fortunate in a handful of games however, with their 5-1 win over Cardiff definitely flattering to decieve, but they have been winning games and playing to their strengths. No other side in the league attacks more centrally than Watford, with 31% of their attacks coming through the middle. He full backs provide width, while Troy Deeney gives an aerial threat that is almost umatched in the league. I like how Gracia has finally made Watford a real tough team, without having to spent much at all. Instead he made a system that gets the most out of the tools he has, and it makes a lot of these players look great. Deulofeu is finally looking like a good footballer, and Jose Holebas is having a real standout season at the age of 32. He’s found a core group of players he can use and the players seem to enjoy what he’s doing.

    12. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Manchester United

While many might see this and think why is the current Manchester United manager not even in the top 10 managers in the league, well I have my reasons. I still believe that any manager could have came in and improved the squad in the same or similar manner as the Norwegian has done. United fans a lot of the media see this appointment and love it in the romantic sense, which is understandable. It’s good to see a former player come back and join the club where he had plenty of success, and the fans still love him. But many are overlooking the obvious. The first and most obvious is that any manager could have came in and improved this squad after the disaster that was Jose Mourinho. If a manager came in and just played Pogba and Martial, you would have a clear improvement. It’s why I find what he’s done so far not that impressive. When United have been very fortunate in games against Tottenham and Paris, there is an element of the truth being hidden by the scoreline. United did not deserve that win against Paris. They only created 2 chances, and on any other day, they would not get that comeback. I do like some of the changes that Solskjaer has made, including playing to Rashford’s strengths and bringing the best out of Ander Herrera, but I do think if United want to insert themselves back into the European elite that they so crave, they must at least try and look at someone like Pochettino. With the fans and media both saying that Ole should be given the job permanently, it means the board might not even try looking at a director of football or even another manager. Every top club now has a director of football, someone with a clear view of where the team will be in the next 5 years. Solskjaer could definitely become an elite manager, but having a world class would at least make the prospect of joining United more tempting.

    11. Roy Hodgson – Crystal Palace

Out of all the managers, Hodgson’s position on the list is very questionable. When he arrived at Palace, his failure with England was still fresh in the minds of many, so his appointment was definitely a strange one. He was also 69 at the time, which meant it wasn’t exactly long term. I only think Palace are one of the top 10 teams in the league, and a lot of it is down to Hodgson. He’s the first manager to truly get any sort of consistency out of Wilfred Zaha. He turned Palace into a speed machine. With dynamic fullbacks in Van Aanholt and Wan-Bissaka (one of the best full back pairings in the league) running up and down the wings, and Zaha and Townsend adding that sprinkle of unpredictability, it makes them a very good side against any opposition. They are also aggressive. Wan-Bissaka, McArthur and Milivojevic are all great at winning back the ball. They play in a direct and straight forward way, but it’s so effective. Palace are 7th in shots per game and are 3rd in dribbles. While both are mostly down to Zaha, they are still great to watch. Hodgson has done wonders and done something no one would have expected. I put him over Solskjaer because he pulled off an impossible job at the time, and if Palace just had a striker with actual confidence, they could really fight for a top 10 manager. An old manager who seems to still have a bit of life left in him.

    10. Manuel Pellegrini – West Ham United

Now onto the top 10, and first it’s West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini. West Ham have been a real laughing stock of the Premier League for the last 2 years. unplanned signings, bad protests, owners leaking transfers, hiring David Moyes. These are just a few things that made West Ham impossible to take seriously. It all goes back to that awful stadium move, but after nearly 3 years, they seemed to have finally settled. Last summer was the first time West Ham seemed to make smart business. Issa Diop, Balbuena, Fabianski, Yarmolenko and to top it all off, Felipe Anderson. The Brazilian has been West Ham’s best player all season, and arguably the best player they have had in the last decade. He’s an excellent dribbler and everything good that West Ham do goes through him. Even though he is going through quite a dry patch, with Anderson failing to score in the Premier League in 2019. He has still been really good and has been the boost they need. Pellegrini has mostly used a 4-1-4-1, to give midfield protection and make sure they aren’t exposed on the flanks. It worked well, with the side being great to watch in attack and having the occasional good defensive display. Pellegrini has made them unpredictable to say the least. One game they will put in an unbelievable display and beat Arsenal and Manchester United, and another they conceed 3 to Huddersfield. He has still improved that defence, and has found new life in Snodgrass, Zableta and Cresswell, players previous managers didn’t favour. He’s actually built a functional midfield out of a group of players that I never thought would do anything. Rice is now one of the names on everyone’s lips, with the now England midfielder looking like a solid distributor. There is still plenty of work to be done for Pellegrini, but he has given them a future.

    9. Rafa Benitez – Newcastle United 

How Rafa is still at Newcastle I will never know. The Spaniard has proven to be one of the best defensive managers in Europe. Newcastle have an owner who almost refuses to invest in the club, and it’s left Rafa with one of the squads in the league. Almiron has recently just broken a 14 year old transfer record, held by Michael Owen. He has been a massive boost for them, adding that creative spark they previously didn’t possess. Benitez is in the top 10 for the reason of being able to keep this side in the Premier League. You give this team to any other manager in the bottom half of the table and they would struggle to stay out of the relegation zone. However thanks to Benitez adding that solid defensive structure and midfielders like Hayden and Longstaff covering the backline, it has made them one of the toughest teams to break down. The only reason he is not any higher is because while they are a defensive side, they can be a bit too pragmatic. Throughout the season. Rondon can be seen so isolated, because they are so focused on keeping goals out instead of scoring. This has been different since Almiron’s arrival, so let’s hope Benitez can bring Newcastle back to their glory days.

    8. Brendon Rodgers – Leicester City

This might be one of the toughest to defend, but I do believe Rodgers is a great manager. He gave Liverpool a genuine hope of a title, even if Manchester City were always better (sounds familiar). The problem he had Liverpool were making really bad decisions in the transfer market over and over again, and it left him with a really difficult squad to work with. He did make plenty of mistakes along the way, but his time at Liverpool should still be looked at one a more positive note. He then went to Celtic and actually imprvoed them. They went unbeaten for nearly 2 whole domestic campaigns. While they were embarrased multiple times in Europe, they are Celtic, so not much should be expected. He’s arrived at Leicester with the hope of making them more consistent. Puel is a good manager, but he was making decisions that were baffling at times. Dropping Vardy, putting Pereira as a winger even though he is one of the best tacklers in Europe and starting Morgan way more than he should be. Leicester have the best squad outside of the top 6. Some of the best full backs in the league, One of the best creators and prospects in Maddison and other young players like Ndidi, Chilwell, Iheanacho and Barnes. Rodgers has a great group of players to work with here. He started his first game against Watford with a 3-4-3, and he’s on the right track. Why have wingers when you have incredibly good full backs who will provide plenty of width. It means Maddison can play further up the pitch, and when he’s averaging 2.9 key passes, that’s what you want to do. I am very excited to see where Rodgers will take this side. Next season they could be one of the best attacking sides in the country.

    7. Nuno Esperito Santo – Wolves

Nuno Esperito Santo has taken the Premier League by storm. Wolves are one of many clubs that have risen since massive investment, but one massive difference has been they have constantly made good decisions. During their last season in the Championship, they focused on bringing a handful of players on loan, like Diogo Jota and Willy Boly. Soon as their promotion was confirmed, the first thing they did was sign these guys on a permanent deal, to keep the chemistry in the squad at a high. Great signings like Jimenez, Patricio, Jonny and Moutinho have given them one of the strongest starting 11’s in the league. Nuno was so happy with his side, that he just didn’t change it. He kept the same XI for the first couple of months, because of how good they were performing. Nuno had made the side so difficult to deal with, especially for the big sides. Intelligent passers in midfield, wing backs who comfortable in defending and get into good areas and a defence that has continued so strong from the Championship. The addition of Patricio has made this side even better, adding an experienced goalkeeper with great shot stopping and distribution. Wins against Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, and taking points off City and Arsenal have made them a side to be feared. The best thing about Nuno is he wasn’t afraid to change it. After a few bad results, the former Porto manager realised a midfield two of Moutinho and Neves just doesn’t have the legs to compete against more energetic midfields. After losing back to back against Huddersfield and Cardiff, Nuno tweaked his side a little and changed from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2. He dropped Helder Costa, who wasn’t performing consistently enough, and added Dendonker to give the midfield some energy. He has never looked back since. They are now able to control games much better and even counter with better quality, since Jota and Jimenez are now closer together. Nuno has built a side that are great defensively, and create high quality chances. They have a great group of players, and a top level manager to push this side to upset the rest of the league.

    6. Ralph Hassenhuttl – Southampton

Putting a manager who’s side is battling relegation might be quite left field, but there are reasons why he’s so high up. Let’s start with his Leizpig side. Hassenhuttl built a great young side, which saw the best seasons from Emil Forsberg and Naby Keita, and saw them finish runners up in the Bundesliga, ahead of the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke. It was clear that the Austrian took insperation from Jurgen Klopp, with the east German side pressing aggressively from the front. It’s what made them such a threat, having players with the ability to go head to head against anyone. Southampton have had a clear drop off since the departure of Ronald Koeman. While Puel wasn’t bad, they were hoping for more from him. Pellegrino turned out to be an awful appointment, but it was the appointment of Mark Hughes that made me almost lose hope in them. Hughes is just really bad and it seemed to be a sign of desperation. However after they finally made the right decision in sacking him back in December, they appointed Hassenhuttl, which was very reminiscent of the smart choices they made in Koeman and Pochettino. He has so far been a success. While he still seemingly struggling to find his best XI, he is making slow progess. For years, Southampton were an example of a side with good full backs, but after both Bertrand and Cedric forgot how to attack, Hassenhuttl put young full backs Matt Targett and Yan Valery into the side, and it has given them a huge boost. Targett has already got 3 assists this season, more than anyone else. While Valery hasn’t been sensational, he has looked very good and shows more courage to attack than Cedric ever did. He has made Southampton better in midfield and has helped Bednerak and Vestergaard establish themselves in the league. If Hassenhuttl is given time and backing, they could go back to a side who were fighting for European football.

    5. Unai Emery – Arsenal

The top 5 from here aren’t really any surprises, but some managers here I haven’t actually spoken about at any point. First is Emery, who while hasn’t been the instant hit, has shown a lot of promise. His appointment back in the summer felt like it was out of nowhere. It’s strange to think that, but I almost forgot that he was available. With Allegri and Tuchel on the lips of all Arsenal fans, it was expected that they would have tried harder for one of them. This isn’t to say Emery is a bad appointment, in fact I really like it. He has always been good at getting the best out of players under his management. While they have not been as good in attack as they were under Wenger, they have improved defensively. Bellerin, Kolasinac and Holding are all having their best seasons in an Arsenal shirt, he has also gotten the best out of the signings. I criticised Arsenal’s business in the summer, and rightly so. They didn’t bring in another defender, since Mustafi just doesn’t look good enough. Sokratis was seen as the worst for me. I never understood all the praise he was getting in the Bundesliga, with his positional sense being questionable at best and his recklessness making him a liability on the pitch. He has not been as good as the likes of Laporte or Rudiger, but has put in some big performances for his side. Emery also has got both Aubameyang and Lacazette firing, with the pair scoring 29 goals in the league. He’s also getting a lot out of fringe players like Guendouzi, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. He’s given this side a boost and has attempted to even get Ozil to work in his system. He’s been very impressve in some of the big games. Wins against Tottenham, Chelsea and Man United, and even taking points from Liverpool. He has shown versatility and has changed his approach against tougher opponents, known his side can’t out play them. The Europa League will most likely define their season, and they have been very good. While they suffered a big defeat to Rennes away from home, Emery has still been smart in squad rotation. He played a lot of young talent in the group stages, giving them the opportunity to give the manager plenty to think about. Emery won this compeitition 3 times on the bounce, so it’s an area you expect them to succeed in. Progression has been there, but slow. You can trust Emery to advance Arsenal even further in the next couple of years. With the likes of Aybameyang, Sokratis, Ozil and Koscielny all approaching the latter years of their career, there is a lot of work to still be done.

    4. Maurizio Sarri – Chelsea

Sarri has been getting a lot of criticism in recent weeks, and a lot of it is understandable. I still do not understand why he has been playing Ross Barkey over Loftus-Cheek. Barkley isn’t as intelligent as his England teammate, and is poor as a number 8. I do think he has made some mistakes, but it seems the criticism that Chelsea fans are aiming at him is quite extreme, regarding his lack of squad rotation. The Chelsea board should have known what to expect from him. Sarri rarely ever changed his Napoli side, with players barely being given a chance to play. Ounas and Rog didn’t even start a game last season in Serie A, and 10 players started over 30 games. The XI was only changed when Ghoulam suffered a serious injury, which resulted in Mario Rui coming in. Sarri likes to play a core group of players and stick to it. This strict approach has caused some players to miss out on game time, and has also exposed some of the weak areas in the team. Marcos Alonso has shown himself to be one of the worst left backs in the league, with his lack of speed and defensive awareness, it makes him so easy to beat. While I like Azpilicueta, he just doesn’t contribute enough in the final third to justify starting him. Chelsea are already at a massive disadvantage next season. This squad needs a lot of work, and now without the ability to buy players in the summer, it means they cannot improve. Sarri is a great manager, but you need to give him what he wants. He obviously has problems with this squad, but now is unable to solve them. Sarri is still a great manager. His Napoli side was one of the best in Europe at ball progression, and successfully turned Insigne, Koulibaly, Jorginho and Hysaj into some of the best players in their positions. He also got the best years out of Higuain and Hamsik. Sarri’s Chelsea have shown many times that there is definitely potential to see a real great side here, but patience is needed. This isn’t like having Conte or Mourinho, two managers who can instantly improve a side. If Chelsea want to see success under Sarri, they need to give him time, even under the most difficult circumstances. The Blues aren’t exactly in the best position to be looking for managers, so it’s important that Sarri is given the time and resources he needs. He will build a spectacular side, that will challenge across the board. His sides play football in the way the world want to see it be played, and it’s why I constantly defend him. He’s above the likes of Emery and Nuno because I know just how good his sides can be. He has a philosophy and style that guarantees long term success.

     3. Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool

While I can assure that my ranking of the last 17 managers has been subjective to say the least, I’d be surprised if anyone disagreed with the next 3. The argument of winning defines a manager is a one I can’t disagree with more. A manager not winning trophies should not discount the work and improvement he has done, and Jurgen Klopp’s work should not be forgotten. He has taken Liverpool back to the top of world football, with smart spending, a positive brand of football and even taking advantage of set pieces, Klopp has added elements to the side that make them challenge contenders. Soon as he arrived in England, players like Henderson, Milner, Coutinho and Lallana all finally started showing the potential they had. He turned Liverpool from a side overreliant on individual talents from the likes of Suarez, Sterling and Coutinho, to building a functioning team with a way of playing that revolves around defending from the front and almost being the weakness to possession sides like a Barcelona or PSG. While the cash has definitely been splashed, with players like Alisson, Van Dijk, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlein all coming in for big money, but it’s what has to be done. He’s blended big signings with players who can add something to his team. Robertson, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri, Matip and Alexander-Arnold adding some balance to the side. What I’m most impressed about with Klopp is the changes he’s made to his side. Last season, Liverpool were a machine going forward. They were arguably the second best team in the Premier League last season, and even broke the record for most goals in a single Champions League campaign. They were ruthless in the final third, but the other areas of the pitch needed fixing. Bringing in Alisson gave them a better distributor in goal, and adding more of a presence there. He also gave his midfield better ball carriers, with Keita and Fabinho adding that extra bit of quality that improved an area which was exposed in last year’s final. These changes allowed Klopp to play a less heavy metal approach, and give his side a much better defence. They’ve also not been pressing as much, since he wants to compete on all stages, instead of having to focus on a singular competition. While they have had some bad performances this season, Klopp has arguably made the best Liverpool side of the century. They’re flexible, solid and have finally looked like the team that could keep Liverpool as European elite for a long time, and having a manager who gives Liverpool such a scary image is exactly what they needed.

     2. Mauricio Pochettino – Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Heung Min Son. These are just some of the players who’s price tags have sky rocketed since Pochettino arrived in England. the former espanyol manager successfully turned Tottenham from a punchline, into the best side in London. The main reason why he’s so sought after for clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid is because of how he can bring the best out of players, and is incredibily versitile. Pochettino has been able to make plenty of in game adjustments, whether it’s changing from 3 to the back to 4, or adding an extra striker up front. He has given his side the ability to be able to change formation and systems on the fly. The most impressive display from Pochettino was actually against Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Pochettino made roughly 8 in game changes throughout the game. Moving Lucas into a central position, moving Dembele deeper, asking Kane to move a bit deeper. It’s what makes Tottenham so difficult to play at times, because you do not know how they will approach each opponent. While Tottenham have arguably had their worst season since 2014/15, this might actually be Pochettino’s best. He’s been struck with injuries all over the park, and has been using everything he has to get Champions League football. He got a man of the match performance out of Jan Vertonghen at left back, and even got some spectacular performances out of both Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, a sentence I never thought I would say. He has done so much considering the situation. While they have dropped off in recent weeks, the fact they have stayed this competitive just speaks volumes on how good of a manager Pochettino is.

     1. Pep Guardiola – Manchester City

Who else? Pep Guardiola is not only the best manager in the league, but in the whole in Europe. He has built some of the best sides in the game’s history, and this Man City side is among them.  Pep has built a side that is nearly unbeatable on their day, with their losses usually going down to missing key personel. Many like to point out that Pep didn’t need to do much since his club have spent an obsene amount of money, but these are arguments that hold no real weight. Sure having some top quality talent helps, but Pep’s touch on this side cannot be argued. He turned Raheem Sterling from an inconsistent winger into a certain PFA player of the year contender. John Stones’s reading of the game has grown since his arrival in Manchester. He has even gotten some of the best year’s out of City legends Aguero and Silva. His biggest achievement by far was how he adapted. His first season in charge was definitely a learning curve, with humiliating losses to Everton and Leicester highlighting just how much work needed to be done. He instantly fixed his full back areas, to give his side much more in the wide areas, and to keep Sterling on the right side, and Sane on the left. It was to ensure that they could receive the ball wide, and when you have incredible passers in Silva and De Bruyne, it makes it really easy to beat those deep blocks that City struggled to break down in his first season. When you also add the best distributor in his position in Ederson, it gives City an almost unlimited amount of ways to transition the ball. It’s thanks to having a manager, who has learnt and added more to his game as the years go on. He is the manager that every club wants and dreams of having.

 

How Important is Messi? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes – Game week 2

Hero – Paulo Dybala

Because of the signing of Ronaldo, it has put Dybala in a very strange place. He seems to no longer be the centre piece of the side because of the arrival of the Portuguese and all the fame and arrogance that comes with it. He has so far become a bit part player this season, with Allegri still unsure one where he fits in. However after Ronaldo’s suspension, it was Dybala’s chance to show Allegri that he needs to find a place for him, and boy did he take it. Dybala scored a fabulous hat trick against Young Boys, to put Juventus at the top of their group. That first goal was excellent ball from Bonucci, and an even better finish from Dybala. It’s his fourth hat trick for his side. It now pressure on both Ronaldo and Dybala, to see who is truly fit to lead the line for the side.

Zero – Bayern Munich

For not being able to bounce back after their first league defeat of the season. They played a very good Ajax side, but you still expect the champions to put aside any team. Ajax truly took the game to them and arguably should have won the game. The away side completely outdid their opponent, using Tadic as a false nine to confuse the Bayern defenders, and use Van Der Beek to exploit the space that Tadic was making. Bayern don’t usually deal with a false nine, which it made it so difficult to deal with. Both Lewandowski and Ribery had strangely ineffective games, which saw both of them fail to register a shot on target. It was very out of the ordinary for the forwards. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the German side to progress to the next round, but Ajax did show how vulnerable they are during Kovac’s early days.

Hero – Sergio Aguero

For helping Manchester City end their 4 game losing streak in the Champions League, and to drag his side over the line, against a very resilient Hoffenheim side. Hoffenheim caught the champions out very early on (in fact the fastest goal since El Shaararwy’s goal against Chelsea last season) and it left city with a mountain to climb. However thanks to Aguero scoring not long later, it made it much easier for them. David Silva was also at his silky best in this game, but Aguero’s performance, included taking a crazy 7 shots, is what got the win for his side

Zero – The Real Madrid Fringe Players

This was a chance for players like Ceballos, Vasquez, Nacho and Reguilon to make a statement to Lopategui, that they all deserve a chance in this star studded eleven, however it wasn’t a day to remember. Thanks to an early error from Toni Kroos of all people, Real just didn’t turn up at all in Russia. While they did amass a crazy 26 shots, only 4 were on target. Because they conceded a goal so early, it left Real desperate to get back into the game, resulting in many half chances that were wasted. While the players I previously mentioned didn’t impress, it was actually Karim Benzema who stood out in the worst way. The Frenchman struggled without his Welsh superstar beside him. He had 5 shots, yet didn’t manage to get one on target, or make a key pass or complete a dribble. It just wasn’t his night. Madrid will get out of their group, but hopefully Lopategui has learnt not to rest players in Europe’s elite competition.

Hero – Lionel Messi

For just showing why he is the best player to ever play the game. On paper, Spurs away is a tough fixture, but Barcelona made it look easy. It is a huge part thanks to their little magician. Messi was at his unearthly best. The Spurs backline just couldn’t get near him. The amount of times he would receive the ball and drive at the spurs defense and make it look like they weren’t even there was outstanding. His stats even show this, with the Argentine scoring 2, having 4 shots on target, and making 3 key passes. He was just excellent as ever.

Zero – Romelu Lukaku

I had to sit and suffer through a very flat and slow Manchester United performance. Mourinho chose the same static midfield again, and it was ineffective, again. However by the far the worst performer was Romelu Lukaku. I do not know what happened to him after the world cup, but he just doesn’t look his usual lively self. His movement wasn’t there. He was giving his teammates no forward option, because of his lack of willingness to find space and keep United moving forward. Throughout the game you could see Pogba screaming at him to make a run, because he just wasn’t giving anything to the side. I think what shows his lack of involvement in the game was his lack of touches. The Belgian only managed 33 touches, which is 31 fewer than Sanchez and Rashford’s 64. Both of them were trying to get the ball forward and create opportunities. If I was Jose, I would be considering leaving Lukaku on the bench for the next game against Newcastle.

Hero – Antoine Griezmann

For helping his side secure their first home win of the campaign. After a slow start, Atletico Madrid are finally showing what we all expected from them. Lemar looks to have finally settled, and Arias seems to be playing a big part for the side. However the best element of their side remains Griezmann. The Frenchman has been a key reason for why they are back on track, and he showed this against Club Brugge, who after scoring an absolute wonder strike, just couldn’t contain him or Costa. Costa’s game has been sacrificed massively for Griezmann, but it is definitely working. They might have just formed the most deadly partnership in Europe. The second goal highlights this, with Costa making the run, and instead of shooting, decides to play it to Griezmann, who puts it away comfortably. The world cup winner had a hand in all the goals, and seems to be one of the most in form players in the tournament.

Zero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool have now not won a game in 3. The reds have been tipped to be team to dethrone Manchester City at the top, but their performance against Napoli did show some real vulnerability. They didn’t manage a single shot on target throughout the game. In games against possession based sides, Liverpool can usually use their workman ethic and ball winners in midfield to attack the side quickly. But Napoli completely outperformed their opponents. They won more tackles and aerial duels. The reason why this is impressive (and why Liverpool were pretty poor) is because these are stats where Liverpool usually excel. It was a bad day for Klopp, and with Manchester City next on the calendar, it could be a change to make a statement in England.

Spurs To Drop Out? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes

My new series, where I look at 5 players/managers who have had a good or bad week in the champions league. Let’s go!

Hero – Paul Pogba

The Frenchman has been under constant scrutiny through out his time at United, for dancing, too much social media use, and not performing well enough in the bigger games. I am a huge Paul Pogba defender. I think he has been United’s most consistent outfield player since his arrival. He as just been unfortunate in both of his season. He had an Ibrahimovic who just couldn’t finish the great chances he was giving him, and he missed a lot of games last season. Last season, the injuries began on that first Champions League night, so finishing the game as captain was a huge deal. He did that, while also scoring 2 and assisting Anthony Martial. He was fabulous on the night and was the driving force for United on the pitch. He made 3 key passes and had a 92.6% pass accuracy. Another great performance from the Frenchman. His first goal was also brilliant

Zero – Mauricio Pochettino

The Tottenham manager was asked so many questions regarding his decision to not take both Trippier and Alderweireld to Milan. He defended his choice and said the places he took would be enough. While I think Aurier did make more sense to play, because Perisic can be a handful to deal with, it’s Alderweireld where I have an issue. In that first half, Spurs were so sloppy on the ball, giving away the ball so cheaply and allowing Inter to press them, knowing they seemed so threatened on the night. Alderweireld is an excellent distributor, and would have definitely made a difference on the night. Spurs having a lead, and losing it thanks to a moment of magic from Icardi, and a moment from madness from the backline, was the last thing Poch needed. It put further inspection onto his decisions on the night. The post match press conference was not pretty. It was as if I was watching Mourinho after the Spurs defeat. A man who couldn’t protect his players except from pulling attention away from them. Not a good night for the coach.

Hero – Lionel Messi

Praising Messi is a normal occurrence for everyone in football, but just because he gets love for being the best, doesn’t mean she should stop receiving it. Messi was the star as Barcelona dispatched of PSV Eindhoven 4-0. Messi ended the game with a delightful hat trick, with two of the goals just showing his excellent ability at scoring goals under any circumstance. This is a big year for Barcelona, and Messi. After their collapse in Rome last season, they need to put that behind them and push for the big prize. Messi needs to remind Ronaldo who the real winner is. Ronaldo’s record in the competition is frankly ridiculous, and Messi has fallen behind in recent years, because of Barcelona’s inconsistent form. With Ronaldo now suspended (we’ll get to that), it gives Messi a chance to close the gap on the all time scorer. It’ll be a big season for the football legend.

Zero – Cristiano Ronaldo

What a terrible way to start the new Champions League season. Ronaldo received a red card for his actions towards Murillo. It could have been the hair pull or the push, but it’s unsure what exactly he was sent off for. But no matter what it was, getting sent off is the last thing that Ronaldo wanted. Ronaldo is a serial winner. He wants to score the most goals in every competition, and now with him having the chance of being suspended for 3 games, it gives him less time to score goals. Ronaldo has been the top scorer now for the last 3 years, and he wants to keep that going until his retirement. Juventus still managed to win the game, thanks to penalties taken by Pjanic. Ronaldo needs to now focus on the league, until his eventual suspension is over. Juventus will still be fine. That team will always find a way to carve out a good result.

Hero – Nabil Fekir

The Frenchman was the driving force behind their surprise win over Pep’s Manchester City. I mentioned in my preview for their group that Lyon have been so frustrating and it’s impossible to tell which Lyon would turn up. The best one turned up today. Fekir was the stand out player for the French side. His qualities are seriously underestimated. He is just an incredibly versatile forward, being a great at getting goal scoring chances, creating, and he is a great dribbler. He is Lyon’s most important player because he is that player who can win them a game. He was at his best today. He managed 3 shots, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was fouled 5 times in this game, showing how much of a threat he was in this game. Lyon set up in a 4-4-1-1, to help defend against a strong city side, and player more on a counter attacking way, using the pace of Cornet, Depay and Fekir to hurt them when they had the chance. The whole team put in a great defensive show, and Fekir highlights this. He put in 3 tackles in the game. Fekir is a player who usually does not do defensive work, but in this game it was all hands on deck to defend the narrow lead they had. An excellent performance and let’s hope they continue on these performances in the league.

Zero – Napoli

Carlos Ancelotti’s side failed to make the most of their easiest opponent in their group. They drew 0-0 against Red Star Belgrade, meaning they now have to play Liverpool and Paris without a win under their belts. The worst part for Napoli is they had the chances to seal the game, yet didn’t put the ball away. Callejon had a half chances that could have easily been a goal. The worst one by was Mertens, who miss hit the ball from a few yards out. Napoli had 73% possession, and had 20 shots, yet just couldn’t find a way through. Even though Napoli did dominate the game, and outshot their opponent, they still didn’t threaten Red Star enough. The majority of the game was spent in the middle third of the pitch, with 50% of the game being spent there. 34% was spent in Red Star’s third of the pitch. Napoli just didn’t do enough on the day. Mertens was the only one with the clear chance in the game, which isn’t good enough. It leaves Napoli in a bad place. As seen from my preview, Napoli are not a stronger side than Paris or Liverpool, and now having to play both of them could mean their elimination is decided early. They needed to capitalise on having the easier side to start, to get the momentum for their next fixtures. It’ll make getting out of this group even harder now.

Hero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool (as predicted) are now in the driving seat for group C. They beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-2, with Roberto Firmino scoring the late winner off the bench. Klopp is the winner here for carrying his league form into Europe’s elite competition. One of the criticism of teams who play with a high intensity is their inability to play that same way multiple times in the same week. They were very good against Paris. They exploited their weak and imbalanced midfield by playing a very workman like midfield, of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum. They made the Ligue 1 champions look average at best. A performance that makes Liverpool a threat on both ends this season.

Zero – Thomas Tuchel

I do have some sympathy for Tuchel. He said before the window ended that the full backs were not good enough. And that they were desperate for a number 6, and only brought in Juan Bernat. It left him in a position of weakness, because he couldn’t use the squad to its full potential. He was forced to play a midfield three of Di Maria, Marquinhos and Rabiot. None of them managed a key pass between them. They were largely ineffective and couldn’t control the game. It is clear that Paris are missing Veratti, but it doesn’t excuse Lo Celso joining Betis. He would have done a better job than Marquinhos in that role. Juan Bernat also didn’t cover himself well in the spotlight, with the Spaniard giving the penalty for Liverpool. It was a needless challenge to make, because Wijnaldum was not a threat. Tuchel is at a disadvantage, not having the players he wanted, but this team has some incredible talent, and he needs to do better against Red Star and Napoli.