De Ligt Joining Europe’s Elite
This transfer window has been the summer full of players that everyone knew were going to move. We have already seen Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann make their dream moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The next player who is likely to leave their club is Matthijs De Ligt.
His growth from a frail kid playing against Manchester United in the Europa League to becoming a generational talent, while not as fascinating as the journeys of Jamie Vardy or Ollie Watkins, it still fantastic just because of the calibre of player De Ligt now is. The Dutchman is the complete package in what teams want from a centre back. He is an elite distributor, possessed a large frame, can catch any forward with his pace and was his team’s captain at only 19. The Eredivise has kept its reputation of being a flip of a coin in terms of either fantastic talent like Van Dijk or Memphis Depay, or a player who struggles to adapt to a better league (Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen spring to mind). De Ligt is different. His numbers in his domestic league are outstanding (he’s been taking more shots in the league than Diego Costa this season) but what makes the prospect of seeing him in one of the top 5 leagues is what he showed in the Champions League. He put fantastic performances in both legs against Juventus and Tottenham, scoring against both teams, including the winner in Turin. It’s arguably my favourite trait of his, being his presence in the opposition box. When Ajax would get a corner, the cameras would zoom in on De Ligt, and around him were usually two players, ensuring he cannot make those deadly runs into the box. What’s so fascinating about this is De Ligt is unstoppable. His winner against Juventus was headed between Pjanic and Sandro, where they could not do anything to stop him. Set-pieces have become more critical than ever, with clubs in desperation to take advantage of a goalscoring opportunities that many have failed to seize. It’s why Van Dijk and Harry Maguire are valued so highly. Their threat in the box gives their team an outlet that can give them those extra goals to move further up the table. De Ligt is among Europe’s elite defenders already, and it’s what makes all the big clubs desperate to get his signature.
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His strengths are well known by now, but where should the Dutchman go? De Ligt is linked to numerous big clubs, with Juventus, PSG, Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona all interested in getting his signature. He would be a perfect addition to all these clubs. Barcelona will have their long term heir to Pique while allowing them to sell Umtiti, a player who is currently out of favour with Valverde. PSG would get an improvement over what they now have in defence and would most likely give De Ligt a league title for every year he plays. PSG were rumoured to have offered De Ligt a 4-year deal. He could finish the contract, and he would still only be 23, meaning he would still have a future to join other clubs with even more title-winning medals. Manchester United should sign him if they can, but I would not recommend De Ligt join that sinking ship of a club.
Juventus are the favourites to sign him. The Old Lady have done some great business during the summer window. Both Aaron Ramsey, Gianluigi Buffon and Adrien Rabiot have arrived on free transfers and three defensive prospects in Luca Pellegrini from Roma, Cristian Romero from Genoa and Merih Demiral from Sassuolo for over £50 million (It’s important to note that Spinazzola, Sturaro and Rogerio have been swapped for the respective clubs). So many football experts have been wondering how Juventus have this much money to spend. A club that can pay Ronaldo’s wages, as well as a dozen of other high earners is also able to pay £60 million for De Ligt as well as paying his rumoured £350k a week he is demanding. It’s interesting to see what Juventus would be willing to let go to ensure they can get their man.
Even with Juventus most likely to sign him and the likeliness of this happening now very low, I would love to see De Ligt playing under Jurgen Klopp next season. Liverpool, while arguably one of the best in the history of the league and possessed a side that only conceded 22 goals last season, the best record in the league. Most of that is down to Van Dijk and Allison having superb seasons and keeping their side organised. They have a fantastic defence, but the departure of Moreno and possibility of Lovren leaving the club has left space in the squad for additions. While the pair were not essential members of the team, they at least gave cover to positions that needed reinforcements. While left-back is by far the priority for signings this season, adding a player as good as De Ligt is a great idea. Van Dijk is fantastic, but if he does suffer a significant injury, which he has in the past, would leave Liverpool at a severe disadvantage in their attempts to challenge Manchester City once again. It would give Liverpool the best centre back partnership in the league, and if Van Dijk were to get injured, they would cope without him. While De Ligt would be successful no matter where he goes, he would genuinely show his talents and increase his reputation for playing for one of the best sides and under an elite coach.
Leverkusen’s Best Chance
Moving back to the Bundesliga, let’s look at another side that could be very exciting to watch. Peter Bosz is a coach who, while not making the sturdiest defences, he can get his side scoring goals. His Ajax side did show immaturity at times, but Bosz did manage to get a lot of goals out of Kasper Dolberg, something Ten Haag has failed to do. Think of Bosz’s side as the start to the what Ajax did last year. After his disastrous spell with Dortmund, being offered a job at a team full of attacking talent was precisely the job Bosz needed.
It is no understatement when mentioning how attacking Leverkusen are now being managed by Bosz. This change was so significant, and it seeing how well Leverkusen were performing before and after his appointment. Leverkusen were sitting in 9th, and deservedly so. They only managed seven wins out of 17 and most worryingly, were 9th in goals scored with 26, behind Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg. It’s arguably what got Herrlich sacked and why Bosz came in. They have a terrific group of players, especially in attack and should consistently be in those Champions League places. Havertz, Brandt, Volland and Bailey are talented enough to compete with anyone in the Bundesliga.
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The issue has been trying to get all their talented players in the same team and getting them to perform at their highest level. Bosz seems to have done this, with many players standing out since his arrival. His first change was the formation, going from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. It involved moving Brandt more centrally and turning Havertz into a free-roaming 10. It brought the best out of both players. It gave Brandt the chance to get involved more on the ball, enabling him to use his intelligence and exceptional passing to help find gaps in opposition defences. Brandt had a fantastic second half of the season. He ended the season with 18 goal contributions, and 14 of those came after Bosz arrival. His new coach was the first to turn Brandt from a talent into an excellent player. Brandt isn’t the only attacker who has improved massively under Bosz. He has pushed Havertz to another level from the high bar he has already set, got Volland performing more consistently than ever before and managed found goals in Alario, with his xGP90 under Bosz sitting at an incredible 0.88.
Leverkusen’s current crop of players is very exciting, but some of their new additions make their prospects even more impressive. With Brandt leaving for a small £21 million, being one of the bargains of the summer, but Leverkusen’s replacement is even better, with Kerem Demirbay arriving for £28 million. I’ve spoken heavily about Demirbay before, but it’s hard to deny just how good of a replacement this is. The German attacker has been Hoffenheim’s drive in attack since his arrival. Aggressive, a great passer and a love for a longshot, Demirbay will give similar productivity to Brandt, with the added benefit of possessing a real cutting edge in the final third. Mousa Diaby is another exciting arrival. Leverkusen managed to get the French prospect for a bargain £13 million thanks to Paris having to deal with their FFP problems. Even with his limited minutes, he managed to make an impression. Out of under 23 players in Europe who played over 1000 minutes, only Sane, Iwobi and Gnabry finished the season with a higher xA per 90 than Diaby. While you can argue that he was playing for a team far above their competition in terms of talent, he was still performing whenever given a chance. He’s still only 19, and if Bosz can give him the minutes he needs at a young age, he could develop into another breakout star to develop in the Bundesliga.
My only doubts towards Leverkusen next season is the rather negative reputation Peter Bosz has had in terms of his tactics in the big games. While a win over Bayern was impressive, Leverkusen did faulter against the other top sides in the league, with defeats to Hoffenheim, Dortmund and RB Leipzig showing once again how better coaches consistently outclass Bosz. He doesn’t have that same reactive thinking that has helped Pochettino and Zidane stand out in the past. There is a very slim chance they will challenge for the title, but if you want to see a good team play arguably the best football in the league, Bayer Leverkusen should be the first team to watch.
Napoli’s Scudetto Challenge
We’ve already discussed their chances not long ago, so we’ll keep this short. Napoli are the only settled team out of the top sides in Italy. Juventus have just appointed Maurizio Sarri, a manager who as we’ve recently seen with Chelsea, will need time for his players to adapt to the system that Sarri will attempt to place on the side. While Napoli have made fantastic signings, especially a generation talent in De Ligt, there are still many senior players in that side that need to be moved on. It’ll be challenging for Juventus to compete on all fronts and I doubt if they do finish next season as Champions, it will not be nearly as comfortable as it has in the past. Milan, Roma and Inter (we’ll get to them soon) are going through similar situations, so it makes them unlikely contenders.
It leaves Napoli in an excellent position. Ancelotti attempted to change Napoli from a dominant possession side into a more direct team focused on an energetic midfield and fitting in forwards like Insigne and Mertens into partnerships and cover the channels. Napoli primarily deployed a 4-4-2 and meant they could play more of their attacks and aim to attack through the wide areas. It made them way less patient in build-up, and while it did leave them fragile at times since they weren’t retaining the ball nearly as much, it did make them just as fun to watch and brought the best out of many players in the side. After an excellent debut season, which saw improvement in some players and a drop in others, it showed the potential that Ancelotti’s side could reach when given more time and better players.
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They’ve already made smart moves in the market. They offloaded both Albiol and Diawara. Albiol was getting old, and it was about time for him to leave the club and Diawara wasn’t getting the game time we’ve all wanted him to get since his arrival from Bologna back in 2016. The midfielder’s departure gave Napoli the chance to bring in Kostas Manolas. While he can be wreckless and was apart of a weak Roma backline, he is younger than Albiol and possesses a vast passing range and has the pace needed to cover the vast distance required in a high line. If they can get a deal for James Rodriguez over the line, it could be the signing to give Napoli their best chance to win Serie A for a very long time.
Conte Fixing Inter
Inter Milan have been extremely disappointing for the past couple of years. The appointment of Luciano Spaletti and some huge signings during his tenure showed ambition and a goal of competing with Juventus. However, even with some huge additions in Skriniar, De Vrij, Nainggolan, Martinez and Vrsaljko, their new quality was not seen on the pitch. While the defence remained fantastic throughout Spaletti’s spell at the club, they still had a lot of players who were not good enough. Sime Vrsaljko wasn’t registered in the squad after January due to consistent injuries, and Nainggolan faired even worse. Spending over £30 million on an ageing midfielder who famously had a very unhealthy lifestyle should never have happened. Nainggolan was fantastic during Spaletti’s reign at Roma but had a very average season under Di Francesco. His goal contributions were dropping, and he was consistently putting in less defensive work. He continued showing these negative sides to his game and has gone on to be one of the worst signings in the past decade.
Conte has a lot of work to do in Milan. The Nerazzurri finished 21 points behind Juventus and need to close that gap. Conte is arguably the best defensive manager in the world and can organise any side in Europe and ensure they are at least stable. One of his first signings for next season was Valentino Lazaro. The Austrian, able to play at either right-back or right midfield, puts in above-average defensive numbers while pushing forward to help Hertha Berlin in the final third. He would be a natural fit in Conte’s famous 3-4-3 formation. Inter’s starting back three for next season could be the best in the league. Skriniar, De Vrij and Godin offer a tough and experienced backline that can deal with a majority of attacks in Europe. All are comfortable on the ball, and while Godin is far past his best, he will help keep them organised on the pitch.
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Their midfield offers versatility and quality, with players able to fill in multiple roles to help Inter dominate the centre. Conte has always preferred hard-working midfielders who can stay organised and put in a substantial amount of defensive work. His title-winning partnership of Ngolo Kante and Nemanja Matic displays this correctly. It isn’t a surprise that Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio had the best years of their career under Conte. Two players who were known for their energy, strength and defensive power in the midfield. Inter, even after the signing of Italian midfielder Nicolo Barella, have an imposing midfield roster. Marcelo Brozovic has been one of the best midfielders in Serie A for years now, with his fantastic passing ability and impressive defensive output showing his superiority in the middle of the park, even if he does rack up a lot of yellow cards. Vecino offers a solid yet unspectacular option, and Gagliardini was a promising signing at the time but has never been given the game time by his previous managers. There is enough talent here for Conte to work with and could get the best out of past players who failed to shine under Spaletti.
The midfield and attack were never a huge issue as a whole; instead, it was in attack in which Inter were continuously struggling, with issues on and off the field showing Inter as arguably the worst attacking side out of the top 7. It has to begin with Mauro Icardi. While undoubtedly one of the best finishers in Europe, his off the field issues have consistently halted his career and is why so many clubs are put off by him. His deliberate attempts to frustrate Maxi Lopez, threatening the Inter ultras and now faking injuries to avoid playing for the team. He would be problematic for clubs, and it’s why Inter are pushing him out of the club. The issue is no one will want to sign him, meaning Inter will have to persist with him until the end of the Argentine’s contract. Icardi’s trouble has forced Inter to look elsewhere for a forward, with Lukaku being Conte’s first option, which isn’t the first time the Italian coach has pursued Lukaku. In 2017, Chelsea were seen as the favourites to sign the Belgian marksman, but Manchester United swooped in the last minute to sign him. Conte seems desperate to work with Lukaku, and it’s easy to see why. He is a great finisher who can score all types of goals. He is a physically gifted striker, able to chase balls into the channel or play as a more old fashioned number 9. While Icardi is a deadly marksman, Lukaku will give them the better all-round striker and could offer more in build-up play. The issue with signing Lukaku is just how poor he was playing at times last season. He looked lethargic and was aiding the opposition in neutralising any threat posed by United. If Inter can get Lukaku at his best, he will score bags of goals for them.
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Am I expecting Inter Milan to win the Scudetto in Conte’s first season? No, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I remember doubting Conte and what he could with Chelsea when he arrived in England. He was up against Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp and Mourinho. I thought they wouldn’t get near the title, yet Chelsea went on to be one of the best sides the league has ever seen. Conte is that good of a coach that Inter winning the league is never off the table.
PSG’s Change in Approach
It’s safe to say that the Neymar project has been a colossal failure. He arrived to help push PSG closer to winning the Champions League, while also increasing his chances of winning the Balon d’Or by exiting Messi’s shadow. Neymar has been fantastic whenever he has played. The issue is he has not played nearly enough minutes for the most expensive player of all time. He missed PSG’s round of 16 clashes once again, and his complaints regarding their lack of competitiveness in Europe’s premium competition is hypocritical, considering he failed to help PSG reach their goal of being taken seriously among Europe’s elite. His consistent injury problems and awful attitude has meant that the spotlight is on Kylian Mbappe, who has been the second-best player on the planet in the last 18 months. While he has struggled at moments, he has been sensational and is the best young player I have ever seen. Last season, he was the first player under 21 to score over 30 goals in the top 5 leagues since R9, which should show the gap Mbappe has made between himself and the competition.
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With Leonardo now PSG’s sporting director, his first aim was to discard the superstar approach that the Champions had in the past. He seemed to be targetting Neymar, and it’s so easy to see why Leonardo is tired of the Brazilian. Mbappe has taken over as PSG’s best attacker so selling Neymar for as much Barcelona are willing to offer the best plan of action. I agree with Leonardo’s new look at PSG. While they do provide the same wages the other superclubs can, they can’t offer the same competitiveness as Real Madrid or the top Premier League clubs. They cannot please players like Neymar, and it makes his decision to leave Barcelona in the first place even more moronic.
Paris are taking the right steps in reinforcing their new strategy. The arrivals of Herrera, Sarabria and Diallo are sensible moves that improve the team. While Herrera is on the older side, he offers that bite and defensive work rate that will make him a great choice in the bigger games. He won’t start every game but will be a valuable player for Tuchel. Sarabria was another smart piece of business, arriving for £19 million. He was one of the best creators in La Liga and has worked well with managers who demand a lot from their players physically. Diallo is another astute signing from the Parisians. He was made seemingly available after Dortmund’s purchase of Matts Hummels, and it’s safe to say Paris have the better end of the deal. Diallo offers a comfortable ball player and physically strong defender who is still very young for only £28 million. He might not be as good as De Ligt, but he is a fantastic acquisition.
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These new arrivals blend well with the departures of Buffon, Alves and Rabiot. Three players on high wages, who were replaceable. PSG now have more of a bite in the team, with players willing to do the hard yards that Tuchel will demand. Even though losing Rabiot is enormous, he has obvious attitude problems and is the last player you want in a dressing room. PSG have a complete side and arguably look better than ever to challenge for the Champions League.