Why So Many Crosses? Real Madrid vs Manchester City – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

The final battle of the round of sixteen, and it might be the best one. Real Madrid, the only team to win the competition three times in a row; against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the best attacking team in Europe. Will their attack be enough to overcome their defensive instabilities, or will Madrid return to the winning machine we saw during Zidane’s tenure. Let’s find out.

We’ll start with Los Blanchos, who have arguably been the best team in a rather weak La Liga season. Real Madrid are the second best defensive team in the league, only behind their city rivals for xG against. They’re second in the league for shots against, with the league’s surprise package of the season, Getafe, being the only side bettering their 9.2 shots against per game. Madrid restrict their opponents to poor shots, which is different to the defensive performances seen during Zidane’s final year. Madrid were heavily reliant on Ramos or Varane to bail them out of poor organisation. Now they’re more of a cohesive unit, able to surpress the best attacks in Spain.

What’s helped Madrid a lot is improvements in personnel. Ferland Mendy has become the starting left-back for the club and while he isn’t nearly as fun to watch going forward as Marcelo, he’s younger and has the pace to recover; something Marcelo simply doesn’t have anymore. Courtois has gone from a underwhelming to above average again, and Carvajal has returned to his best.

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It’s in midfield where personnel has been a factor, with the way Zidane has managed to make them functional deserving plaudits. I criticised Madrid for not buying a midfielder in the summer, while allowing both Kovacic and Ceballos to leave the club. It left the midfield without balance, and put even more pressure on Casemiro to do the hard yards for Kroos and Modric. I expected Zidane to keep playing the same midfield trio he did during those successful Champions League wins, even with Modric now 34 and far past his best. Yet, he’s surprised me again. Casemiro has been the best defensive midfielder in Europe this year, putting in an insane amount of defensive work for the team and even contributing in ball progression; with no one in the squad completing more through balls than Casemiro’s 6.

Casemiro has been sensational, but Fede Valverde’s involvement in the team was the balance needed to compliment Casemiro’s defensive work and Kroos’s ball progression. Valverde is obviously not the player Modric was four years ago, but he is exactly what Madrid need. He has the energy to cover the distance, and is the only player in midfield who can press. Valverde isn’t the flashiest, but is comfortable in possession and does the defensive work needed to help carry some of Casemiro’s load. The 21-year-old has played in a majority of the big games, and wouldn’t surprise to see him start against Manchester City.

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Real Madrid have always garnered a reputation for having some of the best attackers to ever grace the game. However under Zidane, it’s arguably been the most boring and unimpressive part of their game, even when Ronaldo was still there. Madrid’s main outlet for attacking is crosses. No other team in La Liga has completed more crosses than Zidane’s team. It’s always baffled me why they do it. Crossing is famously one of the most ineffective ways of scoring goals, and only works when you have a team of excellent passers. Madrid use their full-backs for a majority of creativity, with Carvajal and Ferland Mendy completing a combined 13 crosses into the penalty area in La Liga. It might not sound like a lot, but crossing is an unproductive use of possession. If looking at quantity over quality, Mendy and Carvajal have attempted roughly 122 crosses, which means they have around a 10% success rate.  (These have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve used fbref.com to find the crosses into the penalty area and whoscored.com to find the amount of crosses attempted. Nevertheless, the point still stands).

Their style of crossing can perfectly define their attack this season: quantity over quality. Madrid are top of the league for shots taken per game with 16.02, nearly 3 shots more Villarreal, who are in second with 13.42. Top teams should always be the ones racking up the most shots, since they’ll be dominating games and have more of an opportunity to do so. The volume is good, but the quality is not. Their non-penalty xG per shot is at 0.10, placing them seventh in La Liga and behind their classico rivals Barcelona with 0.13. Zidane has gone down the logic of if we create enough chances, no matter the quality, we’ll eventually score. This does work against inferior opposition, but without Ronaldo, this just isn’t as effective. Benzema has been great this season, but the question marks surrounding his finishing quality persist. Luka Jovic could be that guy, but right now it makes Madrid a team with all bark but still without the bite.

Let’s move onto Manchester City. It’s hard to talk about the champions without discussing their upcoming European Ban after constant Financial Fair Play problems. Unfortunately, this is an area where I don’t have a full opinion on, based on the fact I don’t know the full extent of the rules and the full story; it simply isn’t my area of expertise. We’ll stick to the football, where it’s the best in Europe at times, and frustrating at others.

Pep’s quest for creating the perfect attacking has reached a new peak this season. With Kevin De Bruyne back and fully fit, It gave City their best creator back. Bernardo Silva did a fantastic job in filling for De Bruyne, while adding that extra bit of energy in midfield, but lacked the same level of creativity his Belgian teammate could offer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better passer in the Premier League than De Bruyne. His vision and way he can hit a pass just perfect for one of the forwards to reach it in the box is pure magic. It’s not even on the eyes where De Bruyne blows me away, but in the numbers. He’s top of the league with passes into the penalty area and 11th for passes into the final third, showing just how influential he is for not only chance creation, but ball progression as well. He comfortably leads the league for assists with 17, making De Bruyne incredibly likely to beat Thiery Henry’s record of 20, by quite a margin.

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The most interesting part about Manchester City’s attack is, like Madrid, crossing. Even excluding De Bruyne, Manchester City do possess some of the best passers in the league, and have looked to beat teams through the elite passing ability of their players. City comfortably top the league for crosses attempted and completed. This has worked in a way.  Having De Bruyne sending the balls into the far post is cheating slightly, since he’s so good at it. I still don’t like crossing as a main method for scoring goals, but it’s hard to deny City have the talent to pull it off, even if they shouldn’t do it.

The Belgian playmaker’s success does dovetail quite nicely to why City have just been so far behind Liverpool in the league. Luck does definitely play a part in this. City have underperformed both in xG for and against. There have been some games (both games against Spurs are perfect examples) where City have dominated the game and created enough chances, but failed to score the decisive goal; mostly down to poor finishing.

However, it’s defensively where the issues are most apparent. Just starting with the backline, Manchester City have faced a massive injury crisis. Laporte suffered a long term injury; when combining that with Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones struggling to find form all season, it leaves City with a lot of uncertainties at the back. Fernandinho has had to cover there for most of the season. The Brazilian is very old now, and while he’s still great, his aggression and issues in the air become more apparent when playing further back.

Manchester City’s very long pursuit for a new defensive midfielder to replace Fernandinho took far too long, which ended up with them spending a lot of money on Rodri when they could have gotten him a year earlier for far cheaper. That’s another topic entirely, but the adaption period hasn’t been as smooth as expected. Rodri and Fernandinho are very different. Rodri is a better passer, more physically dominant and of course, younger. The issue is his lack of speed and just lacks the experience of his Brazilian teammate. City face a lot of counter-attacking opportunites and having someone with the in-game awareness of Fernandinho, massively helped in supressing any potential goals. He regularly put in a foul, just to stop any attacks materialising. Rodri does actually commit a lot of fouls, but not in same vital way that Fernandinho did, instead doing it out of desperation rather than reading the situation.

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Rodri wouldn’t be as much of a problem in midfield, if it wasn’t for the attacking dominance. As mentioned, Pep has sought to keep getting the attack better, even at the cost for defensive solidity. Their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at home epitimised the Champions at their worse. They consistently left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks; arguably Manchester United’s biggest strength in attack. It’s baffling because it seemed Pep was desperate to protect his team from counter-attacks, but has instead increasingly left them more open. Pep’s side has the joint worst xG per shot against in the league, alongside West Ham United. City give up the ball rarely, but when they do, they constantly give their opponents great scoring opportunities.

De Bruyne is a problem in this regard. Guardiola has tried to adjust his lineup, in an attempt to give De Bruyne a free role in attack, and cover for the space he opens up for his general lack of defensive work. Playing Rodri as a single pivot just doesn’t work against teams who can punish them with counter-attacks. Pep has switched to a 4-2-3-1 in a handful of games this season, playing Gundogan alongside Rodri, but this hasn’t lead to much success either. City will always be vulnerable to counter-attacks, but I’ve never seen a Pep team look this bad when caught out of possession.

This tie is so difficult to call because even after looking at both teams, I still don’t know who will go through. Madrid still have the experience of winning these knockout games and could take advantage of how poor Manchester City is in defence at times; but Benzema could have one of his off-days and not be decisive enough in front of goal. Man City have the best attack in Europe and could simply overwhelm Madrid. I’d probably back Madrid to win both legs, especially with how unlucky City have been at times this season.

The 5 Most Inform Midfielders in Europe

I attempt to make it no secrets that midfielders are my favourite type of players. It’s arguably the hardest position to play since midfielders usually go through different trends. From aggressive destroyers like Roy Keane or Patrick Viera to less physical pass masters in Xavi and Toni Kroos. It’s what makes the very best midfielders today so fantastic because you need to have a varied and balanced skillset to play for the best teams around. It’s why guys like Thiago Alcantara, Marco Verratti, Luka Modric, Fernandinho and Paul Pogba have been so good for the past 5 years. They can do a bit of everything; create, dribble, keep possession and do a lot off the ball. Yet, none of these players feature here, because we’ll be looking at one midfielder from each of the top five leagues who have been excellent and deserve heaps of praise.

Idrissa Gueye

The former Lille midfielder has changed my views on what players over the age of 30 can do. I’ve always thought investing a lot of money in older players is a bad idea, especially if there is someone younger available, but Gueye is different. I’ve always seen Gueye as a great destroyer. He was consistently putting up massive tackles and interception numbers throughout his time in the Premier League, being the reason why Everton’s midfield at least remained solid. In his last season at Goodison, Gueye was partnered with Andre Gomes, who I’ve never been a fan of. However, with Gomes being partnered with someone who can do most of the defensive actions, it allowed the Portuguese midfielder to focus on ball progression. This helped further create this image of Gueye simply being a destroyer, letting other players do all the ball progression. He was the sole reason why Gomes had a decent season in England. Gueye was fantastic for Everton but made it clear in January that he wanted to leave, with PSG heavily interested. This was his last chance to play for a Champions League club, a club which had a massive hole in midfield after Rabiot’s departure.

He has spectacularly filled that hole and showed the complete player that Gueye seemed to be. In a more dominant team, it meant Gueye would have to be more involved in possession and build-up play. The Senegalese midfielder was replacing Adrien Rabiot, one of the best midfielders in Europe, which meant he had to show he was good enough to play at this level. Gueye has had massive help from being partnered with Marco Verratti, the perfect modern midfielder, meaning Gueye was free to not only do his regular defensive work but even progress the ball.

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Gueye has not only continued with his high defensive output but added quality in possession and the ability to move the ball through the midfield which I never knew he had. I’ve watched PSG a handful of times this season, but it was their dominant performance against Real Madrid that really stood out. Gueye was one of many players to impress me that night. Playing against a team that did possess the best midfield three in Europe, Gueye completely outclassed them and had his best performance in a PSG shirt as of yet. He made 7 tackles and interceptions, more than anyone else on the pitch, created 3 chances, completed 2 dribbles and was third in the team for passes completed with 74 (Verratti managed a ridiculous 97). He was one of the reasons why Real Madrid couldn’t get a foot into the game, and Gueye just looked incredibly comfortable. Gueye arrived to add some steel to a midfield that was consistently being beaten in the round of 16, with their loss to Manchester United back in March the most embarrassing. Gueye has definitely added that. He still has a high work rate, continually putting pressure on opposition midfielders and being just as good defensively as we all expect from him at this point. He has been as good as any of the elite midfielders in Europe. His form has actually frustrated me slightly, because it feels like he was utterly wasted at Everton, only doing defensive work when he could have contributed with so much more.

Joshua Kimmich

Benjamin Pavard was a sensible signing for Bayern, and it was assumed he would be filling in at centre-back as he had done for Stuttgart, but has in fact been playing at right-back. This isn’t to say Pavard has been fantastic, but his move to right-back has allowed Joshua Kimmich to move back into midfield. Kimmich is an absolutely sensational attacking player, and even at right-back, has been Bayern’s best creator for years. His passing is by far his best quality, consistently able to pick out either Lewandowski or speedy wingers Gnabry and Coman. His move to midfield has not only given him more freedom to find more players but has fixed probably his biggest weakness. Kimmich isn’t as athletic as other right-backs in the Bundesliga, which meant he could be exposed rather easily if he was caught too far up the pitch. Now in the base of midfield and partnered with another perfect midfielder in Thiago Alcantara, it has given him the freedom to not only push forward and continue creating for his teammates, but it keeps Bayern much stronger defensively. Kimmich is more than just a creator. The Germany international is more than only an elite creator, but like his Spanish teammate, has this ability to avoid pressure with ease. Kimmich is a quick decision-maker, is always aware of his surroundings and is difficult to dispossess.

We saw this against RB Leipzig. This was a tough test for Bayern, facing an opposition with a superior coach and players to match their dominant team. But thanks to Kovac getting his tactics right and making the most out of his midfield, Bayern looked very comfortable, with Kimmich being a big part of that. Leipzig attempted to press him, but he easily avoided pressure and continued to transition the ball into the forwards with ease. This was the game that not only cemented Kimmich as a midfielder but as one of the best players in Europe. It’s strange even to imagine he once played as a full-back, with how comfortable he has looked in the middle of the park. Benjamin Pavard is now probably the best signing of the summer, for allowing Kimmich to play in his favoured position.

Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City might be quite fragile at the moment, but their attack is arguably better than it’s ever been. All of their attacking players are in fabulous form, and while it has come at the cost of keeping a line that is far too high considering they now lack Fernandinho in midfield, it has made them even better in the final third and gotten the best out of Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian had an injury-struck 18/19 season, featuring very little in another insane Manchester City season. He is now back and looking just as good as in their first title win under Pep. The team seems built around him, with De Bruyne’s accurate crosses City’s leading outlet for creating chances. The Champions usually start their attacks down the left, with De Bruyne drifting to the right. The ball will then be switched from left to right, looking to give the ball to the right-winger (usually Mahrez or Bernardo Silva) and playing a cut back to De Bruyne, who will then aim his crosses for the back post, where David Silva, Aguero, Sterling or Jesus will be there to tap it in. This kind of attack can only work with the best creative midfielder in the world, and luckily for City, they have him. Only Ashley Young has been putting in more accurate crosses per 90 minutes than De Bruyne’s 2.6, putting him ahead of Pascal Gros and James Maddison. The former Chelsea midfielder’s xA is currently at 0.83. If looking at players to rack up over 500 minutes, he leads the league far too comfortably, with Alexander-Arnold second for xA per 90 with 0.41. De Bruyne has been absolutely sensational, and it is no surprise to see him rack up 8 assists already. Part of me thinks he shouldn’t be included here mainly down to the Belgian primarily acting as a number 10 instead of an 8, but it’s hard to ignore one of the best players in Europe in the form of their lives.

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Marcelo Brozović

It seems like the common perception of Inter for years was how they were a one-man team, heavily reliant on Mauro Icardi to win games for them. This is true to an extent, mainly due to the team being built around creating chances for him, but after Spaletti arrived, Marcelo Brozović quickly became Inter’s most valuable player. Over the last 3 years, Brozović has become not only the best defensive midfielder in Italy but arguably in Europe. The Croatian’s skill set is varied, including a fantastic range of passing, the ability to control a game, elite decision making while doing a majority of the team’s defensive work. When Conte arrived, Brozović was the only player in that midfield that was simply undroppable. He kept Inter ticking in possession when the players he was partnered with were either inconsistent or average. Brozović, now under Antonio Conte, is even more irreplaceable than before. He fills that regista role perfectly. During build-up play, Brozović will continuously receive the ball, to either relieve pressure off his teammates through quick passes or play a long, diagonal ball into one of the wing-backs. Conte’s Inter primarily attack through their wing-backs, so having a player who can pick them out with so much ease makes it so easy for the attackers to push and create. His long balls are an essential part of his game, completing 8.6 long balls per game, ahead of every goalkeeper in Serie A.

There is more to Brozović than his importance in the build-up, with the 2018 World Cup finalist sniffing out and stopping danger through a well-timed challenge or a foul. Brozovic is similar to Fernandinho to using any means necessary to protect the back-line. Throughout his time in Milan, he has picked up 44 yellow cards, an astonishing amount for any player. This isn’t even a bad thing, and it shows how he will resort to the dirtier side of the game to ensure Inter win. After two fantastic seasons under Spaletti, it’s hard not to include him in the conversation for the best midfielder in Europe. Now under another manager, Brozović has proved his worth again, allowing Sensi and Barella more freedom and has so far played every minute of every game this season. He could be the reason why Inter could finally break Juventus’ Serie A dominance.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa

If it isn’t apparent by now, Most predictions I make usually don’t pan out. Whether it’s Witsel being a massive flop or Ronaldo being a good signing. I typically predict the wrong outcome. In this case, I was spot on. Zambo Anguissa is a player I’ve been obsessed with for the longest time. During the summer of 2018, I saw the then Marseille midfielder as a perfect option for Arsenal before they signed Lucas Torreira, but suddenly Anguissa signs for another London club, and not Chelsea or Spurs, but newly-promoted Fulham. It was a great signing in terms of adding an outstanding defensive midfielder, able to win the ball back while progressing it well through the centre of the park. However, like all of Fulham’s signing’s that summer, it just seemed not to work out. It wasn’t to say Anguissa was terrible. His numbers were nearly identical to those during his time in France, but the team, in general, was so unbalanced and cobbled together that it made it difficult for many of the new signings to adjust. The other problem Anguissa had was the lack of quality in front of him. While Mitrovic did have a strong start to the season and Babel did well for the six months he was there, there wasn’t an elite creator similar to Payet in front of him. It meant there was more pressure on him to add that creativity to his game, something he has never done throughout his career. Anguissa works best when focusing primarily on ball recoveries and progression, giving the ball to talented attackers in front of him.

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Luckily for Anguissa, he has that at Villarreal. Going into the season, the yellow submarine had Vincente Iborra and one of my favourite players of all time, Santi Cazorla as their starting midfielders, Both were over 30 while they clearly offered experience and mix of the old-school Spanish style and the style that won Spain the World Cup, they needed a younger, more mobile player alongside them. Anguissa fitted this mould perfectly, while still being comfortable in possession. As mentioned, Anguissa wasn’t bad at Fulham, with his national team’s staff not spotting any regression in his overall quality, making him a sensible loan signing for Villarreal. Anguissa has fitted seamlessly into their midfield, complimenting Iborra and Cazorla so well, while allowing his own skills to blossom. Both him and Iborra put in a lot of defensive work, but Anguissa offers that extra strength and mobility when moving the ball into the final third, with no other player for the yellow submarine completing more than Anguissa’s 2.9 dribbles per 90. With Cazorla ahead of him, Anguissa has a player who can shoulder the creative responsibilities, something the former Arsenal midfielder still excels at, even after a terrible ankle injury and now being 34. The 23-year-old is a tremendous defensive midfield talent, and when placed into a side where he only has to play to his strengths, he can become a valuable member to any team. Let’s hope he continues to succeed in Spain, so he can go back to playing at the level to show off his talents.

The Best Team in Europe? – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group C

Arguably one of the least competitive groups in the competition. It’s undeniable who will top the group, but that second place is still very much up for grabs.

Atalanta 

After missing out from a playoff defeat back in 2017, Italy’s new hipster club are finally making their first appearance in the Champions League, and they fully deserve it. Atalanta have been one of the best sides in Italy for the past 3 years, credited for their attacking football and the value they’ve managed to uncover from a wide variety of talent. Back in the 2016/17 season, they were also famed for the young players they were producing. The likes of Franck Kessie, Roberto Gagliardini, Andrea Conti and Bryan Cristante all flourishing at the club. Atalanta seemed like the breeding ground for both Italy and Europe’s next generation of footballers, with the 4 players mentioned now playing for Italy’s more established big clubs. 

What last season did show was not only how Atalanta should now be considered one of Italy’s most dangerous sides, but just how they are doing that. Instead of focusing on young talent, their primary focus seems to be getting the best out of players who were written off by other clubs. This ability at finding value in the market made their 3rd place finish, with the best attack in the Serie A, even more impressive. Their front three revolves around Duvan Zapata, Papu Gomez and Josep Illicic. The trio are all over 28 and were brought in for a combined £22.05 million, some of the best value for money you’ll see. Gomez and Illicic play as inverted playmakers, given free roles to create for Zapata, as well as score themselves. While Gomez adds that unpredictability and skill to forward line, Zapata was by far their best performer last season. I can’t stress enough just how good his teammates were at creating chances for the Colombian, but Zapata’s knack for shooting in generally good positions turned those chances into goals. A majority of his goals were coming from inside the six-yard area, whether from set-pieces or from open play. These players can cause any side in Europe a lot of problems, and I fully expect them to bring their A-game to the rest of the teams in their group. 

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There is more to Atalanta than just their attack. In fact, their midfield has remained a force even with the departures of Kessie and Cristante. Remo Freuler and Martin De Roon combined to form a midfield pairing focused on winning the ball but remain adept at progressing it to their gifted attackers. De Roon’s massive defensive output does deserve praise, but Freuler is comfortably the best out of the pair. The Swiss midfield combines massive defensive actions of 4.4 tackles and interceptions alongside over 9 deep progressions, placing him in the top 10 in Serie A for progressions from deep. The pair cover the wide areas of the pitch so effectively that it has enabled their wing-backs to push up and give Atalanta width. 

While I can expect Dinamo and Shakhtar to have a shot at escaping this group, La Dea is by far the favourites to finish 2nd. A great coach in Gasperini, the best attack in Italy, a solid midfield and marauding wing-backs, they could indeed turn the heads of many casual fans.

Dinamo Zagreb

The Croatian side has garnered a reputation for producing some of their country’s best talent. Luka Modric, Matteo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren, Marcelo Brozovic and Marko Rog all played and eventually departed to join some of Europe’s elite. Dinamo Zagreb’s production line earns more plaudits than the actual team, but the team do deserve some praise. Their performances in the Europa League last season were excellent, topping Group D and going undefeated in a group containing Fenerbahce and Anderlecht. A Round of 16 departure to Benfica is respectable enough, considering they managed to take the Liga NOS champions into extra-time. They brought the same impressive form to their qualification, easing past Rosenborg, Saburtalo and Ferencvaros. They’ve earned their place here and were always going to struggle to get out of the group based on Dinamo being in a low pot. 

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Dinamo has a chance to get to the round of 16, but it rests on the form of Dani Olmo. The 21-year-old is a player who I have a lot of respect for, possessing the courage to leave La Masia at 16 and move to Croatia. It’s not a path you see Spanish players take, but joining Dinamo Zagreb must be a decision he doesn’t regret. It allowed him to start playing first-team football at a young age, enabling him to develop as a more refined player than you see from other players at his age. Olmo has primarily played as a winger but has recently moved inside, which is the best move for his future. He is calm under pressure and can dribble in wide areas. Playing him in a wider position does make sense when Olmo wasn’t fully developed as a man but has grown and increased in muscle, making him even more challenging to dispossess. Last season in the Europa League group stages, Olmo completed 19 dribbles, more than any other player in the competition. He isn’t just the best player in Croatia but is at the level where he could start for an established Champions League club. The young midfielder has a varied skill set, being an excellent dribbler while also being one of the most prominent distributors in the Dinamo side, with no other outfield player completing more than his 33 passes per game in the Europa League. He is everything for Dinamo in the attack, and his form could decide their outcome in this year’s competition. 

Manchester City 

Manchester City is placed in a group where their chances of losing or near the land of impossibility. It’s hard to argue against Pep’s side is the best in Europe. They boast the best forward line, some of the best creators and one of the best goalkeepers. Not only that, but they are managed by one of the best managers the game has ever seen. Many like to lambast Guardiola for the money spent on fixing this side, but you can’t argue just how much better a lot of these players have become since moving to the Etihad. De Bruyne is now one of the top 5 players in Europe, Bernardo Silva is far more than just a good winger, and Sterling has been completely transformed. This Manchester City side is the best the Premier League has ever seen and is likely to retain the title once again. 

Man City already had the best team in Europe but went about improving the only weak areas they possessed, by bringing in Angelino and Rodri to cover Zinchenko and Fernandinho respectively. Angelino is unlikely to start often in the league, but gives that needed depth for next to nothing, after Fabian Delph departed the club. Rodri was the addition that the champions required since 2017. City lack proper central midfielders. David Silva, Bernardo and De Bruyne play there, but they’re more like free-roaming 8’s. Gundogan and Fernandinho are all they had, so signing a successor to their Brazilian powerhouse was the most crucial signing in recent history, and they have nailed it with the Rodri’s arrival. While the Spaniard isn’t nearly as quick as Fernandinho, he has a vast range in passing and puts in a lot of defensive actions. At the moment, he isn’t as good as Fernandinho, based on the fact that the Brazilian can do everything in midfield. However, he is now 34. Pep has consistently evolved his defensive midfielders. Busquets was a fantastic passer and reader of the game, and one of the main reasons Barca have been so good in attack for over a decade. Arturo Vidal was different, being more of a box to box, aggressive ball-winner to help against sides like Dortmund under Tuchel. Fernandinho is similar to Vidal but could read the game on a higher level than the Chilean, sensing danger and stopping attacks through a well-timed tackle or a tactical foul. It’ll be interesting to see how Rodri grows into the role, but it’s hard to deny that Pep’s side is somehow even better than last season. 

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Depth at centre-half is a slight issue, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Walker or Fernandinho fill in there until Laporte’s return, but City should ease through this group. This isn’t to say the teams in group C are weak, but City is that far ahead of the competition. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the elite clubs when the knock out stages arrive, but for now, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge for City.

Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar, similar to Atalanta and Dinamo, have garnered reputable status as one of the best feeder clubs of Brazilian talent. Fred, Willian, Fernandinho, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira are a handful of players who flourished in Ukraine, eventually moving on to star-studded leagues. Yet, Shakhtar’s reputation in Europe is pretty respectable, even with some glaring off the field problems, primarily down to tensions between Ukraine and Russia. They’ve been a mainstay in the Champions League since their first inclusion back in 2001, and have even gotten as far as the quarter-finals in 2011, losing to Pep’s Barcelona. They also managed to win the UEFA Cup back in 2009 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2016. They have European pedigree and mostly kept their side from last season together, alongside some improvements. Yevhen Konoplyanka arrives after having a torrid end to his time at Schalke and could add some creativity and pace from the wide areas, with Taison and Marlos both 31. 

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The Ukrainian side does have a chance of getting out of this group. They have started the season in perfect form under new coach Luis Castro, winning all 6 games. They are against a Dinamo side who are heavily reliant on a single player and an Atalanta team who have never played in the Champions League before. Shakhtar has performed well under more stringent circumstances, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them finish above their competition. That said, I do think they will finish in the Europa League spot. Their best players are now another year older, and I’m unsure how long they can keep performing in Europe. They’ll perform well, but it won’t be enough against two sides, who in Atalanta and Manchester City, have a more talented group of players and better coaches.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Jerome Roussillon and Wolfsburg’s Recovery

‘The Bundesliga dropoff’ is a term I like to associate to a consistent pattern that occurs in the German top flight. Whenever a team (that isn’t Bayern Munich) has a very good season, there will be a massive drop off in the following season. It usually goes down to sales of players, with the Bundesliga being a league that consistently sells its biggest players. The most recent example of this would be Schalke. They’ve gone from the runners up last season, to barely withstanding a relegation scare. This dropoff has also transpired at the other big clubs, with Dortmund, Monchengladbach, Leverkusen and Koln all suffering after having outstanding seasons. The Bundesliga does not possess the same finances as seen in La Liga and especially the Premier League. It means that the big clubs (again, that aren’t Bayern Munich) fail to consistently secure the top spots. Whenever they have a good season, with electric players adding magic and goals to a side, it doesn’t take long for a bigger club to take that magic away.

Wolfsburg is my favourite example when discussing the dropoff. They had a brilliant 2014/15 season, which saw them finish runners up to Bayern Munich, amassing an impressive 69 points. While xG predicted they massively overperformed in attack, so did the rest of the top sides that season. So many players had arguably the best season in their careers. Kevin De Bruyne scored 10 and assisted 20, which was the record for most assists in a single season (until Emil Forsberg broke that record for Leipzig). It was that fantastic season that saw him earn his mega-money move to Manchester City. Bas Dost scoring a goal for every game he started, Naldo had one of his best seasons, in a career that seemed to improve the older he got. Ivan Perisic, Ricardo Rodriguez, Daniel Caligiuri and Luis Gustavo all shined for a side that would eventually face that dreaded dropoff. After the huge sales of De Bruyne and Perisic, they attempted to replace them with the additions of Max Kruse and Julien Draxler, while hoping the other players in the squad would continue their good form. While a good run to the Champions League quarter-final stage and an 8th place finish isn’t a poor season, it would get a lot worse. They ended the 2016/17 in 16th, only surviving through the 3rd place playoff. Draxler left in a cloud to Paris, Andre Schurrle joining Borussia Dortmund, Caligiuri moving to Schalke, Max Kruse returning to Werder Bremen and Dante moving to Nice. It highlights how poor they were in the transfer market after their 2nd place finish back in 2015. They wasted a lot of money on players who weren’t improvements over what they had, which ended with a squad poorly put together. They were put back on track this season. They began selling the players who didn’t work out and focus on the players they had while bringing in 5 players for a combined £36 million. It helped add some extra depth in some areas while fixing their goal problem. They only managed to score 36 goals last season, half of what they managed in the 14/15 season. The signings of Weghorst and Ginczek added the goals needed. Their 62 goals was one of the main reasons why they will be playing in the Europa League next season. However, it is another signing from last summer’s window that needs the spotlight, that being the £4.5 million signing of Jerome Roussillon from Montpellier.

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Ricardo Rodriguez was one of the many players to leave the club and fail to be adequately replaced. While it did take a year to find an able replacement, it was worth the wait. Roussillon had 3 solid seasons at Montpellier, playing over 30 games in each of his 3 seasons. He was putting up solid defensive numbers while also showing himself to be a very good dribbler. The Frenchman is fast, very fast. it’s by far his best attribute. His ability to bomb up and down the wing has given his side another direction in attack. Whether it’s tracking back to help his teammates or giving an extra option in the attack. Roussillon constantly tries to make himself available.

As a youth player, Roussillon primarily played as a winger, and it shows. He dribbles with such confidence and drive, facing opposition defenders with force and using his superior pace. It has made him the side’s best dribbler, completing 1.8 dribbles per game. Combine that with a solid success rate of 62% and it is easy to understand why Wolfsburg have improved so much after his arrival. While 40% of their attacks have come down the right side (compared to 36% down the left), Roussillon still takes advantage. He will cut inside and help overload the central areas when his side is attacking down the right. He helps give another option and ensures that if Wolfsburg loses the ball, they are able to quickly retrieve it. It displays his past as a winger, with the Frenchman looking comfortable in this role.

One would expect a player who was formally an attacker to struggle defensively, but as Wan-Bissaka shows, this isn’t the case. Roussillon has been putting in a solid 2.6 tackles and interceptions per game. A respectable number for a player who is so focused on the offensive end. The most impressive side of his game would be how often he is beaten in one on ones. He is only dribbled past 0.4 times a game, better than Jordi Alba and Andy Robertson, arguably two of the best left backs in the world. It’s the lowest amount in his career, showing a continual improvement in his defensive displays. Having the physical advantages, as well as the ability to deal with opposition wingers has made him one of the best left backs in the league.

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His creativity is another part of his game that is very impressive. The Frenchman creates 1.1 chances a game, while also completing 1.1 crosses. His accurate balls into the box have been perfect for his teammates, and especially Weghorst, a player who uses his height to easily win those key aerial battles. Roussillon has scored 3 and assisted 4 goals this season, meaning he has contributed to a goal every 4 games, a great return for a defender.

For only £4.5 million, he has to be considered as one of the bargains of 2018 summer transfer window. At 26, he has established himself as an important part of the team and could be vital for what Wolfsburg will be planning for. While Bayern, Dortmund and RB Leipzig seem to be improving, there could be a place opening up in that top four. Gladbach have lost their best player in Thorgan Hazard, Leverkusen will always be defensively vulnerable, Hoffenheim are losing their coach and Frankfurt are losing Jovic. This could be a chance for Wolfsburg to creep back into that Champions League spot, with a left back who deserves to be playing there.

 

 

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group F

While Group B and C are seen as the groups of death, this group comes incredibly close. 3 teams in this group are similar, yet so different and it will be interesting

Hoffenheim

Hoffenheim are a side that have been getting weaker by the season. But because of an extremely talented coach, have somehow stayed competitive. Even after losing some great players, like Gnabry, Uth, Sule, Rudy and Wagner. Hoffenheim play a brand of football that works to their strengths. They tend to not dominate games and use the little possession they have to quickly counter. Just by the way they play, it means they will able to challenge any team. But one of their issues (as mentioned before when discussing their game against Bayern Munich) is the way they set up leaves them weak on the flanks. Their full backs, usually Schulz and Kaderabek, go very far forward to press. The problem, as seen against Bayern, was the wingers were able to exploit the space that was left, which pulled the centre halves away and left them weak. When their press works, it works so well, but against teams which great wide players, it is difficult. They will do fine against Shaktar, but will struggle against the other sides. They also are suffering from a severe injury crisis. Two of their creators, Demibray and Amiri, are currently on the sidelines, as well as three of their central defenders. It will be difficult to get through with their current injury crisis, so I think they will finish bottom of the group.

Manchester City

The Premier League champions are probably facing and even tougher challenge than last season. They have to try and retain the title, while also trying to compete in the Champions League. City have started the season very well, with only a draw against newly promoted Wolves (a game that the referees ruined) stopping their perfect run. They haven’t been as good as they were last season however. They are seriously missing Kevin De Bruyne in some moments this season. His ability to pick out that killer pass has been seriously missed. While Gundogan is a good footballer, he is just not at the same level as De Bruyne. While City will still cruise through some of the easier games, it’s the games against teams who are similar to their level, like Paris or Barcelona, they will struggle to break them down. But one area they will never struggle in is their wide talent. Both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are coming off good games against Fulham. They are excellent wingers for a Pep side. Both are incredibly fast, great at stretching the play and always put in good shot numbers. They will both cause the opposition so much problems. City just have a great squad of players, and players all over the pitch to challenge for places. Pep has built a great team, and will definitely get out of the group.

Lyon

As seen from my Top 5 Talking Points From the Top 5 Leagues, Lyon have been quite frustrating so far. They have shown moments of their best, but then go on to lose games they should probably be winning. They just haven’t been putting teams away. Depay, Fekir and Dembele just haven’t been clinical enough in front of goal. They’ve been averaging around 20 shots a game, yet are only managing 1.6 goals per game. They’re dominating games so comfortably, yet just fail to punish teams. This is team is just so talented and young as well. Their midfield of Tousart, Aouar and Ndombele are some of the most promising midfielders in Europe. Ferland Mendy has started the season in excellent form. He’s already got a goal and assist, and while his defensive numbers are low, he counters that with excellent attacking output. It could be argued that their manager, Bruno Génésio, isn’t exactly the best. While I do not think they set up their defense in a great way, they attack so fluently and quick that he almost makes up for it. I just do not think Lyon are getting out of this group. With their league form so inconsistent, they should be focusing on that, but they still have the quality to get out of it.

Shaktar Donetsk

A regular in this competition in the modern game, the Ukrainian side are back again. While they have lost two good players in Fred and Bernard, they have brought in replacements in the same way they always do. They signed Maycon from Corinthians and Fernando from Palmeiras. Both are under 21 and are currently getting bedded into the squad slowly. Shaktar’s knowledge of the Brazilian league is already known to be deep. They have brought so many Brazilians, like Willian, Fernandinho, Texeira and Fred into the European spotlight. Even with both of those young coming through, they still have their experience. Taison and Marlos both offer flair and cause full backs plenty of problems. Another one of their new signings, Moraes, has hit the ground running. The Brazilian was signed on a free from rivals Dynamo Kyiv, and has already scored 7 in 8. It would make more sense to predict Lyon or Hoffenheim to finish second, but Shaktar Donetsk are in this competition all the time. They have the experience and the talent to beat all teams in this group. They even got out of a group containing Napoli and Man City last season, and even beat the Premier League champions. They will get out of this group, but I could most definitely be wrong.

Final Table

1. Manchester City

2. Shaktar Donetsk

3. Lyon

4. Hoffenheim

Football Opinions I Disagree With

With so many different platforms to express opinions, it gives people the opportunity to give their opinions on certain topics, and with football, it’s ever present. With so many opinions, it also offers many responses, and here are mine to some topical issues in the world of football, ranging from pundits to popular fan opinions, let’s go through some popular opinions.

Defenders aren’t as good as they used to be

One that many of the old school pundits love to throw around. They come to these opinions because of lack of top defenders on the market. That isn’t because of the lack of defenders, as many want you to believe, it is because of the qualities defenders need to have now, compared to 20 years ago. In the Premier League for example, many will say players such as Keown, Adams, Bould and Pallister were some of the best the Premier League, while the likes of Otamendi, Stones, Lovren and Christiansen earn plenty of criticism. We look back at those players in positivity because they were good defenders, but the game has evolved. All defenders during that time had to do was be solid in the air, and have some ability in reading the game. Expectations of defenders have changed massively. Not only do they need those qualities, be need to be comfortable on the ball, able to have a quick turn of pace, able to play as either a sweeper or a destroyer, and man mark certain players. They have such responsibility now that it is no wonder that old defenders get so much more praise. There are a few modern defenders who will go down as some of the best in their position. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Vincent Kompany, Matts Hummels and Leonardo Bonucci could all easily fit into any greatest eleven.

What pundits also fail to mention is the improvement in attack. The likes of Keown, Neville and Adams like to bring up how they played against some of the best players around in Ronaldo, Crespo, Kaka and Zidane. But while they bring up players, they fail to bring up systems. Ever since Pep Guariola changed how a team should attack, it has made defending against these teams so much harder. They seem to care more on criticism, rather than complimenting the attack.

Jonjo Shelvey is a great passer of the ball

One opinion that has suddenly came out, and of course a bit incorrect. Every ex England player under the sun said not taking Shelvey was a mistake, because he’s the best passer of the ball England have. While not going into the obvious things like not knowing Southgate’s system, his teammates or his role, let’s look into why he should go. The Newcastle midfielder is always called the best passer England have. It’s simple to explain why. Shelvey averages a below average 72% pass accuracy. If we compare that to the player pundits like Shearer and Murphy want him to replace, Jordan Henderson. The captain has a solid 81% accuracy, much higher than Shelvey. Defenders of Shelvey would say it is because of Shelvey’s more dynamic passing. This is also incorrect. Both Shelvey and Henderson average just over 5 long balls per 90, showing they have a similar range of passing. The only area where Shelvey betters his ex Liverpool teammate would be key passes, where he has 1.4, compared to Henderson’s 0.8. But that can be explained by their roles in their teams. Shelvey has Moh Diame next to him, who has been doing much of his defensive work for him, while Henderson has a more reserved role. Shelvey is a typical match of the day player, and the fact that people thought he should start seriously makes me question these “experts.”

Leroy Sane should be going to the World Cup

While on the surface, not choosing the PFA young player of the year is a strange decision. But this is Joachim Low we are talking about. This is a manager who in my opinion, gets way too much praise. His loyalty to certain players and his overall mindboggling decisions make me question why Germany can’t do better than Joachim Low. Even looking at their world cup winning campaign, he chose to play Lahm in midfield, leaving a huge weakness on the right side. He refused to take Marcel Schmelzer when he was in top form (we’re seeing this again with his refusal to take Philipp Max. He even tried to play Mario Gotze as a false nine, which doesn’t work. But regarding Leroy Sane, I think he is actually right. Low’s decision to take Brandt, Draxler and Reus over the City winger do make sense. Even with his injuries, Reus is a proven world class footballer. Julian Brandt has been with the setup since the beginning, and has performed for Germany. Julian Draxler is another play Low seems to favourite, with the manager choosing Draxler as the captain for Germany in their confederations cup. Sane has played 12 games for Germany, and has failed to score. The manager, and the senior players have even mentioned that some of the younger players seem to be missing what it means to play for Germany. Sane decided to have surgery during an important qualifying game. Not a single manager likes it when a player refuses to play, so in this circumstance, Low is right, and Sane needs to change his attitude regarding the national team setup if he wants to be remembered fondly by his fellow countrymen.

Salah deserved the PFA Player of the Year

While this could be surprising, I do think Salah didn’t deserve to win the player of the year. It’s a combination of two things. The first being he plays in a Liverpool team where any good forward has the chance to excel in a system where they are the focus. That isn’t to take away from his achievement. I thought he was excellent last season and helped drag Liverpool in some key games (the home games against Spurs and Roma stick out). The second being my pure fondness for Kevin De Bruyne. This isn’t a case where I think there is anything wrong with Salah winning. I am indeed fine with that. But De Bruyne helped carry City to a title, and proved to have one of the best individual seasons for a midfielder I’ve ever seen. His contribution to that title winning season was world class to say the least. He contributed with 8 goals and assisted 16, which almost beat his record for last season, 18. The Belgian is at a point where he is competing with himself. While Salah played in the best front three in Europe, De Bruyne played in the best midfield in Europe. By April, he created the most chances in Europe, with 102. He has also registered the most assists in Europe since arriving in England. Not only has he been brilliant in a creative sense, averaging 3.2 key passes per game, 1 more than David Silva, he also has been solid defensively. He’s averaged 2.4 tackles and interceptions per 90, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but considering he also creates the most in Europe, it is still impressive. This is definitely an opinion not many will agree with, but my appreciation for midfielders will always favour them over attackers.

Wilfred Zaha is ready for a bigger club

Another opinion I am pretty against, Wilfred Zaha should definitely not be moving this summer. His dribble numbers might be outrageous, but his finish of 9 goals and 3 assists just aren’t enough to warrant a move to a big club. If you compare him to Mahrez, it is clear who is ready for the step up. Mahrez ended the season with double figures in goals and assists, in a Leicester team that was on and off throughout. Zaha played for a Palace side that had plenty of attacking quality. For a player who can be good to watch, he just isn’t ready for that next step up.