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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions for La Liga – 19/20

La Liga, next to Serie A, is probably my least favourite out of the top 5 leagues. While part of it is down to myself being unable to watch the games legally, I have other problems. It’s primarily down to my distaste for Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two clubs that dominate all discussion in Spain. Nevertheless, let’s look at the teams and players who will stand out in the 19/20 season, for good or bad reasons.

Outside Shout – Sevilla

While the signings of Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias have pushed Betis as top 4 contenders, I’d back Sevilla to do even better. I’m not claiming Sevilla are title challengers in any sense of the word. But with the quality and quantity of signings, they are arguably in a fantastic position to finish in that 4th spot.

Sevilla had a mixed 18/19 season. After a fantastic start to the season, which saw them top of the table at the end of November, it all fell apart. They dropped out of the top 4 after only winning 2 games between the start of December and the 10th of March. It meant the Europa League was their best chance of getting back into the Champions League. However, this ended in disaster, losing to Slavia Prague in the round of 16. This culminated in the sacking of head coach Pablo Machin, which left Sevilla with another rebuilding job.

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Who else to be at the helm of the tough task than Monchi. The Spaniard departed the team in 2017, joining Roma. However, after an unsuccessful stint with the Giallorossi, he returns to bring back the same magic he did for years. With all the top clubs desperate to bring in a director of football, there aren’t much better than Monchi. The value he managed to find out of the transfer market, especially Ligue 1, was remarkable. The likes of Lenglet, Gameiro, Banega, Navas, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves were all discovered by the former Sevilla midfielder, showing his eye for talent is unrivalled. While his time at Roma wasn’t auspicious, with the Italian side dropping down the league during his two-year spell, returning to where his success began is the best thing for both parties.

With Joaquín Caparrós diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, the search for a new head coach was on. Julien Lopetegui was appointed head coach on the 4th of June, and I’m unsure what to think about it. Judging him based on a problematic four months at Real Madrid is unfair, considering how little he was backed in the market. While he was very successful with the Spanish national team, his managerial experiences at club level are not the most comforting. His most notable job was with Porto, where he finished 3rd with £57 million spent on 18 players, 7 of which were Spanish.

Joining a club that isn’t as insane as Real Madrid, where he will be given more time to take Sevilla back into the Champions League, will be fascinating. Lopetegui has always favoured a classic 4-1-2-3, a formation that Sevilla have not been playing in recent seasons. Lopetegui needs to resolve some of the consistent issues with the side, in defence and now upfront. Sevilla have sold two of their best assets in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben-Yedder, meaning Lopetegui can start from scratch with the current core of players and plenty of new arrivals.

Sevilla did some of the best business in the window. They went out and resolved their most significant issues, being wide talent and defenders. Monchi targetted plenty of players from Ligue 1, with 4 of their 11 signings coming from the French top flight. Rony Lopes has left the sinking ship known as Monaco to finally play for a club where his talents can be showcased. Ocampos has arrived from Marseille, and while I’m not his biggest fan, I acknowledge he does offer a lot in terms of dribbling and physicality. Sergio Reguillon comes after unfairly being pushed out from Real Madrid. This is a delight to see because Sevilla have finally picked up a good left-back after years of being so one-sided, even if it is just a loan deal.

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Their best signing, by far, is Joan Jordan. The Spaniard had a very successful spell with Eibar, earning him a move to Sevilla. This is such an improvement over Vasquez and Mesa. The midfielder is solid defensively and offers a lot of ball-progression. This is one of the most sensible signings of the window, and I’m surprised other clubs weren’t showing interest.

Sevilla have made some signings where I have my doubts, but right now, they are in a great position to get that 4th spot. A balanced experienced yet youthful team that possess the qualities to challenge the other top sides in La Liga.

Overachievers – Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid’s summer can best be described as a mixed bag. Losing their best attacker in Griezmann, their best midfielder in Rodri and the hugely impactful Diego Godin was huge. While they did pick up over £200 million from only 3 of their sales, it meant a lot of work was needed to turn this into a Champions League squad once again. Atletico recruited without any sort of consistency, which is understandable. They brought in a mix of young talent in Felix, Lodi and Hermoso to keep the squad fresh on the long term, combining that with the experience of Trippier, Herrera and Felipe. It allows them to remain competitive in the short term while also giving them a future in two of their most important positions; attack and defence.

In concept, I do like a lot of their business, but during a closer examination, I have my doubts. Let’s start with Joao Felix. The teenage sensation arrives for a gigantic £113 million. There is no doubting the forward is talented, but substantial game time is something lacking in his repertoire. The 18/19 season was Felix’s first season of top-flight football and displayed some promising qualities. His shot location was generally fantastic, and his technical ability is undeniably excellent, but factors come into my reservations on this transfer. The first is Liga NOS. The Portuguese top-flight is difficult to judge when it comes to talent. Your club might pick up a Bernardo Silva, Alex Sandro or a Willy Boly, or end up with a Mangala, Jackson Martinez or Enzo Perez. Joao Felix could be just as useful as Griezmann, or even better, however, there is a likely chance the pressure on him might be too much. Felix is one of the only pacey forwards Simeone can use. There is no other player like him in the squad, with Morata and Costa both preferring the ball in the air. Atletico have paid a lot of money to seemingly beat the competition and remind the rest of Europe they are a threat.

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I’ve expressed my doubts about Marcos Llorente before, and my opinions on Trippier and Felipe aren’t nearly as negative as many. Simeone has a reputation of supercharging defenders, and I think he will find the value out of the pair. They definitely didn’t need to spend that much money on them, especially on Felipe, but they’re decent acquisitions in terms of the players they are getting. I like Hermoso and is arguably their best signing in the window, with the defender performing well in a similar system at Espanyol and still has time to improve.

So why are they, my overachievers? Most of their squad are recent summer arrivals and as noted, aren’t all likely to succeed. Simeone has a reputation for grinding out results better than any other coach in the game. He rarely uses the exciting talent given to him, and it makes me wonder if Simeone will just stick with his compact system, only to remain close with the top two. Atletico will finish the top four but will look bad doing so.

Underachievers – Barcelona

Barcelona have lost their traditions in recent years. While they have never been likeable, you could at least respect them for putting more faith in youth than big-money signings. However, the same luxury signings they seemingly mocked Real Madrid for making are now the players they want. This has culminated in a squad full of different players, and not in the right way. This team lacks pace in the attack and balance in the midfield. Even though I dislike the Griezmann signing, They did end bring in an understudy for the ageing Jordi Alba and one of the best midfield prospects in Frenkie De Jong. This squad is a general improvement over last year’s title winners, but many problems remain.

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Ernesto Valverde is by far the biggest and most frustrating problem at the club. I actually had a lot of respect for what he did during his first season. He turned Barcelona from a free-flowing, direct and pacey team into a very defensively solid and efficient one. It wasn’t the most entertaining watch, but it was working and kept Barcelona better than the rest of the league. In spite of their title-winning season, only losing a single game in La Liga, the fans were not happy. They didn’t just want to win, but in a way that Cruyff would be proud of. While insanely smug and arrogant, I can understand. Barcelona have the best player ever to grace a football pitch. Seeing him in the best attacking side in Europe and playing to his fullest while his career to starting to wind down is essential. Messi is the only reason why Barcelona have won the league under Valverde. While Messi hasn’t been at his untouchable best like he was back in 2011, this has been his most impressive time at the Nou Camp. In his thirties, he is still carrying his side more than ever before, and it’s comfortably established him as the greatest there is.

Barcelona have the best side in the league, but mediocre squad building and the wrong manager has made them weaker than they should be. They’ll underachieve through not playing to their potential. They will most likely win the league, but not nearly as comfortable.

Best Transfer – Frenkie De Jong

This is arguably the most of outstanding signing Barcelona have made since Ter Stegen. The former Ajax central midfielder was fantastic both domestically and in the Champions League, where he was vital in Ajax reaching the semi-final. He has so many qualities that persuaded Barcelona to pick up his signature. De Jong is an allrounder. He is good defensively while possessing a great passing ability and solid dribbling numbers. It allows him to be versatile in how he plays, whether as a ball-progressor or even or a centre-back. His ball retention is by far his best quality. During their dominant victory over Juventus, the old lady attempted to man-mark De Jong out of the game. This didn’t work; however, with De Jong dropping so deep that it made him difficult to mark. He would consistently receive the ball and dribble right through Juventus’ deep block. He was one of the most challenging players to dispossess in Europe.

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There isn’t even debate on whether he starts. De Jong has to play whenever he is available. The Dutchman, alongside Arthur, offers a young central midfielder with more risk on the ball than his teammates. Rakitic is not as adventurous as he once was, Busquets has been overplayed for years, and Vidal hasn’t really worked out in Barcelona since his arrival. De Jong’s versatility would allow him to not only excel wherever he plays but to give Busquets and Rakitic a chance to be rested. De Jong’s arrival has zero drawbacks and is by far their best business since Luis Suarez.

Potential Flop – Munas Dabbur

Sevilla’s business overall was fantastic, but their forwards were always going to be difficult to replace. Los Hispalenses lost 3 of their starting forwards in Ben-Yedder, Silva and Muriel. It left them with only Munir as a starting striker, leaving them with a lot of work to be done. I have my doubts about Luuk De Jong, but he can play as an effective target man. It’s their acquisition of Isreali forward Munas Dabbur where my suspicions are raised. The former Salzburg striker was fantastic during his time in Austria. Dabbur was a well rounded forward who could score as well as create. He was excellent in the Europa League, where he scored 8 in 10 and helped guide Salzburg to winning every game in their group. It’s obvious Dabbur has talent, but excelling in a league where Salzburg are a level above everyone else means there is an instant reason to be worried. He’s also 27. Usually, when taking a talented player from a weaker league, they need to be at an age where they can improve or have re-sell value. As per usual, I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Dabbur leaving the club in a year.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Kenny Lala and The Best of Ligue 1 #1

As I have reiterated, Ligue 1 sides contain some talents that big clubs should be keeping an eye on. With Marcus Thuram already covered, we’ll move on to another player who has had a standout season, that being Kenny Lala. Strasbourg have been one of many historical clubs to suffer in the 21st century. A club that saw success in the sixties, beating Nantes to win the Coupe de la Ligue in 1966. After years of unremarkable league finishes, relegation and financial trouble, it left the club facing liquidation in 2011. They were eventually reinstated into the 5th tier of French football.

Their rise back to the top has been nothing short of astounding. They returned to Ligue 1 in 2017, where they have remained ever since. After their debut season which saw them survive by the smallest of margins, it was last season which saw them take a step into the right direction. They finished in 11th, fixing their defensive issues while also adding more goals in attack. While xG claims they overachieved in attack, they still deserved to stay up. Their mid-table finish in the league looked even better after their victory over Guingamp in the Coupe de la France, their 4th victory in the competition. A great season for a club who have fought so hard over the years to get to such a point.

Lala was instrumental in this success. The 27-year-old is by no means a prospect and has been playing for different sides in Ligue 2, including Paris FC, Valenciennes and Lens. Strasbourg picked him up after his contract expired with Lens, signing him on a 2-year deal. He has been superb for the side. After his debut season for the Blues, which saw him contribute to 7 goals from right back, showing himself to be a good dribbler and solid defensively, he truly stepped up his game last season.

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Strasbourg have been lining up with a variety of formation, with the consistent theme being a back three being deployed in a majority of the systems used. Lala has been playing as the right wingback. He has been their primary source of creativity and is by far his best quality as a player. The Frenchman is averaging 1.8 key passes per game, the most in the side. He will always look to receive the ball as wide as possible. It shows during Strasbourg’s buildup. Lala will usually wait on the halfway line, to give his team an option when attacking. He is the heartbeat of this side. No other player averages more crosses and key passes than Lala. It’s where he excels. He has a fantastic range of passing, enabling him to quickly switch the ball when under pressure. The reliance placed on him can be shown when looking at how his numbers have changed from his debut season. His dribbling has dropped from 2 to 1.1 dribbles per game and defensive work has plummeted from 4.2 to 3.1 tackles and interceptions per game. It shows how his role has changed last season, moving from a regular full back you’d see in the modern game, to the creative hub we see today. He tops the side for assists with 9 and while xG shows how he has massively overachieved in this area, he has assisted some goals that should usually be saved (the opening goal in their 2-1 win over Monaco is a perfect example). It shouldn’t diminish his achievements, however, since he has still been a great creator for his side. His crosses are pinpoint and consistently finds his teammates in the box.

Lala is a player who possesses one enormous strength but features some shortcomings. The first is how he fairs defensively. While he can perform well in a back four, it would lead to losing that creativity he offers from the wide areas. His 3.1 tackles and interceptions aren’t low, but it’s when viewing him you can see how often he can be exposed. Wingers have loved to target his side. He can be easy to dispossess, which will lead to the right side exposed. He isn’t as pacey as Kyle Walker or Roussillon, meaning he can’t make those recovery runs other players can easily make. He is also not great in the air. He only wins 44% of his aerial duels, and considering he only attempts 1.8 per game, it isn’t a good sign to see a player struggle in the little number of duels he attempts. While he helps his team a lot in the final third, Lala can leave Strasbourg vulnerable defensively.

From the way I’ve described his strengths and weaknesses, he is very reminiscent of Kieran Trippier. Both are gifted passers but struggle defensively when under pressure. The difference between the two is that Lala is being played to his strengths, and is relied on heavily by his teammates. Trippier, on the other hand, has struggled this season, partly due to the injuries and lack of midfielders available for Tottenham. Lala has been allowed to excel and while he has his weaknesses, he has been vital in the steps forward that Strasbourg have taken this season.

 

 

 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Kieran Trippier and Brits Abroad

With the Premier League becoming the most popular and money driven league in the world, it’s an attractive prospect for both player and manager, with the league becoming the most desirable item for broadcast companies. It’s helped attract elite coaches like Sarri, Pep and Klopp, which in turn became a reason for some of the best talents to join the league. With the increase in money and popularity, it did leave one massive issue that not many other leagues experienced, the lack of British players moving abroad. Thanks to no other league being able to offer the same high wages as Premier League clubs could offer, they had no real insentive to move. Thanks to the elite coaches in the league, the players didn’t have a football related reason to leave. While it could be a sign of laziness, why leave your country to be paid less in different and unfamiliar environment. While we have seen a rise in young British players moving to the other top 5 leagues for the purpose of game time (Sancho, Oxford, Nelson and Aina to name a few), many English players in their prime do not leave the Premier League.

It’s what makes the idea of Kieran Trippier moving to Ancelotti’s Napoli an interesting idea. Since Sarri departed the club to join Chelsea, bringing Jorginho with him, the former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid manager has tried to stamp his own identity onto the side. He has made them less of a team reliant on build up through long stretches of possession, into a side which is slightly more direct. While they haven’t been as good as they were under Sarri, they’ve been able to keep their place in the top four. Ancelotti has been able to get the best out of some of the talent his disposal, with Milik, Malcuit and Ruiz having great seasons for the Gli Azzurri. The issue they currently face is moving on some of their older stars. While Serie A does have a well known reputation for hosting many players in their twilight years, but there does come a point where some of these stars have to be replaced. Mertens, Albiol and Callejon have been vital to the side over the past couple of years. While they have young players, they do have some important business to make if they want to remain competitive.

Trippier could be a very useful addition for Napoli. The former Burnley defender has gained a reputation for being one of the best creators in the league. He became a well known player after his stand out performances at the World Cup. While I did put Sime Vrsaljko as the best right back in Russia, Trippier wasn’t far behind. He flourished playing as a wing back for Gareth Southgate, and was vital for England on the attacking side. He has continued this incredible attacking output this season. He’s averaging 1.8 key passes per game, the second highest in the Tottenham squad, and has been averaging 2 crosses per game, the joint second highest in the Premier League, and the same amount as Trent Alexander-Arnold. He has consistenly improved every season, from being Kyle Walker’s understudy, to being a player heavily relied on by Pochettino. During Spurs’s incredible comeback against Ajax, Trippier was vital. He was adding the width and creativity that they needed to beat a very good side. His threatening ball to Llorente was important in the second goal. He is arguably the best creative full back in the league, and continues to give his side an option down that right side.

So what are his drawbacks? While he is great at going forward, it’s the defensive side that leaves a lot to be desired. Walker had these same problems, but he had least had the pace and strength to recover for when an opponent found space past him. Trippier doesn’t have the same luxary. If he is caught out in possession, he is unable to catch players like a Sadio Mane or Leroy Sane. It’s one reason why Tottenham went behind in the first half in Amsterdam. Ajax were constantly attacking down his side, knowing how they can overload that area and expose his weaknesses. These issues can be fixed when Tottenham deploy a back three, so there isn’t as much space left when he goes forward. It’s why he was so good in the World Cup. England were playing athletic defenders in Walker, Stones and Maguire, to cover the wide areas while the wing backs could push forward. He doesn’t have that same advantage when playing for a Tottenham side struggling with injuries all over the field. Trippier’s strengths are as a wide creator, and will fail if asked to cover the areas you expect more athletic defenders to be able to cover.

So where would he fit into this Napoli side? While saying at right back would be a simple observation, he would actually be much better as a right midfielder, taking over from Jose Callejon. While Callejon has been very good since signing from Real Madrid, he is a player who is going to struggle as his pace begins to drop. Trippier could help give width for a side without consistent wide talent. When playing further up the pitch, he wouldn’t be exposed as easily as he does in a back four. He would also had a better defensive presence to the side. While Callejon works well in a 4-3-3, playing further back means more defensive work is required, since the midfielders aren’t able to cover as much ground. Trippier could be a great option for Napoli in the wide areas, adding the same creativity while also adding something different.

If this move does end up going through, he will be the first notable English player to move abroad since Joe Hart. With younger players already seeing the benefits of playing in other leagues, maybe it’s time for the more experiences players to test themselves in a different environment, in a side that eager to challenge for a title.

5 Talking Points from England Vs Tunisia

I’ve said before that I genuinely believe this England team is a very good team, and while I am not an England fan myself, it was good to see all these talented players get some real credit. Let’s go through 5 talking points from last night’s game.

A rocket of a start

England began the game brilliantly. They pressed high up the pitch and and quickly moved the ball up the pitch. It was the way they were bound to play. With players like Lingard, Alli, and Sterling, you are given players who are great at finding space and at moving zones. The first 10 minutes were great signs. Lingard has a couple of chances which he probably should have stuck away, but it was different to what I have ever seen an England team do, have a plan. My issue with England over the past 16 years is they seem to not have any sort of tactic on how to approach the game. They seem to just rely on star players like Beckham and Gerrard, hence why they seem to jam them all in a team even though it didn’t work. This England team however has so much balance. The midfield highlights that pretty well. You have two solid defensive midfielders in Henderson and Dier, two good ball carriers in Lingard and Loftus-Cheek, an energetic midfielder in Delph and a good creator in Dele Alli. This midfield worked so well and it is mainly because of a certain Geordie.

Henderson – MOTM?

While Kane will get all of the headlines, and rightly so, Henderson does definitely deserve a lot of credit. Henderson is a player I have never loved, but I do understand why managers seem to like him. In this game he showed why. His passing was very impressive. Whether it was a simple ball to Alli or Lingard, or a long ball straight to the full back, he constantly kept things ticking. It was great to see him do so well. I’ve also mentioned how I don’t understand why Shelvey was even considered an option. Henderson had a much better pass accuracy and completed the most passes in the premier league last season. He has the quality and gives England a real shield for the defense. While I like Dier’s tenacity, Henderson definitely has been the right pick.

Solid Defense?

On paper, a 3 man back line of Maguire, Walker and Stones would be okay, and it was. The biggest positive with all three of these players is their ability on the ball. All definitely have confidence when in possession, and are able to carry the ball out effectively. This could be seen multiple times, with Walker slipping in a very good ball to Trippier in the first half, and John Stones always keeping that back four very calm. However there were moments that did show their inexperience. Kyle Walker had a moment of madness and elbowed the Tunisian forward, and Maguire misplaced a simple that could have lead to a goal. This back four contains a defender that has a never played at the top level, another who is still very young, and another who usually plays fullback. It will have its sketchy moments, but overall very positive.

Harry Kane

The new captain began his first world cup with a bang, and scored 2 goals that won his team the game. Before this tournament, Kane has been very decent for England. He managed to get only 5 goals in qualifying. This was a very low number when comparing to other top strikers, with Lewandowski banging 16, and Cristiano Ronaldo scoring 15. Like England, he wasn’t too impressive. But tournaments can bring the best out of a player, and so far it has. While Kane’s involvement in the game was pretty limited, with most of ball going to the two central midfielders or the full back, he still managed to get in that right place at that right time to back both goals. We always want the modern striker to get involved in the game and keep the ball to assist teammates, but sometimes a pure goal scorer is what they need. If he keeps it up, he could be remembered just as fondly as Lineker or Shearer.

Positive changes

I was very impressed with Southgate’s changes in the game. He took of Sterling, who didn’t have the best of games, and brought on Rashford. The United winger had a great impact on the game and gave England so much energy and was willing to take on players with his speed and strength. The next change was Loftus-Cheek for Dele Alli, who got a slight injury in the game. He gave quite the direct replacement, offering an incredible dribbling ability, and because of his size, was so hard to get off the ball. Dier for Lingard was right at the end, but that was just to waste time. Overall I thought Southgate is making the right decisions regarding making changes to the game.