20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #3 – Conte turning Inter into Scudetto Challengers?

De Ligt Joining Europe’s Elite 

This transfer window has been the summer full of players that everyone knew were going to move. We have already seen Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann make their dream moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The next player who is likely to leave their club is Matthijs De Ligt.

His growth from a frail kid playing against Manchester United in the Europa League to becoming a generational talent, while not as fascinating as the journeys of Jamie Vardy or Ollie Watkins, it still fantastic just because of the calibre of player De Ligt now is. The Dutchman is the complete package in what teams want from a centre back. He is an elite distributor, possessed a large frame, can catch any forward with his pace and was his team’s captain at only 19. The Eredivise has kept its reputation of being a flip of a coin in terms of either fantastic talent like Van Dijk or Memphis Depay, or a player who struggles to adapt to a better league (Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen spring to mind). De Ligt is different. His numbers in his domestic league are outstanding (he’s been taking more shots in the league than Diego Costa this season) but what makes the prospect of seeing him in one of the top 5 leagues is what he showed in the Champions League. He put fantastic performances in both legs against Juventus and Tottenham, scoring against both teams, including the winner in Turin. It’s arguably my favourite trait of his, being his presence in the opposition box. When Ajax would get a corner, the cameras would zoom in on De Ligt, and around him were usually two players, ensuring he cannot make those deadly runs into the box. What’s so fascinating about this is De Ligt is unstoppable. His winner against Juventus was headed between Pjanic and Sandro, where they could not do anything to stop him. Set-pieces have become more critical than ever, with clubs in desperation to take advantage of a goalscoring opportunities that many have failed to seize. It’s why Van Dijk and Harry Maguire are valued so highly. Their threat in the box gives their team an outlet that can give them those extra goals to move further up the table. De Ligt is among Europe’s elite defenders already, and it’s what makes all the big clubs desperate to get his signature.

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His strengths are well known by now, but where should the Dutchman go? De Ligt is linked to numerous big clubs, with Juventus, PSG, Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona all interested in getting his signature. He would be a perfect addition to all these clubs. Barcelona will have their long term heir to Pique while allowing them to sell Umtiti, a player who is currently out of favour with Valverde. PSG would get an improvement over what they now have in defence and would most likely give De Ligt a league title for every year he plays. PSG were rumoured to have offered De Ligt a 4-year deal. He could finish the contract, and he would still only be 23, meaning he would still have a future to join other clubs with even more title-winning medals. Manchester United should sign him if they can, but I would not recommend De Ligt join that sinking ship of a club.

Juventus are the favourites to sign him. The Old Lady have done some great business during the summer window. Both Aaron Ramsey, Gianluigi Buffon and Adrien Rabiot have arrived on free transfers and three defensive prospects in Luca Pellegrini from Roma, Cristian Romero from Genoa and Merih Demiral from Sassuolo for over £50 million (It’s important to note that Spinazzola, Sturaro and Rogerio have been swapped for the respective clubs). So many football experts have been wondering how Juventus have this much money to spend. A club that can pay Ronaldo’s wages, as well as a dozen of other high earners is also able to pay £60 million for De Ligt as well as paying his rumoured £350k a week he is demanding. It’s interesting to see what Juventus would be willing to let go to ensure they can get their man.

Even with Juventus most likely to sign him and the likeliness of this happening now very low, I would love to see De Ligt playing under Jurgen Klopp next season. Liverpool, while arguably one of the best in the history of the league and possessed a side that only conceded 22 goals last season, the best record in the league. Most of that is down to Van Dijk and Allison having superb seasons and keeping their side organised. They have a fantastic defence, but the departure of Moreno and possibility of Lovren leaving the club has left space in the squad for additions. While the pair were not essential members of the team, they at least gave cover to positions that needed reinforcements. While left-back is by far the priority for signings this season, adding a player as good as De Ligt is a great idea. Van Dijk is fantastic, but if he does suffer a significant injury, which he has in the past, would leave Liverpool at a severe disadvantage in their attempts to challenge Manchester City once again. It would give Liverpool the best centre back partnership in the league, and if Van Dijk were to get injured, they would cope without him. While De Ligt would be successful no matter where he goes, he would genuinely show his talents and increase his reputation for playing for one of the best sides and under an elite coach.

Leverkusen’s Best Chance

Moving back to the Bundesliga, let’s look at another side that could be very exciting to watch. Peter Bosz is a coach who, while not making the sturdiest defences, he can get his side scoring goals. His Ajax side did show immaturity at times, but Bosz did manage to get a lot of goals out of Kasper Dolberg, something Ten Haag has failed to do. Think of Bosz’s side as the start to the what Ajax did last year. After his disastrous spell with Dortmund, being offered a job at a team full of attacking talent was precisely the job Bosz needed.

It is no understatement when mentioning how attacking Leverkusen are now being managed by Bosz. This change was so significant, and it seeing how well Leverkusen were performing before and after his appointment. Leverkusen were sitting in 9th, and deservedly so. They only managed seven wins out of 17 and most worryingly, were 9th in goals scored with 26, behind Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg. It’s arguably what got Herrlich sacked and why Bosz came in. They have a terrific group of players, especially in attack and should consistently be in those Champions League places. Havertz, Brandt, Volland and Bailey are talented enough to compete with anyone in the Bundesliga.
The issue has been trying to get all their talented players in the same team and getting them to perform at their highest level. Bosz seems to have done this, with many players standing out since his arrival. His first change was the formation, going from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. It involved moving Brandt more centrally and turning Havertz into a free-roaming 10. It brought the best out of both players. It gave Brandt the chance to get involved more on the ball, enabling him to use his intelligence and exceptional passing to help find gaps in opposition defences. Brandt had a fantastic second half of the season. He ended the season with 18 goal contributions, and 14 of those came after Bosz arrival. His new coach was the first to turn Brandt from a talent into an excellent player. Brandt isn’t the only attacker who has improved massively under Bosz. He has pushed Havertz to another level from the high bar he has already set, got Volland performing more consistently than ever before and managed found goals in Alario, with his xGP90 under Bosz sitting at an incredible 0.88.

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Leverkusen’s current crop of players is very exciting, but some of their new additions make their prospects even more impressive. With Brandt leaving for a small £21 million, being one of the bargains of the summer, but Leverkusen’s replacement is even better, with Kerem Demirbay arriving for £28 million. I’ve spoken heavily about Demirbay before, but it’s hard to deny just how good of a replacement this is. The German attacker has been Hoffenheim’s drive in attack since his arrival. Aggressive, a great passer and a love for a longshot, Demirbay will give similar productivity to Brandt, with the added benefit of possessing a real cutting edge in the final third. Mousa Diaby is another exciting arrival. Leverkusen managed to get the French prospect for a bargain £13 million thanks to Paris having to deal with their FFP problems. Even with his limited minutes, he managed to make an impression. Out of under 23 players in Europe who played over 1000 minutes, only Sane, Iwobi and Gnabry finished the season with a higher xA per 90 than Diaby. While you can argue that he was playing for a team far above their competition in terms of talent, he was still performing whenever given a chance. He’s still only 19, and if Bosz can give him the minutes he needs at a young age, he could develop into another breakout star to develop in the Bundesliga.

My only doubts towards Leverkusen next season is the rather negative reputation Peter Bosz has had in terms of his tactics in the big games. While a win over Bayern was impressive, Leverkusen did faulter against the other top sides in the league, with defeats to Hoffenheim, Dortmund and RB Leipzig showing once again how better coaches consistently outclass Bosz. He doesn’t have that same reactive thinking that has helped Pochettino and Zidane stand out in the past. There is a very slim chance they will challenge for the title, but if you want to see a good team play arguably the best football in the league, Bayer Leverkusen should be the first team to watch.

Napoli’s Scudetto Challenge 

We’ve already discussed their chances not long ago, so we’ll keep this short. Napoli are the only settled team out of the top sides in Italy. Juventus have just appointed Maurizio Sarri, a manager who as we’ve recently seen with Chelsea, will need time for his players to adapt to the system that Sarri will attempt to place on the side. While Napoli have made fantastic signings, especially a generation talent in De Ligt, there are still many senior players in that side that need to be moved on. It’ll be challenging for Juventus to compete on all fronts and I doubt if they do finish next season as Champions, it will not be nearly as comfortable as it has in the past. Milan, Roma and Inter (we’ll get to them soon) are going through similar situations, so it makes them unlikely contenders.

It leaves Napoli in an excellent position. Ancelotti attempted to change Napoli from a dominant possession side into a more direct team focused on an energetic midfield and fitting in forwards like Insigne and Mertens into partnerships and cover the channels. Napoli primarily deployed a 4-4-2 and meant they could play more of their attacks and aim to attack through the wide areas. It made them way less patient in build-up, and while it did leave them fragile at times since they weren’t retaining the ball nearly as much, it did make them just as fun to watch and brought the best out of many players in the side. After an excellent debut season, which saw improvement in some players and a drop in others, it showed the potential that Ancelotti’s side could reach when given more time and better players.

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They’ve already made smart moves in the market. They offloaded both Albiol and Diawara. Albiol was getting old, and it was about time for him to leave the club and Diawara wasn’t getting the game time we’ve all wanted him to get since his arrival from Bologna back in 2016. The midfielder’s departure gave Napoli the chance to bring in Kostas Manolas. While he can be wreckless and was apart of a weak Roma backline, he is younger than Albiol and possesses a vast passing range and has the pace needed to cover the vast distance required in a high line. If they can get a deal for James Rodriguez over the line, it could be the signing to give Napoli their best chance to win Serie A for a very long time.

Conte Fixing Inter

Inter Milan have been extremely disappointing for the past couple of years. The appointment of Luciano Spaletti and some huge signings during his tenure showed ambition and a goal of competing with Juventus. However, even with some huge additions in Skriniar, De Vrij, Nainggolan, Martinez and Vrsaljko, their new quality was not seen on the pitch. While the defence remained fantastic throughout Spaletti’s spell at the club, they still had a lot of players who were not good enough. Sime Vrsaljko wasn’t registered in the squad after January due to consistent injuries, and Nainggolan faired even worse. Spending over £30 million on an ageing midfielder who famously had a very unhealthy lifestyle should never have happened. Nainggolan was fantastic during Spaletti’s reign at Roma but had a very average season under Di Francesco. His goal contributions were dropping, and he was consistently putting in less defensive work. He continued showing these negative sides to his game and has gone on to be one of the worst signings in the past decade.

Conte has a lot of work to do in Milan. The Nerazzurri finished 21 points behind Juventus and need to close that gap. Conte is arguably the best defensive manager in the world and can organise any side in Europe and ensure they are at least stable. One of his first signings for next season was Valentino Lazaro. The Austrian, able to play at either right-back or right midfield, puts in above-average defensive numbers while pushing forward to help Hertha Berlin in the final third. He would be a natural fit in Conte’s famous 3-4-3 formation. Inter’s starting back three for next season could be the best in the league. Skriniar, De Vrij and Godin offer a tough and experienced backline that can deal with a majority of attacks in Europe. All are comfortable on the ball, and while Godin is far past his best, he will help keep them organised on the pitch.

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Their midfield offers versatility and quality, with players able to fill in multiple roles to help Inter dominate the centre. Conte has always preferred hard-working midfielders who can stay organised and put in a substantial amount of defensive work. His title-winning partnership of Ngolo Kante and Nemanja Matic displays this correctly. It isn’t a surprise that Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio had the best years of their career under Conte. Two players who were known for their energy, strength and defensive power in the midfield. Inter, even after the signing of Italian midfielder Nicolo Barella, have an imposing midfield roster. Marcelo Brozovic has been one of the best midfielders in Serie A for years now, with his fantastic passing ability and impressive defensive output showing his superiority in the middle of the park, even if he does rack up a lot of yellow cards. Vecino offers a solid yet unspectacular option, and Gagliardini was a promising signing at the time but has never been given the game time by his previous managers. There is enough talent here for Conte to work with and could get the best out of past players who failed to shine under Spaletti.

The midfield and attack were never a huge issue as a whole; instead, it was in attack in which Inter were continuously struggling, with issues on and off the field showing Inter as arguably the worst attacking side out of the top 7. It has to begin with Mauro Icardi. While undoubtedly one of the best finishers in Europe, his off the field issues have consistently halted his career and is why so many clubs are put off by him. His deliberate attempts to frustrate Maxi Lopez, threatening the Inter ultras and now faking injuries to avoid playing for the team. He would be problematic for clubs, and it’s why Inter are pushing him out of the club. The issue is no one will want to sign him, meaning Inter will have to persist with him until the end of the Argentine’s contract. Icardi’s trouble has forced Inter to look elsewhere for a forward, with Lukaku being Conte’s first option, which isn’t the first time the Italian coach has pursued Lukaku. In 2017, Chelsea were seen as the favourites to sign the Belgian marksman, but Manchester United swooped in the last minute to sign him. Conte seems desperate to work with Lukaku, and it’s easy to see why. He is a great finisher who can score all types of goals. He is a physically gifted striker, able to chase balls into the channel or play as a more old fashioned number 9. While Icardi is a deadly marksman, Lukaku will give them the better all-round striker and could offer more in build-up play. The issue with signing Lukaku is just how poor he was playing at times last season. He looked lethargic and was aiding the opposition in neutralising any threat posed by United. If Inter can get Lukaku at his best, he will score bags of goals for them.

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Am I expecting Inter Milan to win the Scudetto in Conte’s first season? No, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I remember doubting Conte and what he could with Chelsea when he arrived in England. He was up against Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp and Mourinho. I thought they wouldn’t get near the title, yet Chelsea went on to be one of the best sides the league has ever seen. Conte is that good of a coach that Inter winning the league is never off the table.

PSG’s Change in Approach

It’s safe to say that the Neymar project has been a colossal failure. He arrived to help push PSG closer to winning the Champions League, while also increasing his chances of winning the Balon d’Or by exiting Messi’s shadow. Neymar has been fantastic whenever he has played. The issue is he has not played nearly enough minutes for the most expensive player of all time. He missed PSG’s round of 16 clashes once again, and his complaints regarding their lack of competitiveness in Europe’s premium competition is hypocritical, considering he failed to help PSG reach their goal of being taken seriously among Europe’s elite. His consistent injury problems and awful attitude has meant that the spotlight is on Kylian Mbappe, who has been the second-best player on the planet in the last 18 months. While he has struggled at moments, he has been sensational and is the best young player I have ever seen. Last season, he was the first player under 21 to score over 30 goals in the top 5 leagues since R9, which should show the gap Mbappe has made between himself and the competition.

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With Leonardo now PSG’s sporting director, his first aim was to discard the superstar approach that the Champions had in the past. He seemed to be targetting Neymar, and it’s so easy to see why Leonardo is tired of the Brazilian. Mbappe has taken over as PSG’s best attacker so selling Neymar for as much Barcelona are willing to offer the best plan of action. I agree with Leonardo’s new look at PSG. While they do provide the same wages the other superclubs can, they can’t offer the same competitiveness as Real Madrid or the top Premier League clubs. They cannot please players like Neymar, and it makes his decision to leave Barcelona in the first place even more moronic.

Paris are taking the right steps in reinforcing their new strategy. The arrivals of Herrera, Sarabria and Diallo are sensible moves that improve the team. While Herrera is on the older side, he offers that bite and defensive work rate that will make him a great choice in the bigger games. He won’t start every game but will be a valuable player for Tuchel. Sarabria was another smart piece of business, arriving for £19 million. He was one of the best creators in La Liga and has worked well with managers who demand a lot from their players physically. Diallo is another astute signing from the Parisians. He was made seemingly available after Dortmund’s purchase of Matts Hummels, and it’s safe to say Paris have the better end of the deal. Diallo offers a comfortable ball player and physically strong defender who is still very young for only £28 million. He might not be as good as De Ligt, but he is a fantastic acquisition.

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These new arrivals blend well with the departures of Buffon, Alves and Rabiot. Three players on high wages, who were replaceable. PSG now have more of a bite in the team, with players willing to do the hard yards that Tuchel will demand. Even though losing Rabiot is enormous, he has obvious attitude problems and is the last player you want in a dressing room. PSG have a complete side and arguably look better than ever to challenge for the Champions League.

Monchi’s Failure! Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Review

Let’s move on the next game in the Champions League, which saw a struggling Roma side face a Porto side which are quite difficult to break down. While other games were being spoken more on, this tie still had some excitement to it, so let’s look at a game where Roma showed their best and worst sides, and Porto battled for their place in the quarter finals.

We’ll begin with the first leg, which saw Roma come out deserving 2-1 winners over their Portguese opponents. This was the game that Roma needed to win, and was arguably their biggest game of the season. Roma were missing Cengiz Under for this game, someone I didn’t realise was actually out until that first leg. It didn’t matteer much, since it was Nicolo Zaniolo who came in to replace him. The Italian has been one of the few bright sparks for Roma this season, and showed it in this game. He was the man of the match, scoring both goals and put in a very good performance for his side, taking 3 shots on target and completing 2 dribbles. I do think there are elements of his game he needs to improve, mainly his passing, but he gets into good areas and plays the role of a second striker very effectively. While Roma didn’t exactly dominate this game, they did put in a performance that was worthy of the victory, even with a complete collapse in defence costed them that clean sheet.

Porto weren’t exactly good at all, but not all is their fault. They were missing Moussa Marega, their top goalscrorer in the competition with 5 goals. While he isn’t the most technically gifted footballer around, he uses his physicality and aggression to his advantage. Without him, Porto just lacked that bite up the field, which was needed in this game. I mentioned how they needed to win the battle in midfield, and they struggled to do so. Pellegrini ran the show, creating 5 chances and having 4 shots. Pereira and Herrera just couldn’t get near him, and allowed him to pull the strings. I mentioned before that Porto were very fortunate in their away games so far in the Champions League, and they showed that against Roma. They managed 2 shots on target in the game, showing how much they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had. This is down to both of their strikers on the night, Soares and Fernando, just not being very good. Fernando only managed 18 touches, and both forward kept drifting out wide, making it very hard for Porto to create anything of note. They did manage that important away goal, thanks to Adrien Lopez getting on the end of a good ball in the box. While Roma had the advantage, Porto were definitely still in this tie.

The first leg showed Roma at their best, and the second leg showed them at their worst. I said in my preview that they needed to take advantage of that first leg because they had Lazio right before their visit to Portugal. To say their form took a cataclysmic drop after that win is an understatement. They scraped by with wins against struggling Frosinone and Bologna, but a huge 3-0 loss to Lazio hurt the side. Lazio aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, but showed a spark of their attacking prowess shown when they were so close to Champions League football. It left Roma low on confidence and going to face Porto, who had Moussa Marega back from injury. Roma were so much worse in this game than their first leg victory, and some of it has to go down to some of the changes made to the side that fought valiantly in Rome. He went back to a back 3 and changed an energetic midfield of Cristante and Pellegrini to accompany De Rossi and went to a midfield 2 of the captain and N’Zonzi. It gave the side zero protection from Porto, and allowed their opponents to comfortably control the game without the bite and speed that Roma had in the last game. It baffles me why Di Francesco would change a winning formula like that, in favour of a more pragmatic approach that didn’t work. It’s all down to Di Francesco because the players to have to take some of the blame. Manolas gave the ball away early in the game and allowed Corona to gift Soares with an open net. These players showed in both legs that they seem unable to keep track of runners, and the second goal showed that. Karsdrop was not tight enough on Telles, and Marcano just allowing Marega to make a run at the far post. It’s been a consistent theme of what has went wrong in the capital this season. With Di Francesco gone and Monchi close to Arsenal, the whole Roma project that looked so promising has now fell into ruin. While Di Francesco always has his doubters, me included, I do think Monchi should face some of the blame. I think he was hoping to have the chance to bring in prospects like Under and Kluivert time to develop into the players they are showing they could be. But the difference has been what changed since his arrivals. Both Milan clubs had massive investment which instantly put them back into the conversation for top 4, while Lazio and Atalanta were both making smart moves to push for those European football. Roma were lucky to even qualify for Champions League football last season. If it wasn’t for Inter dropping the ball, and Lazio having a slight consistency problem, I doubt they would have even qualified. Allison was the 2nd best goalkeeper in Europe last season, and saved Roma a lot of points. Replacing him with a relatively average keeper in Olsen was not a good move. Allowing both Strootman Nainggolan to leave, and replacing them with Cristante and N’Zonzi, two players who are not better than the ones who departed, left them weak in a position they were strong in for so long. Monchi seemed to change the plan of long term success to just trying to succeed on the short term. While signings like Pellegrini and Kluivert showed plenty of promise, it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day, to justify missing out on the attraction of Champions League football.

Porto were much better in this game, as it was expected. While their away record is fortunate at best, no one can argue just how good they’ve been at home in Europe. In the group stages, they scored 8 and only conceded 2. They showed Roma why teams fear them in their homeland. They were aggressive and attacked with plenty width. I complained that Pereira and Herrera didn’t do enough in the first leg, but they definitely brought their best in the home leg. Pereira especially was outstanding. He dominated that midfield, where he won 3 tackles, created 3 chances and had 4 shots. A good display from a player we know is capable of them. However the man of the match was comfortably Moussa Marega. He returned to the team in style. He forced Manolas to make the mistake, which lead to the first goal, and scored the second to ensure that Porto would go into extra time. He also created 2 chances and had 4 shots. While I don’t think he’s a great or even a good player, you cannot deny he is very useful and key to the way his side attacks. It is great to see Porto and Ajax, two historic clubs progress to the round of 16, in a world where the Top 5 leagues dominate every year. It gives hope that these leagues will only improve and continue to make smart business, the more their bigger clubs progress. Porto will not be an easy tie in the next round, and if they can just improve their away form, they could make it a tough tie for whoever they are drawn against.

5 Players Who Could FIX Manchester United’s Defence

United are on a real resurgence at the moment. Oli Gunnar Solskjaer has just broken an English record for the first manager to win his first 5 games with a +2 goal advantage in each game. A strange record broken but it is still impressive nevertheless. United are currently attacking better, moving the ball faster and overall look happier. It wasn’t going to take a master tactician to improve United. They just needed a coach who was going to make the players happy, and not alienate half the squad with pointless masculinity tests. Ever since Solskjaer has arrived, Pogba has gone into supernova, and putting in some of the best performances of his career, Rashford is looking like the striker I never thought he could be, and even Matic is looking competent again. But one area that needs changing no matter what happens in the next 5 months is the defence. United’s pool of defenders just isn’t good enough. Even looking at last season, United might have kept the most clean sheets, but that wasn’t down to the defenders and the way United sat back. It was down to David De Gea having the best season a goalkeeper had ever had. Now that De Gea has came back to earth, it has exposed United’s defence to being average at best. It’s time for this back-line to get reshuffled, whether it’s now or in the summer. Let’s look at the players currently at the club, and go on to see where they need to improve.

Victor Lindelof

A player who didn’t exactly start his United career off in the best of ways, making an awful mistake to gift Huddersfield with a huge win over the Red Devils. After the occasional start last season, he has truly shown why United spent so much money on a relatively unknown player. You just have to look at his man of the match display against Newcastle. He was so calm on the ball, which is a massive boost for United, having a defender who doesn’t look so nervy whenever the ball is near his feet. He has shades of Alderweireld in the way he distributes the ball. He created 2 chances against Newcastle. That is crazy considering he is a centre back! He suits exactly what you United thrive to be. The biggest issue is his aerial ability. It’s a problem that just cannot be avoided. While he can read the game relatively well, he just struggles when balls are played in the air. This can be seen from his aerial with percentage. While elite defenders like Van Dijk and Sergio Ramos win 71% and 70% respectively, Lindelof wins 57%. It’s a clear weakness to a player with a very good skill set. Not only is he staying, but he has to start.

Conclusion – Starts Every Game!

Eric Bailly

While Lindelof started poorly and came into his own, Bailly has almost went into reverse. He was signed almost out of no where, only being at Villarreal for less than 2 years, before making a big £30m move to United back in 2016. I had no idea what to expect, but in his first 2 months, I was incredibly impressed. His composure, speed, aggression and intelligence made him stand out among a group of defenders with zero ability on the ball. However injuries arrived. From memory I remember one during United’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, which kept him out for a couple of weeks, and in his second season he missed most of the winter period again, coming back to rescue United against Liverpool. While his recklessness can let him down, as seen against Bournemouth. He barely gets dribbled past, wins a majority of his tackles, and is great when needing to make a recovery tackle. He’s still only 24. I would definitely keep him around, and hope he can regain the form that looked so promising when he arrived.

Conclusion – Keep as a squad player

Chris Smalling

An ever present under every manager since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Smalling has been able to keep his place in the side, based on bring the best out of a bad bunch. He excelled under Louis Van Gaal, with the Dutchman’s style and set up massively protecting Smalling. Soon as he was given as much protection under Mourinho, he was massively exposed for his inability to deal with small agile players, like Hazard and Sterling, who can run circles around him. He is great at dealing with aerial threats, but that’s it. He can’t distribute effectively and is getting too old to be able to learn more. While he could be a decent squad player, it’s time for this club to finally grow a pair, and not settle for average. I wouldn’t be surprised if a team in the lower half of the table would be interested.

Conclusion – Sell

Phil Jones

Injuries, clumsiness, slow, dangerous. Just some of the words to describe Phil Jones. I would go into detail but by now it’s so obvious she should be sold.

Conclusion – SELL IMMEDIATELY

Marcos Rojo

Another who was plagued by injuries. He was a player I wanted gone from United after his first season. He was just a defensive nightmare throughout his time under LVG. It included the worst left back I’ve ever seen. After Shaw’s leg break, Rojo filled in at left back for a majority of the season, and was just awful. Truly, truly awful. He did have a very good debut season under Mourinho, including an incredible performance at home against Spurs. But I just think he’s a liability in the squad. His injuries and mistakes mean he cannot remain in Manchester. I would sell him January for anyone who would be slightly interested.

Conclusion – Sell immediately

Axel Tuanzebe

Who a small majority of you are asking? Well Tuanzebe is a current prospect who is on loan at Aston Villa. Many Villa fans have been heaping praise on the young defender, for his calmness on the ball and his maturity at such a young age. I can completely understand where they are coming from. Every time I’ve seen him play I notice just how cool and relaxed he looks. He can read the game well and is a very good distributor of the ball. He is completing the most passes for Aston Villa with 49. However he has a similar problem as Lindelof, he just isn’t great in the air. He is playing in a league where a majority of the times do play it high, which is going to make it more difficult for him. He is still only making 2.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, which seeing as he ranks high in his defensive actions, is more of a sign of the team he’s playing for. He is definitely not going out on loan next season, and with Bailly being consistent with injuries, he could be useful to come in during the busy winter period. I’m unsure if he would want that role though.

Conclusion – Keep as a back up

After going through the current crop of players, it’s c lear that with the average age of the remaining players being 23, it’s clear some experience is definitely needed. While having such young talent is useful, some of these players still need guidance and a leader beside them, to bring the best out of them. Another quality that is definitely needed is some aerial dominance. As mentioned, Lindelof and Tuanzebe both aren’t great in the air, and need a player who can deal with that threat. They also need to have some ability on the ball, as seen with my criticism of Smalling and Jones. These are a lot of criteria’s to fill here. Not all will fill them, but a couple definitely will. Let’s go through them, from best fit, to some good options.

Kalidou Koulibaly

When Liverpool signed Virgil Van Dijk last year, it was seen as a genius bit of business. Van Dijk was the definition of a defender at his peak. He has everything to succeed at the top level, having an amazing range of passing, superiority in the air, able to read the game well and is even very useful at set pieces. While I would love to argue that Liverpool have been pretty lucky this season to even be at the top of the table, Van Dijk has still been a massive improvement at Merseyside. I bring this up because I thnk Kalidou Koulibaly would have a very similar impact.

The Senegalese international’s rise to the top as been a great story. He began his career playing in the second division of French football, playing for Metz. He was only 18 at the time, but he went on to start 16 games, and then 21 in the following season. He only stayed for 2 seasons, signing for Genk in 2012 for £1.1m. He then went on to further establish himself in Belgium, putting in some very good performances in the Europa League. He made 7 appearances in the 2013/14 season, and put in some great performances in their run to the round of 32, after losing to FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Koulibaly put in 5.3 tackles and interceptions, made 4.3 clearances and 2.4 aerial duels. He was only 21 at the time. They were great signs of a player with plenty of potential.

His time at Napoli can only be seen as an absolute success. His first season was under Rafa Benitez, a season where he performed very well. Even though he was playing for a better side, he still managed to have better defensive numbers, was barely getting dribbled past and his pass numbers truly started to blossom. He finally started to show why Napoli seemed to think he was ready for the big stage. After Benitez departed for Madrid, Maurizio Sarri arrived. This was the start of all the praise the defender began to receive. He fitted a difficult and demanding system perfectly. He was fast and strong enough to be able to deal with the constant counter attacks Napoli would face, due to their players being so high up the pitch. It also helped that he is an excellent distributor. This season, the defender has been averaging 4.9 long balls per game, with only Raul Albiol beating that. It shows how good is range of passing is, helping his side keep hold of the ball, and allow their midfielders to receive the ball at higher areas of the pitch. It’s an essential quality to have in a defender in the modern game, giving more flexibility in how to approach different games.

He adds that high level in defence to a United side in desperate need of it. His presence and ability will not only improve the team, but improve the players around him. Those incredibly close games, like that game against Tottenham, would have been so close. United face way too many shots. With the likes of Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Wolves all facing less shots than the Red Devils. They are allowing their opponents to create chances in good areas. Having better players does help to fix this. It will allow the manager to approach games with less fear, because they have defenders who aren’t going to be caught out and allow the opposition players to take advantage of it. Koulibaly is at an elite stage and is in his prime years. While £95 million is a lot for any player, if they can get him, they should.

Toby Alderweireld

While this may seem boring, it just has to be done. United’s long chase for the Belgian has became tiring at this point, and while discussing him might be a bit safe, it’s easy to forget why the Red Devils wanted Alderweireld so badly.

I like to think of Alderweireld as the worst mistake made by Atletico Madrid and in maybe Southampton to an extent. Back in 2014, fresh after winning La Liga and reaching a Champions League final, Alderweireld was sent out on loan to Southampton. It’s easy to see why however, with the Belgian only starting 10 games in the league that season. Atletico had the best defence in Europe that season, with Godin and Miranda forming an aggressive and tough defence, one that Alderweireld just couldn’t fit into. In hindsight, leaving the club was definitely the best idea. He isn’t a player who is fantastic in the air, or never put in massive tackle and interception numbers. He didn’t fit the Simeone system, and it was time to move to a club that fitted his style.

His arrival in the South of England was one of many smart deals done by Southampton that year. The sales of Lovren, Lallana, Shaw, Lambert and Chambers gave them plenty of cash to splash in the market, and replaced them very adequately, and in some cases, improved them. Sadio Mané and Dusan Tadic were brought to add some creativity and flair to a side that just lost its best attacker in Lallana. Bertrand arrived from Chelsea to fill in at left back, and became a very good player in the process, and Pelle and Long arrived to fight for a place upfront. They took players from all over the continent, in a bid to outsmart some of the clubs at the higher end of the table. By Christmas, Southampton were 2nd in the table, and their smart business practices seemed to have paid off.

Alderweireld was one of the highlights here. His distribution and reading of the game made for a perfect partner to the more aggressive Jose Fonte. At the time, many saw Fonte as the superior player. His numbers show that, making 5.3 tackles and interceptions and making 5.5 clearances. But now thanks to hindsight, it’s clear to see that Alderweireld was given his teammate the freedom to be doing all of the destroyer work. Alderweireld might have been putting in less defensive work (Fonte also had the advantage of playing more games. 37 to to his teammates 26), he was completing more long balls and was giving away less fouls. There are usually two types of defenders. The more aggressive type, like a Chiellini or Ramos. These are players who will rush out and put pressure on the attackers. The sweepers have to fill in for the space that the destroyers leave behind. David Luiz, Gerard Pique and of course, Toby Alderweireld all fill this quota. They are the more intelligent players usually, and are key to a defence functioning. It puts less pressure on their partners, knowing that if they fail to make the challenge, someone will be there to make the recovery tackle. It was no surprise that after Alderweireld left the club to return to Atletico Madrid, Fonte was never able to recapture this career high.

His first season at Tottenham was simply outstanding. He played all 38 games, registering 4 goals and 2 assists. The curious question is how did a central defender get 2 assists? Well this leads into Alderweireld’s best quality, his passing. The 30 year old has arguably the best passing ability out of any centre back in Europe. Both of his assists that season came from balls right over the top to Dele Alli, landing straight to his feet, gifting him a chance at goal. This exact move happened twice, and it shows why he became so valuable. Before his arrival in the 2015, Spurs’s defence was seen as a massive weakness. During the 2014/15 season, Tottenham conceded the 5th most goals in the league with 58, more than the likes of Sunderland and Burnley, who were relegated that season. After Alderweireld arrived, they conceded the joint least amount of goals with 35. This could be down to Pochettino just improving his team and improving in all departments, but Alderweireld still deserves plenty of credit. His calmness and great reason of the game gave Vertonghen, Rose and Walker more freedom in a way. Rose and Walker didn’t have to worry as much in a defensive sense, giving them a licence to attack without having to worry about being caught out by opposing winger. While the England pair did get plenty of benefits with Alderweireld’s arrival, it was Vertonghen who gained the biggest boost. This wasn’t the first time they have played together. Both play for Belgium and they also played for Ajax in their younger days. Their time in North London together created one of the best defensive partnerships in recent memory. This isn’t to discredit Vertonghen in any way. He is one of a very small group to win player of the month as a defender. He was finally given a competent partner in defence, who would allow him to not worry when he steps put to intercept the ball. One player was able to bring the best out of an entire defence, and Alderweireld deserves all the credit for that.

I bring all of this up because they all back up exactly what he would offer to United. Whether it’s Solsjkaer or Pochettino managing the club next season, they need a leader and a great distributor. Alderweireld ticks all of these boxes very effectively. He will give not only his defensive partner (most likely Lindelof) a calmer and experienced head beside him, but will give the full backs the reassurance to bomb forward, and finally get to good positions to support the forwards. There is a problem here however. The first being his age. Alderweireld is now 30, putting him in a position where improving is unlikely, and declining is very unlikely. You don’t know how some players adapt as they age. Will they stay consistent in some cases improve, like Chiellini and Xavi, or decline at a rapid pace, like Ferdinand or Iniesta. Spending money on an older player is always a risk, but this actually brings into the next positive. The Belgian will be available for only £25 million. Even if there is a chance he will decline, you hope by then the younger players will be ready to step up. Alderweireld might not be my first choice, but I would have no issue with him playing at Old Trafford, but there are definitely better options now.

Kostas Manolas

Onto a player who has only recently became a possible option, Manolas has became a very good defender during his time in the Italian capital. While he wouldn’t be my first choice, I would have zero complaints if he was brought in. His time at Roma has largely been a success. He arrived in Rome with a lot of pressure, with Manolas arriving to replace outgoing defender Medhi Benatia. Benatia was one of the best players in Italy that season, and losing him was problematic. He was signed for £10 million from Olympiacos. Looking back now it can be seen as a real bargain. He was also heavily linked to Arsenal before moving to Serie A, showing how he had impressed more than his current club. It was his displays the 2014 World Cup that got the attention of some big clubs in Europe. Greece weren’t exactly impressive in that tournament, but he was still able to make a very good impression. His very traditional, physical style of defending is one reason why many clubs were so interested. He arrived that just after the World Cup, playing under Rudi Garcia for 2 years. Roma were runners up in both of those seasons, and Manolas was a key figure during those very good finishes. His great interception numbers showed why he is considered such a good player. It’s by far the best part of the game. He was making 2.5 interceptions per 90, with only the late Davide Astori making more. Manolas also made 30 appearances that season, more than any other defender. He quickly showed himself to be the most reliable defender in this side.

This form continued under their next manager Luciano Spaletti. The current Inter manager highly favoured Manolas, to the extent of trying to sign when he became the new Inter manager back in 2017. He said:

“I want Manolas to stay at AS Roma, I’ve told him already. He is physically and mentally very strong. He arrives everywhere on the pitch, sometimes he exaggerates with sliding tackles.”

Roma were one of the most fun sides in Europe in that final season under Spaletti. Many players in that side, like Nainggolan, Salah and Dzeko went supernova. While Manolas wasn’t nearly as good as his attacking teammates, it was still arguably one of his better seasons. It did help that his defensive partner this season, Federico Fazio was having the best season of his career. Roma were also very flexible this season, playing 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. It shows that Manolas is very adaptable. Koulibaly has predominantly played a 4-3-3 during his time in Napoli. When you have a player who has had a history of playing in different systems, it helps with whatever the manager wants to do going into individual games. If it was Pochettino coming in, he would like to have someone like Manolas. The current Tottenham manager who has previously fiddled with different systems and formations, makes players who can quickly learn these systems, would be massively beneficial.

While my first preference for a central defender would be Kalidou Koulibaly, I would have no problem with the Greek international coming in. It does seem like he does want to leave the club, with Manolas being increasingly close to leaving back in 2017, with Zenit coming very close. He doesn’t have long left on his contract, which explains why his release clause is only £32 million. The problem is that this release clause doesn’t actually activate until the summer. His agent is also Mino Riola. The man has had an involvement in many recent Manchester United deals, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. Dealing with him is a problem, and he famously will rinse your club for all he can. I just look at that pricetag and think it’s too hard to pass up on. Transfermarkt value him at £40.50 million and they usually value players in their twenties quite accurately (Potential isn’t usually considered and instead only look at what they’ve done). He would definitely improve Manchester United.

Milan Škriniar

With the 3 more experiences players done, let’s at younger options. If the club do not want to invest heavily in players who do not have a high resell value (even if this model can be frustrating at times). Lets start with Milan Skriniar. The Slovakian originated from Sampdoria’s young talent machine, which includes Patrick Schick, Lucas Torreira and Mustafi all being some high profile sales. With the last 3 players, there were clear reasons for why these players were signed. Koulibaly, Alderweireld and Manolas all showed their talent at their previous clubs, but Skriniar is different. He was apart of a very average Sampdoria side, and the Slovakian defender wasn’t exactly stand out in his final season. He is was only putting in 2.2 tackles and interceptions per 90, and putting in 1.4 aerial duels. These aren’t stand out in the slightest, but the problem is defenders are very difficult to judge from numbers. Midfielders are simpler because you can see what kind of midfielders they are just by seeing what their numbers show. Defenders can be in different systems so tackle and interceptions are useful, but don’t tell the whole story. There were still other parts of his game that were very impressive. He was an excellent distributor. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any of his teammates with 91%, and was fourth for his side in passes completed. He was great when bringing the ball out from the back (the theme of all the players on this list). He wasn’t spectacular, but showed enough promise to earn a move to Inter Milan the following summer.

During his time at Inter Milan, he shown himself to be one of the best defenders in Serie A. His signing made so much sense at the time. Miranda wasn’t getting any younger, and he needed a partner who was younger and more athletic. Miranda’s defensive numbers dropped massively during Skriniar’s first season, going from 4.9 to 2.7. This is because Skriniar seemed be given the more aggressive role, with the Slovakian committing more fouls and winning more tackles than he was at Sampdoria. Miranda had a more reserved role, to help allow Skriniar to play with more confidence, to not have to worry about making mistakes, when he has one of the best defenders of the last 10 years beside him.

It does open up a very good question. Is he ready to be the leader of a title challenging team? A reason why he has excelled is because he has had an experienced head like Miranda next to him. United do not have that luxury. The club have 2 young defenders, who both would excel if they had a top level defender beside them. Skriniar is younger than Bailly and Lindelof, so is he ready to be the main man? I would say he is. Skriniar has the most starts out of any outfield player for the Nerazzurri (only Handanovic has made more). His numbers have stayed relatively similar to his breakout season, and he looks like he just keeps improving. He is already the defender who is trusted the most, so how couldn’t he excel in Manchester?

Nikola Milenkovic 

Last but not least, let’s look at by far the youngest option. I mentioned with Skriniar that Manchester United in the past have looked at the resell value of players, as seen by the club’s refusal to sign Alderweireld because of his age. He’s a player I have spoke about before near the beginning of the season. I highlighted how good he is on the ball and in the air. Now months later, has anything changed? Well not exactly. That isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. I wasn’t expecting him to keep up his early form, considering it was his first time starting consistently for Fiorentina.

Let’s go over by far his biggest strength, being his aerial ability. Milenkovic is 6.4ft. The man is a giant. and it shows from his aerial duels. He attempts 4.8 aerial duels per game, and wins 60% of them. In the Fiorentina squad, only his defensive partner, Germán Pezzella has won more aerial duels than the Serbian. He is also putting in a very solid 3.3 tackles and interceptions for his side. He also rarely ever gets dribbled past, only 0.3 times a game. The defender has all the qualities to become a complete defender. He is tall, strong, fast, confidence while also having a humbleness about him, and he has a great ability on the ball.

One of his stand out moments of his short career was his performances in the most recent world cup. Serbia had a lot to be excited about in Russia. Key players like Mitrovic, Matic and Milenkovic-Savic all came into the tournament in great form, and with other solid players like Tadic, Kolorov and Ivanovic making it a strong side all over the pitch. Even with these well known players, it was Milenkovic who stood out among his teammates. He was one of only 5 players to play every minute at the world cup for Serbia, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s important to remember that before the world cup, Milenovic wasn’t a starter for Fiorentina, so this was the first time we could all see how good the young defender was. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any player to play more than 90 minutes for his country, made the most clearances and won the second most aerial duels. This was his break out tournament and showed why there was so much promise surrounding Milenkovic.

So where does he fit in at Manchester United? Well firstly he will add that aerial prowess that the team desperately needs. Lindelof is a great reader of the game and excellent distributor, but he struggles against teams who play a more physical and direct style of play. Milenkovic is not only tall and strong, but he is also very fast. One problem I’ve realised this season regarding the defender is he has actually spent a majority of the season playing as a right back. While he isn’t as good as he is playing as a centre back, he was actually still very impressive. At a young age, Nikola Milenkovic actually used to be a sprinter, which explains why he is still adept at playing at full back. It’s a demanding role in modern football that needs players which have great athleticism. Milenkovic is surprisingly fast considering his size, and he’s done a fine job in a position he is not accustomed to. I bring this up because it would help if Solskjaer was still the manager. The team will always be defensively vulnerable because of how high up the pitch they play. Having Bailly, Lindelof and Milenkovic, three defenders with pace to burn, makes it easy to deal with any dangerous counter attacks. While I did mention previously mention that having a more experienced defender would definitely make more sense (and is still think it’s the right decision), I highly doubt Manchester United would sell Rojo, Jones and Smalling all in the same window. The club seem to have a problem with selling players, because of their contracts. They have given all these players big money contracts because of how long they’ve been at the club. It’ll be so hard to sell them because no one is going to want to pay for players over 27 with limited ability, and pay their huge wages. The club have put themselves in a difficult position. Signing someone like Milenkovic would ensure that players would be able to make those recovery tackles. He will also give us a real aerial threat at set pieces. While we are second in the league for set piece goals with 11 (it is including free kicks), we still seem very lacklustre at moments where the team should be taking advantage of a great chance to score. He takes 0.8 shots a game. It isn’t massive in the slightest, but it’s nearly double of Chris Smalling’s 0.5, which is the highest out of United’s defenders. It’ll give the club an extra advantage in an area they need to improve at. Liverpool are at the top of the Premier League and have scored the most goals from set pieces. They are a must for a team that wants to compete for a league title. Milenkovic would apparently cost €45 million. It’s a figure that United can definitely pay. While it would be a risk considering he’s only 21, but it could be a genius move on the long term.