FC Barcelona: Europe’s Cavaliers

While being a huge fan of European football, I’m also an avid viewer of the NBA. And something that’s becoming clear is the mismanagement of some organisations in both sports and their similarities. In this case, we’ll be looking at the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and how their stories will potentially intertwine. 

We’ll start with the Cavs. After leaving his hometown team in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James went on to win two rings in South Beach and cemented himself as the league’s best player. But the possibility of James returning to Cleveland remained in the air, and in 2014, King James came home, with the sole drive of finally winning Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. 

LeBron couldn’t do this on his own, so Cleveland paired him alongside Kyrie Irving, who had been the Cavs’ best player since being drafted first overall in 2011, and Kevin Love. The Cavs traded their number one pick in 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) and Anthony Bennett (the worst number one pick in the history of the league) for Love. This gave the Cavs their best chance of winning the championship in their history.

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The set-ups do differ in specific ways. Messi had never left Barcelona and won plenty of trophies for his team. However, in 13/14 can easily be seen as their worst. The team looked stale and ended the season with zero silverware. Tata Martino was replaced with Luis Enrique, who carried their important (yet incredibly pretentious) Barca DNA. Not only were the main core from their 2011 double success still there, but they also had Neymar alongside new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo and Andre Ter-Stegen. A majority of these players were ready to go now and didn’t need any time to develop. This was the first time Barcelona began stockpiling their team with older guys. During Pep Guardiola’s reign and even under Tito, Barcelona would have their experienced, elite talent in the first team (Henry, Eto, Xavi, Puyol for example). Yet, would have a combination of cheaper, versatile players and some La Masia graduates. It’s what made them pretty likeable at the start of the 2010s. However, innovators have the potential to become imitators. 

Neymar was the first colossal money signing, but his ceiling was huge and even looking back now, was worth the massive fee. Luis Suarez was arguably the best striker in the world when the club signed him and gave them a similar rawness and aggression I hadn’t seen in a Barca forward since Stoichkov. The issue with Barcelona since 2014 is their lack of patience. They do not want to give up their place at the top of Spanish football, even if it jeopardises the future of the first-team. 

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The Cavs ended up reaching the finals in LeBron’s first season back but were comfortably beaten by the Golden State Warriors, mainly down to injuries suffered to Irving and Love. It was the following season where they finally won the championship that had eluded LeBron and his legacy. Irving and Love were both healthy and, Irving especially played a huge part in their famous comeback. The Cavs were 3–1 down but managed to bring it back and win the series 4–3. LeBron was in tears, finally doing his hometown proud and fulfilling his promise. 

While Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 wasn’t as dramatic, it was one of the most dominant knockout round runs in Champions League history. Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Laurent Blanc star-studded Paris Saint-Germain and Pep’s Bayern were all champions in their respective leagues, yet Barcelona managed to outclass them with ease. Juventus were their final opponents, who just didn’t have enough to beat Barcelona and their superstar forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN as they were later nicknamed).

Both teams won the big prizes in different seasons, but their collapsed happened simultaneously. The Cavs were beaten yet again by the Warriors in the 2017 finals. This defeat resulted in Kyrie Irving demanding a trade away from the Cavaliers. Irving was tired of being second fiddle to LeBron James and wanted to be the main man in a title-winning team. Sound familiar? Well, it should because it’s what happened with Neymar and Barcelona. The Brazilian thought the best way to win the Balon d’Or and cement himself as the best player on the planet was to step away from Messi’s shadow and be the best player on another team. Messi was left with an ageing Luis Suarez, while James was left with Kevin Love, who was also on the decline. 

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The power that both players had at their respective teams was being to show itself. James embodied the Cavs and all of their decision making. The team would consistently make decisions to please his ego. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith were given big contracts because LeBron liked them. Tyronn Lue, an average coach at best, was there for so long because LeBron was friends with him. The Cavs’ team had zero squad cohesion. The team was incredibly old and couldn’t play defence, relying heavily upon LeBron to bail them out of every bad situation they found themselves in. 

Messi might not be as vocal of a figure as James, but his grip at the club remains as firm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived for an insane fee in 2009, but only lasted a season, with one of the reasons being that Messi felt like he wasn’t the main man anymore. Enrique was close to facing the sack after nearly falling out with Messi, and Valverde only remained at the club for as long as he did because Messi liked him. One anecdote that helped me understand Messi a lot more recently featured in The Athleticwhere Messi apparently wasn’t fond of Guardiola’s obsession with tactics, and just wanted to see the best players on the pitch. This might sound small, but it explains a lot on why Barcelona’s team is all over the place. Busquets still plays nearly every game, even when he’s physically falling off a cliff. Suarez plays every game even when he doesn’t have the same speed and bite from 2015. Realistically, the club should bring in players who could help Barcelona on the defensive side. They might not be as talented, but they could offer something different to help balance out the squad. Yet, that just isn’t going to happen. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Griezmann’s signing made zero sense, and the idea of Neymar returning to the club is a disaster waiting to happen. Messi seems to have zero consideration for the future of the club, only looking at the here and now. If selling Ansu Fati, their most talented young player I’ve seen in years would help bring Neymar back to the club, they wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Messi putting his ego aside and showing more of a consideration for what the team needs would be hugely beneficial.

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In summer 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time to join the LA Lakers; due to the team failing to provide him with adequate support and to follow his dreams of making movies. The Cavs have since gone back to being one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. Messi’s future could have similar, if not as extreme, consequences for Barcelona. They can give Messi what he wants now and overpay for older players on the possibility of winning the Champions League or actually start to plan for life without the Argentine. Messi is everything for that club. But he’s 33 and the club’s desperation to please him in every department could result in the team potentially falling far behind their rivals, domestically and on the continental stage. 

Why I Hope Barcelona’s 5-2 Win Over Real Betis is a Sign of Things to Come

Barcelona, like many of Europe’s elite, are a side I love to complain about. It’s primarily down to incompetence from the board, focusing on galactico signings instead of continuing on the path Cruyff set and Pep developed. Their work resulted in the most exceptional team in the Champions League era, mostly focused on La Masia graduates and some significant signings in Dani Alves, David Villa and Seydou Keita. It’s what made Pep’s 2011 side so magnificent. A majority of that starting XI was built with players who knew the Barcelona system. It’s why Pep has never been able to build a team as good as his treble-winning side. While his Bayern side had an idea of how Pep wanted to play through Louis Van Gaal, he had to start from scratch at Manchester City, which is why his first season in England was so underwhelming.
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The problem with Barcelona since Neymar’s signing is they’ve basically turned into Real Madrid. Losing the best manager of the modern game is going to have an effect on how much value you can get out of specific players. However, the change in style and player profile has been the most significant issue regarding Barcelona since Pep’s departure. Barcelona were never a tiki-taka side because they had so much purpose in possession. They would break teams down through counter-pressing, wingers stretching the defensive line and Messi being fantastic. Pep had all of his players actually work defensively, and it’s what made them so different to Real Madrid. They never allowed any player to have a completely free role.
I bring this up because Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Betis was the first time in a while, where I’ve seen Barcelona actually look like a team. They weren’t perfect, far from it, but they showed signs of showing that aggressive counter-press with actual wingers. While this will not continue when Messi and Suarez return, it’s good to see Barcelona play well without their star players. To make it very clear, I have not watched much of Barcelona in the past couple of years. With La Liga being a pain regarding its TV rights, I only managed to watch them in the Champions League. I also missed their defeat to Bilbao, where I heard they were awful.
Here’s how Barca set up for this game:

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A very different eleven to what we are used to seeing, but there was enough quality in the team to comfortably dispose of Betis, and they showed this for the first 10 minutes. De Jong and Roberto were drifting wide to stretch the midfield, allowing Griezmann to drop deeper to find space. This made the French forward a problem for the defenders. He was effectively creating space for his teammates to exploit.
In theory, that was supposed to happen, however, in the first half, Barcelona looked so stagnant in the attack. This was especially problematic in the wide areas. Carles Perez did look threatening when receiving the ball but was consistently left isolated. Semedo kept coming inside, instead of giving Perez an overlapping run. This wasn’t nearly problematic on the left, with Alba still being a menace when going forward. Rafinha was mostly ineffective through the first half, continually drifting inside. It’s difficult to blame him since he is a central midfielder and shouldn’t even be at the club, never mind playing on the wing.
The wide areas weren’t the only issue. When Griezmann dropped deeper to create space for his teammates, the midfielders were supposed to make runs into those gaps that were created through Griezmann. This just wasn’t happening, with Roberto and De Jong not taking advantage of the space. De Jong, especially, looked very uncomfortable moving further up the pitch. The Dutchman usually plays in Busquets’ position, where he can progress the ball through the midfield. During the start of the game, De Jong received the ball inside the box. Instead of shooting as most players would, he chose to pass, which resulted in losing possession. It perfectly represented how an attacking role just isn’t what De Jong should be doing. This forced Busquets to push forward to aid the forwards, which worries me if that has to happen more often. Busquets is increasingly becoming a liability as he ages. He has never had the legs to push forward, and it’s something he really shouldn’t be doing anymore and shows how ineffective the rest of the midfield were in the attack.
This became even worse after Fekir’s goal, which in itself was not a good look for Barca. Busquets played a very risky ball to Rafinha, who looked half asleep and Betis score just seconds later. It was their first shot on goal and their first real attack in the game. It caught Barcelona off guard and put them in a position they didn’t deserve to be in. Despite the issues previously mentioned, they were still the better side, but wrong decision making in the final third and static movement was holding them back.
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One area of their game that remained consistent throughout the game was their intensity. Betis have a handful of players who are excellent in possession, with Fekir, Tello, Canales and Carvalho all being able to cause a threat to Barca. Valverde ensured his side stopped this from happening, through the forward three and the midfield pressing high to force goalkeeper Daniel Martín to pump long balls into the channels. It allowed the home side to recover possession quickly and nullify their opponents. Betis only completed 78% of their passes, showing how they struggled to build-up play. They were pushed back throughout the game due to Barcelona pressing from the front. I wonder if the press would be just as effective with Messi in the side. Since Pep’s departure, his off the ball work has left a lot to be desired. It’s such a shame to see a player who was elite on and off the ball lose that skill down to managers giving him freedom or the precise control he has over the team.
Griezmann did manage to bring his side level right at the end of the half, but this game had to end with 3 points. After the defeat in Bilbao, they could not fall 6 points behind Atletico after only 2 games. Thankfully, all of my problems from the first half disappeared. Barcelona looked so much better and didn’t have the same nerves we saw in the first half. That Griezmann goal seemed to push them to start taking risks and use the full length of the pitch. At one stage, Rafinha and Griezmann switched positions, and they looked fantastic. While it was only for around 5 minutes, Rafinha held the ball well, which led to Griezmann’s second goal. The Brazilian held possession until Roberto arrived, who played the ball to the French forward, who scored with some style.
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Semedo began to give Perez as an option on the overlap. The Spaniard is very one-footed and made his constant cutting inside predictable and easy to deal with for Sidnei, the Betis central defender. Semedo finally began making those runs for support. It enabled them to be more varied in how they attacked Betis, which led to Semedo picking up an assist for Perez’s first goal for the club. For his first start, the young attacker had a very positive impact. He looked a threat when in possession, but his work off the ball does need improvement. Yet, there is a player here who could play a part in Barcelona winning their third successive title.
This win did show a lot of the better qualities of Barcelona. Their control over games, aggressive counter-pressing and quick interchanges made them a joy to watch throughout. However, I’ll hold my reservations on whether they remain good enough to win a Champions League. Having Messi will always give you a chance, but Valverde’s slightly negative tactics in the bigger games have shown them to be weak when facing opponents of a similar level. When Barcelona concede early, it shakes them, and they don’t seem to have the drive and desire to fight. They’ve collapsed twice in Champions League semi-final, after securing 3 goal leads in the first legs. I loved the approach for the game, with the forwards actually defending for once, but you expect them to beat the every non-top 4 sides in La Liga. I’ll come back to talk about Barcelona when they face an opponent of equal level, whether in the league or in Europe.

 

Are Manchester City Unstoppable? Top 5 League Talking Points

Goals goals goals! This week contained many big scorelines, so let’s get into the usual detail of the leagues, and see what’s new.

Bundesliga

Hoffenheim walk over Leverkusen

By far one of the most interesting matches of the weekend was Hoffenheim’s comfortable victory over Leverkusen. Originally Hoffenheim were seen as a quite defensive side under Nagelsmann when he took over. However in the last couple of seasons, the young German tactician had turned his side into an extremely direct side that attack with incredible speed. This game just highlights the ferocity of Hoffenheim.

While Leverkusen outshot and dominated the game (it was their home game after all), they failed to capitalise on their dominance. Julien Brandt had a very good chance to get Leverkusen back in the game, but hit his shot wide.

What won Hoffenheim the game was how clinical they were in front of goal. While Leverkusen have been poor this season, they are still a side full of talent. Hoffenheim needed to take their chances if they wanted the three points, and they definitely did so.

Expected goals had this game 1.89 to Leverkusen and 1.93 to Hoffenheim. While it doesn’t show the final result, it highlights how well Hoffenheim finished on the day. The forward two of Reiss Nelson and Joelinton worked so well together. Both scored on the day, including Joelinton scoring a brace and Nelson scoring an excellent finish near the beginning of the game. While the Brazilian did score 2, Nelson was very impressive. The Arsenal loanee created 2 chances, scored, and even made a tackle and an interception. It was a very well rounded performances from a player who is still so young.

With Sancho getting many of the headlines, it’s good to see another Englishman in Germany doing so well. Not only does it show how good these players are, but also about the league and the coaching. Both Sancho and Nelson are performing so well because of the coaches they are playing under. Many ignorant pundits say it’s about going abroad to show off quality, when it isn’t. It’s about joining a club that is willing to put faith in your ability and teach you a different system. While fullbacks are arguably the most important position in football, it’s young attackers who are getting chances because they usually do not require as much discipline and knowledge of the game defensively. It allows them to blossom and that I hope they continue to do.

Freiburg surprise again.

Onto a more surprising match, Freiburg actually did carry on from their surprise victory over Mönchengladbach, by getting a point at the Allianz against the reigning Champions.

I said after their win over Mönchengladbach, that they will have to hope that they give the same performance and hope to surprise the Bundesliga, and they did. After the game being goaless for a large majority of it, it was Gnabry who broke the deadlock. But thanks to a very late goal from Höler, Freiburg earned a very good point.

Their goalscorer, Lucas Höler was excellent on the day. The German was part of a side that were resilient and held off a very average Bayern side. Höler scored his only shot on target, created 2 chances, completed 2 dribbles and most impressively, made 4 tackles. It just shows how the entire fought so hard in this game, to take advantage of an out of form Bayern side.

Speaking of Bayern, this really wasn’t the performance that Kovac would want to see. I do sympathise with him in some way. He lost both Tolisso and Coman to injury. Both Frenchman would have seriously helped him in the situation he is in. Tolisso was arguably Bayern’s best midfielder last season, and Coman is extremely talented, but injuries seem to keep holding him back. It means he has to rely heavily on both Robben and Ribery, two players who should be on their way out, yet remain to be key players in the side.

Bayern have had the same problems since their last champions league win. Ever since Dortmund dropped off, they had no challenge and by the time the crunch champions league games arrived, the players struggled because of the sudden step up. This is the first time where Bayern are finally challenged, they seem to be unable to keep up. The lack of challenge over the years is the reason why Robben, Ribery and Rafinha are still key players in the side. Bayern would have realised back in 2016 that these players cannot keep starting as many games. They let Douglas Costa go because he was unhappy with his place in the side. Bayern have cruised the Bundesliga for too long, and are finally being punished for it.

La Liga

Barcelona lucky

Barcelona had an incredible week last week. They disposed of Inter without Messi, and cruised past Real Madrid with way too much ease, without Messi. Their players have seriously stepped up since their best player received a relatively short injury. However against Vallecano, they can call themselves fortunate to say the least.

At one point, Real Vallecano were 2-1 and minutes away from getting the 3 points, however thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele, the Blaugrana got the win they might have not deserved. Let’s talk about the home side first, who really impressed against the Champions. While Barcelona dominated as everyone expects, they might have used to it as well as they should. Vallecano had more shots and completed twice as many dribbles. That could been because without Messi, who takes a majority of their shots and completes and an incredible amount of dribbles, but you still expect them to be better.

For Vallecano, their stand out player was arguably Adrian Embarba. The Spaniard was excellent on the day, creating 3 chances and completing 4 dribbles. He was a driving force for his side on the day. Alejandro Gálvez was another who held strong in the game. He completed the most defensive actions in the game, including 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 clearances. He was one of the key reasons why they were so close to winning the game.

Now let’s start about how Barca failed to win this game comfortably. I believe it’s the fault of their wide players, Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha, were just below average on the day. Valverde will continue to confuse for the rest of his time as manager, but choosing to play Rafinha, a guy he tried to sell in the summer over Ousmane Dembele will never seise to confuse me. Rafinha and Coutinho are just not wingers. They both do not have the pace and drive to be able to stretch a defense.

I called Rafinha one of the heroes after his solid performance against Inter Milan, but I thought that would be a one off game. He has continued to start, despite looking worse in every game I see of him. Coutinho is a very good creator. His ability to find that killer ball to break open a defense makes him one of the most useful players in Europe. While he did play as a winger under Klopp because of how interchangable that front three were, it worked. But more is desired from him under Valverde, and he just shouldn’t be playing there. I have no idea how many times I have to say this but Dembele really should be starting every game for Barcelona. At the beginning of the season, I said he was the most impressive players in La Liga. He started the season off on fire, and yet after winning so many games for Barca, Valverde still doesn’t start him or seem to trust him. His speed, trickery and raw power would put him into any side in Europe, yet he can’t start over two players who are out of position. Decisions like this are why many Barcelona fans really do not like Valverde at all, and I can understand that. He needs to realise that to win games, risks have to be taken as a player. If you limit a player, like Dembele who relies heavily on his natural ability at beating opponents and creating chances for his side, it will make the team weaker and predictable. Barcelona will have to step up if they wish to win the Champions League, because let’s face it, that’s what they really want.

Betis and Celta Vigo play a memorable draw

This next match infuriated me, because I decided to watch AC Milan scrape a victory than watch this goal fest. The game in question is the entertaining draw between Real Betis and Celta Vigo, which ended 3-3.

Both sides have turned into real entertaining sides in La Liga, and two I usually keep an eye out when looking at upcoming fixtures. Both have quality players, making this fixture even more exciting (and even more puzzling on why I chose Milan over this). This was very close, with both sides having a similar amount of shots (14 to Betis and 15 to Celta) and XG putting this game at 1.73 to Betis and 1.69 to Celta. It shows there wasn’t much separating the sides. A huge surprise of this was who stood out. Both teams have experienced players who guarantee consistency. However it wasn’t players like Aspas, Carvalho, Mallo and Bartra who stood out, in fact it was the younger players, being Lo Celso, Firpo, Méndez and Beltrán.

Let’s begin with Betis’s young stars. Lo Celso was absolutely superb in the game. The Argentine has slowly turned into one of my favourite players in Europe at the moment. He came to light when he was selected to start for Paris against Madrid in the Champions League. It was the first time I ever heard his name, and he stared in the defensive role, playing as a destroyer alongside Verratti. He was strangely unused at the world, thanks to Sampaoli’s incompetence in charge. He is now being commonly selected because of his versatility and energy. I’ve been more accustomed to seeing him as a defensive midfielder, but in this game he played as a wide attacking midfielder, and he remained excellent. He took 4 shots, created two chances, completed 2 dribbles, made 3 tackles and got an assist. He is still only 22 and is showing amazing versatility and maturity. It’s crazy how Tuchel let him go out on loan. Another Betis player who shone in this game was young wing back Júnior Firpo. While his attacking output wasn’t there in this game, that can be explained by the player he was playing against later. Firpo’s defensive work in this game was definitely there. He put in 5 tackles, 4 interceptions and 4 clearances. He helped Betis remain the defensive wall that they are, on a day where they needed it.

Now onto the young stars of Celta. Let’s start with Brais Méndez, who by far the best player who started the game for Celta. The Spaniard is only 21 years old, and gave a real top class performance against a solid defensive side. He was playing against Firpo, and while he did well in keeping Mallo and Méndez quiet, it didn’t stop Méndez from having an excellent performance. He had 4 shots, 2 on target, made 2 key passes and won 2 aerial duels. Celta have been known recently for finding talent and helping them flourish, with Aspas, Sisto and Mor coming to mind. Méndez seems to be another player who seriously looks impressive at a young age.

Another who performed well on the day was Fran Beltrán. The midfielder is 19 had a great game against one of the best teams in La Liga. He made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and a key pass. He made more defensive actions than any other midfielder on the pitch, and credit needs to be given to him for doing this at such a young age. He hasn’t exactly been incredible this season at all, with his creative play needing plenty of work. But that doesn’t matter. At this age, what is important is that he is playing games at the highest level. Eventually he will become more adventurous in his play. Right now he players as a pretty effective destroyer. Celta could have a player on their hands if he continues to play games. He’s already started 10 games this season, so they must have a lot of faith in him. He was signed from Vallecano in the summer, and it could possibly be one of the bargains of the season.

While I don’t expect both of these teams be challenging for top 4 or anything, I do hope they earn success, whether it’s Betis doing well in the Europa League, or Celta upsetting some of the bigger sides. Let’s hope they can continue on this and earn even more plaudits for their style and flare.

Ligue 1

Montpellier walk over Marseille

Let’s start with by far the most satisfying victory of the weekend. Montpellier continued their good start by comfortably disposing of big guns Marseille. Not long ago, we all thought Marseille were back thanks to their excellent run the Europa League last season, and finishing in the top 4 back again. It seems they are back to underperforming.

Let’s not take credit away from the victors however, because after their 3-0 win over Marseille, they now sit in 2nd. Thanks to PSG beating their closest competitior Lille, Montpellier now are above them on goal difference. While the title race is already over, Montpellier have now swept aside one of the harder games of the season, leaving them full of confidence. They outshot their opponent, put in more challenges and created better challenges. They really showed why they are in 2nd place in the league, with them attacking fast taking their chances well.

The man of the match was comfortably Paul Lasne. Montpellier lined up in a 3-4-3. This was genius from Zakarian. This formation is perfect in dealing with a 4-3-3. It allows the wing backs to press the opposition full backs, and completely nullify any wide talent. This worked brilliantly, with Lasne and Aguilar putting in a combined 11 tackles. It was a showing on how important wing backs are, and Lasne was the epitome of this. The Frenchman put in 7 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances. He also made a key pass and scored the final goal to seal it. A great performance in a game where they needed a top quality performance.

Now onto Marseille. Saying they had an off day is an understatement, because this isn’t the first time this season where they have failed to show up. I’m slowly becoming tired of constantly criticising their strikers, so let’s criticise their defenders instead. Adel Rami was pretty bad on the day. The Frenchman can go down as one of the worst players to ever win a world cup, and this game isn’t changing my mind. He was at fault for the first goal, not marking Laborde and gifting him a free header. He also didn’t put in a single tackle or interception in the game, showing how easily he was exposed by opposition in this game. Marseille have now conceding 21 goals in Ligue 1, the second worst total in the division.

Another who was quite disappointing was Florian Thauvin. I have expressed my fondness for his player on numerous occasions, but today wasn’t his game. While he did have 3 shots and complete 3 dribbles, he was disposed 7 times and had a 65% pass accuracy. He was completely neutralised in this game, and summed Marseille’s attack on the day. They failed to created chances, and out of the 11 shots they had, only 2 were on target. Thauvin an extremely talented player, but he is just not thriving in this side at the moment. It doesn’t help with the constant changes being made to the side. He has tried different formations and moved player in numerous positions, even trying Payet as some false 9 last week. Questions marks have to start be asked about how Garcia is managing this side. They have been terrible this season. If it wasn’t for how quickly Monaco fell of a cliff, so much more pressure would be Marseille

St Etienne and Angers play a classic

While La Liga and the Bundesliga had plenty of goals, Ligue 1 might just out do both of them. Nantes were victorious over Guingamp with a 5-0 win, and Nîmes getting a 4-0 away win over Dijon. However the match that outshined both of these was St Etienne’s 4-3 win over Angers. This game was very tight, and had everything. Late goals, own goals, good finishes and was an overall entertaining spectacle for the neutral. St Etienne dominated the game, but that’s mainly due to the fact they were playing at home, and were chasing the game for a majority of it. St Etienne did deserve to win the game, based on them creating better chances, with the home side having less shots outside the box, and more in the penalty area.

However while St Etienne did deserve the win, it was an Angers player who stood, and that’s Flavien Tait. While Reine-Adédaïde stood out with his 6 dribbles completed, he just wasn’t as effective in the final third as his teammate. Tait was indeed excellent on the day. He put all of his shots on target, made 2 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was in fact only one of two players in this game to get 2 goal contributions, with the other being the centre half Pavlovic. He was the best player on the pitch and it’s a shame he was on the losing side.

St Etienne still had some stand out players. By far their best player was Newcastle flop Remy Cabella. He is one of many players who just wasn’t suited for the Premier League, and is back in France and finally flourishing again. He played just behind Wabhi Khazri in this game, and was excellent. His very lean frame helps him slide and turn on the ball with such speed. He is a good creator who can also beat his man. This game showed both of those. He created 4 chances and completed 2 dribbles. He also got an assist for his work and was a key reason on why St Etienne got the 3 points.

St Etienne could actually finish in the top four this season. With Marseille, Lyon and Monaco all looking below par, it could leave an opening for teams to take their place. St Etienne have quality players in midfield with Khazri and Cabella, and players like Subotic, Perrin and Debuchy are reliable in defense. It could be a very important season for a club with such history in France.

Premier League

Manchester City do it again

What I mean when I say do it again is another 5 goal thriller from the Champions. This is fourth time this season they have beaten someone by a 5 goal margin. The team on the end of their beating was Mark Hughes’s Southampton.

I’d like to add just how terrible Southampton are and I’m dying to know what happened to them. They used to be a side who found talent in places no one else was looking, like signing Mané, Tadic and Van Dijk from clubs and leagues no one was paying attention to. They hired good coaches, like Pochettino, Koeman and Puel. They were developing players at a good pace and getting insane profit on them (just look at Liverpool’s entire side). Mark Hughes is truly a terrible manager and I’m tired of seeing being given good jobs based on a reputation made of sand. He will ruin any club’s defense, and relies heavily on individual talent in the forward lines. He is also incredibly frustrating to watch in interviews. Statements like we gave them too much respect mean absolutely nothing. They are statements said to fill space and make it sound like Hughes is being insightful. I hope Southampton sort themselves out. I was so fond of them and now they have turned into your usual short term club with no idea what to do after survival.

Now onto Manchester City, who were absolutely sensational on the day again. While Raheem Sterling will get all the plaudits, and justifiably so, it’s Sergio Aguero who stood out for me. The Argentine will go down as one of the top 5 strikers in Premier League history. His consistency is unrivalled and the way he’s been able to evolve his game at a stage in his career when that’s usually difficult deserves so much credit. This game showcased this step up in the way he plays. Aguero was always a poacher, but he seems to have turned into a perfect all rounder. He scored and got 2 assists. He had 4 shots, completed 4 dribbles and created 4 chances. These are stats we’re never used to seeing Sergio Aguero put up. What Pep has done with him is short of incredible. He turned an already world class finisher into a world class player.

This leaves City in an incredible position. They are comfortably ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool when discussing goal difference. They have a big squad and even without their best midfielder, are still walking over opposition. The Manchester Derby is next, and this is a chance to put on a show against their biggest rivals. This could really show how far ahead they really are.

Overachieving Bournemouth halted

Bournemouth have always frustrated me. While I do think it’s impressive they are still in the division, they seem to avoid criticism just because of their size. Last season they were terrible. Only Stoke conceded less goals, and they put in the least amount of tackles and interceptions in the league. They almost allowed opposition to score past them. Nathan Ake was the player of the month 3 times for them. If that doesn’t sum up their story, I don’t know what will.

However it seems to be different this season. When I saw where they were sitting in the Premier League, I just assumed they were overachieving and eventually they would hit reality. However looking at XG, it does seem they are performing as they are expected to. They aren’t lucky in attack or defense, and are performing at their level. So what has changed? Well firstly it’s penalties. The Bournemouth are the second most fouled team in the division, and it’s shown with how many they’ve scored from penalties. They have scored 5, more than any other side. They take the chances that are gifted to them. They have also changed the way they play. They’ve turned from a wannabe possession side, into a really good counter attacking side. They have incredibly fast players with King, Wilson and Frazer being able to move the ball so quickly. They now soak up pressure so well and attack so quickly. They seem have finally fixed their biggest problems.

Looking at this game however, Bournemouth should have been further ahead than they were. They had a few chances at the beginning of the game, that if they took them, would have comfortably won the game. They took the early lead thanks to Calum Wilson, who now is the only English player in the league to have 10 goal contributions. While Wilson was good, Fraser continued his brilliant form into this game. He had 2 shots on target and created 3 chances. He has by far the surprise package of the season.

Now onto United, who were absolutely terrible in the first 20 minutes, but thanks to a usual turn around in the second half, managed to get the 3 points. Many said that Lerma absolutely pocketed Paul Pogba. When it couldn’t be further from the truth. If he truly did, then how did Pogba maneged to have 3 shots, create 4 chances (the most in the match), and completed 2 dribbles. I’m just assuming the old school pundits want to push the narrative because of their dislike towards the Frenchman. United created a lot of chances in this game and were better than Bournemouth in the full 90 minutes. XG put this game at 1.89 to Bournemouth and 2.98 to the Red Devils. Maybe it can be said that United probably should have won by more.

After another nothing performance from Nemanja Matic, it asks the valid question of should he be dropped? And he definitely should. United’s defense is terrible, but their forward line is very good. In an ideal world, United would start with a midfield of Pogba, Herrera and Fred. Pogba is a creative hub and can drive your midfield so effectively. Fred is an energetic player who keeps the ball pretty well, and wins the ball well. The Brazilian won 5 tackles against Bournemouth, the most out of any United player. Herrera is personal favourite of mine. He has a lot of bite and is great at winning the ball. United should focus on outscoring the opposition, instead of trying to sit deep.

While Pogba was great in this game, Anthony Martial was the man of the match. While I criticise the Manchester United board for a lot of things, but stopping Jose from selling Martial was by far their best decision ever. He is in fine form this season, and thanks to the heroics of the Frenchman, United claimed the 3 points. The goal was his 5th in 4 games, the first time he’s scored in 4 consecutive games. He’s been fabulous since his Newcastle, and continued this against Bournemouth. He had 4 shots, created 2 chances and scored the equaliser. He’s just reminded Jose how good he is.

Serie A

Inter hit five

Another league, another goal fest. This time it is Inter Milan. Who absolutely walked over Genoa in this game. Inter now haven’t lost since the 15th of September. Before this game, they absolutely smashed Lazio 3-0. They are in super form right now and seem ready to take 2nd off Napoli. They won 5-0. While that is impressive, what is the best part is Icardi didn’t even score. Inter have been incredible at creating chances for Icardi, and they became incredibly over reliant on him. Spaletti rested Icardi for this game, with assumption of the importance of the Barcelona game being priority.

New signing Lautaro Martinez started this game, and he wasn’t exactly impressive. He had 5 shots, but didn’t manage one on target. He is still 21, so wastefulness in front of goal is still expected. He’s the understudy of the best striker in Europe at the moment, and will definitely improve over time. While he wasn’t great in front of goal, Roberto Gagliardini was. The Italian scored his first brace in Italian football, and showed why he is one of the most promising players in Italian football. He scored both of his shots on target and created 3 chances. Let’s hope he can put a stamp onto this side.

The man of the match was quite comfortably Jõao Mario. The Portuguese has been a bit of joke in recent years. His time at Inter started so badly, that he had to join West ham on loan for a short period to regain form. This game showed why Inter bought him in the first place. He created 4 chances and ended the game with a goal and 2 assists. An improvement from a player who seemed to be on the way out.

Let’s take a quick second to point out just how bad Genoa were defensively. For every goal they seemed to just make the wrong decision. They gifted Nainggolan for a free header, they stepped out too late, allowing Politano to finish his chance pretty easily. If Martinez and Perisic finished their chances, it would have been 7. It actually blows me away how this side were able to take points away from Juventus and then put in a terrible performance like this. Inter still deserve plenty of credit, but this was a shambles from Genoa.

Torino show Sampdoria reality

While Lazio and Napoli also put up amazing wins, Torino are the ones I’m highlighting here. It’s been difficult for Turin based side since their 2016/17 season, where Andrea Belotti went supernova and scored 26 goals. He definitely overachieved but because of the board’s happiness in his season, they were asking for an absurd €100m for the Italian. It was an example of player who should have been sold, because it was the first time Belotti ever got those numbers in the league. United and Chelsea were interested, but instead went for Morata and Lukaku respectively, who were cheaper than what Torino were asking. They ended keeping their star forward, and to say last season was underwhelming is an understatement. He played three less games than his stand out season, yet managed less than half of the goals. He could be down to the team, but it is still disappointed considering he was being spoken as a triple figure player. He now has 4 goals in 10, and is looking better than last season already.

The reason I bring this up is because of the performance he put in against Sampdoria. Torino can be called lucky to have won this comfortably. The game ended 4-1 to Torino, and performed well against a good Sampdoria side in their back yard. XG had this game at 2.24 to Sampdoria, and 1.93 to Torino. Torino won this game thanks to their excellent finishing and the very good chances they created.

Belotti really gave a performance reminiscent of his break out season, scoring a header and a penalty that he won. Headers were something he specialises in. The rooster is excellent in the air, winning 5 aerial duels in this game alone. His height and incredible jump make him a difficult player to deal with. He also has 5 shots on got 3 on target. It was a very good game from a player who I hope goes back to his best.

As mentioned before, Sampdoria should probably feel hard done by to some extent. They created good chances and could have got back into this game. When mentioning teams who were surprising their league, I said while Sampdoria are doing well, eventually this will stop. It seems to have happened earlier than expected. They have no lost 2 on the bounce and not won since the start of October. They now sit in 11th, which is where about you expect them to finish.

One player who seriously stood out for them was Albin Ekdal. The Swede was a real presence in midfield for his side. Lucas Torreira was a massive loss for Sampdoria. The Uruguayan was excellent at ball recovery, while also doing at transition and distribution. Ekdal filled all of these roles. He completed 4 dribbles, while also making 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. He had a great game considering the result.

Both of these teams aren’t expecting to open Serie a wide open or anything, but sometimes it’s good to put the spotlight on sides who have a good week, when others might not. Let’s hope these teams continue to have solid seasons.

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview – France vs Argentina, Uruguay vs Portugal

With the group stages finally over, let’s look at the round of 16, where teams will need to step up their game and prepare for the knock out portion of the tournament.

France vs Argentina

The first game of the round of 16 is a huge one. Both teams have a huge history and would like to add to that this year. Let’s begin with France. The 1998 winners go into this game unbeaten, and only conceding 1 goal. However this looks much less impressive when looking at their performances. They only scored 3 goals and got the first 0-0 of the tournament. They also did not keep the same team in any of their games. It continues to show further incompetence in Didier Deschamps. He is easily the most overrated manager at this tournament and it amazes me how he still has a job, with other Frenchman like Zidane and Wenger available. It should be classed as a crime to not be performing with the best players on the planet. They have looked very poor as a team, and I can’t see them getting far in this tournament.

I was not disappointed in Argentina in the slightest. In fact I expected this. They have some talented players, but they don’t have balance. So far they have not proven me wrong. Even in their last minute win, they still didn’t play good. That game was won from a Marcus Rojo of all people bagging the winner. Even though they were poor, there are still some positives. Ever Banega was very good. He added a player with real ball ability in that midfield. But it still brings up the issue of why is Perez and Mascherano still starting for Argentina. Mascherano is not near the player he was 5 years ago, yet he is still starting every game for Argentina. Why isn’t Lo Celso starting, a guy with real ball winning ability. Or even taking Parades. Even though he is playing in a poor league, he is still a great distributer. Sampoali has baffled me throughout this tournament with these strange selections.

For France to beat Argentina, midfield is their key. If they want to take a book from Croatia, who beat Argentina because of their superior midfield. It is a game where France need all their best ball players, so a midfield 3 of Pogba, N’Zonzi and Kante would be perfect. Pogba and N’Zonzi have a brilliant range of passing and would help bypass that weak midfield. Playing Kante would help win the ball higher up the pitch, to stop players like Banega and Mascherano keeping hold of the ball. For Argentina, they need to give the ball to Messi as much as possible. He hasn’t lit up the world, but he is still the best player of all time. He did look much better in a front two. His run for that first goal against Nigeria was perfection all around. The run, the touch, the second touch, the finish. It was all perfect. Messi as usual, is the key for Argentina’s success. This game contains a team that can’t attack in France, and a team that can’t defend in Argentina. Based on goals needed to win games, the Argentine’s will be the victors

France 1-2 Argentina

Uruguay vs Portugal

Both teams can come into this game with some positives. Uruguay went through their group without conceding a single goal. While they did look very poor in their first 2 games, they stepped it up against the hosts Russia, and started playing a midfield 3, adding Torreira to a midfield of Bentacour and Vecino. It gave them much more fluidity and a real drive in the final third. Another bonus for them would be the form of their attackers and defenders. While Suarez has been poor, he has still bagged 2 goals and Cavani also scored his first against Russia. Their biggest positive to take away from the group games would be their defense. Godin and Gimenez were both fantastic. Godin especially was a real leader in those games. He was the one making sure his other teammates would start attacking because he was doing his job, so why weren’t the rest of the team. There were points against Egypt were Godin would run with the ball because no one else would.

Portugal also have some real positives. They have been successfully protecting their old central defenders, even if at times they have been caught out. Ronaldo has also been brilliant. His form is the main reason why Portugal are where they are. He seems to love having the amount of responsibility he does. However they still have some real issues. The rest of the attackers have not been great. Fernandes was dropped after the first game after not having a good game (even though he was out of position). Guedes also has been very disappointing. He just hasn’t shown that raw skill he was shown all through last season. Even in midfield, a partnership of Joah Moutinho and William Carvalho doesn’t scream energy and attacking threat. Their biggest positive is easily how organised they are. Because of their brilliant full back options, it means the centre halves can stay very narrow so they don’t get caught in places where they will be exposed. Fernando Santos has been fine in that aspect, however in the attacking sense they could be better. Putting Guedes outwide, and putting Martins on the right would give them so much pace and width. Andre Silva definitely deserves a chance too. These would definitely help give them a bit more of a threat.

Uruguay can beat Portugal simply their strikers. Both Suarez and Cavani are very hard to deal with for defenders. If they both can help deal Pepe and Fonte, it would allow the midfield players to come from deep and outnumber the opposition. They play such a deep 4-4-2 that just getting their technical players in the box would be enough to cause Portugal plenty of problems. Portugal just have to simply give the ball to Ronaldo. He has been their best attacking player so getting him on the ball as much as possible is their way to win. I can see Uruguay winning here, but because of Portugal so far suprising me, I might just go for a close game but Ronaldo magic to win it

Uruguay 1-2 Portugal

4 Most Disappointing teams at the 2018 World Cup

With so many players and teams showing the world what they are made of, let’s look at the other side of the coin. These are four teams who have completely disappointed me so far in this tournament.

Germany

The most obvious disappointments so far. Germany have looked a shadow of how they were 4 years ago, and explaining why is pretty simple. One of the biggest changes from Brazil is losing their leaders. Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm all have since 2014. While they have found some good replacements in Kimmich, Goretzka and Werner, they have lost their experience and leadership. The partnership of Kroos and Schweinsteiger was key during their winning captain and gave a sense of stability to that midfield. Their midfield in general has looked so poor since the start of the tournament. Joachim Low has continued to play a midfield two,with Toni Kroos who usually does not work playing with only one partner, and Khedira, who is a shadow of a player he was 4 years ago. With his increase in age, he lost his defensive ability and any sort of creativity with that. Both were exploited during their defeat to Mexico. Kroos was marked out of the game, while Khedira just couldn’t keep up with the energy and power in Vela and Lozano. Khedira was instantly replaced in the following with Sebastian Rudy, a player who’s only compliment would be solid. Kroos still needs to be put in a midfield three to work, maybe bringing in Goretzka and putting Rudy in a deeper position would give Kroos more time on the ball and would stop him coming so deep to receive it. Even in the attack, it is clear that losing a player like Klose has been a huge hit. It seems even with playing Werner throughout qualifying, they still seem to play as if he is 5 inches taller. I love Werner, but for the way Germany play at times, it seems like he might be the striker they need. He definitely has a use however. Germany are still a very strong team, but are not the same machine they were in 2014.

France

France easily have the most talented squad at this World Cup. They world class rising stars in Mbappe, Dembele and Mendy, while still keeping some solid experienced players in Giroud, NZonzi and Lloris. Even their second team could do very well. However what cannot be underestimated is how frustrating Deschamps is. France qualified relatively simple. However they did have some moments that can be questioned. They lost 3-2 to Sweden, which included a real howler from Lloris. That can be forgiven. Sweden are a solid team and have shown before they can beat any top opposition, as seen with Italy. However what cannot be forgiven is drawing a goaless draw against Luxembourg, a team Sweden beat 8-0. Deschamps in that game chose to play Matuidi and Sissoko, over Pogba and Kante. He has tried over 40 players in qualifying and still seems to not know his best team. France began the first game with a front line of Mbappe, Griezmann and Dembele. I believe that to be their best attack. It gives them three players who are extremely flexible, which enables them to interchange thorought the game. It makes it difficult for defenders to know who to pick up, if the forwards are constantly moving. However Deschamps changed this in the next game and played a 4-2-3-1, which Matuidi on the left and Giroud just in front of Griezmann. It shows a manager who still does not know what system and formation to play, at this point of the tournament that is worrying. The biggest insult is just the way they play. They seem to play a very slow possession game, with usually using Giroud as the link up to the rest of the attack. It frustrates me that they usually resort to that is because of the shear talent they have. Paul Pogba also seems to struggle in this system. Even when he plays with Kante and Tolisso, his most balanced partners, he still seems to not look his best. Pogba is at his best when he is able to drift out wide to the left and open the defense with his pace and power. He seems slow, and that is because of Deschamps. He seems to never play on the front foot. I like these players, but they are stuck with a manager who seems to limit their incredibly high ceiling.

Uruguay

Uruguay qualified at the top their group without conceding a single goal, and winning every game. That does sound good on paper, but when looking into each game, especially the first two, it is clear they are not doing great. Oscar Tavares has set up this team to be so defensive, and rely on the forwards to do something. The problem with this is they don’t have a real creator. He started the tournament with a midfield of Vecino and Bentacour. I like both players, but as a two they don’t work. Vecino just plays it too safe, and Bentacour actually played really well against Egypt, but with a lackluster partner, it made it difficult for him. Tavares only decided to change this in the final game, where he changed into a 3-5-2, to play a midfield of Torreira, Bentacour and Vecino. It worked much better, with Torreira adding his great energy and tenacity. Another problem for Uruguay has been the forwards. Context is so important when looking at the strikers Uruguay took. Suarez, Cavani, Struani and Gomez all scored over 15 goals in their respective leagues. All were in brilliant form and it gave them plenty of options. Suarez however has not looked himself in the slightest. He looks just so much more reserved and is lacking that usual bite (no pun intended) and aggression he usually gives in the penalty area. Cavani I think has been very good. It seems every time one of Suarez or Cavani received the ball to begin a counter attack, there was no other runner beside them, resulting in a situation they failed to benefit in. The first game of the round of 16, Uruguay vs Portugal, could not be as exciting as we hope it is, and speaking of Portugal…

Portugal

Most of Portugal’s issues I can sympathize with. They have an extremely old centre half partnership, with Pepe and Fonte both over 32. It means they have to play much more cautiously, with their centre halves playing very narrow. They have to protect them so it means less focus is on attacking. It gives a huge over reliance on Ronaldo to score while also hold up the ball, and create. They also have been unfortunate with injuries. They lost Danilo Pereira, who was excellent for Porto last season. But that is where my sympathy ends. I still believe this team isn’t hitting its heights. For some strange reason, Fernando Santos chose to take Joah Moutinho, Ricardo Quaresma and Cedric Soares, over players who were in much better form in Ruben Neves, Ronny Lopes and Nelson Semedo. It’s a similar issue that is seen with Joachim Low, who chose players who he liked over players who deserved a spot. Even in team selection questions should be asked. Why was Guedes playing as a striker alongside Ronaldo, instead of on the left hand side, where he has been excelling. He chose to play Jao Mario instead, and while he’s a fine enough player, he should be playing in midfield alongside Carvalho. It’s a position where I think he is much better in. Even though Andre Silva was poor for Milan, he still scored 9 in qualifying, which was the fifth most in Europe. He didn’t start until the last group game. Portugal themselves have been a bit of a chore to sit through. Their protection of the centre halves means it makes them difficult to sit through. They are lucky to have a very good Ronaldo, who has dragged them to this point. While you can question if they would be more balanced without him, like Sweden are now, he has still definitely delivered. Portugal could definitely go a long way because of their style, but I just wanted more from. So many of their attacking players were in such good form, especially Bruno Fernandes (who has been out of position) and it seems we will look back on this side and think, how were they not better.