20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Seasons #4

Los Blancos’ Return 

We’ll keep this one nice and short since I’ve discussed Real Madrid on multiple occasions. After arguably their worst season in the current century, Real Madrid were left in desperate need for surgery in crucial areas. Perez failed to replace Ronaldo adequately and left the side without the 40 goals that Ronaldo was giving the side every season. Entrusting Bale and Benzema to double their goal tally at their age is unrealistic. They were embarrassed by Ajax in the Champions League and were left so far from their closest rivals, signalling the time for a rebuild.

Madrid were insanely quick in acting upon their need for players. Eder Militao was signed back in March for over £50 million. The Brazilian was fantastic for Porto, comfortably playing at both full-back and centre half. He is one of the most promising defenders in Europe, and his signing makes perfect sense with Ramos and Nacho getting old. He wasn’t the only defensive signing, with Ferland Mendy arriving for £47 million. Mendy is an excellent full-back and can give a similar attacking output as Marcelo while not being nearly as error-prone as his new Brazilian teammate. Madrid’s defence now looks in much better shape. Ramos and Varane are still fantastic and now with Eder and Mendy, have long term replacement for their ageing stars.

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Eden Hazard was by far the biggest signing of the summer. The Belgian has wanted to leave Chelsea for a long time and has finally achieved his dream move to the Spanish capital. While he is far from value for money, Madrid are getting a player who has come off the back of his best season in his career. Hazard was the best player at the 2018 World Cup, and he finally showed how well he could perform under an attacking coach. Chelsea had their problems under Sarri, but Hazard’s form was by far the most significant strength from his time in London. Hazard will be fantastic for Zidane, but I doubt he will reach a similar goal tally as Ronaldo. He will be much more creative than Ronaldo ever was under Zidane, and should contribute to at least 30 goals.

The icing on top of the attacking cake is Serbian striker Luka Jovic, who was one of the breakout stars of last season. Jovic is a forward who can score all types of goals, who relishes constant chances in the box to pounce. He is two-footed and can score headed goals. It’s what made him stand out for Frankfurt; his elite finishing and getting into excellent scoring positions. His shot map last season was a pleasure to see. The former Benfica striker is a lethal finisher and is the goal threat that Madrid were craving for last season. Benzema, while scoring a lot of goals for Madrid last season, is far past his best and shouldn’t be relied on as the primary goal threat anymore. Jovic couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive.

All of these signings and the current experience they possess, have instantly made them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They have fixed their most prominent issues in both defence and attack. The only issue that remains is the midfield. The midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro is not a midfield you can play consistently anymore. Modric is very old now, and Kroos has never been a mobile player. What makes it so worrying is the sales of Llorente, Kovacic and potentially Ceballos. All offer more defensive work off the ball than Kroos and Modric and give the midfield some energy to help Madrid in tougher games. I fear that midfield will lack the energy against sides like Liverpool or Tottenham. If Madrid can bring in one of Pogba or Eriksen, there wouldn’t be an issue, but it is looking improbable.

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

Valencia had a bizarre 18/19 season, having a miserable start to the season but managing to finish in the top 4 deservedly. Marcelino is one of the best defensive managers in Europe and managed to turn Valencia into a tough side to face. He gave stability to the club after barely surviving relegation in 2016. After a very positive 17/18 season which saw all of their strikers run hot all year, it got them back into the top 4 and allowed them to return to Europe’s elite once again. He managed to get a lot out of players who failed at their previous clubs, with Garay, Gabriel, Kondogbia and Neto all standing out in their debut season.

Their disastrous start to last season is one of the strangest occurrences I’ve witnessed since following football. They only managed a single victory up until the middle of November. At first glance that looks bad, but when looking at the numbers, they should never have been in such a drought. What’s even more baffling about this is they only managed one defeat before November, meaning they drew all but 2 games. The defence remained solid as ever, but it was in attack where they couldn’t catch a break. I mentioned before that their strikers were all running incredibly hot in terms of form. What made this so unfortunate was Mina and Rodrigo both hit a dry patch at the same time. It meant many games at the beginning of the season ended in draws due poor finishing. Marcelino faced a dilemma, and while he did manage to rally his players in the second half of the season, taking advantage of Sevilla dropping off a cliff, it still painted a very mixed season. Valencia’s top scorer that season was midfielder Dani Parejo with 9. It’s easy to see where Valencia needed to improve.

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They acted in sorting their issue with the signing of Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo in an odd deal which saw both Santi Mina leave permanently and young defender Saenz on loan. They have brought in a player, while I think he lacks in finding good shot locations, he is one of the best aerial forwards in La Liga and could help bring more goals out of both Guedes and Rodrigo. Let’s hope that they do not begin next season with the same bad luck.

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

It has been a long time coming, but Atalanta have finally reached the Champions League after a couple of years of getting close. La Dea have been a club producing talent for clubs ranging from Juventus down to clubs in Serie C. Chelsea are a club who garnered a reputation for having an obscene number of players out on loan, but Atalanta takes that to another level, with 76 players out on last season. Context is important here, with players like Petagna and Kessie virtually signing for their new clubs, but the fee not being paid till this summer. They have been a selling club for Italy’s biggest clubs for years with a youth system unlike no other.

Their success last season came down to getting every ounce of talent out of a trio of ageing forwards in Josep Illicic, Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata. With Gomez already captaining the side, Illicic and Zapata arrived for a combined £17 million and all have flourished. They are on the older side, with the trio all over 28 but Serie A has blossomed thanks to its reputation for allowing older players to play slower-paced league. Gomez has been one of my favourite players in Europe for the last couple of years. He’s caused so many defenders issues with his elite dribbling and can carry the attack on his own. Both Gomez and Illicic have practically been given free roles under Gasperini in terms of positioning, looking to create for Zapata. He has been the centrepiece for the side, scoring more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Dries Mertens last season. It’s his highest goal return since playing in Serie A and has excelled due to the high chance creation in the side. His shot map shows a player taking shots in fantastic positions. He’s been blessed with a team full of creation throughout the side. Out of his 118 shots in Serie A last season, 89% were taking from inside the penalty area. The Colombian is a poacher at heart and feeds off chances. It’s been similar to all of the top scorers in Serie A and while Quagliarella scoring over 25 goals in his late thirties is impressive, getting 23 goals out of a journeyman like Zapata has been nothing short of genius from Gasperini.

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It’s strange to see a club rooted with youth success having a squad full of older players, but the model is working. Atalanta have even added another Serie A veteran in Luis Muriel to their ranks, to add to that incredible frontline. The Nerazzurri are one of my teams to watch in the Champions League next season. They’ve managed to reach the biggest competition in Europe with a squad full of players who weren’t good enough for the usual big sides. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them cause a massive upset next season.

Barca’s Ageing Squad

Most clubs discussed so far have all been making positive moves and showing long term thinking, but Barcelona are far from that. The La Liga champions were underwhelming for the whole of last season. They managed to make by far the most comfortable title win their recent history look more complicated than it needed to be. It makes the consistently disappointing performances in the Champions League, more concerning with the way the squad is going. They have spent an insane amount of money on a host of attacking talent but have failed to address some of their critical areas in the squad, primarily left-back and centre-back. They are seemingly desperate to sign even more attacking talent and are failing even to consider finding long term replacements in defence.

Let’s start with left-back. I disliked Jordi Alba for years, and while he was an excellent attacking option, he was such a liability in defence that I thought he was an area that needed addressing for a long time. However, Valverde’s pragmatic system did finally manage to get the best out of the Spaniard. He has been fantastic for Barca over the last couple of seasons, but the club’s laziness in not signing another left-back left them in such an awkward position. It forced them to give Alba a high earning, long term contract because he was fully aware of how desperate they were to keep him. Alba is turning 31 next season and as we’ve recently seen with Tottenham, is usually far past the expiry date of a modern-day full-back. If Alba begins to drop off similarly to Marcelo or suffers a long term injury, it could derail Barcelona’s whole season and what makes it even worse is Barcelona aren’t linked to anyone in that position. Their whole seasons rests on the form of Alba staying healthy.

The centre-back problem is almost as clear as the same issues as left-back. As soon as Frenkie De Jong signed for the club, it seemed apparent to see De Ligt play alongside his teammate at the Nou Camp. However, it didn’t happen. Valverde has issues with Umtiti and Pique’s age is becoming more noticeable per season. Pique’s success has been quite fascinating. A player who has lacked pace throughout his career being able to play a high line successfully is to his credit, but we’ve seen in the past how when certain players age (Steven Gerrard and Diego Godin), their awareness seems to diminish. Pique has mostly been fantastic under Valverde but has had moments where you have to question if he is the same player he once was. What is becoming more worrying for Pique is the likely departure of Umtiti. While the Frenchman has struggled with injury, his ability to rush out of defence made him an ideal partner for someone incapable of doing that successfully.  If Pique is forced to play over 30 games in the league once again, it could make his decline extremely painful to watch.

I cannot stress this enough, but I can’t stand the signing of Antoine Griezmann and the potential return of Neymar. Barcelona have just spent over £100 million on an ageing forward who isn’t even guaranteed to start. I love Griezmann as a player, but anyone who signed him was going to suffer. Spending that much money on a player who wasn’t essential is just baffling. Real Madrid signing Hazard made sense because they were desperate for a player who could fire them right back to the top and fill in a position they were in desperate need for since the departure of Ronaldo. Griezmann doesn’t possess that same urgency that Hazard did, making his signing stink of panic. Real Madrid acted swiftly in bringing in Jovic, another player who seemed destined to sign for the Blaugrana. Barca didn’t have a plan B and have waited too long to bring in Griezmann. The Frenchman feels like an expensive stop-gap in their future pursuit of Kylian Mbappe, which isn’t worth the money for a club who are already full of financial difficulties.

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Neymar’s rumoured return might be even worse than Griezmann’s signing. The Brazilian has been a massive failure, and while his performances on the pitch have been the second-best in the Paris side, he has missed many games through injury, most notably both round of 16 clashes with Manchester United. The reason why Paris signed Neymar was to make their chances of winning the Champions League increase dramatically. He has failed to do so and with his awful attitude off the pitch, it makes it extremely difficult in justifying keeping the forward any longer. Barcelona made a strange yet enticing offer of £90 million and 2 players. I understand why PSG want the money they paid back, but taking two of Dembele, Malcolm, Coutinho, Umtiti, Rakitic or Semedo would help fix some significant issues in the squad and makes them a much better team without their Brazilian superstar. Barcelona’s constant search for more attacking talent baffles me. They have the best player ever to play the game and continues to carry that side more than ever. If you have Messi, your attack is going to function well. They need to focus on fixing the defence and adding some younger talent.

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

Let’s end this list where we began, with the Bundesliga. The effects Austrian football has had on the Bundesliga in recent years has been vital in its development into becoming the breeding ground for young coaches. When discussing this effect, the Red Bull clubs are usually the first link that comes to mind. It was Salzburg who have been responsible for the rise of Marco Rose, Ralph Hassenhuttl, Roger Schmidt and Adi Hutter. It’s not only coaches too, with Naby Keita, Amadou Haidara, Marcel Sabitzer and most recently Stefan Lainer. The Austrian Bundesliga contains a pool of talent that Germany takes full advantage of and it seems other leagues are finally seeing the perks of looking at a historical footballing nation for players.

However, in this case, we are not looking at a manager who has had previous relations with the Red Bull machine. Oliver Glasner arrives after a very successful 4-year spell at former club, LASK Linz. He took them from fighting for promotion the Austrian top flight, to qualifying for the Europa League. This success is primarily down to Glasner, who’s fascinating system got the best out of players at his disposal. While I’m not an avid viewer of the Austrian Bundesliga, but from what I can gather, Glasner is a forward-thinking coach who follows in the footsteps of Rose and Hassenhuttl in creating a physically demanding pressing system. It’s an appointment that makes much sense for Wolfsburg. After suffering from the Bundesliga drop off, nearly facing relegation in 2016/17, they managed to bring themselves back into the conversation at the top of the table, with a direct style of football revolving around star striker Weghorst, an aerial-dominant forward who became the focal point of his side. Wolfsburg began looking for players they could acquire for less money than their evaluation. Signings like Jerome Roussillon and now Kevin Mbabu for a combined £10 million is the kind of genius business that have turned Wolfsburg from that struggling side to one of the best teams in the division.

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Glasner’s appointment shows ambition from the club, to establish a style that will allow them to get back into the Champions League spots. Wolfsburg’s positive appointment is another reason why the Bundesliga is the league to watch next season. The clubs are not obsessed with big stars in a similar fashion to the Premier League and La Liga. They do not get nearly the same amount of money as those leagues and need to stand out. It’s why these clubs are run so well and can sign players for so much less money than you expect them to be. I suggested Arsenal should sign Marcus Thuram, expecting his valuation to be around the £15 million mark, yet Borussia Monchengladbach have just picked up the Frenchman for £8 million. The Bundesliga is a league I have such respect for, and I hope it reaches the high bar I have set the sides this season.

 

Future Superstars! – Under 21 Team of the Season 18/19

With everyone making their team of the seasons and discussing which players should take the award of player of the season when it comes to a close, we’ll instead look at  young players across the big leagues in Europe, and make an XI of players who have stood out for their sides. We’ll mainly focus on players in the top 5 leagues, with some obvious inclusions from other leagues, so let’s get started. Important is they have to have been 21 when the season started, so if players who are 22 are here, then you know why.

Goalkeeper – Gianluigi Donnarumma 

There aren’t truly many options for this position, but we’ll go for AC Milan number one Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Italian has went to further establish himself in a Milan side that are still trying to find their feet. While his teammates are inconsistent to say the least, he has remained one of the best players in the side. He is a good distributor, commands his box and has put in some excellent performances for Milan. One of his stand out performances had to be against Genoa. The 20 year old made 8 saves, and had a 93% pass accuracy. His future still seems to be as bright as it was when he broke onto the scene as a 16 year old.

RB – Aaron Wan-Bissaka 

My love for Wan-Bissaka isn’t hidden at this point. The Crystal Palace defender has been the best full back in the Premier League this season. His crazy high 6.2 tackles and interceptions per game, comfortably the highest in the team and the second highest in the league. He has only been dribbled past by less than 10 players in the league, highlighting just how good he is in those one-on-ones, and his anticipation shines. I even highlighted the Englishman last season for his great performances, by putting him in my team of the season for players outside of the top 6, and seeing him succeed is just so gratifying. Wan-Bissaka actually came through the ranks as a winger, which explains why he’s such a good dribbler, completing 1.7 per game. With Manchester United and Bayern Munich looking at right backs, it makes the prospect of Palace keeping him nearly impossible.

CB – Matthijs de Ligt

I cannot imagine anyone arguing with this choice. De Ligt’s transformation from a small kid playing in the Europa League final against Manchester United, to one of the best young defenders the world has ever seen has to go down to hard work and a brilliant mentality. Playing for arguably the best club in Europe for developing young players, it has given him the platform to succeed and show the world what kind of player he is and can be. His performances in the Champions League have been fantastic. He has shown a calmness and maturity that you don’t see from many players of his age. His distribution also needs to be admired, with the 19 year old completing 63 passes per game, with a 88.2% accuracy. It’s an area which many elite clubs are looking to improve, and he showing all of these things at an age where it gives him years to still improve. If Van Dijk’s record remains this summer, I will be very surprised.

CB – Ibrahima Konate

Leipzig have been a recent breeding ground for young defenders, with Upamecano, Mukiele and Bernardo being recent talents to blossom for them. Konate is another prospect to shine for them. He’s already beeing touted for a big move to Arsenal and it’s earned. With Leipzig playing such an offensively minded system, stand out defenders are needed. Konate is both athletic and a great reader of the game, with the Frenchman making 2.3 interceptions per 90. Thanks to their defenders being so high up the pitch, it leaves them vunerable to long balls towards opposition strikers. It makes the importance of aerial dominant defenders important, and Konate fits the bill. The Frenchman has a respectable 67.3% aerial win percentage, showing how he can deal with the threat. His passing could be better, with a defender’s ability on the ball a sought after part of their game. He is still only 19, meaning his future remains very bright. He’s been one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga and has stood out in a side full of promising players.

LB –  Achraf Hakimi

When discussing Real Madrid’s systemic failure this season, it can be aquainted to making bad decisions. Whether it is selling their best player and not replacing him with a player of similar quality, or in Hakimi’s case, letting a player leave who could have definitely had an effect on the side. The Moroccan international has been the boost that Dortmund needed. With constant injury problems related to Schmelzer and Guerreiro, adding a player who could help with giving the side width, and most importantly, moving the ball. Hakimi is an excellent dribbler, and was nearly the opposite of his full back partner, Lukasz Piszczek, who defensive first. It gave Hakimi a lot of responsibility on a side of the pitch that didn’t have the same consistency as the other. He relished this role, and has been one of the most sought after full backs in Europe. His ability to play on both sides makes him so useful to have, but its his dribbling that is so great. He’s completing 2 dribbles per 90, which is great for both a full back and a young player. He is isn’t a stand out creator by any means, but that isn’t his role. He has to get his side far up the pitch, using his athleticism and ability on the ball. He ranks 4th in the squad for passes completed per game. He is essential in Dortmund’s attempts to move up the field, with not many young players in the world being so adept at passing in a possession that rarely sees that quality. A must for this side

RM – Jadon Sancho 

Rumours are already surfacing, linking Jadon Sancho with £100m moves to the Premier League, and I would definitely pay that. Sancho is having a similar break out season that Mbappe had in that final season at Monaco, which saw the Frenchman earn a £170m move to PSG. Sancho is having a similar season to that. The teenager is one of only a handful of players who is in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s turned into a very good dribbler and creator. Sancho was always seen to be a player who destined for great things, but for him to do it this rapidly is just incredible.  His shot numbers stand at a decent 1.6 per 90, but he’s completing a crazy 3.9 dribbles and making 2.6 key passes. Those are top 10 players in the world numbers, and he’s doing it for a title challenging side in a respectable league. His xGP90 is sitting at 0.58, which is roughly a goal contribution every other game. This shows just how promising the young winger is, being able to have such a stamp on a side full of talent in his first true season. His numbers are spectacular, but there’s more to him than that. His maturity, intelligence and his risk taking is what makes him such a desirable prospect, and arguably the break out star of the season.

CM – Frenkie De Jong

The Eredivise has had this huge problem with analysing talent. Players can have truly excellent seasons, but thanks to the standard of the league, you have to take it with a grain of salt when looking at their numbers and involvement. This current Ajax team has been trying to break that rule, and no one has done so more than Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman came off the back of a very good 2017/18 season, and decided to take that to the next level. It’s earned him a £75m move to Barcelona, and will add so much to a side that has been needing a player like him for a long time. De Jong is a true all rounder. He is averaging 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also completing 80 passes, creating 1.4 chances and completing 2 dribbles.  These are numbers similar to a peak Modric, who was helplessly embarassed by De Jong. While his numbers in the Eredivise have been outstanding, it’s his performances in the Champions League that have really taken the headlines. He dismantled Real Madrid in their own turf, and when playing Juventus in the Johan Cruyff Stadium, he made it nearly impossible to take him out of the game. Every time Bentancour tried to get near him, De Jong would just drop between the defenders to receive the ball. Since he is such a good dribbler, he can just get the ball and walk right through the opposition defence, with no one able to get a finger on him. He’s attempting 1.8 dribbles in the Champions League per match, and is completing 78% of them. Those are peak Moussa Dembele numbers, a player who was famed for his dribble success rate. De Jong will be a superstar, and has everything to put him down as a potential great.

CM – James Maddison 

Moving back to the Premier League and for the final time, let’s look at James Maddison, who has had a spectacular season. The former Norwich midfielder took the step up the Premier League, and already looks like he belongs here. With Leicester losing Mahrez, they needed a creator and someone to help with moving the ball into the final third, and Maddison has fitted the bill. He is creating more chances than any other player in the league with 3.3 key passes per 90. While Leicester have been inconsistent to say the least, Maddison has put in good performance after good performance. His chance creation is incredible, but his dribbling should not be forgotten here. He’s completing 1.5 dribbles per 90, which is good for a player who has been played behind the striker. He reads the game well and has created a great relationship with Jamie Vardy. He constantly wants to get on the ball and is always looking to make positive moves. The only problem is his shooting. His shot map is a mess to say the least, with Maddison taking shots in bad places. A coach needs to try and wipe that out of his game, and ensure he is not wasting chances like that. The future is bright for Maddison, and could be the real central creator that his country has been looking for.

LM – Joao Felix

I mentioned how some leagues have created this impression of risk, and Liga Nos might be the most infamous. Whenever you see an Oblak or Nelson Semedo, you’ll see a Perez or a Jackson Martinez. It’s a league that doesn’t create the same teams that you see in Holland. The sides are usually good defensively and efficient in attack, which makes attackers especially a huge risk. While there have been many failures, Joao Felix doesn’t look like one. The Benfica attacker has had a great season, breaking the record for youngest player to score a hat trick in the Europa League, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. His best performances have all come as a striker, where he has scored 12 and assisted 6 in 18. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high, but when he’s played, it’s usually been with Seferovic, who’s taking roughly 2.6 shots per game (Felix is at 2.4). There has been more to his game than this. He’s also creating 1.1 chances a game, the fourth highest in the squad. His general anticipation and maturity is what has made him stand out, but I think any move for him this summer would be premature. he doesn’t seem to be showing the same insanity in terms of elite numbers, but there is a top level player here. He just needs to play more games before making the step up. A great start for Joao Felix in his break out season.

ST – Kylian Mbappe

Who else? Mbappe is now in the top 5 players in the world for me. Only Messi and Neymar can be argued to be more perfect attackers than the World Cup winner. He’s taking 4.7 shots per 90, with 3.5 coming in the box. He’s taking more shots in the box than most players are taking in a game. He’s had some stand out performances this season, with his hat trick against Lyon earlier in the season being arguably a career high. While he is arguably at the level of Messi and Neymar, he doesn’t have the same wow factor as they do. This is a complement if you can believe, because it makes him more direct and attack with less patience about it. Going on would be pointless because everyone knows just how good Mbappe is. He is player everyone in the world wants.

ST – Luka Jovic

Last but not least, we’re returning to the Bundesliga for our final player. Jadon Sancho has been on the lips of every Bundesliga viewer, but Jovic has been fantastic. I’ve watched a lot of the young Serb since those 5 goals he scored earlier in the season, and he just keeps impressing me. He’s taking shots in great areas, he’s two footed, good in the air and puts some real power on his shots. A small detail there but it’s great to see someone who looks like they want to break the net whenever they score. His xG contribution per 90 stands at 0.90, which is elite levels for a player who hasn’t had much experience at the top. In hindsight this could have been predicted. His xGP90 was 0.74 last season, showing how in little game time, he was still having an incredible effect on his side. The only thing he needed was a manager who was going to start him every game, and that is what he’s got. Jovic looks to be the next super star striker in Europe, similar to Kane or Aguero. It won’t be long until he’s playing for Europe’s truly elite.

 

 

3 Teams To Watch in the Europa League

With the round of 16 only drawn today, it’s now time to look at 3 teams to watch in this year’s competition. While the Champions League is far more popular, and for good reason, the Europa League does deserve some recognition. I wanted to wait for the round of 32 to finish, because the group stages contain a lot of poor opposition, so waiting for good teams to appear seemed like the right thing to do.

Eintracht Frankfurt

Let’s begin with a team that have been very good this season. Frankfurt currently sit 7th in the Bundesliga, only 7 points behind the Champions League places. After their DFB Pokal win over Bayern Munich, they lost their manager and replaced him with Adi Hutter. The Austrian had earned plenty of attention thanks to his success with Salzburg and then beating FC Basel to the League with Young Boys. It was seen as an incredible feet, and meant he was given the chance to manage at a club with promise. He has done an excellent job so far. Frankfurt play a 3-5-2, a formation that gives good width while still given the side plenty of numbers if possession is lost. Thanks to his attackers being so good, it has allowed Frankfurt to build their entire team around creating chances for them. Thanks to having a good distributor in Hasebe, it means they can counter attack very quickly, and it has made them so good to watch in that regard. Only Dortmund have scored more goals on the counter attack than Frankfurt’s 5. They also take 64% of their shots in the 18 yard box, the highest in the league. It’s proof that this is a team that knows how to create good chances, and are very difficult to stop. They’ve carried this form into this year’s Europa League compeition, scoring 13 goals in open play, the joint second in the competition. They’ve also scored the most goals from set pieces, just showing they take advantage of any chance to score a goal. It’s a reason why they are such a threat this year. This side are full of goals and not many defences could deal with them.

To look at their most important players starts and finishes with their attackers. Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Let’s begin with by far their most notable player, Serbian forward Luka Jovic. The Benfica forward has been one of the breakout stars of the season, with Jovic already being linked a big move to Barcelona. There are justified reasons why. He has been a monster in front of of goal this season, scoring 14 goals in 15 starts in the Bundesliga this season. What is most impressive is where he’s shooting this season. Per 90, he’s been taking 3.6 shots a game, with 3.1 inside the box. They are numbers similar to Mauro Icardi, a man who lives in the 18 yard box. What is so great about him is just how good he is at scoring. A simple observation yes, but still very true, thanks to his strike partner being so good, it always leaves him with the chance at goal, and he just hits it with so much power. He’s fast, strong and good in the air, and it makes him one of the most wanted players around.

His strike partner, Sebastien Haller, has arguably been better in the Europa League this season than Jovic. The French man has been very good this season, but thanks to Jovic earning all the praise, it has let fly under the radar. Haller has scored 11 and assisted 8, putting him in the top 10 scorers and the top 5 assisters in the League. I mentioned that having him has made Jovic better, and it’s true. It’s similar to the relationship built between Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. One who is the goal scorer, and the other helps said goal scorer get the opportunities. It’s arguably the reason why Werner hasn’t succeeded at international level. He doesn’t have someone like Poulsen next to him, to allow him to find space as easily, and doesn’t allow him to play as more of a poacher. Haller has done exactly that. He is winning a crazy 7.7 aerial duels in the Bundesliga, the most in the league. His shot numbers aren’t exactly great, but that isn’t the point. His purpose is to allow Frankfurt to transition as quickly as possible, and for a side that isn’t exactly Champions League level, it works really well. He is an incredibly important player, and hopefully gets the credit he deserves.

Finally, let’s touch on Ante Rebic. The most experienced forward out of the trio (he’s only 25) has also been very good this season. While he has played as a winger for Croatia and has a forward for Frankfurt, he has been playing as a number 10 primarily this season, and has been a great addition to the strike force. Rebic is by far the best dribbler out of the trio, completing 2.6 dribbles per 90, comfortably the most for his side He is very importantly in driving the ball and adding an element of unpredictability to his side. It’s what makes him useful to have. Jovic is a great goalscorer and Haller is a great vocal point, and Rebic is great at driving at defences, with power and speed making him a handful for many defences.

This attack is what makes Frankfurt in my opinion, one of the favourites for the tournament. Their attack has the versatility to be able to deal with nearly any defence that comes their way. Their game against Inter Milan is a must watch, because it could truly be an upset and a showing from a side that has performed so well in the Bunesliga this season.

RB Salzburg

While I have definitely gone on way too much on Frankfurt, let’s look at the team that have scored more than one of the best attacks in the compeition, RB Salzburg. Salzburg were a team they I never used to think much of. I just presumed they were a feeder club for many clubs across Europe. They had an eye for talent, which saw players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita go through their ranks, before moving on to bigger clubs in Europe. But that all changes last season. They were so good in the Europa League last season. They managed to finish above runners up Marseille in the group stages, going unbeaten. Their run in the competition was a difficult one, yet they still managed to reach the semi finals, where they couldn’t pull one over Marseille one last time. They beat Real Sociedad, Lazio and Borussia Dortmund in the competition. They have a talented squad, and most importantly, an amazing coach. Marco Rose has been seen as one of the most exciting young coaches in Europe. The German is another young German coach with a style and philosophy that is seen as the future of the game. After beating Man City, PSG, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to win the UEFA Youth League with Salzburg’s youth side, he was given the job for the senior side. He has a win percentage of 70% for Salzburg, and is looking to win another Austrian Bundesliga . To describe him as a coach, his insperations seems to be Tuchel and Klopp. It’s understandable since he played under Klopp and has worked with Tuchel. If Klopp’s football is heavy metal, then Rose’s should be heavier metal. It takes pressing to another level. They primarily play a 4-3-1-2, but Rose is still very flexible depending on who he plays. Salzburg play directly to their forward Dabbur, thanks to Ramalho a very good passer, averaging 8.7 long balls in the Europa League. They attempt to then play the ball quickly in and around the final third, with Hannes Wolf and Minamino/Gulbrandsen trying to exploit the space that is made. Their full backs are the ones who give the side their width, with Laimer and Ulmer mostly playing as wingers. The first thought when seeing and describing this is usually the risk it involves, with so many players advancing forward. It is risky, but when your side counter presses as well as Rose’s does, it isn’t so bad. The main reason why they play such a narrow formation is for this reason. When they lose the ball, they will have so many numbers, that it makes retrieving the ball much easier. It makes them such a threat, that no wonder they reached the semi finals last season. They have been outstanding in the competition so far. They were in a relatively tough group, with Celtic and RB Leipzig. Yet they managed to win every game. Only previously mentioned Frankfurt and Salzburg managed to do this. It’s why I’ve mentioned first here, because they have been the best sides so far in the Europa League. Salzburg did carry this on into the round of 32, with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate final score against Brugge just showing why they are so high regarded.

The first player that has to be discussed is Munas Dabbur. The Israeli forward has been the stand out player of the tournament so far, scoring 7 and assisting 1 in all 8 games they’ve played. His importance to the side cannot be underestimated. While the striker playing beside him has been changed around, he has stayed an ever present. He takes a team high 3.8 shots per 90, and has created 1.7 chances. He is an all round forward who is able to not only score, but able to bring others into play very effectively. Salzburg will hope that he is able to bring this form into their game against Napoli, if they are to get anything out of that tough tie.

When bringing up the counter press in this side, Diade Samassekou has to be given plenty of praise. While he offers nearly nothing in attack, his defensive work is just out of this world. The Mali midfielder has been putting in 7 tackles and interceptions per game. I don’t think I have ever seen numbers like this on a player, when you realise that no other player in the competition has reached that number, it tells you just how good this guy is at recovering the ball. In a system where doing that is vital to not only keeping the ball, but helping with attacking the opposition.

Salzburg are such a threat because of the way they approach games. These players know the system and have the intelligence and energy to pull it off. Their aggressive and fast style of play makes them a difficult opposition for anyone.

Sevilla

Sevilla, who after having a relatively poor 2017/18 season, bounced back with a bang. While their form has dropped off since the new year, the fact they were top of the league as recent as November. We’ll start with the summer, which saw the arrival of their new coach, Pablo Machin. He did an excellent job at Girona. He ensured that a newly promoted side finished 10th in the league. While they didn’t score many goals from open play, they managed 19 goals from set pieces, with only Madrid scoring more from those situations. For a promoted side, taking advantage of opportunites like that is vital. You will not have much of the ball and need goals. It’s also easier to teach set pieces than it is to teach a different system. Machin did well and was given the chance at a team with more resourses and better players. He turned Sevilla into a counter attacking machine, a side that moved the ball quickly and created great chances for a group of forwards who have shown plenty of talent in their career. They’re also midfielders with an eye for a pass, with Banega and Sarabria both helping transition the ball further up the pitch, and Navas and Escudero giving good width for the side. They are so forward thinking in an attacking sense, that it makes them very vunerable defensively. While they have scored an impressive 40 goals, they have conceded 32, the most out of the top 10 in La Liga. Their approach is very much of Wenger’s Arsenal in its later years, if the opposition scores 2, we’ll score 3. They are a great side to watch, and while the form of some players have dropped (especially Andre Silva), they have had their best season since Sampoali’s top 4 finish.

They have been very good in the Europa League so far this season. They reached the round of 16 by winning 4 games and losing 2 in the group stages. They weren’t at their best in this period, but considering the group stages took place when Sevilla were doing well in La Liga, it makes sense why they didn’t do better. Their tie against Lazio in the round of 32 were Sevilla back at their best. Thanks to heroic performances from Banega and Kjaer, it gave Sevilla an away goal and a clean sheet, giving Sevilla the upper hand. They then went and beat the Italian side 2-0 in Spain to advance to the next round. Now that any hope of a title is out of the water, it leaves them with more focus on this compeition, making it a very important goal for the season.

To look at key players, one must begin with Ben Yedder. The frenchman is a very good forward and now under Machin, is getting the chances to show. He finds great positions in the box and is able get in between defenders, thanks to his small figure, makes him a stiker you have to keep your eye on . He has scored 6 goals in the competition, the most for his side, and is by far their most threatening forward. Another player who will shine in this competition, as he has done in the past, is Ever Banega. The Argentine had already won the competition during his last spell for Sevilla, and hopefully and help his side do the same. He’s been putting in 3 tackles and interceptions, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. He is so important for Sevilla when it comes to transition, with his calmness and experience key in helping move the ball higher up the pitch. He, like Sarabia, is also an excellent creator. It’s what makes their counter attacks so threatening. They are able to find their dynamic forward precise passes, and is why they are so dangerous in the break.

While question marks can be made on how they are defensively (mainly due to personel), they are still a side who are very dangerous. If you do not attack them enough, they will punish you for it.

 

 

Why Mourinho Was Sacked. Top 5 League Talking Points

While this week wasn’t as interesting as the last, there are still plenty to talk about so let’s start with Germany

Bundesliga

Frankfurt Outclass Leverkusen

While Bayern and Leipzig all pick up big wins, let’s look at Frankfurt, who continued their great start to the season with a 2-1 victory over Bayern Leverkusen. While Frankfurt have been very good this season, Leverkusen are still a side that can cause any side trouble, with Werder Bremen conceding 6 against them. They also haven’t lost since the 11th of November, so this was a tough task for both sides.

Let’s start with the winners, who won this game, even without their young shot machine Luka Jovic, who started the game on the bench. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. They still had both Ante Rebic and Sebastian Haller, who have been very good this season. Rebic has continued on from his World Cup exploits, with the Croatian scoring 5 and assisting 2. His shot numbers are healthy considering he’s played all over the field this season, and he’s creating 1.8 chances a game, showing how much of a well rounded player he is. While he has been good, Haller has been absolutely brilliant. He’s scored 9 goals and is at the top of the assists chart in the Bundesliga, with 8. If you count the Europa League, he’s in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s incredible in the air and while he has been rather fortunate to have this many goal contributions, he has still been arguably the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Against Bayer Leverkusen, he took 4 shots, created 3 chances and won a ridiculous 12 aerial duels. Dragovic and Tah just couldn’t deal with him, with the pair only winning 3 aerial duels. I wouldn’t be surprised if clubs aren’t looking at him, for bids in the summer. He’s only 24, meaning there is still a ceiling to hit. He was only signed for £6.3m from Utrecht. What a brilliant bit of business from a club that seems to keep impressing me.

While Haller was as good as ever, the man of the match was arguably Filip Kostic. The Serbian was great on the day, scoring and assisting to help his side get the 3 points. He also created 2 chances, made 4 tackles and interceptions and 6 clearances. Frankfurt play in a way where their full backs are pushed so far forward, that they are almost like inside forwards. The first goal showed this, with Kostic assisting Da Costa with a beautiful low cross. It gives their side a constant attacking threat in all areas, and it means players like Rebic and Haller can stay more central without worrying about lacking isolation. But their marauding full backs come at a cost. It leaves them so vunarable at the back. Leverkusen were probably unlucky to not get more out of this game. They started it off so well, with Brandt having two great chances, and Bellerabi having a goal disallowed. They exploited the wide areas that are always left so free at times, and if not for better finishing, would have let Frankfurt pay for it. But they didn’t, and Frankfurt continue on this season, looking to get Europa League football.

La Liga

Betis back on track

While November did include a brilliant victory over Barcelona, it wasn’t a great month for Betis. It was their only win last month, with a draw against Celta and a defeat to a poor Villarreal, it left them in a position where they couldn’t seem to put two wins together. Now in December, they haven’t lost a single game yet, with their only points dropped being in the Europa League. Wins and clean sheets against Sociedad and Vallecano, means they are finally showing how good they really are. This side have a solid defense, and a great midfield. This actually transitions very smoothly to talk about Giovanni Lo Celso. The Argentine is one of my favourite players to watch this season, and has been the best midfielder in the league. While he’s only started 9 games, it is because the horrible Europa League campaign they are also playing in. He’s clearly being saved for those games, and it’s understandable why. Lo Celso is a midfielder who can play anywhere in the midfield. His tackle numbers and great dribble numbers make him a very flexible player, similar to Moussa Dembele or Allan. The difference here is goals. Lo Celso is Betis’s top scorer, and while it’s only with 4, it does show how good he at getting in the box. He also ranks third in the squad for shots per game, and xG says he is achieving what he should be, which shows there isn’t much luck or a purple patch here. This is Lo Celso playing his game, which is just frightening. He’s only 22, meaning there are still plenty of years left.

He was the man of the match in this game, taking 4 shots and completing 4 dribbles. Lo Celso is not a creator. Canales takes that role (and is another who has performed very well), while Lo Celso plays as the player who arrives late in the box, but is also an expert at winning the ball back. It does seriously trouble me why Paris let him go out on loan, and are now forced to play Marquinhos to play as a holding midfielder, a position where Lo Celso could definitely fill in. It would would amaze me if Paris actually let him go. He’s a player with massive potential would offer something different in a midfield which will see Rabiot leave by the summer. He is such a good player and is the reason why Betis are such a threat.

Ligue 1

Monaco Misery Continues

It is fair to say Monaco have been the worst side in Europe. They have went from Ligue 1 runners up, to a side hiring a manager with zero experience, and are now suffering for it. They have conceded the 4th most goals in the league, and scored the 3rd least amount of goals in Europe. They have turned from league winners, to a shambles. This game against Lyon just shows their weaknesses in both areas. They are currently suffering with 16 players out in the sidelines. I can definitely sympathise with Henry in that department. He has been forced to play Raggi as a right back, a player who should really not be at the club at this point. Monaco were truly awful in this game. It may become boring just looking at numbers, but they sum up the situation perfectly. The five highest shot takers in this game were all Lyon players, and the most dribbles were all Lyon players. Falcao actually won 3 tackles, more than all of his teammates. A striker should never be doing that. They had a pass accuracy of 77%. That is just awful. You expect a side, with ball players like Monaco to have at least 80%. You expect lower than that from direct managers like Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. While Lyon managed 21 shots, Monaco managed a poultry 4, meaning Aouar and Depay had more shots than their opposition, with 5 each. This all wasn’t helped from Golovin getting sent off. The Russian decided to throw a terrible challenge in, earning a straight and justifiably got his marching orders. They offered nothing in this game, which can’t be highlighted more than Benaglio getting the second highest amount of touches with 45. It was just a nothing performance from a side that has been no where near average this season.

Let’s quickly look at Lyon. They are now looking like the second best team in Ligue 1, which they are. Their best player on the day was Nabil Fekir. It might be an exaggeration, but he is arguably one of the top 20 players on the planet. Not many attackers can boast his creativity, shot numbers, set piece ability, dribbling and versatility. There’s so much to his game that is makes him such a desirable player to every top club. He could get into any team in the world. This game showed his quality. He scored, created 6 chances and completed the most passes out of any forward for Lyon. He was at his unbeatable best in this game, tearing through Monaco as if they were a light piece of paper. It was a great performance from a player who is just too good for this league. Another who stood out is Kenny Tete. He completed the most tackles and created 4 chances, with only Fekir creating more. His cross for the second goal was fantastic, and showed this determination and fight that he clearly has.

With Paris already seemed to have wrapped up the league, Lyon could seriously shock some sides the champions league. Barcelona are arguably the favourites for the competition, but injuries to their defenders and Luis Suarez’s ability to have an incredible off day, means they are definitely beatable. Valverde’s pragmatism is his biggest weakness, and best quality. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it just doesn’t work. Losing to Roma, failing to win the league because of his complete team change against Levante, and their terrible performance against Betis only last month. It leaves questions on whether they can actually go the distance. They go against this Lyon side. A side full of attacking quality, and a side that showed a lot of versatility in the past, able to play a 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3. It could be a real challenge, as Manchester City found out.

Premier League

Manchester United outclassed

While this is quite late, let’s look at Mourinho’s last game in charge of Manchester United, arguably his side’s worst showing. I compare every single bad performance from United this season to that game against Brighton, where I saw nothing in attacking sense and complete incompetence in defense. Even the games against, Southampton, Valencia, Juventus, Manchester City, Spurs and Derby, they just weren’t as bad as Brighton, but the against their closest rivals is definitely the worst. Allowing Liverpool to have 36 shots, is a disgrace. United just sat back and allowed Liverpool to attack relentlessly. While Liverpool were quite wasteful, with Fabinho, Lovren and Mane all wasting chances, they still created so many chances and were allowed so because of just how bad United were. While United did get a goal back thanks to an Allison mistake, it was not deserved. Liverpool won the game thanks to goals from Xherdan Shaqiri. I think the line up was the start of things to come for United. No Martial, Pogba or Mata meant a huge lack of creativity and spark in the side. It made United so much more predictable and passive in an attacking sense. They lacked Mata’s ability to drift and find space, Martial’s speed and chance creation and Pogba’s pure arrogance. While I like Herrera, he isn’t going to offer anything in a creative sense, and Matic is just not very good. I like Lingard, but he works better when he’s playing off other attackers. Rashford, while he tried his hardest, did struggle in this game. United are an absolute mess, and it truly doesn’t make sense. This side has some of the best attackers in the league. Lukaku was scoring over 20 goals only 2-3 years ago, Martial was carrying United’s attack, Rashford was ruthless in his first full season, Sanchez was linked to every single top during his final year at Arsenal, Mata is arguably as good as David Silva. How this team isn’t scoring more than Arsenal and Chelsea is mind blowing. Mourinho started his time at United so well. Two trophies, an arrogance and swagger with the signings of Zlatan and Pogba, and huge progress to be made. However it’s just been downhill from there. This is written right after Mourinho was sacked, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been appointed. The Norwegian will hopefully bring back the confidence in this side, and make times at Old Trafford much more enjoyable.

While I still do not think Liverpool are near City in performance and quality, credit needs to be given. They were very good against United. It does help that their opponent was so bad, but they themselves were good. Fabinho was their best player on the day for me. While many have given Shaqiri the man of the match for his effect on the game, I think Fabinho did show exactly why Liverpool have been such a solid side this season. While he started slow, he seems to have finally found his place and purpose in this side. Considering he was playing in defensive midfield, he played more as a number ten. He had 5 shots, created 2 chances and 3 dribbles. He got the assist for the first goal, with an excellent ball that cut the United defense open like cheese. He dominated this game and could be a real important player in a season where Liverpool finally seem ready for a trophy.

Serie A

Roma entertain Genoa

With all the big clubs getting typical wins, let’s look at the most entertaining of those wins, being Roma’s 3-2 victory over Genoa. Roma have been poor this season. I still have massive question marks over Di Francesco, and Monchi just hasn’t had the impact all expected him to have. I do think it is a massive shame that Malcom made the wrong decision in joining Barcelona. If he did sign as he was expected to, they would definitely be more of a threat in front of goal. Roma have scored a very good 29 goals, but an injury to Dzeko has left them with a difficult situation. Schick hasn’t impressed in the slightest since his arrival from Sampdoria last season. Instead, they started Zaniolo. The Italian didn’t manage a shot on target in the game, but having the opportunity will definitely help him grow as a player. For the first time this season, I can say Roma’s midfield were very good. Di Francesco chose to start Bryan Cristante and Steven N’Zonzi in this game. Cristante is a player who isn’t full of talent, but he did show what he’s got against Genoa, scoring and creating 3 chances. His midfield partner was even better. N’Zonzi has not been great since his arrival in the capital. He’s started show his age, and struggling with the pace of some sides in Italy. But in this game he was back to his best. He completed 6 tackles and interceptions, and won 8 aerial duels. He is finally showing why Monchi chose to take another risk on him, at an age where he should start to be fading. He hasn’t been at his best this season, but he is still a presence in midfield and hopefully he can find a certain place in this side. With Pellegrini in the sidelines, it was important that the pair stepped up, and they did.

Genoa can truly call themselves unlucky. They had a lead in this game, with the shot monster Piatek and Hiljemark both scoring, but Roma clawed back and got the result. xG had this game at 1.88 to Roma and 2.18 to Genoa. This is mainly due to how good Piatek is. The Polish marksman has been on fire this season, and showed it here. He had 5 shots, with every single shot on target. It’s something you don’t usually see from a forward, being able to hit every shot on target in a game against the second best defense last season. There is no doubt that Piatek is over performing, but he is playing for a side that isn’t exactly a top 6 contender. They don’t create a crazy amount of chances, so it’s very impressive. It’ll be hard for Genoa to keep hold of him, if any big clubs would go for him.