My Thoughts On: Statistics in Football

Nothing seems to divide the footballing world more than the use and implementation of statistics; whether it’s from clubs, television pundits or anyone on Twitter. My opinion, on the whole, has leaned more on the positive side since learning about how much they can tell you about the beautiful game.

Firstly, stats have been something I’ve wanted to grasp since first learning about it entirely. On my original blog (which I deleted right before starting this one), I first used them in a post discussing Tiemoue Bakayoko and a potential move to Manchester United (yes, that long ago). From then on, I would try and include different statistics concerning the topic at hand. Looking back, however, I don’t think I did understand what I was saying, using them for nothing more than emphasising my point, instead of challenging that view. It’s something you see a lot on twitter. Many accounts with a famous player as their avatar do love to throw out random stats about their favourite player to push their agenda further. It’s something along the lines of x player has scored more goals against the big clubs than y player. The one thing you have to remember about stats and football is they aren’t wrong, people are.

The most significant benefit of using stats in football is its method of narrowing down your needs. We’ll get onto why the general stats can never tell the full story of a player, but you can use them to figure out what a player does. Looking at a player’s total aerial duels can tell you if said player can deal with the ball in the air, while total passes can say to you who in a team is the player responsible for keeping possession. It does sound rather simple, and there are some complexities to it. However, some of the more well-known stats are still some of the most useful. Seeing how many shots a striker puts up is still something I rely on when big money moves are involved. Stats can help narrow down your options if you’re looking at who you’d like your club to sign.

Context is the most important thing to consider when stats are involved. The numbers can tell you a lot about a particular player, but it’s essential to not only look at where he ranks in his club but to watch him with your own two eyes. Let’s take Jack Grealish, for example, and I’ll explain why later. Grealish’s return to the Premier League has been stunning, and the numbers even show this. The midfielder’s making 2.7 shot assists per game, more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, David Silva and Willian. It does show that Grealish, on the whole, does create more chances in a game than some big performances for top-six sides. However, you quickly realise that the reason Grealish is creating so much is because of the style of play that Dean Smith prefers. He wants his star player to be on the ball as much as possible, to ensure his side have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

You should always look at the numbers behind the numbers (if that makes sense). James Maddison has been a high-level creator since arriving in the Premier League. Maddison is second in the league for total shot-creating actions (154), one place ahead of Grealish (141). It’s arguably the main reason why the pair are put side to side, especially with potential big moves on the horizon. But when looking into their passing, there’s one area where they massively differ. From open play, Grealish has made 102 passes that lead to a shot attempt, while Maddison has created a much lower 70 passes. The other part of Maddison’s passing game is his set-piece delivery, something where he does excel over the Villa captain. Maddison has completed 51 dead-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt, 36 ahead of Grealish. While both players are great creators, it’s evident that in the area of passing, they can offer something completely different, depending on what your team needs. Manchester United might find Jack Grealish’s versatility and creativity from open play more tempting since Fernandes handles their set-pieces. At the same time, a team like Arsenal would prefer Maddison, who could replace Ozil as the team’s primary set-piece taker.

But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also begun to sympathise they the group who are entirely against the use of numbers in sports. We’ll start with the obvious point of making a sport built on enjoyment and insane highs and boiling it down to models and figures. People watch football for the thrill, and while there are a lot of players who back up their entertaining performances with good numbers, there are a lot who don’t. Adama Traore is an absolute delight to watch sprinting down the wing and trying to take on a whole team on his own, but the numbers label him quite inefficient. Even the idea of Manchester United keeping Pogba and signing Grealish to play alongside Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sounds like a defensive nightmare for any coach, but who cares. The potential interplay, magic and spectacular goals will make people run to their seats for the first time since prime Rooney. I’ll always say that clubs should follow the o-ring theory (to summarise, it encourages clubs to focus on improving their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths) but it’s hard to argue against the case of wanting to watch and enjoy football.

In all honesty, the only stat that I’ll always defend and encourage people to look at and use in expected goals. It’s one of the more complicated stats to understand at first, but once grasped, it can become beneficial when viewing matches and team performances. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the time to keep up with every team’s performances in Europe. It’s why my focus is now primarily Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League matches. Expected goals can give me a rough estimation of how teams are performing in their domestic league. I do generally keep up with who is topping leagues for shot assists, shots, aerial duels and other applicable numbers. Expected goals won’t give you the full picture, but it can give you an indication on what to look out for when next watching a team you haven’t seen for a large part of the season.

The last thing to mention regarding this subject is never to alienate people. Unless your career has an association with stats in football (data companies, writers, scouts .etc), there is simply no need to wave your superior knowledge to someone who either doesn’t understand the use of numbers or has no intention learning about it. There are still plenty of experts I follow on twitter who’s thoughts and opinions I value even if they don’t throw out xG numbers every match day. Be wary of how you’re using stats, and never include them unless you understand or have some relevance to the topic. Nothing can ever tell you more about a player than your own two eyes. If you’re ever interested in a player’s numbers, watch them in a game and see if they’re strengths remain. Never entirely rely on numbers for anything, because they will never tell you the full story.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Fred and Risk Versus Reward

One of the big take-aways from Manchester United’s 19/20 season is the change in issues. Under Jose Mourinho, many (including myself) thought Mourinho was a massive problem because United did have a lot of talent, but the manager failed to get the best out of them. Players like Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were playing below their level, primarily down to a fallout with the manager, inconsistent minutes or being played out of position.

Solsjkaer deserved criticism for a lot of choices he has made, but one area in which I think he’s surpassed his predecessor is streamlining his squad. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have had their best seasons for the club, thriving in the spotlight that needed filling after the departure of Romelu Lukaku. Both players had massive questions marks over them. Could Rashford develop a better game to match his desire on the pitch; and could Martial show that killer edge in the box that we only saw glimpses of under Mourinho? The pair were finally given the trust needed to perform, and have been the highlight for Manchester United during a turbulent season.

There is one huge question that has loomed over Anthony Martial in particular. Is the high reward worth the risk? Martial is the best finisher at the club, isolates opposition defenders well and has improved his hold-up play throughout the season. But that does come at a cost. Martial is very selfish. When running towards the goal, the Frenchman will always choose to dribble or shoot instead of pass. I personally like this quality in him, and it’s why he is so good in front of goal. But I can’t deny that he has chosen the wrong options multiple times this season, costing United valuable points. When you compare Rashford and Martial, the former has a more balanced game, while the latter’s highs are a lot higher, as well as his lows.

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I bring up Martial and Rashford because it ties in well with another player who defines risk vs reward (and it isn’t Bruno Fernandes). When Fred arrived at the club, I didn’t really have an opinion on the transfer, besides the obvious risk involved. The only time we could see Fred play was in the Champions League, which is a small sample size to judge a player’s ability. It’s what made Manchester United signing Fred so confusing. Over £50 million on a midfielder who was more likely to fail than succeed was not something you expect from a club who usually don’t gamble on players so unknown. When United have spent big in recent years, it’s either been on high-profile domestic talent or big names from Europe’s elite (Pogba and Di Maria are the clear examples here).

I suspect United only signed Fred for the same reason they signed Alexis Sanchez; to beat their city rivals, Manchester City, to one of their rumoured targets. This seems more likely when you look at his debut season at the club. He only started 13 games for the club, and many of those appearances only happened through injuries to other members of the squad. The big problem with Fred was the other midfielders in the team were just better. Fred didn’t possess the same tenacity and bite as Herrera; the same experience and size of Matic or the likability of someone like McTominay. Pogba is arguably the player most comparable in terms of strengths, but there isn’t even a competition in terms of who is the better creative midfielder. Fred’s highlight in his debut season was that night in Paris. It was the first time I can recall the Brazilian showing composure on the ball and did help United show some control in midfield. It was the first sign Fred could be something in Manchester, other than another big-money midfield flop.

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Fred’s sophomore season in the Premier League has been very interesting. Starting on the defensive end, Fred’s numbers are quite surprising. Fred is second for tackles and interceptions per 90 with 3.69, with a majority of his tackles coming in the defensive-third. His amount of pressures is a significant anomaly for a midfielder. The former Shakhtar midfielder puts up 30.2 pressures per 90, which puts him in the top 10 for pressures per 90 in the league (out of players to play substantial minutes). It is quite baffling why Fred’s pressuring so much. The other notable midfielders to put up similar numbers would be Abdoulaye Doucoure, Joao Moutinho and Sean Longstaff. I think the massive difference between Fred and the three players listed would be role and system. Longstaff and Moutinho play in deep-block systems and in midfield three’s, meaning they’re given more freedom in midfield to pressure their opponents, without leaving so much space. Doucoure usually plays in a double-pivot but has been moved up the pitch under Nigel Pearson, now playing as the team’s unorthodox number ten. Fred plays in a double-pivot, usually alongside the more immobile Nemanja Matic or the attack-minded Scott McTominay.

The Brazilian is doing a lot more defensive work than he should be, which is pretty frustrating considering how good of a progressive passer he’s shown himself to be. Fred has completed 140 passes in the final third, the most in the Manchester United squad and 12th out of the whole league. Fred is quite a dangerous passer in a complimentary way. He’s always looking to play the ball forward and help the team through his ball progression. Before Bruno Fernandes’ arrival, Fred was the only player in the squad able to play that midfield-splitting ball, especially with Pogba being absent for a majority of the season. The 27-year-old can not only progress the ball through his passing but through dribbling. Fred attempts 2.18 dribbles with a 77% success rate. He might not be on the level of a prime Moussa Dembele or Thiago Alcantara, but that is still a respectable success rate and shows he isn’t a one-trick pony when progressing the ball.

It’s clear that Fred does offer a lot of positives for a midfielder, but there are obviously some drawbacks to the Brazilian’s strengths. Firstly, his desire to get the ball moving forward does bring out one of his more obvious flaws in his game; his shooting. Fred has this frustrating habit of taking shots from frankly awful positions, giving the ball away and possibly wasting a goalscoring opportunity for his team. He’s only taken 7 out of his 37 shots from inside the 18-yard box. It highlights the real issue of his decision-making. When opposition players put a lot of pressure on him, Fred can be quite erratic. When you compare Fred to someone like Verratti, their passes into the final third are very similar (Verratti has made 162 passes into the final third) but where they differ is creativity. You can make the very credible argument that Verratti averages a lot more passes into the penalty area (Verratti has made 43, Fred has made 13) because the Italian has better players in front of him and is playing under a much better coach. Still, it’s noticeable how wasteful Fred is when you compare how many shots the pair take. Verratti has only taken a single shot in the league, which further establishes just how good the former Pescara midfielder is at doing the role assigned to him. Verratti is not only a great progressor but can aid his team in the final third, something Fred is yet to do. That is the level Fred should be aiming towards, to be that complete midfielder, able to contribute in numerous ways on the pitch.

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The final question to ask about Fred is, are the drawbacks worth it? The Brazilian is a hard-working, energetic midfielder who helps United in getting the ball to the talented forwards. But he can halt attacks as they begin to look threatening if he is the one receiving the ball, instead of delivering. The arrival of Bruno Fernandes has undoubtedly taken some of the pressure away from Fred in trying to offer creativity and a goal threat. Yet, it doesn’t address the actual flaws in his game. If Fred was as good in the opposition’s half as he is in his own, the 27-year-old would be one of the most complete midfielders in the country.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Konrad Laimer and Midfielders in Pressing Systems

A lot of the talk surrounding RB Leipzig has mostly been around the tactics of Julian Nagelsmann, the goals of Timo Werner and the talent in their defence; primarily Nordi Mukiele and Dayot Upamecano. But the player that has gone under the radar, while also showing the most prominent signs of improvement is Austrian midfielder Konrad Laimer.

Before properly watching Leipzig this season, the impression Laimer left was of a player liked by his managers for his intensity and versatility but didn’t have the same high ceiling as his teammates. Rangnick was especially a huge fan of Laimer. The former RB Salzburg midfielder played every minute in the Europa League group stages in 18/19, while also playing around 1800 minutes in the league, a massive spike from the 1300 minutes he played in 17/18.

The main area in which Laimer has stood out from day one in Germany has always been defensive actions. In the league, Laimer was winning 2.18 tackles per 90 last season, only placing him behind the captain and well-known tough tackler, Diego Demme. However, the real takeaway from this is where he was attempting these tackles. Laimer was attempting 0.91 tackles in the opposition third, far and away the most in the Leipzig squad (if you’re curious, Tyler Adams was second with 0.50). I presumed, before looking at his numbers this season, that he was attempting so many tackles in the final third because he was playing as a makeshift right-back. However, this isn’t the case. This season, Laimer has played entirely as a defensive midfielder but has still managed to attempt the same high amount of tackles as under Rangnick. Laimer is attempting 0.79 tackles in the opposition third, the most for any regular in the squad.

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Captain Diego Demme’s sale in January only went to further prove the importance Nagelsmann had placed upon Laimer as his primary defensive midfielder. RB Leipzig usually switches between alternative versions of 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, and Laimer is generally placed alongside a more attack-minded midfielder in Marcel Sabitzer or Emile Forsberg. I do think the pair do deserve credit for being able to adapt to a less attacking role and into a more supportive one, but it does further show just how good Laimer has been for Nagelsmann. Leipzig is fundamentally a pressing team, meaning during opposition build-up play. They will usually attempt to win the ball through pushing their attackers far up the pitch and cutting their opponent’s passing lanes; winning the ball back with a well-timed interception. Laimer is usually left on his own in the middle of the park, with Sabitzer regularly doing the more ball-dominant work. Yet, it makes Laimer’s role in the team that more vital. Laimer’s role in this team is to get the ball back as quick as possible, and play the football to the attackers; usually through vertical passes. It makes Laimer sound like your typical, old-school ball winner, but he is a lot more than that.

Firstly, having a job like this in such a press-heavy team is one a majority of midfielders in Europe would struggle with. You have to possess high energy levels to cover a lot of ground; as well as having the intelligence to position yourself in the right place. The amount of work Laimer does is actually incredible. He attempts a ridiculous 37 pressures per 90 (Important context; 22 is an impressive amount of pressures, so anything higher is worth heaps of praise). Laimer, as expected, is right at the top of the squad for tackles and interceptions, with the 22-year-old completing 4.2 tackles and interceptions per 90 for his side.

Talking about Laimer purely from a defensive point of view does to him a level of a disservice. I doubt Laimer would even be a regular in the team if he wasn’t at least adequate on the ball. Earlier, I did make Laimer’s role on the ball sound rather simplistic, but he can do a lot more than merely playing the ball long to the attackers. Laimer doesn’t look threatened when opponents attempt to dispossess him. Laimer is in the top twenty in the league for passes made while under pressure. One thing Laimer consistently does is make darting runs into the opposition third. It’s a very effective method to cause havoc since it’s unlikely your opponent is picking up the single defensive midfielder. Laimer is a very capable dribbler and takes advantage of the overloads he creates. This is perfectly showcased during RB Leipzig’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, where Laimer managed to win his side the decisive penalty through receiving the ball in Tottenham’s box.

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Defensive midfielders for top clubs are rare, especially those in the mould of Laimer. Tottenham and Manchester United are two clubs who look desperate for a real defensive midfielder. Tottenham may have Ndombele and Lo Celso, two genuinely elite midfield talents, but both would rather be doing the more glamorous midfield work. Manchester United are in the same boat. McTominay and Fred might be able to a bit of defensive work, but their best qualities are in the final third, whether it’s passing or making darting runs into the opposition box. If one of these clubs could sign Laimer, they could close that gap to the top a lot faster.

Where is the Best Destination for Jadon Sancho?

With the football season unofficially over, we might as well look at the summer. I was planning to do a lot of work on the European Championships. However, with that delayed until next year, transfers are the only real talking point in the football landscape. It might be somewhat irrelevant to talk about transfers, especially during the current health pandemic facing the world. Nevertheless, we might as well continue with business as usual. 

I’ll be covering some of the most wanted players in Europe, and deciding which club is the best place for said player’s development. We’ll be starting with England prospect and current Borussia Dortmund Jadon Sancho, who is wanted by pretty much every big club in Europe. He’s easily the best winger in the Bundesliga, capable of scoring, as well as creating for his teammates. His maturity in the opposition box is arguably his most valuable skill. Not many players at the crazy young age of 20 can lead the league in assists and be one of the leading figures for goals. Sancho’s decision-making is what’s made him one of the first names on the teamsheet. He never looks under pressure, and will always make the choice that benefits the team, instead of putting himself in the spotlight. So who should Sancho join this summer?

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Manchester United

Where else to start with than with the club linked to every player with a shred of talent? I’ve not been huge on a majority of players rumoured with moves to Old Trafford. Jack Grealish and James Maddison have been heavily linked since November. However, the signing of Bruno Fernandes negates the need for these players. Sancho will definitely cost over £100 million, but it at least makes a lot more sense. United haven’t had an actual right winger for years. The last real winger the club had was debatably Antonio Valencia, before being converted into a right-back by Louis Van-Gaal. Daniel James has primarily played on that right side, but I don’t think he’s good enough to start for United in the long term. Sancho possesses a vast skillset, making him a deadly weapon for Solsjkaer, no matter the opposition. Sancho also holds that star power the Manchester United board are obsessed with. 

I don’t think you can argue against Sancho being a massive improvement over all of United wingers. My only reservations are related to United’s other requirements. A winger is definitely needed, but there is still a gaping hole in the centre of the park. Fernandes has taken a lot of the creative burden from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial; who have proven they are capable of scoring the goals needed to take United into a title race. I would only sign Sancho when the rest of the issues are resolved. There are plenty of players in the team who’s futures are uncertain. Sancho feels like a final piece of a puzzle, but United need to solve the rest of it first. 

Chelsea

With their transfer ban finally over, Chelsea looks ready to unload a chest full of funds in an attempt to return to the top of the table. Hakim Ziyech was an early arrival, with the Ajax playmaker confirmed to be a Chelsea player in February. With Ziyech’s arrival, it’s made clear that if Sancho was to sign, his role would be very different than the one given if he was to sign for Manchester United.

A versatile winger, able to play on both sides is a player Chelsea are desperate to bring in. Willian and Pedro have needed to be moved on for years. Their off the ball work is worth praising alongside their reliable chance creation, but both forwards are over thirty and take a lot off the wage bill. If it weren’t for the transfer ban, I doubt the pair would still be in London today. Sancho would bring an insane spike in creativity and shot quality. The Borussia Dortmund winger is averaging over 0.84 non-penalty xG+xA; a better output than Willian (0.45) and Pedro (0.47). 

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A move to London makes sense for both parties involved. Chelsea’s young squad has been a delight to watch, and adding another prospect to the project only makes things better. If Sancho was to return to England, Chelsea would be the best destination, in terms of developing his game. The goalkeeper problem is obviously is a big one, and it is one of the significant issues, next to Lampard, which is holding Chelsea back. Sancho is not only a perfect Eden Hazard replacement but could surpass the Belgian.

Liverpool 

Similar to Chelsea, Liverpool needs to start looking at moving on some of their attackers. The difference between the clubs is the reason. Chelsea needs to clear up space and sell two players whose impact are dwindling as they age. Liverpool, on the other hand, should sell because it’s the right thing to do. If I had to choose one, it would be Sadio Mane. The decision isn’t even a difficult one. Mohamed Salah is far more talented and is left-footed; a rare and exceptional trait for a right-winger to have in the modern game. Mane has just come off a golden boot winning season in 18/19 and scoring 14 goals before the season’s suspension. Mane might be better than Firmino, but the Senegalese international is younger and worth more, especially with some of Europe’s elite keen to add world-class production from the wing. Liverpool has become one of the best clubs in Europe when knowing when to sell their players. They sold Coutinho for a lot more than anyone expected and let Suarez go at the perfect time. 

Sancho is among a handful of excellent players who could replace one of Liverpool’s acclaimed front three, and it’s another which makes so much sense. Not only does Sancho excel on the right side, but is more of a threat on the left, since he’s naturally right-footed. Sancho might not be as good of a scorer as any of Liverpool’s front three, but this is something that could easily improve overtime. He’s still so young and could be a key player in keeping Liverpool relevant at the top of the table. 

Barcelona 

The current La Liga holders have had a lot of their most significant issues exposed over the last six months, primarily with their squad. It still surprises me that a club of Barcelona’s size and stature can be so idiotic in the market. Their team has been built so poorly. A majority of their signings just haven’t worked out. The likes of Andre Gomes, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho, Nelson Semedo and Samuel Umtiti have all failed at the Camp Nou for varying reasons. The most significant and most inexcusable act from the club is how they’ve been unable to even look for replacements for Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi. The core from their 2015 treble-winning season is even more critical than ever, even when they are evidently declining (excluding Messi of course). Barcelona doesn’t even look like they have a plan to replace the greatest player of all time and will continue to rely on him until he retires.

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Barcelona should do everything in their power to sign Jadon Sancho. They’ve already made a huge mistake in signing Antoine Griezmann and would make it even worse if they decided to resign Neymar. Their hunt for one more Champions League for Messi is blinding them from future-proofing their squad. Having a young and incredible talent in Sancho at least gives them reassurance in the future. 

Borussia Dortmund 

I include Sancho’s current club because that’s where he should be next season. I think one more season in yellow will not only help Dortmund in their title challenge but will give the club enough time to find the perfect replacement. The team has looked more settled as the months have progressed this season. The back three has helped solve their huge defensive problems, while Emre Can has given the midfield that extra steel needed in the big games. Dortmund’s insanely high level of attacking talent will always keep them in the conversation for the title. If they manage to add some extra pieces in terms of depth and defensive personnel, they could pose a real threat from the beginning, especially with Haland at the club from matchday one. 

The only issue is if Dortmund can keep him. Most clubs outside of Europe’s elite are going to be affected by the lack of matchday revenue and complications regarding television rights. I highly doubt any Bundesliga clubs will face anything as drastic as liquidation, but lack of finances could propose a problem in the summer. Dortmund might have to sell their most valuable asset if they wish to improve other parts of the team.

Good Business in January? A Review of the 2020 January Transfer Window

Travelling back to 2018, where it finally seemed like the January transfer window wouldn’t be the same dull affair. This window saw huge money signings in Philippe Coutinho, Virgil Van Dijk and Aymeric Laporte, as well as the transfer saga surrounding Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund, and whether they could keep their star strikers. It remained eventful throughout and felt like a change in how transfers would be conducted in the future.

However, I guess context is vital for some of these moves. Van Dijk and Coutinho’s moves to Liverpool and Barcelona respectively were always going to happen in January, considering they weren’t completed in the summer before their transfers. The two clubs also ended up spending more than initially intended, just to have their new players earlier. The transfer merry-go-round of Aubameyang’s move to Arsenal could only happen if the Gunners could offload Giroud. With Dortmund interested in Batshuayi, it made sense for Chelsea to pick up Giroud, as another option alongside Morata. Even Arsenal ended up overspending on Aubameyang. He is an extremely talented forward, but spending £50 million on a 29-year-old, wholly reliant on pace, wasn’t wise from a club who weren’t high spenders like their rivals.

My point is, is the only reason that that January window was so exciting was because of the big names moving. Yet most were either supposed to move the previous summer or part of another deal. Usually, the only clubs who buy in January are the ones sitting at the bottom of the table, who are looking to add someone to save them from the drop. Most clubs don’t want to deal in January because they don’t want to overspend on players when they can get them cheaper only six months later. The other reason is how long it can take players to settle at their new club. Whether it’s tactically or socially, you won’t see these players at their best until the following season.

Let’s look at some of the most significant moves during the window, and judge whether these signings will work out:

The Chase for Bruno

The Red Devils have a thin squad, to say the least, especially with the injury to their most valuable player, Marcus Rashford. Midfield additions were needed, which made the links to Bruno Fernandes quite strange. It’s clear that Fernandes is talented, but Liga NOS has always been difficult for judging talent. The fact that United was willing to spend over €50 million on the Sporting playmaker is baffling, mainly because they give this impression of a club not willing to spend. Why pay so much money on a huge gamble, when there are so many gaps in the team?

The January window is a gold mine for outcasts of big clubs. We’ve already seen Diego Demme move to Napoli, adding some steel to a rather defensively-weak midfield and Emre Can return to Germany, joining Dortmund to replace Julien Weigl. Both of these players were signed for less than €25 million. My point with United is there’s definitely value in the market, but the club seemingly has tunnel vision. Once they set their sights on one target, they won’t stop their pursuit until the deal is done, or when there is no chance, it will happen.

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The fact that United decided to sign anyone in January did surprise me. However, they’ve clearly resolved the wrong position. United needed an elite number ten, but they currently have players who can occupy that position. It was way more important to fix their striker problem or their lack of midfielders. I think the Bruno Fernandes deal was going to happen no matter what. This team looks exhausted, and defensive midfield reinforcements could help them at least remain competitive in a season where top four is still possible.

Tottenham’s Refresh

While United remained a talking point throughout the window due to how long the Fernandes deal took to finalise, Tottenham arguably had more to do. Kane is suffering from a long term injury, as well as the injuries to Sissoko and Ndombele meant arrivals were needed, just to give them bodies. This was vital considering the eventual departures of Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose. Tottenham used to have the most stable squad in the league, but now they are the biggest mess.

The striker situation was vital since Spurs have zero first-team strikers if Kane isn’t available. Tottenham was heavily linked to two forwards, being Islam Slimani and Krzysztof Piątek. Both were more old fashioned forwards, guys who flourish when the ball is given to them in the box. Piątek offers next to nothing excluding his shots, while Slimani can be an aerial threat. Signing any of these guys just seemed so unlikely to me, and as usual, it’s because of Kane. Every forward joining the club will know they aren’t guaranteed consistent minutes, something Tottenham can’t offer because of Kane’s role. If he’s fit, he’ll always play.

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Instead of going for a striker, they decided to add another wide player, bringing in PSV’s Steven Bergwijn. The Dutchman is a very exciting forward, able to create, dribble and score. It’s the type of winger Mourinho loves to have. A pacey winger with a broad skill set, similar to Willian or Di Maria. The best part about this deal is how it enables them to play Son as the number nine, while not losing their pace and penetration from the wings. When Son has performed as the focal point, there’s always been a lot of pressure on Moura to be the primary threat out wide, something he has failed to do. Bergwijn adds much-needed competition, while indirectly fixing a big problem when Kane doesn’t play.

Signing Lo Celso on a permanent deal was Tottenham’s best bit of business. The Argentine has finally started playing consistently and has looked fantastic over the last month. I knew he was going to be good, but not this good. Gedson Fernandes adds the same depth Sissoko offers, but that deal stinks of Jorge Mendes. I doubt Tottenham will make it permanent.

The sales might be problematic if more injuries hit this team. Both Rose and Walker-Peters wanted to leave for different reasons, but allowing both to move, leaving Aurier and Davies as the only recognised full-backs is crazy. Tottenham managed to fix a significant hole while opening up another in the process. We’ll touch on the Eriksen deal later. Overall an exciting window for Tottenham, but I do worry about them on the short term.

The Scudetto Race

Inter were by far the most active team in the transfer market. The fact they’ve managed to stay this close to Juventus, with such an inferior squad in critical areas, is quite astounding. The wing-back positions did need added competition. Conte has a reputation for placing the most average of players as his wide options. They offer the main width for the team, while still needing to be hardworking to help out defensively. The arrivals of English veteran Ashley Young and Premier League winner under Conte, Victor Moses, excellently show the type of players Inter want. Young and Moses have primarily been utility players over the last few years. Young is still a pretty good crosser, able to play on both sides of the pitch, while Moses has the strength and dynamism to be a threat consistently. Both signings will keep them competitive this season and possibly next season. Biraghi has been slightly underwhelming, Candreva is clearly past it, and Asamoah is still struggling with injuries. These signings keep them stacked in arguably their weakest positions.

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Christian Eriksen’s move to the San Siro was by far the most significant in Italy and made a lot of sense. There’s no debating that Eriksen’s performances dropped dramatically over the last couple of seasons. This is clearly down to the player wanting to leave, probably because of the lower wages Tottenham offer. It is a shame that the fans did turn on him, after the level of performances he put in between 2015 and 2018, but he needed to leave that club. Inter have required a genuinely elite trequartista to keep Lukaku and Martinez firing. Brozovic is more of a deep-lying playmaker, Barella plays more as an advanced eight, and Sensi prefers late runs into the box than linking attack and midfield. Eriksen is still a fantastic passer, able to progress the ball at an elite level while creating a high amount of chances for the players in front of him. A less aggressive league might be better for the Danish playmaker, allowing him to exploit more pockets of space. Inter now arguably have a starting forward line as threating as Juventus and Lazio, which could be enough to clinch the title.

Dortmund Staying Competitive

When discussing the business done by Bundesliga clubs, Dortmund is the only place to go. They were the club who managed to sign the most wanted prospect in Europe, Erling-Braut Haland. While it did involve the sale of superhuman sub Paco Alcacer, they now have a player perfect for the way Dortmund want to play. They primarily score and create chances through their incredible talent out wide and in the number ten position. Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt, Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho are some of the best players in their respective positions. It means Dortmund don’t necessarily need some world-class, well-rounded striker. All they need is a guy who is going to consistently put the ball in the back of the net.

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Erling-Braut Haland fits this role perfectly. As of February 2nd, Haland is on 7 goals in just 3 appearances, which has made him the quickest player to reach 7 goals in Bundesliga history. Haland has an unrivalled size, speed and match intelligence at such an early age. His finishing has been the part of his game which has stood out. Haland, during his short career, can put away all kinds of chances. Whether a first time finish, a simple tap in, a scrappy goal or from the tightest of angles, Haland will find a way to put his name on the scoresheet.

Emre Can was another big signing for Dortmund. Mainly down to the sale of Julian Weigl to Benfica, Dortmund needed another body in midfield and managed to find the perfect player for that. Unsurprisingly, Can struggled for game-time under Sarri, and failed to make his Champions League squad for the season. Can is a massive improvement over Weigl in terms of what Favre wants from his midfielders. A solid passer, an excellent ball-winner, hardworking and versatile; Can will help give Dortmund some needed depth in midfield, allowing them to stay competitive throughout the season.

 

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: A Lot of Work for Two Former Players

Arsenal versus Manchester United was once one of the most anticipated fixtures of the season. But ever since their respective longest-serving managers have departed, the clubs aren’t nearly as relevant at the top of the table.

Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal won’t be remembered fondly by anyone. Since the start of last season, there has never been a moment where Arsenal looked like a capable side, relying heavily on the brilliance of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Their shot numbers were consistently average, and there were countless games where the team generally lacked an attacking structure, struggling to break down teams like Wolves and Crystal Palace. Emery’s man-management also did come under scrutiny. His treatment of the club’s highest earner, Mesut Ozil, was somewhat baffling and continued the narrative of Emery’s difficulties in dealing with prominent personalities.

Yet, what bothered me the most was how Emery was utilising his midfielders. Since summer 2018, Arsenal have brought in several midfield reinforcements. Lucas Torreira arrived as a defensive midfielder, having a massive defensive output while being a competent ball progressor. Matteo Guendouzi was arguably the highlight of Sven Mislintat’s time as head of recruitment. The Frenchman arrived for £5 million and has done a lot more than I expected from a player coming from Ligue 2. He’s proved to be a progressive passer, even if the defensive side of his game still needs a lot of work. 

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I never liked how Emery set up these players. He’d regularly play Granit Xhaka has a single defensive midfielder. While Xhaka’s passing can make him a valuable asset to every manager who he’s played under, his lack of mobility will always make him a target defensively. It was more frustrating to see Torreira playing as a box to box midfielders and Ceballos as an advanced playmaker. While they’re versatile enough to fill those roles, it makes it difficult for them to play to their strengths. A cohesive midfield can be built with these talented players, which makes the lack of protection offered by the midfield even more infuriating.

Mikel Arteta appointment as the new Arsenal manager is the most exciting Arsenal have been for over a decade. While Arteta is an unknown in terms of how I think his team will play, some factors hint towards a man who could become the long term successor to Wenger. Generally, central midfielders are seen as the smartest players on the pitch. The likes of Sergio Busquets, Fernandinho and Marco Verratti are all excellent readers of the game, able to spot their teammates in hard to reach positions, and sense danger before any attacks materialise. We’re seeing this now with some of the most prominent managers in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez, all previously midfielders, have shown to be intelligent tactically, whether through building a philosophy for their teams or showing a high level of adaptability. Arteta’s work with Pep Guardiola and experience playing under Arsene Wenger have given him a high level of knowledge from two of the games best thinkers from the century.

Arteta is clearly seen as a long-term option, but if he is to success for the next six months, he must fix the midfield and add some consistency in terms of approach and lineup. It would help evaluate the level of many of these players. Arsenal do have a lot of players I like, but thus far haven’t shown the level we know they can play at. If he can do that, as well as make them fun to watch, he will set himself up for an exciting second season.

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Since we last spoke about Manchester United, after their 1-1 with Arsenal, not much has really changed. While Rashford’s improvement in form and Martial’s return to the starting XI has helped them move up the table, the same issues persist. Big wins over Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, did help push United into the conversation for Champions League football next season, especially with these same opponents dropping points at crucial stages of the season. United have been reliant on the pace in their forwards when playing one of the bigger teams, accepting that they are the underdog in these games. City and Tottenham struggled to deal with the speed in which United were transitioning. Martial would consistently drop deep to retrieve the ball, while Rashford and James would stretch the defence and use their pace to beat whoever they’re against. Manchester City consistently leaving themselves open was definitely a factor in their 2-1 defeat. However, United still deserve praise for taking advantage of the weaknesses City have gained since De Bruyne’s return.

In all fairness, their ability against the bigger sides was never in question. The problem was how they could break down teams who were willing to sacrifice possession in the same way United do. Defeats to Bournemouth and Watford and draws to Everton and Aston Villa highlighted how these issues have remained. Their 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth, in particular, was awful. A lack of chance creation and the forward line failing to get behind a rather weak Bournemouth defence. Their lack of consistency is easily the most significant issue. One week they’ll beat two of the best teams in the country, the next they fail to beat a relegation favourite.

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Yet even with questions regarding the players in this squad, having better players would fix a lot of their issues. However, I think it might be a while before United will ever be back in the conversation for a title. When hearing Ed Woodward speak on how difficult it is to sign more than three players in a summer window or the lack of value in the January transfer window, it makes you wonder if the club even want to get back to the top. A majority of the players linked to the club are usually players from Premier League clubs who would cost an insane amount of money. James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, John McGinn and Dominic Calvin-Lewin do fill the rather strange policy of going for British players, but there is better value out there. In the summer alone, we saw Thiago Mendes move for £20 million, Julian Brandt for £17 million and Marcus Thuram for £10 million. Even now, players like Dani Olmo and Marco Roca are available for less than £40 million. You can always find value in the market, but it entirely depends where you are looking. If Manchester United’s focus remains only in the Premier League, it’ll take years to build a cohesive squad. 

Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United was the first time I’ve managed to watch Arteta’s Arsenal, and they’re showing some promising signs. The lineup the former Arsenal captain chose was a massive departure to the defensive starting XI’s seen under Emery. Nicolas Pepe, Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all started this game. These elite talents were one of the reasons why Arsenal did look so good in the first half. Kolasinac and Aubameyang linked up well on the left side, with the Gabon forward consistently staying wide, allowing Kolasinac to run with the ball through the space opened from Wan-Bissaka staying with Aubameyang. This was how the first goal was made. Kolasinac had another free sprint right at the defence. He picks out Aubameyang, who notices Pepe free in the box, and delivers a perfect ball for the Ivorian. 

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What impressed me a lot about Arteta was just how quickly Arsenal were able to get into United’s half. While their opposition do deserve some blame for this, the ways they were able to quickly create chances in the first half. They could progress the ball through the full-backs, or use the excellent passing of Xhaka and David Luiz to send a long ball into the wingers. Arsenal were really exciting in that first half, and while they did slow down in the final 45 minutes, the game was in their hands. 

Defensively, Arsenal looked very good. The attacking lineup did cause some concern, mainly if United could produce similar counter-attacks as they have done against some of the top 6. However, all of their forwards, with some garnering a reputation of being lazy, were fantastic defensively. All four of Arsenal’s forwards kept United’s defenders short of options during buildup play. Even Mesut Ozil, who many pundits have consistently labelled as lazy, made 46 pressures, more than any other player on the pitch. United were slow in moving the ball, but Arsenal made it so difficult for them. 

Torreira returned to his more familiar role as a true defensive midfielder. Xhaka was given more licence to push forward, while Torreira would ensure the defence wouldn’t be facing much traffic. It was arguably the most significant crime Emery committed; not playing one of the best young midfielders in the right position. 

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While Arsenal were more focused on holding onto their lead in the second half than truly humiliating United, that first half was such an encouraging sign for any Arsenal fan. For the first time since Wenger, they were fun to watch in a game. They were attacking with speed, dynamism and skill. The question is if they can do this consistently, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

As for United, the lack of energy and pressing was disturbing. United aren’t the pressing side they probably wish to be, but Arsenal were given so much freedom in transition. David Luiz and Sokratis had so many opportunities to run straight into midfield without a United player to close them down. Martial and Rashford looked slow in this game, and you can’t really blame them. The pair have played so much football when they’ve been available. With top four looking like a possibility and the Europa League returning in a month, I doubt they’ll ever get a chance to sit out games. They are United’s only chance of getting into the top four. If they have to rely on James, Lingard and Pereira, they’ll plummet down the table. 

Both managers are in very different places. Arteta, replacing a pretty unequipped coach, has given Arsenal players and fans something to be excited about. Solsjkaer also went through this same period, so we’ll see if Arteta can reach the same level as the coaches he’s worked with. 

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Solskjaer will be under a lot of pressure until the summer arrives. You hear a lot of trusted journalists say the Manchester United board are happy with the Norwegian, but that sense of doubt will always be there. If Pochettino wants to join the club, will they just let Solsjkaer go, similar to what they did to Van Gaal once Mourinho was available? I can’t blame Solsjkaer for all the problems. There are so many holes throughout the squad that one window isn’t enough with the lack of urgency United currently operate with. Woodward can go on and on about how difficult it is to sign players, but with players needed in midfield and attack so clear, it’ll be an embarrassment if their targets aren’t brought in by the end of June. 

 

Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

A lot of people are enjoying just how much United are struggling at the moment, and I can’t blame them. From the start of the Premier League to the end of the Ferguson era, a majority of football fans in England despised the Red Devils. A lot of that hate came from fans who hated their success, which is pretty standard. Most of the big clubs in Europe are hated for being big. Fans love an underdog story and seeing a team dominate makes a generally unpredictable sport, a lot more predictable. The other element to why football supporters dislike them is United’s own fans, another view I can completely sympathise. The title of ‘glory hunters’ has been placed on all United fans since the Premier League’s conception. I’ve spoken to numerous United fans in the past 4 years, and many do not follow the club anymore. I hear it’s because of the lack of entertainment the recent managers have thrived towards, but it’s clear it’s about the lack of trophies. A lot of United fans have this sense of entitlement, which means they deserve a great brand of football, young stars breaking through and winning or at least challenging for the league every season. It’s an attitude that doesn’t matter anymore when their closest rivals are just so far ahead of them. Just like Liverpool after their dominance in the eighties, it’ll take a while before Manchester United are back to battling with the best. I have to bring up the fans because it’s partly their fault that the perspective of Manchester United this season is just so negative. They have a right to be frustrated, but I don’t think it’s been as bad as in the past.

So, do I think United have been terrible? Short answer, no, but long answer, kind of. The best way to explain how United have performed is to go through some of their games, and see where they’ve gone right, and most importantly, wrong.

Let’s start with the summer. United’s approach was a strange one, wanting to stock up on their homegrown quota with primarily targeting British players. They arguably overspent on all of their acquisitions. Daniel James arriving for £18 million was intriguing because it felt like the first time in years since United bought an attacker for relatively low risk. He at least offered versatility and is very young, meaning he could either improve or United could get their money back if it didn’t work out for the young Welshman.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived after a fantastic debut season. He is arguably the best defensive full-back in Europe, but there were apparent issues with signing the former Crystal Palace defender. While the defensive part of his game was never in question, Wan-Bissaka simply wasn’t offering a similar output as the full-backs in the top six clubs. He’s a decent dribbler but wasn’t creating chances for Palace. With United spending so much money on the 21-year-old, you have to hope Wan-Bissaka simply develops into a great attacker, or Solsjkaer can turn him into an excellent full-back.

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Maguire was the final signing. No one can argue that United haven’t overspent on the former Hull City defender, but at the same time, he was a definite improvement. Maguire is a very progressive defender, being comfortable on the ball and a capable distributor on the ball. In transforming the Red Devils into Solsjkaer vision of a more exciting team, having a defender like Maguire would help United when facing those teams who set up in a deep block. He is also fantastic in the air. His size and jump make him not only a great defender when facing taller strikers, but giving any team a considerable advantage on set-pieces, a part of football that many teams are desperate to find more value from. He scored five goals for Leicester, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s when he scored those goals which is noteworthy. He scored winners or equalisers against Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United, gaining Leicester some valuable points. Manchester United have been mediocre at set-pieces for years, so bringing in a threat like Maguire could help in their push for top four. Maguire still has an obvious flaw in his game, and it worries me that the most expensive defender could be exposed by certain opponents. Maguire is slow, noticeably slow. United were likely to field a high line, to bring the pressure onto their opposition and to take advantage of actually having ball-playing defenders. The problem they were going to face is the likeliness of a pacey forward getting the better of Maguire. It is a problem that was obvious at Leicester, but having a more defensive system did protect them from forwards with a burst of speed. A sensible signing, but far from value for money.

These three signings did bring a boost to the club; addressing their most significant issues. It’s something United have consistently never done. Whether bringing in Anthony Martial on deadline day back in 2015 because they forgot they only had a single striker or spending £60 million on Fred when midfield, at that point, wasn’t as clear of a priority as a centre-back. Like me, you can question the value United can get out of these players, but at least they were targetting the right players.

The biggest issue with United’s summer was the players they let go, combining well with the other personnel issues they failed to resolve. Letting Herrera go was by far the strangest decision they made in the summer. The Spaniard did add a lot of defensive output some bite in a team that lacked a bit of character. Not only was letting him go on a free a stupid idea but not replacing him with a player who could bring the same defensive work as Herrera did was by far the worst part of United summer. It meant they were going into the season with an ageing Matic, a disinterested Paul Pogba, an average Scott McTominay and an underwhelming Fred. It was so bad that Pogba would have to play a more restrained role, something he can do, but it isn’t what he should be doing. Solsjkaer would also be hoping that Fred could find some form for the first time since arriving in Manchester. It left United at such a disadvantage. When Manchester City bring in Rodri, Tottenham with Ndombele and Arsenal with Ceballos, it made United’s goal of reaching top four even harder.

Selling Lukaku on paper isn’t the worst decision. It was clear that Lukaku’s type of player wasn’t needed, so getting their money back was the right thing to do, but not replacing him was crazy. I love Rashford and Martial and asking for tremendous seasons out of the pair is realistic, but on the slight chance they didn’t or currently in Martial’s case, injuries, it was a lot of pressure on the rest of the team and especially young Mason Greenwood, who is seen as United’s next breakout star.

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So, after a very mixed summer to say the least, how have United been in the league? Well, unlucky would be the best way to describe it. There are many reasons for this, but let’s go through their league games so far, and see how they’ve performed. Starting with their 4-0 win over Chelsea, which lead to a lot of early excitement. Scoring 4 goals at home against one of their top 6 rivals was huge, but the performance did bring optimism and apparent issues. The first half was a bit of a mess. The players looked incredibly, struggling to break Chelsea down and getting dispossessed rather easily. However, Rashford’s penalty changed the whole game. It’s a simple observation to make, but it forced Chelsea to play on the front foot, which allowed United to play to their players’ strengths, on the break.

The signings of an aerial-dominant Maguire, a defensive machine in Wan-Bissaka and a blisteringly-quick winger in James, that it set up United as a fantastic counter-attacking side, and luckily they were playing against Chelsea, who we now know quite-regularly give away excellent goal-scoring chances. This wasn’t an incredible performance from Manchester United but was extremely sufficient. They had 5 shots on target in this game and put away four of them. This might be the only time United can be described as clinical so far this season

Their 1-1 draw to Wolves is the start of a recurrent theme to describe Solsjkaer’s side: unlucky. Manchester United dominated against a Wolves side who, for a majority of the game, were playing rather negatively, sitting back and allowing United to have their way throughout the game. Wolves could have easily beaten United if they weren’t so safe, but they did help expose some of United deficiencies in the final third. United did have a majority of the ball, but only managed 9 shots with 2 on target. For years, United have struggled to break down teams who set up in a deep block. They even showed this in both of their encounters against Wolves last season, drawing the first game at Old Trafford and losing the reverse fixture. Under Van Gaal, it was down to a tactical plan that simply didn’t work. Under Mourinho, it was down to absolutely no idea in the final third, and now under Solsjkaer, it is quite different.

It’s strange to see United struggle so much when during the start of Solsjkaer’s reign up until the Liverpool game, they looked really good. They were setting up in a 4-3-3, with Rashford, Lingard and Martial playing as interchanging forwards, with Pogba advancing really far up the field. In 10 appearances, Pogba contributed to 13 goals, Rashford with 7 and Lingard and Martial with 4 each. During that strong run, the main criticisms faced, from myself included, was the opposition they were facing. But these were the same type of opponents they just couldn’t beat in the previous 4 years. It was a breath of fresh air to see United not only beating opponents they should be beating but winning with a bit more style. It wasn’t like watching Manchester City or Liverpool; however, it was a vast improvement over the football Manchester United fans had to sit through since Ferguson’s departure. Their attackers were finally allowed to express themselves instead of being held back from the manager’s ineffective systems or personal feuds.

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This game (and most of the games so far this season) just highlight the hole Herrera has left upon his departure. Having a downright weak midfield like this means they have to be protected. Pogba has moved back into a double-pivot, a role that doesn’t play to his strengths because he is receiving the ball far deeper. His key passes are still at a high 2.6 and puts up over 1.5 dribblers per game. The problem is he’s taking fewer shots than before, going from 3 last season to 1.8, highlighting how his role for the side changed from attacker to a deep creator. McTominay has looked okay in midfield, but he seems to be only playing because the players behind him in the pecking order are that bad. Matic is arguably one of the worst signings post-Ferguson, and Fred has been a disaster. McTominay does deserve credit for performing well, but improving on him wouldn’t be that difficult.

Manchester United have been unfortunate to be where they are in the table. They conceded a wonder goal to Ruben Neves and had a penalty saved against Wolves. Their 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace can also be seen as unlucky, with Rashford hitting the post from the penalty spot and a well-taken goal from Van-Aanolt misleading De Gea. If this game were played 10 times, United would win nine of them. The Red Devils dominated this game and definitely deserved more than a draw.

The next game was an improvement in performance, but United failed to get the three points, getting another 1-1 result, this time against the Saints. Southampton are usually a pretty good defensive team, but United did create some good chances, with Rashford having three that could have easily been goals. However, the problem for United here comes back to the midfield once again, but this time it’s all Pogba. It’s pretty well known how much criticism he has faced since his return to Manchester, but that is primarily down to expectations. I think he has been fantastic and United’s best outfield player. He has obviously had games where he has had a minimal impact, but overall he has been great. He’s had to do everything for United, and even more pressure is placed upon him when Pogba clearly wants out. The problem for United is when Pogba is either not playing or pressed out of a game, they can struggle to create any sort of chances. Even against Southampton, where they did manage to reduce his impact, Pogba still made 4 key passes and completed 4 dribbles. Without Pogba, United are half the team they want to be and need him if they want any kind of success this season.

A deserved win against Leicester and an arguably unfortunate result against West Ham (the performance was still pretty bad, but West Ham weren’t entirely deserving of the 3 points) did correctly show just how inconsistent United have been this season. However, you kinda have to feel sorry for Solsjkaer, He is making mistakes himself, and we will get onto that very shortly, but the lack of players he has to choose from is painful. With Pogba and Martial, their best attackers, missing games this season, the players United have to select as their replacements is pitiful. They simply lack forwards. Rashford has been playing with some sort of injury for months, and the likes of Mata, James, Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough to be starting every week, but that’s all that Solsjkaer can really choose. His team will only be able to perform once Pogba, Rashford and Martial are fully fit. Without those three, there is not a single game where United should be considered favourites for a football match.

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So let’s actually get onto Solsjkaer. Like I said before, the first two months of his reign were very good. It wasn’t like watching United return to their treble-winning best, but their best players were playing at their level for the first time in months, which sometimes is enough to carry you on the short term. United’s 4-3-3 worked well with the players they had looked to finally be the right system to fit all of their players. However, Herrera’s departure and his lack of replacement meant Solsjkaer simply didn’t have a midfield good enough to dominate while also allowing Pogba to push forward. He had to go back to the relatively stale 4-2-3-1 because there aren’t many formations that can play to United’s strengths right now. They simply don’t have the full-backs to play a back three, the midfield to play a midfield three or the strikers to play an old-school two-striker system. It’s pretty dull to watch, but until the club actually buy good players, it’s hard to see United changing.

I watched their game against Arsenal a couple of times, to see just how they play, and find out what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s start with United in attack. Firstly, I need to mention that Arsenal were playing Callum Chambers at right-back. While not a bad player, no one is quite sure yet what his best position is. United look to attack down the flanks, starting with the left, taking advantage of Arsenal’s clear weak point. Pogba was being tightly marked by Torreira. The Frenchman would usually drop deep to leave space James to be picked out by one of the defenders, or make the pass himself. The problem with this approach was that James just isn’t good. If Martial or Rashford were playing in that position, United would have been more successful. United wanted to isolate him, but nothing was really coming from it, so they started going down the right side, with Kolasinac being pretty bad defensively. Pereira and Young are bad, with Pereira being so underwhelming when in possession and Young playing at a point where he should be retired. To help a pretty inadequate pair, Rashford was consistently making runs into the right channel, with Pereira dropping deeper to allow Young to pick Rashford out. 40% of their attacks came down the right side, and no one touched the ball more than Young for United. Solsjkaer did set up his team in the right way. They were trying to expose their opponent’s evident weaknesses and consistently attempted to create chances down the wide areas. The problem, as it has throughout this lengthy analysis, has been personnel. If United had better right-sided players, they might have had more success in creating good chances.

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Even on the defensive side, United did pretty well. They played a pretty high line and put a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders, especially Guendouzi. While the teenager is clearly talented, he still possesses immaturity that will eventually be faded out of his game, but right now it is a weakness. At times, United were putting him in a three-on-one situation, and it did work, disrupting Arsenal’s build-up play. United were genuinely good in the first half, but the second half started pretty bad. They were being a lot more direct in possession and lacking that same aggression in the first half. For 15 minutes, Arsenal not only scored but deserved to score a couple more goals, if Torreira managed to get a better connection with the ball. United’s defenders’ concentration dropped, and Arsenal were quick to take advantage of that.

The last 20 minutes of the game was scrappy, to say the least. Both teams were desperately searching for that winning goal, which never came. It was the first time this season where United actually lost on xG. The second half was not good and was the worst United performed all season defensively, especially for their goal, with the whole back four at fault for Aubameyang’s goal. Maguire played him onside, Lindelof was out of position, Tuanzebe lost possession and Young didn’t make much of an effort to stop Arsenal’s Gabon goal machine.

I have been somewhat defensive of United so far. Even including that goal conceded against Arsenal, Solsjkaer’s side has remained pretty solid defensively. They’ve only conceded 8 goals this season, with understat placing them top of the league in terms of xG against. Of course, the inferior opposition they’ve faced has made it easy to look that good, but they’ve still looked mostly good against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all looking to sneak into the top 4. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka’s arrivals have made a massive difference in defence, and merely having defenders who are confident on the ball does make them a better team. The 4-2-3-1 Solsjkaer chooses to deploy could help too, giving the defence a lot of protection. Defence has been United’s problem for years, but finally looks resolved.

The problem with Solsjkaer’s Manchester United is just how bad they are in the final third. Again, Martial and Rashford not being fully fit is holding them back, but the lack of ideas when in the opposition half is hugely troubling. Their general shot quality is poor, and have struggled to create high quality chances for the forwards. Having Pogba roughly 10 yards further back than last season doesn’t help, but United’s general approach in games is reminiscent of the same problems witnessed under Mourinho, being a lack of a plan. The players seem to have no idea what to do. Again, United are good on the counter-attack and signing 3 players that benefit playing in that style does massively help. But United aren’t going to be playing on the counter-attack against every opponent. They will have to bring the game to their opponent, something they’ve failed to do in any game this season. United’s shot volume is high, but the problem is where they’ve taken them. While they rank 5th in the league for shots per game, they rank 12th for shots in the penalty area. They’re 17th for dribbles per game, and 2nd for most times fouled per game. The Red Devils have heavily relied on penalties and set pieces for goals. They are awful at set-pieces. When the only decent chance they created against Newcastle was a corner, that Maguire missed, there are apparent problems. United have been unlucky and are massively underachieving xG for, but that isn’t defending the lack of chances created.

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So if I was Solsjkaer, what would I attempt to do to fix these obvious problems. The midfield is holding them back, so I’d try and put Wan-Bissaka in there. A lot of fans have seen his massive defensive output and decent dribble numbers and think he at least should be tried out there, and I agree. Full-back is a position you don’t tend to want to play when going through the academy. When you look at some of the most prominent full-backs right now, Kimmich came through as a midfielder, Marcelo a winger and Pavard a centre-back. It’s a position you can fill pretty easily, with players who have significant engines and are at least competent defensively. United would look a lot worse in the full-back areas on the short term, but midfield is such a problem that it needs to be fixed immediately. Moving Wan-Bissaka into a more central position would allow United to go back and play a 4-3-3 with good players. The 21-year-old could fill that huge Herrera shaped hole and let Pogba play further up the pitch. McTominay has performed as the more defensively minded midfielder this season, and while he has been decent, I think I’d still look for an improvement. He’s a fine recycler of possession but just doesn’t have the same ambition and confidence in possession Pogba shows. Moving Wan-Bissaka is personally the best method to get United properly playing a 4-3-3, without including Matic and Fred in the starting XI. This change in formation pushes Pogba further forward, and if Martial and Rashford and stay fully fit for most of the season, it would at least make them okay in chance creation and remain solid.

They should definitely get kicked out of every cup competition. They simply do not have the squad to compete in more than one competition. Their league form is becoming embarrassing, and if Solsjkaer does want to push his ideas onto this team, the painful schedule is the last thing this group of players need.

This has been very long, but there was a lot to say here. United haven’t been good, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as under Mourinho. The players being targeted are still a step in the right direction. They’re a lot younger, and Solsjkaer has gotten rid of a lot of players who didn’t fit what he wanted to do, as well as players who shouldn’t have been there. If the United legend did get sacked in the coming weeks, he would probably be remembered in a slightly negative fashion, for the lack of points they’ve gathered since that PSG game. He further shows how stupid the United board are in terms of managerial appointments. I still don’t know what style of play Solsjkaer wants to play, but I’m at least curious to see where this goes. I’d like to see him stay because he could continue to make a more coherent squad since Ferguson, and give future managers a better chance to succeed at the club. Sometimes these lows can lead to massive highs, so let’s hope that’s what will happen with England’s biggest club.

Manchester United’s Baffling Transfer Policy

In a recent post, I discussed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and why I think he was United’s best signing of the past decade. His towering presence arrived after multiple summers of underwhelming arrivals that showed how United were without a cohesive plan in how they wanted to recruit. They were obsessed with bringing back success as quickly as possible without any regards to sustaining it. Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City all had long term visions and have succeeded in bringing their respected clubs into the spotlight across Europe. United needed a plan, and people who knew how to execute it.

This summer was planned to be the departure from those shirt-selling superstars and a push to bring in players who could execute the system that Solsjkaer wanted to deploy. There was an emphasis primarily on British/Irish players, young guys with previous experience playing in England. It explains the signings of Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the strong links to Harry Maguire and Sean Longstaff. This approach does make a lot of sense for United. The Red Devils have had high profile flops in Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Alexis Sanchez and the club wanted to move towards players with lower wages and a desire to play for arguably the biggest club in England. Young British talent have been everywhere for the past couple of years, and it is clear there are some very talented players. The under-20 side who won the World Cup, Chelsea’s youth teams over the past couple of years and the most apparent reason for this policy, Jadon Sancho’s success at Dortmund. The club does not want to have the same problems they have had with Sanchez, high wages no one else is crazy enough to pay and get players who could add something to the side while possessing resell value.

As expected, I have a massive problem with this. The approach is admirable, but the execution is terrible at the moment. I still really like the signing of Dan James, and while he won’t be a starter, he has something to offer the team and didn’t cost a tremendous amount of money. Wan-Bissaka is another who I have no problem with. The England Under-21 full back was an obvious signing, and the fee is reasonable for the best defensive prospect in Europe. But the other recent links to the club make no sense from a financial point of view, an essential factor for Manchester United. I cannot emphasise this enough, but the top 6 clubs should never deal with the mid-table clubs, like Leicester, West Ham, Crystal Palace and Everton. You are guaranteed to be overcharged for players and are forced to pay the British premium. You could easily find better deals elsewhere or from clubs in the Championship. United only seem to be going for the most well known British players, instead of attempted to go under the radar. Why not take risks on guys like Kalvin Phillips, Philip Billing, Reece James or Matt Grimes. Football is a sport that has a history of rooting for the underdogs, and while seeing a £50m player perform is satisfying, it’s also expected. Seeing any low-cost player arrive with no fan fair and become an essential first team player is still a great site, similar to how Robertson, Alli, and Gomez have become vital to their teams.

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This recruitment of young Britsh players seemed to be the priority this summer, yet United have found themselves in the hunt of a big money signing, predominantly Bruno Fernandes. This is a player that United should avoid. I do think Fernandes is an excellent player and had a fantastic season in 18/19, contributing to 33 goals in just as many games. He’s a fantastic creator and is never afraid to take risks in the hunt for goals. I have reservations on the Portuguese international, the first being Liga NOS. Like the Eredivisie, Liga NOS has had a reputation of being a flip of a coin. You could get a player who could become one of the best players in his position, similar to Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo or Deco, or get a player who isn’t good enough for a top 5 league, like Jackson Martinez, Nani or Renato Sanches. You have to take their form with a pinch of salt. If Jonas and Bast Dost can be the best goal scorers in the league, there is a definite talent gap. The idea of United spending up to £60 million on a player, when they are rumoured to only have £100 million to spend is insane. This would only seem likely if United managed to sell a lot of assets, but that isn’t happening. I can only see Fernandes coming in if Pogba was to be sold, but that would be a massive downgrade. Pogba has been fantastic during his United career and still has a lot more to give, while I look at Fernandes and think that could be his best output. This is just another example of United failing to see the promise in players. Fernandes was absolutely superb before his move to Sporting. Why the club only sign players when they have had headline seasons is baffling. They should be signing players before their actual value is discovered.

Bruno Fernandes has dominated the summer window, but another player who has been heavily linked to the club is Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman has been one of the best forwards in La Liga with his clinical finishing and solid hold up, highlighting him as a potential replacement for the outgoing Romelu Lukaku. Ben Yedder has been one of my favourite strikers in La Liga since his arrival, but this another move I would recommend United making. Ben Yedder is 28 and would cost United up to £35 million, a lot for a player without any resell value.

Signing younger players is very important for United at the moment. It’s clear that their chances of returning to dominance is not happening while Liverpool and Manchester City are at the top. They need to make long term investments to ensure they will eventually reach the same level as their rivals. Signing players in the profile of Ben Yedder work when your club are on the brink of success and just need that push. This has been done throughout the Premier League era. It began with Eric Cantona becoming the figure of Ferguson’s early success, to Claude Makalele joining Chelsea to start their dominance in the mid-2000s and most recently David Luiz returned to Chelsea and pushed to win a league title. If United managed to sign Ben Yedder, he would be a success, but the club would arguably waste his best years in football. If United were closer to their rivals, this would be a must signing.

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While bringing in players is a priority in pushing United to the next level, it is so vital they finally get rid of a lot of the dead weight in the squad. Six players need to leave the club ASAP, and that isn’t even considering the potential departures of Pogba and De Gea, two of United’s most important players. When you look at the team that City were before Pep’s first title-winning season, the difference in quality is frightening. City went out and fixed all of their problems quickly while letting their senior players out of the club. Selling Fellaini back in January was the right move. He was the representation of the darker years of Manchester United in the Premier League era and felt like a step in the right direction by selling him. The same needs to be done to the likes of Jones, Smalling and Darmian, players who cannot offer enough in the long term for the club and their exit could finally signal the transition into a new United, a team which focuses on building a team, something that has been lost since Ronaldo’s departure.

5 Real Madrid Players Your Club Should Sign

With Los Blancos’ huge summer spending already amassing over £250 million before July, it begs the question of what are they going to do with some of their less valued players. This is what we are going to discuss, looking at the less utilised players in the Real Madrid squad and trying to find suitable destinations for them. The only player we will not be talking about is James Rodriguez because in my post discussing Napoli as potential title challengers, I spoke in depth on his likely move to Naples.

1. Mariano Diaz

The summer of 2018 for Real Madrid was arguably the worst in their history. Their sale of Cristiano Ronaldo made sense from their perspective, cashing in highly on an ageing striker. This backfired on an unimaginable basis thanks to their unwillingness to bring in an attacker on the same level as Ronaldo. Their defence of putting faith in the players in the squad is admirable, but they cannot replace nearly 40 goals, it’s that simple. Madrid ended the summer with Mariano Diaz, among others.

This was his second spell with the club after his first coming to an end due to zero starts in the league during the 2016/17 season. It gave Lyon a chance to pick him up for less than £10 million, a bargain for a such a young striker, even with the risk regarding his lack of game at the top level. It proved to be a massive success, with the Spaniard scoring 18 and assisting 4 in 30 starts for an excellent Lyon side. He is athletic and put up solid shot numbers, taking 3.4 per game in Ligue 1. I was so impressed by him last season, that I considered him to be one of the top 3 bargain transfers in the 17/18 season, alongside Pascal Gros and Andy Robertson. He is such an all-rounder, being able to score all types of goals. He’s a good distance shooter, with 6 of his 18 goals coming from outside the box. Most of those 6 goals he scored all were low drives from outside the box. It seems to be misleading for some keepers, with the opposition possibly not expecting a strike so low. He also scored 3 goals with his head, which is by far his best attribute as a striker. His leap his reminiscent of Ronaldo, with the sheer height he can reach being quite freakish. He seems to be able to jump twice his size, to reach balls that many taller strikers might not be able to reach. His small size makes him very difficult to mark compared to the more prominent players. He can find gaps that many taller strikers might not be able to.

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Mariano is a player who possesses many skills that make him a versatile forward, being able to do different roles on the pitch. It’s what makes his former club’s repurchase of the striker for £20 million more than they sold him for understandable, but was still a bad choice. It seemed they brought him back because he was the best player they could get for the price, which is arguably true (in a market where Napoli are demanding £130 million for a 27-year-old centre back). This transfer has not worked out in the slightest. It isn’t the fault of the player, but the managers who didn’t want to play him. Whenever he did play, he was imposing. Out of his 3 starts in La Liga, he scored 2 and put high shot numbers and performed as well as he could when given a chance. With Jovic’s arrival and Benzema seemingly staying, it leaves Mariano in the same position he was in back in 2017, a lack of game time with more favoured players in front of him in the eyes of the coach.

So where should the Spaniard go? There have been some clubs linked to Mariano, with Milan and Valencia the prime candidates to get his signature. I would not recommend any striker to join AC Milan at the moment. They have a couple of excellent strikers, with Piatek only arriving back in January. Valencia makes much more sense. I have discussed previously how their strikers overperformed massively in the 2017/18 season. It meant their drop-off the following season was slightly expected but highlighted the issue for firepower up front. Their top scorer last season was midfielder Dani Parejo, with Rodrigo, Mina and Gameiro all contributing to 21 goals between them. It isn’t necessarily a bad return, but with Gameiro and Rodrigo ageing, adding a younger forward wouldn’t be the worst idea.

My recommendation would be Lille. The French side finished in the Champions League spots for the first time since 2014 with Nicolas Pepe guiding them to second in Ligue 1. While Ikone and Bamba contributed in attack, Lille have seemed slightly overreliant on Pepe doing everything in attack. The issue in attack has been the strikers. Loic Remy is not good enough to be playing in the Champions League, and while Leao seems like an exciting prospect, it’s still an area that needs addressing. Mariano is so multifunctional, comfortably able to fill multiple roles in attack. He has the speed to get balls in behind, the jump to challenge top defenders and is able to hold the ball up comfortably. He would be a great addition to a defensively solid side but need a bit more inventiveness in the final third. I doubt Madrid would sell for less than £30 million at the moment, so a loan move with an option to buy would be a sensible idea. Mariano is proven in the league and seeing him perform as he did for Lyon would be fantastic to see.

2. Jesus Vallejo

It’s crazy how Vallejo just doesn’t seem to be involved in Real Madrid’s plans. He is another Spaniard to struggle thanks to a lack of opportunities. Vallejo came to prominence after a standout loan spell at Frankfurt back in the 2016/17 season. He showed all of his best qualities in Germany, starting with his passing. Vallejo is a fantastic distributor of the ball and has consistently demonstrated that throughout his career. Since that break out season for Frankfurt, his pass accuracy hasn’t dropped below 85%. While he is comfortable at recycling possession, he has a vast range. He was averaging 3 long balls a game in the Bundesliga, a respectable amount in a team full of players taking those riskier passes. While his defensive partner David Abraham was great that season, Vallejo, for the first time, showed how he was capable of playing at the top level. He was completing over 75% of his tackles and was second in the side for pass accuracy with 85%.

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One area of his game that needs improvement is his ability in the air. This became apparent in arguably his most significant appearance for Real Madrid, a Champions League Quarter Final second leg match against Juventus. This was Vallejo’s big chance to fight for a place in the side, with Ramos missing the game due to suspension. He really struggled in the game, being consistently exposed through Juventus’s direct route of Mandzukic. He even showed these weaknesses at Frankfurt, winning less than half of his attempted aerial duels. It means joining a club that has more of an emphasis on defending aerial dominance is off the table.

So where should an intelligent, young and composed passer move to this summer? I would recommend Vallejo go back to the Bundesliga, a league full of teams wanting to play from the back, and join Bayer Leverkusen. Peter Bosz plays an insanely attacking style of football, in a system where Julien Brandt, predominantly a wide player, was pushed into midfield just so more attackers could be on the pitch. With Sven Bender now 30-years-old, looking for a replacement who can replicate his excellent distribution and intelligent reading of the game is essential. Vallejo would fit this profile well. He’s always produced high interception numbers and is an elite distributor of the ball. While I recommended Mariano for a loan move, it might be time for Vallejo to commit permanently to another club. He does seem to want to stay at Madrid, but with Eder arriving and Varane, Nacho and Ramos most likely keeping their place Zidane, it might be time for Vallejo to return to the league where he flourished.

3. Lucas Vazquez

The first two players are much younger than Vazquez but remain in similar positions. Vasquez has been a valued squad player at Madrid since Zidane’s arrival back in 2016, making over 25 appearances in La Liga since the 2015/16 season. He is by no means a starter for Real Madrid in their biggest games but was vital to what Zidane implemented during that double-winning campaign. He didn’t have that same speed, power and eye for goal has Bale, but offered a great cross and a substantial defensive contribution. Per 90 in La Liga, he was putting in 2.6 tackles and was often used late in games to help Madrid keep hold of their leads. He is very much the old school wingers the game began moving beyond years ago, but he offers a parallel to the stars of Real. You can’t successfully compete in every competition without having players like Vasquez in your side.

It what makes the possible sale of Vasquez somewhat baffling to me. On the one hand, I see Real’s thinking. The winger is now 28, and it could be their last chance to cash in on him when he isn’t as crucial as other players in the squad, but on the other side of that, I think what the harm in keeping him is. The amount you could earn for Vazquez cannot be that enticing as selling the other 4 players on this list. He is still a valuable member of the team, and I don’t see a reason to sell him.

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However, if Madrid do decide to sell him, where should he go? He’s been linked to Arsenal, but his profile does not fit what they are looking for. The only side in La Liga that I could see him joining is Sevilla, but Lopatequi might want a winger who can offer more inventiveness. The only clubs I could see being a suitable destination would be the Milan clubs. Inter Milan still want to play a more traditional style in the attack, with Icardi and Lukaku fitting that poacher mould. Vazquez can become a reliable creator when starting often and offers that defensive work rate that Conte will want. The Italian is a coach who can get the most out of ageing players, as seen with how much output he was able to pull out of the likes of Barzagli, Cahill, Graziano Pelle and Pedro. It could be the move which would give Vazquez more game time while also allowing him to receive a considerable payday before he enters his twilight years as a player.

4. Sergio Reguilon

Onto our final Castilla graduate, Sergio Reguilon was one of the very few players at Real Madrid to perform well in arguably their worst season in the past decade. Marcelo had arguably his worst season in a Madrid shirt. The Brazilian was being consistently caught out and especially poor in their 3-0 defeat to Sevilla earlier in the season. It gave a chance for another player to take his position and with Theo Hernandez on loan, Reguilon was the only option. Madrid weren’t precisely stand out during their time under Solari, but Requilon was a bright spark. Even in their humiliating defeat to Ajax at the Bernabeu, getting the only assist for Los Blancos. He put up some solid defensive numbers, putting 3.2 tackles and interceptions per game. He offered something different to Marcelo, who has been the only wide player on the left side since his time playing with Ronaldo. The Brazilian had to do so much, and while many have criticised him defensively for years, his offensive output could never be ignored. As he’s aged, Marcelo has gotten worse in his awareness and contribution defensively, so having a more defensively capable player on that left side did have a positive effect. Reguilon also presented himself well in attack. He was creating 1.2 chances per game and is a very adequate passer, fitting that Spanish mould of confidence on the ball in defence.  He has a lot to offer a club who are in search of full backs.

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My first choice for which team he should join is Liverpool. This might be a rather daft suggestion considering they have the best full back in the league, but it would fix one of their most significant issues in defence, being defensive cover. With Moreno gone and Milner reaching the end of his career, the Reds need to start recruiting players who will able to challenge the first team players in the team and keep them competitive, but primarily to give them depth in case of injuries. Liverpool were fantastic last season but were also very lucky that none of their stars suffered major injuries. Liverpool cannot hope for luck again and will need to assure they are prepared for those moments. Reguilon is well rounded and is solid defensively and would deputise well for Robertson. He wouldn’t cost as much as other full backs, simply due to his lack of game time and will learn under one of the best coaches in the game.

5. Dani Ceballos

Last but certainly not least, we have Dani Ceballos. After his arrival back in 2017, I was hoping for Ceballos to have an effect on a side featuring an ageing midfield but was barely given a chance. This was down to Real Madrid struggling massively in the league and couldn’t rest their first team players to the same extent as they could before Ceballos’s arrival. It was sad to see him struggle as much as he has in the capital, and while his game time has improved, he could definitely offer more than he currently is. Ceballos gained attention from being a very versatile and talented midfielder. He was a fantastic dribbler at Real Betis and put in substantial defensive numbers while being very good physically. This earned him a move to Madrid where it seemed he would be given similar game time to Kovacic and Rodriguez were in the previous season, but this didn’t materialise. Ceballos is an extremely talented player and could play for a majority of top sides. He, like Kovacic, is one of the players that Madrid are willing to let go in an attempt to thin out of the squad of the less used talent, and also in a bid to sign one of Eriksen or Pogba. It would be ridiculous to let him go, but Ceballos is too good to be playing a bit part role.

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There are an endless amount of clubs that should get Ceballos’s signature, with Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Napoli (if Allan leaves), Lyon and Manchester City all needing a player in the Spaniard’s profile. He should join whichever club guarantees him the most minutes. It would be fun to watch him in the Premier League, no matter who he joins.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Manchester United: A Perfect Pair

I’ve been a Manchester United fan my whole life and by far my favourite season to follow was the 2016/17 season. While I remember watching the club lift the Champions League in Moscow and failing to beat Barcelona a year later, I began losing interest in the sport for a few years. Thankfully that loss of interest occurred during the Moyes era, which is why that point of time doesn’t hurt as much as it hurts other fans. My fascination with football returned with Van Gaal’s arrival. It felt like a fresh start and a chance to return to the sport I, like many young kids, dreamed of playing.

Moyes was seen as a safe option when he was appointed. A manager who was successful with Everton in keeping them competitive for over a decade. He managed to get the best out of middling players who seen as not good enough for their previous club or too much of a risk for bigger clubs. He was Premier League proven and was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson as his successor, but a combination of issues led to the Scotsman being sacked after only 8 months in charge.

The mistakes in the summer of 2013 are well documented. United decided to give Moyes a six-year contract with the expectations being long term success. Moyes was indeed out of his depth at United. Home records broken, humiliating defeats by the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester City and a style of football that was seen as ineffective, to say the least. Moyes is predominately to blame for that horrendous season, but criticism has to be given to Sir Alex and the Chief Executive. Ferguson was desperate to win one more title before his impending retirement, which meant many short term decisions were made so he could achieve that. The signing of Robin Van Persie was essential to that 20th title. It gave United the best striker in the league during his best years, and it weakened a direct rival. While his signing was influential, it wasn’t as needed as many like to believe. Manchester City only managed to score 4 more goals than United in the previous season, it was in defence where United saw problems. Ferdinand and Vidic were still playing regularly during a time where they didn’t possess the speed to keep up with the best forwards in the league. Fergie was desperate for that final title, and history has proven that buying a striker is a much quicker route to success than buying a defender. Ferguson always looked at the future at United and always kept an eye on his players, to ensure they were moved on at the right time. So many of these players needed to be replaced years before Moyes’s arrival, but short term success was seen as more important.

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It brings us on to that infamous summer of 2013. This was Ed Woodward’s first summer in charge at Manchester United, and as mentioned regarding the age of some players, it was vital that it was done right. Woodward was looking to stamp his mark at the club through acquiring some immense talent. The six players who were heavily linked to the Red Devils were Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Ander Herrera, Sami Khedira and Leighton Baines. The likeliness of United even convincing Bale and Alcantara to join them was highly unlikely with the former destined to join Madrid and the latter wanting to play under Pep Guardiola. Woodward’s ambition can be credited, but realism was needed in this situation. It’s the first of so many examples of Woodward desperate for the big names, players who arrive from big clubs and could increase shirt sales, instead of choosing the more realistic offer. It meant that United’s disastrous summer ended with the signing of Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini. He arrived with little fan fair and seemed to only be signed because United needed at least one signing. Fellaini struggled under Moyes because he was played usually as a defensive midfielder, a position he has never played before. It was the only place where he could play since Rooney, and Van Persie both cemented their place as the starting forwards. Fellaini’s strength is as a more direct option for the attack, working well off the bench and not as starting central midfielder, He doesn’t possess the mobility or the awareness to cover in that area. Juan Mata arrived in the following January, and while he is a very gifted player, his signing emphasised the scattergun approach Woodward was using. There isn’t a world where Juan Mata and Fellaini can play to both their strengths in the same system for the reason that the pair have contrasting styles. One is a small, intelligent playmaker while the other is a battering ram, a way to exploit oppositions who are weak in the air.

United ended the Moyes era by finishing seventh without a manager and with a squad full of players who needed to be replaced. The following summer saw Woodward do a lot of things right. Van Gaal was signed on the 19th of May, meaning there wouldn’t be any issues regarding the future of the club and could continue with preseason as usual. The signings from the summer of 2014 had some highlights. A number of players at the club like Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Hernandez, Welbeck, Cleverley all departed the club. This was long overdue and it was signalling the end of United’s dominance at the beginning of the century and a chance to move on. The Red Devils brought in Luke Shaw, arguably the most promising full back in the country for a record fee. Ander Herrera was brought after his transfer failing to be finalised the previous summer. Daily Blind arrived to give depth at both full back and central midfield and Rojo was a much-needed addition at centre half.

While they were seen as sensible moves, Woodward couldn’t resist his urge to make the headlines. United broke the British transfer record to bring Champions League winner Angel Di Maria to the club. The Argentine reached 3 finals that year with his performance in the Champions League final earning him the Man of the Match over the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. He is a fantastic player who would offer pace, creativity and elite dribbling who could push United closer the Manchester City and Chelsea. The other galactico who arrived that summer was Radamel Falcao. The Columbian was one of the deadliest forwards in Europe at the time of his arrival. He was signed on loan with an option to buy due to his injury record and would give United another option. United sold both Chicarito and Welbeck that summer, leaving them low on options with Van Persie struggling with consistent injuries and Rooney beginning to show his age. These were two big names that added on top of the solid bunch of signings that would improve the squad. 

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Ironically, the signings who succeeded were the players who didn’t have high expectations. Ander Herrera was fantastic whenever he played in midfield, giving United a player who could play that box to box role and contribute in the final third. In his debut season, Herrera scored 6 and assisted 4 in 19 starts, showing his value to the side. He also was second in the team for tackles per game with 3, with only Valencia ahead of him. He gave a lot to the side, which needed a player who could do a bit of everything. Throughout his career at United, he had the drive to succeed at the club, which other players didn’t. Di Maria was the most anticipated signing and while he did contribute to 13 goals for a side where the manager wasn’t selecting him at the tail end of the season. He ended his time at United after only a season, with his departure clouded with distaste from the fans after refusing to join the rest of the team for preseason. At least that fantastic goal against Leicester will be remembered fondly. Falcao was arguably more disappointing, with the Columbian only scoring 4 goals. He hadn’t looked the same player since an ACL injury that forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup.

After finishing 4th and looked particularly underwhelming in doing so, United looked to the transfer market to fix the problems. Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Sergio Romero and Anthony Martial. While sensible signings, they weren’t the level of signings that United needed. The other clear issue was Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman is a descendant of the Cruyffian school of football. There are either two ways you can take Cruyff’s teachings, either taking pressing and free-flowing approach, as seen with Guardiola or Rijkaard, or you can take the more systemic and organised routes of the system and develop them further, think Arigo Saachi at Milan. Van Gaal took the latter, playing a brand of football that while protected a defence that still featured players who simply weren’t good enough, it made United lack any sort of spark and attacking flair. Five games finished 0-0 in Van Gaal’s final season just highlighting how United struggled to score goals throughout the season. It meant that arguably United’s most exciting signing from the 2015 summer window, Memphis Depay, was destined to fail. Van Gaal demands all of his players to track back and help on the defensive end, something that Depay isn’t good at doing. The winger’s strengths are in attack. He always wants the ball played to his feet, so he can cut inside on his stronger right foot. He is a player who feeds on confidence, and when he was consistently dropped after poor displays, it made it difficult for Depay to succeed.

United fans couldn’t stand watching Van Gaal’s United for another season, and while the Dutchman brought home an FA Cup, it wasn’t enough. A season where United scored only 49 goals, the second lowest in the top 10. Van Gaal’s restrictive football made it nearly impossible to deal with sides that played in a deep block. Rashford’s end season emergence helped in giving Van Gaal a fast and aggressive forward who was scoring with nearly every shot, but a season full of dire performances made it difficult to justify keeping the former Barcelona manager.

One might ask what does all of this have to do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The short term history of how United consistently struggled in the transfer market was to highlight just how significant of a signing Ibrahimovic was to United, and especially for Ed Woodward. His first summer was full of targets that didn’t want to join the club. His second was a mix of shirt sellers and squad players but was a mess in regards to where they all fitted in. The third summer was a failure in how those signings performed in their debut season, with Anthony Martial the only player even remotely a success. Woodward needed to smash his first summer transfer window with Jose Mourinho, with every signing being first team starters.

The summer of 2016 is still the only transfer window where I’d consider Woodward to be successful in recruitment. They fixed every glaring issue in the squad. They added a young promising defender in Eric Bailly who was capable of playing the ball out from the back and added much-needed pace in defence. Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived for £27 million to add creativity in the final third. The Armenian was voted the player of the season in the Bundesliga and was an essential signing to boost United’s goals and chance creation. United even went a step further in putting their names on the headlines, with the record Premier League winners breaking the transfer record to bring Paul Pogba back to the club. The Frenchman could add an inventiveness to the midfield and offers a player with a unique skill set that is still hard to match. They were all great signings, but the icing on the cake was easily Zlatan’s arrival.

The Swedish forward was everything United needed on and off the pitch. He a huge personality and possesses the arrogance and hunger for that United have been in itching for since Sir Alex’s departure. From a young age, Zlatan has always had an ego the size of a mountain. From refusing to do auditions for Arsene Wenger at youth level to only agreeing to remain in Paris if the club built him a statue. He is a man who demanded your attention, which younger players could look towards as a role model for the player they should be thriving to be. While many United fans were excited to see a world class forward arrive at the club, opposition fans had their doubts. “He’s only scored in a farmers league” or “he’s past it.” We all heard these criticisms against Ibrahimovic, but both the player and manager weren’t worried. “Zlatan needs no introduction. The statistics speak for themselves,” said Mourinho on his arrival, and he was right. Ibrahimovic had arrived at United after a fantastic final season with Paris Saint-Germain, in which he scored 50 goals in 51 games, 38 of those in Ligue 1, a club record. It was the first time United signed a European superstar striker since Van Nistelrooy, a fantastic poacher but wasn’t effective in linking others into play. Ibrahimovic was the opposite of the Dutchman, with the Swede constantly dropping deep to play as a number nine and a half. His arrogance and personality were personified in how often he didn’t like to remain in a forward position, preferably moving to where the cameras were focused. Ibrahimovic was one of the very few superstars playing in the game, a quality he showed very early on in his United career. His first appearance for the club was in a preseason game against Galatasaray, in which he scored an overhead kick in the 4th minute of the game. While it wasn’t a vintage goal, with the forward’s connection with the ball being imperfect, to say the least, however, the ambition is worth praise.

Zlatan began his United career by showing all of his best qualities. He scored a last minute header against Leicester to win the Community Shield for the club, towering over Wes Morgan, one of the best defenders in the previous season, with ease. His giant character was both literal and metaphorical in this case. He didn’t have the constant effect many expected him to have, but he still managed to appear for the most critical moments. While his first competitive game showed his love for the big moments, his second showed his star quality. United were on track for a straightforward win away to Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth with goals from Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, the game was sealed through the long strike from Ibrahimovic. He simply picked up the ball and scored from a distance United fans were not used to seeing a goal out of nothing like that. It wasn’t the same structured and planned attacks we were used to seeing under Van Gaal. It was the first change of ideas, from Van Gaal’s Cruyffian roots to a more individualistic approach to scoring goals, and Zlatan was the centrepiece. Ibrahimovic went on to score 10 in his first 20 games, an impressive return for his first season in English football and for a side who were still in transition.

Ibrahimovic was a shot machine during his time for United. This isn’t exactly a quality that is stand out for a United player to possess, with Rooney, Ronaldo and Van Persie all taking a lot of shots during their spells at the club. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the Swede was a terrifying forward to face. He was taking over 4 shots a game, an amount no other United player has managed to beat since his only full season at the club. Any player can take a high volume of shots, but Ibrahimovic showed himself to be a lethal finisher from wherever he was shooting from. His xG showed this, and according to Understat, he overperformed his expected goals by 3, and when going through his goals again, it shows. His fantastic chip against Everton that so nearly didn’t go over the line, his low ranged strikes finding their way past the keeper and some fortunate strikes through deflections, his goal threat was undeniable. Ibrahimovic’s knack for scoring goals from everywhere shows from his dominance in the air. Out of the 17 goals he scored in the Premier League, 4 were headers. His strength will always be with the ball at his feet, but his aerial threat was arguably the most threatening of a striker in the league.

While his image has a selfish and arrogant player were well known, he sure didn’t show it on the pitch. Ibrahimovic was an excellent link man for the rest of the players in the team. It was an important inclusion in his skillset. Like his time at Paris Saint-Germain, he helped bring other talented attackers into the fray. In France, it was Cavani, Lavezzi, Di Maria and Lucas Moura and at United, he had Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan. While not being given the same experienced scorers as he had in Paris, there were still fantastic talents at the club that needed space to get the goals. Zlatan was an excellent creator throughout his time at United, assisting some of the vital goals during Mourinho’s debut season, with the highlight being a magnificent cross for Mkhitaryan to finish with a spectacular scorpion kick (even though the Armenian was offside). He liked to find space on the right side and for a good reason. United would usually play either Mata, Lingard or Mkhitaryan on that side, with the three players preferring to come inside due to their history as number 10’s. Ibrahimovic would find space on the far side to help keep the width and use his excellent eye for a pass to find his teammates in the box. His drive to contribute to goals, whether scoring or assisting, was what made him such a lethal player.

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The player he sparked the best on and off the pitch relationship with was easily Paul Pogba. The Frenchman arrived for a record fee, and the pressure on him was indescribable. Every single thing Pogba did was going to be scrutinised, and it made it very difficult for him to play his game to the same effect as he did at Juventus. While his relationship with Jesse Lingard was always strong, he grew to form a formidable partnership with Ibrahimovic. While one was 11 years older than the other, they were both so similar, prominent personalities with love for entertainment through their talents. Pogba was continually looking to send long balls for Ibrahimovic to run to and regularly resulted in goals. In a tight game at Selhurst Park, it took United’s two most prominent players to find the victory. During the final minutes of the match, Pogba had the composure to send a delightful ball to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who scored with a powerful shot into the side-netting. The highlight of their relationship was an FA Cup game against Blackburn Rovers. United were left with the possibility of facing a replay in the competition until Mourinho decided to play his aces. Pogba and Ibrahimovic came on as second-half substitutes and their class shined, with Pogba sending a ball through the Blackburn defence, to give his teammate a simple finish. It was by far Pogba’s best season for United, and it was thanks to Ibrahimovic being his perfect partner in attack.

By far his best performance for United came in the EFL Cup final. It was the club’s first chance to win some silverware under Mourinho (not including the Community Shield) and it was a game defined by a brilliant performance from United’s superstar. Ibrahimovic scored a free kick in the first half, before putting United back in the lead right in the dying minutes of the game, with a fine header from a Herrera cross. This was a game truly won by the former Milan forward and he seemed to cherish the responsibility on the pitch. This was one of the reasons why he was brought to the club, to perform on the biggest stage and push United over the line when they needed a shove.

While the good cannot be argued, he still managed to attract plenty of controversy during his short stint in England. The most infamous being his confrontation with Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings. It was an aggressive game for United in their second fixture against the Cherries. Mings was tightly marking Ibrahimovic throughout the game which seemed to frustrate United’s star striker, to the point where Ibrahimovic was seen throwing Mings to the ground in a show of anger. Things became more heated when Mings stepped on Zlatan’s head, resulting in Zlatan lashing out for a final time, by elbowing Mings during a United corner. With the pair failing to be appropriately booked for their behaviour, The FA quickly punished them, with Ibrahimovic facing a 3 match ban and Mings facing 4. While a moment of madness can sometimes be excused, the childish manner in which Ibrahimovic acted was inexcusable.

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It does move on to another problem with the Swede, being his finishing. I did recently compliment his ability to score from anywhere, and while that is still true, there were a lot of chances Ibrahimovic should have put away yet failed to do so. Out of all forwards in the Premier League, no one missed more chances than the current LA Galaxy forward with 18. This isn’t to diminish his ability as a forward at all. One of the players behind is Sergio Aguero, who is seen as one of the best forwards in the history of the league, yet missed 13 big chances. The issue arises when looking at the chances in isolation and seeing how frustrating he was at times. A penalty miss against Bournemouth, a huge miss at Anfield after a lovely pass from Paul Pogba and a powerful shot aimed directly at Heaton during United’s 0-0 draw at home to Burnley are the few stand out chances he failed to convert.

His United career was cut short after a serious injury suffered in the Europa League quarter-final second leg against Anderlecht, after landing awkwardly on his knee. It was a painful way to end a fantastic debut season. It meant United were to do without their star Swede for the remainder of the season, missing the rest of United’s winning Europa League campaign and some key clashes with Tottenham and Arsenal. While United were a lesser side without him, with Rashford playing as the starting striker, it did highlight one other flaw with playing Ibrahimovic. United couldn’t be as tactically flexible with him in the side. Ironically, United’s most impressive performances during that season, a 2-0 home win over champions Chelsea and a tactical masterclass in the Europa League final, helping United secure a 2-0 win over a young Ajax side. Both games saw Mourinho at his best, using Herrera to man-mark Hazard throughout the game, never leaving the Belgian’s side during the game. While that is a task that could have been achieved with Ibrahimovic, the performance of Marcus Rashford was something that couldn’t have been replicated. Rashford’s raw pace and ability to run the channels made it difficult to see Zlatan do the same thing. United’s young prospect kept constant pressure on Chelsea’s back line and made it difficult for them to effectively build from the back. Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitution, displaying how he was not needed for this victory. Their win over Ajax in the Europa League final was even more impressive, with United playing an extremely direct style, using Fellaini to help quickly transition the ball into the final. The Belgian won 14 aerial duels in this game, showing his importance to United’s first Europa League trophy.

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Unfortunately, Ibrahimovic’s time at United didn’t end with the same shining spotlight as it began. He was allowed to remain at the club for the treatment of his injury and was given a new contract at the end of August. It was made clear Mourinho was not going to use him as frequently as he was used during his first season, with Lukaku giving a younger and pacier forward for a large sum of money. It meant we only saw Ibrahimovic briefly during his final few months at the club, with the spotlight now on Lukaku. One of his most memorable performances was in a disappointing draw at home to Burnley. Ibrahimovic was taken off at halftime for Jesse Lingard, who scored both goals for United. Ibrahimovic couldn’t play with Lukaku in the same team. Both were not mobile enough and it meant a lack of pressure from the forwards. It was the last notable games that Zlatan played for United, until his departure for LA Galaxy in the following January, where he has gone on to score bundles of goals. It was his chance to spread his name to a country that was still in need of quality in the league.

It was a sad way to end such a perfect match. Since Woodward arrived, he was desperate to bring in a true superstar, a player who could sell shirts and show how United were still a European force. After failed attempts to get a marquee signing in his first summer and failing with Di Maria and Falcao in his second, it seemed as if Woodward wasn’t going to get that big name he wanted. Ibrahimovic was the perfect player for Woodward.  A player to show United’s ambitions and the club he wanted them to be. A name known across Europe and could be the push United needed on the short term, similar to when Cantona arrived. He is arguably United’s greatest signing of the decade but it’s just a shame we couldn’t see more of him.