The Thomas Tuchel Derby! Borussia Dortmund vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

This is one of the most exciting ties of the round of sixteen. Borussia Dortmund, possessing some of the most threatening forward options in the competition, facing PSG, who are arguably the favourites. This is a must-watch for every football fan. It’s guaranteed goals!

Let’s start with Dortmund, who I’ve covered extensively in the pastDuring the Hinrunde, Dortmund was still dominant against the weaker sides, but a few defensive slip-ups and a lack of a deadly striker did hold them back touching distance to Bayern, Gladbach and Leipzig.

But things have changed since then. The arrival of Erling-Braut Haland gave Dortmund the striker they were desperate for. Haland is a goal-machine, able to score all types of goals, and possesses the physical abilities to beat defenders through sheer strength or speed. While Alcacer was great in Germany, Haland is a potential superstar, not only able to win Dortmund some silverware but give them considerable profit.

Haland, as well as Dortmund, have been the best side in Germany since their return from the winter break. They’ve scored 15 goals in 3 games, and the attack has somehow taken another step-up. Sancho is back to his world-beating best, and a change to a 3-4-3, primarily down to a lack of personnel in midfield, has allowed Favre to play forward-three of Hazard/Reus, Haland and Sancho. It’s also enabled Brandt to play in the midfield two. I think Brandt hasn’t played nearly as much as he should be. He’s one of my favourite players to watch in the Bundesliga, and Dortmund always looks better when Brandt plays. His xGBuildup is 9.10, second in the squad and only behind Hakimi, and tops the team for passes into the penalty area with 40. Brandt can be frustrating at times (his mistake against Leipzig perfectly shows that), but overall, Dortmund needed to incorporate him in the XI and seemed to have finally found a way.

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The 3-4-3 also gave Dortmund a little more security at the back, moving Piszczek into the back three and playing Guerreiro and Hakimi as the wing-backs. Hakimi was immense when playing as a winger earlier in the season, so allowing him to push up as far as possible is the best thing for a player so talented. The player who is benefitting the most from this change of formation is Manuel Akanji. To put it bluntly, Akanji has been atrocious this season. A lot of my worries for Dortmund’s defence coming into the season was around their resigning of Matts Hummels. However, he’s actually been excellent, with the World Cup winner still retaining his elite passing and keeping that backline together. Akanji has looked so uncomfortable, with the defender consistently being a target for the opposition, seeking to isolate him in possession and continuously aim down his side. This isn’t even something I can prove through stats. It becomes apparent whenever you watch Dortmund. They’ve looked so shaky on numerous occasions; had it not been for their elite attack, they’d be a lot worse off.

I was initially going to talk about Marco Reus, but since a muscle injury he picked up earlier in the month, he will be missing both legs. This is a huge miss. Sancho, Haland, Hazard and Brandt might be great players in their own right, but Reus is more than that. The former Gladbach forward is not only the club captain but can always score that vital winner for his team. His experience and intelligence in the box is miles ahead of his teammates and will be a massive miss for this huge game. 

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Let’s move onto PSG, who next to Liverpool, have been the best team in Europe. Paris’s summer 2019 might be remembered mostly for the Neymar talks, but the business they conducted was some of the best on the continent. Idrissa Gueye arrived for a reasonable £30 million, while Sarabia and Herrera came in to add more depth in midfield. Diallo also arrived from their opponents Borussia Dortmund, giving them another excellent defender to choose. Icardi was their big-name arrival, replacing the ageing Cavani. I thought every big club should’ve stayed away from the circus that is Mauro Icardi, but Tuchel has gotten a lot out of the former Inter captain. He’s started to make more effort this season than any at Inter. Who knows, maybe leaving his comfort zone was necessary to reach that high level we all knew he could.

The forward line deserves a lot of praise for being so fun and effective, but I want to spend more time complimenting Gueye and Verratti, the best midfield in Europe. Verratti is, to put it, a perfect midfielder. The Italian does everything you want from a midfielder in terms of ball progression, with the defensive work to back it up. Verratti has a ridiculous 85% success rate from dribbles, while also topping the league in passes into the final third (20 passes ahead of the player in second: Idrissa Gueye). Gueye has been a revelation. I was always under the impression that Gueye was just a good destroyer, but he’s even more than that for the Ligue 1 champions. Gueye can do everything Verratti can; fantastic passing, a great dribbler and the same vast amount of defensive work, Gueye is playing the best football of his career, at the age of thirty. You cannot have a forward line firing unless they’re getting the ball to their feet, which is what Gueye and Verratti do in bundles.

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What makes PSG such a threatening opposition is how versatile Tuchel has made them. It’s one of the many benefits of coaching the best team in a league. It gives you immense talent and a chance to experiment with them, to find out the numerous ways you can deploy them. Paris primarily plays a 4-3-3 but can switch to 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 in an instant, depending on how the game is going. It makes them a lot more unpredictable, making their opponents always wonder how will they set up. Marquinhos can quickly drop into defence, Mbappe can come much narrower, joining Icardi in the centre and Di Maria is fantastic no matter where you play him.

Let’s move to PSG’s player to watch. It isn’t Mbappe, Neymar or Icardi, but in fact the previously mentioned Angel Di Maria. The former Real Madrid playmaker has played the most minutes for Tuchel’s team this season, and he’s deserved to. Di Maria tops Ligue 1 for assists with 10, while also contributing to 6 goals. His creativity and killer final ball is why he is next to undroppable in this team, topping the side for passes into the penalty area. His non-penalty xG+xA is at 0.98, only behind the front three. Di Maria isn’t only PSG’s best creator but can score and assist himself. If you genuinely want to stop PSG, you need to ensure Di Maria isn’t able to gift the ball to the likes of Mbappe and Neymar.

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If Borussia Dortmund wishes to progress, keep the attacks down the right side. It contains Dortmund biggest attacking threats, being Sancho and Hakimi. Juan Bernat is likely to miss this fixture from an injury, meaning Kurzawa, a player Tuchel wanted to be sold as soon as he arrived, is expected to start. Kurzawa has been underwhelming for years and is a player you want to pressurise from the beginning.

If Paris wishes to finally reach the quarter-final stage, they have to keep constant pressure on the centre backs. As previously mentioned, Akanji has been really bad, and while Hummels has been better than expected, he still lacks the mobility needed in these tight games. The pair will continuously try and play forward passes, to quickly supply the forwards. PSG need to cut that supply line. Not only will it limit what Dortmund can do, but it could gift quick counter-attacks when Dortmund’s midfielders and full-backs are out of position.

This is an exciting round of sixteen fixture, but PSG is the only side I can see winning this game. The superior talent, combined with a dominant and energetic midfield, will make it hard for Dortmund to gain any control on this game. I can see Dortmund gaining the advantage at the Westfalenstadion, but Paris will dismantle Dortmund as if they’re taking their yearly beating at the Allianz. 

 

The Bundesliga is More Competitive Than Ever, But Can These Teams Challenge for the Title?

The Bundesliga has been a mess but in a complimentary way. There have been a lot teams either over-performing, under-performing, playing well or straight-up bad. Let’s go through the top teams in the Bundesliga, and see who is capable of challenging Bayern at the top of the table.

Borussia Monchengladbach

I’ve covered Gladbach enough that my opinion on them has been made very clear. Still, their incredibly impressive form is quite surprising. Marco Rose took a sensible yet exciting move to Gladbach. Die Fohlen (a nickname given for their swashbuckling style of football during their heyday) have been one of the most inconsistent teams during the 2010s. During 18/19 under Dieter Hecking, Gladbach had a fantastic start to the season. They ended Hinrunde in third, three points behind Bayern Munich. The problem, like most seasons for Monchengladbach, was the drop of form during the second half of the season. They had the tenth-best record and saw a lot of their best players drop off in form. Thorgan Hazard’s goal contributions were at their worst, with the Belgian going from scoring and assisting 15 goals in the first 17 games, to only contributing to 5 in the final 17 games. Plea, Neuhaus, Hoffman and Herrmann were others who fell off a cliff. It was clear these players are talented, but either down to system or the manager himself, they weren’t at their best. Hecking never did a bad job, but he left this impression of another coach could have done better.

Gladbach have been transformed under Rose. The improved attacking structure and balance throughout the team has made Gladbach not only a better team but a lot more enjoyable to watch. They’ve primarily switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-1-2, but have looked a lot better in the former. They mainly create through two outlets: midfield and full-backs. You’ll usually see the centre-backs look to find Lainer on the right and Bensebaini/Wendt on the left. Lainer especially is a great creator from wide positions, currently topping the team with 1.7 open play key passes per game. The midfield is also responsible for a majority of the ball progression, with Zakaria and Neuhaus completing the most dribbles with 2.2 and 1.9 respectively. The pair are high-quality technical players, extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet, with the confidence and ability to take on other players.

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Rose seems to have finally found the best way to utilise his best assets. Benes has moved to playing as a creative 10, finding space in between the lines and trying to get the ball to the forwards. Zakaria has actually been blossoming as the more advanced midfielder in the pivot. While Christoph Kramer isn’t nearly as good as he used to be, it has allowed his Swiss teammate to focus more on ball progression. Zakaria has this habit of being able to dribble through the most narrow of spaces. He keeps the ball close to his feet and has the size, speed and technical ability to be a real nuisance. Thuram is another who has excelled. The Frenchman, signing for the low fee of £10 million, was a massive risk considering he only had one full season of first-team football under his belt. But so far, Thuram has been a glaring success. As the weeks have passed, Thuram just seems to keep getting better. The son of Lillian Thuram is one of scariest players to face in a one-v-one, being so quick, so strong and having high-level close control. The 21-year-old has been a constant aerial threat, using his superior frame to give Gladbach a more direct option, compared to Plea or Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, he has been great whenever he’s played. Per 90, he’s taking 2.7 shots, with 2.4 coming from inside the box. It does help that Lainer has been a sensational signing, giving so much creativity from the right-flank, and has enabled Herrmann to go and find more space inside the box. He consistently makes himself available for his teammates in good positions.

I think Gladbach are likely to finish in the top four, but there have still been some worrying signs. They are facing 15.7 shots per game, the third-lowest in the division. While the chances they’re giving up aren’t of incredibly high quality, it’s still a worrying sign to see a team competing for the title right now giving up so many. There have been a few games so far this season where they’ve won, but gifted a lot of opportunities in the process. Werder Bremen had 16 shots against, and Frankfurt outshot them 15 to 11. Their 2-1 victory over Leverkusen, while a massive three points, was a game where they were outshined by their opponents. However, Gladbach managed to create two fantastic opportunities and won the game. 

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Gladbach have been great this season. Still, there has been a reliance on Plea and Thuram to continually produce in the final third, which they have been doing. I’m still quite unsure if they can go all the way. They deserve their place at the top of the table right now, but they have been lucky throughout many games this season. If that luck dries out, Rose and his players could lose their place to one of the teams so close behind them.

RB Leipzig 

I’ve spent some time talking about just how great Nagelsmann and Leipzig are. While some obstacles have come their way, they are still far ahead of their competition in terms of finishing in the Champions League spots. The Bundesliga’s most controversial club had a fantastic start to the season, with huge wins over Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach and a draw against Bayern in their first five games, putting them at the top of the table. It wasn’t just results, but their numbers were absolutely frightening. They were creating numerous high-quality chances, with the forwards looking fantastic during the early stages, especially Werner and Sabizter, who were both having elite starts to the season. I wrote a piece about this blistering start, but as soon I posted it, Leipzig suddenly went winless in four, losing to Schalke and Freiburg. You can argue that they deserved to win both games, but that shouldn’t make up for how bad they were in both fixtures, especially against Freiburg. The Bundesliga’s current overachievers, while conceding 24 shots to Leipzig, only faced a handful of good chances. Werner had a decent shot saved, Cunha missed an excellent opportunity as well as Willi Orban. Yet, some of these chances only came at the end of the game, so for 80 minutes, Freiburg kept them very quiet.

Now after 13 games, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, while not yet reaching their massive ceiling, have built a team with a clear idea in how they want to play. No matter what formation they play, they primarily defend in a 4-4-2 and press very high. Werner, Poulsen, Sabitzer and Nkunku/Forsberg attempt to close down and isolate the opposition defenders. This has worked against a lot of teams, especially the weaker teams. The problem has been how it’s been pretty ineffective against technical opponents. Bayern, for a majority of their 1-1 with Nagelsmann’s side, just played right through it, with Kimmich and Alcantara being well known for their intelligence in possession.

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Defensively, Leipzig have been one of the best in the league, only conceding 9 goals from open play and face 10.8 shots per game, only behind Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen. While they have looked somewhat vulnerable at times, whether through set-pieces or counter-attacks, that is down to the rather gung ho approach they take in games. Nagelsmann has tried to protect his defenders through deploying a very solid, if unspectacular, pivot of Diego Demme and Konrad Laimer. Two midfielders who specialise in ball recovery and not much else. It does allow Klostermann and Halstenburg to push forward, while Nkunku and Sabitzer have the freedom to create for the strikers, either through linking up with Werner or with the full-backs. Nkunku and Sabitzer have been absolutely sensational, Nkunku in particular, contributing to 8 goals and only being behind Werner in Expected Assists per 90. It makes his decision to leave PSG and choose Leipzig over the Arsenal even better.

Speaking of Timo Werner, let’s talk about the second-best striker in Germany right now. When Nagelsmann arrived, almost everyone was excited to see what he would do to Werner. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann was left with mediocre forwards but still managed to get over 10 goals out of players like Mark Uth and Ishak Belfodil. Werner has been one of Germany’s best prospects for years, and since his first season in the Bundesliga with Leipzig, has established himself as one of the best forwards in Germany. Werner has always been a lethal finisher, while also possessing the pace and creativity to be just as effective on the wing. Werner is already on 14 goals, which includes two hat-tricks: the first against Gladbach and the other in an 8-0 victory over Mainz. It’s not only in the goals where Werner has shined but in chance creation. Werner is creating 2 chances per game, more than Nkunku and only behind Sabitzer. His expected assists per 90 is at a freakishly high 0.43; the highest in the team. His non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 is the highest in the Bundesliga (out of players to play over 500 minutes) with 1.29, higher than Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho. Werner has looked better than ever. His runs are timed to perfection, he is always finding good areas in the box and is making his teammates better as a result of his creativity. When Werner eventually leaves, it will create such a hole in that team, that I ponder how Leipzig will find a player to fill his boots.

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I think the prospect of seeing Nagelsmann win the Bundesliga in his first season is still likely. But give this team another year to grow, and they could be clear favourites, but it hugely depends on keeping Werner. If their German marksman does decide to stay, then it could finally be their year.

Schalke

Moving onto Schalke, who have been a massive surprise in how quickly they’ve improved this season. After nearly suffering relegation and succumbing to an embarrassing defeat to Manchester City in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, it led to the sacking of Domenico Tedesco. With the club having their worst season in recent memory, a big statement needed to be made. Die Knappen decided on David Wagner. A manager who miraculously got Huddersfield promoted into the Premier League and kept them in the division; a massive achievement for one of the worst teams the league has ever seen. It was clear that given a better group of players, Wagner could do an even better job.

Schalke have truly impressed me in just how competitive they’ve managed to remain even with better competition around them. A lot of it should go down to how Wagner has made Schalke solid in defence and flexible in attack. Wagner has his side playing a high press, a familiar sight for those who watched Huddersfield in the Championship. Whether Schalke are playing 4-3-2-1, 4-1-3-2 or 4-4-2, you’ll usually see his players pushing very far forward. They consistently put pressure on the opposition, rushing them into playing the ball forward, which regularly results in a loss of possession. This press is Schalke’s best defence and offence. When their opponents lose the ball, Wagner’s side are quick to recover it, consistently attacking opposition teams when their opponents are vulnerable. Take their game against Dortmund for example. Weigl was highlighted as a weakness in that Dortmund team, with the German playing in an unfamiliar centre-back position. Burgstaller and Matondo were quick to press him, which he struggled to deal with. The numbers also show Schalke to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Understat have them as the third-best defensive team in Germany for expected goals against, with their 15.17 only bettered by Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg. They’re seventh for shots faced, and while their young captain Alexander Nubel has saved them in a few games, they’ve stood out in keeping their opponents quiet.

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While they’ve remained German in how they’ve used a press, their attack is a lot more varied. When Schalke attack, they’ll primarily play through their full-backs: Everton loanee Jonjoe Kenny and Bastian Oczipka. Both players give Schalke something different on each side. Kenny is very direct, boasting bags of pace and the desire to run at opposition defenders, while Oczipka is a fantastic crosser, completing 1.8 crosses per game, the most in the side. His creativity is, by far his biggest strength. You’ll regularly see the defenders and Nubel in goal look to find Kenny and Oczipka far up the pitch. If they’re struggling, former Frankfurt defender Omar Mascarell will drop between the centre-backs, to give another option and free up space in midfield.

However, if the full-backs are struggling to get involved in the game, as seen in their 0-0 draw against Borussia Dortmund, Schalke aren’t afraid to play more directly. Schalke usually play Mark Uth or Rabbi Matondo. Both players offer something different. Matondo uses his pace to try and isolate opposition defenders, while Uth is a more direct option, using his physicality to match defenders. They play well with the hardworking Guido Burgstaller, who is a willing runner and ready to harass defenders. All three forwards are willing to run into the channels, to give their teammates an option for when the full-backs are taken out of the game. Wagner has turned into a real pragmatic coach but in a good way. Wagner isn’t interested in how pretty his side are to watch and priorities efficiency.

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The biggest problem regarding Schalke’s start to the season is easily their worrying lack of goals. While I did credit their attack for being versatile and their forwards for offering different qualities up front, they have all struggled in front of goal. Burgstaller actually tops the team for xG per 90 with 0.35 but is yet to score a single goal. Amine Harit is their top scorer with 6, but many of those strikes have come from outside the box. It’s unlikely that Harit will turn into a consistent goalscorer, even with his fantastic start. Matondo has very much looked like the raw talent he currently is, lacking key decision making during decisive moments. Mark Uth has failed to recover from the Nagelsmann effect and remains allergic to goals in Gelsenkirchen. A lot of Schalke fans are desperate to see 19-year-old forward Ahmed Kutucu play. During his limited minutes last season, Kutucu showed a lot of promise and could be the solution Wagner is desperately searching for. This lack of goals in the side will hold them back. Whether it’s through the transfer market or from within, it’s hard to picture Schalke in the Champions League next season without a clinical forward in their ranks, never mind a title push.

Borussia Dortmund 

Coming into the season, one would expect Borussia Dortmund to be Bayern’s biggest threat. Lucien Favre’s side, for most of 18/19, were keeping the Bundesliga open and competitive. As mentioned in another post, Bayern were very unfortunate throughout the first half of last season, while Dortmund were very lucky. They overperformed their expected goals by a massive 16.01, with Leipzig and Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim having better attacks than last’s year’s runners up. Favre did what he does best; set his team up in a low block and rely heavily on individual talents to carry the attack. Dortmund garnered a reputation under Klopp and Tuchel for being one of the most aggressive, intelligent pressing sides in Europe, but Favre has seemingly scraped that. Passes allowed per defensive action is a metric that helps measure how aggressively a team presses. The less passes a team allows their opponent, the more aggressively they press. Last season, Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim were, on paper, the best pressing teams, allowing 8.16 and 8.72 respectively, while Dortmund allowed 13.42, placing them fourteenth. With experienced midfielders and inexperienced defenders arriving, Favre chose the more practical option, which worked, even if Dortmund weren’t excellent for most of the season.

The other area in which Favre was quite fortunate was Marco Reus. The German forward has been one of the best players in the 2010’s, is one of the best creators, dribblers and goal scorers in the Bundesliga. The problem with Reus has been his injuries. From 14/15 to 17/18, he only managed over 20 starts once, and his lowest being in 11 in the season before Favre’s arrival. He’s always performed, but it’s clear how much Reus is missed when he is unavailable. Luckily for Favre, Reus managed to stay fit for most of the season, only missing 7 games. However, due to the numerous injuries, Reus has had to make adjustments in the way he plays, changing from the elite playmaker to more of a second striker. He makes late runs into the box and using his incredible close control to move around defenders and find space for a shot.

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Favre was also lucky to have Jadon Sancho during his breakout season. Everyone knew that the young England winger had bags of potential, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact Sancho would have on that team. Sancho quickly went from a prospect to one of the most sought after players on the market. Favre could rely on Sancho for a lot of ball progression, as well as Real Madrid loanee Hakimi. He ended the 18/19 season with 12 goals and 14 assists, a fantastic, yet slightly unexpected return from a young player only in his second season of top-flight football. 

To beat Bayern to the title, aswell as keep off fierce competition from Leipzig, huge additions were needed. Mats Hummels added vital experience to a backline that looked so vulnerable from set-pieces (Dortmund conceded 13 from set-pieces last season, the worst record right behind Augsburg). Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt added exciting attackers, ready to produce now. Dortmund seem tired of being second best to Bayern every season. So when Bayern are at their weakest, it makes sense to take advantage, to bring in some of the leagues best players to help take them over the line. 

The team is arguably better than last season, but the performances do beg a differ. Even excluding their annual humiliation at the Allianz, there have been plenty of games where Dortmund have been awful. Dortmund have generally looked so slow and sluggish in the first half of games, with shocking performances in the opening 45 minutes against Cologne, Paderborn, Schalke, Union Berlin and Monchengladbach. A lack of concentration at the back and weak chance creation from the front (no clear cut chances against Schalke) have been ever-present throughout the season. 

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Dortmund have played a higher line compared to last season. They’ve gone from allowing their opponents 13.42 passes per defensive actions down to 10.05, a considerable change for a team consistently playing an ageing defender in Hummels. Hummels has never been a mobile defender. When you pair that with Weigl having to fill in at centre back and Piszczek remaining a key player at right-back, it’s a dream for any player with an extra yard of pace. Many of these players have struggled when facing opponents who can hit them hard on the break.

Dortmund’s have not only collapsed against counter-attacks but have struggled against teams who press aggressively. In the first half against Cologne, Anthony Modeste and Jhon Cordoba wouldn’t give Akanji a second to breathe. The Swiss defender has been below average throughout the season, still looking weak in the air with questionable decision making. They eventually managed to overcome Cologne, thanks to Brandt making a massive difference. 

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The problem with Favre’s Dortmund is they’re so reactive. While their dramatic comebacks have been great to watch, there will be some games where that fight will not materialise. I can’t see Favre’s side finishing in the top four, never mind challenging for the title. Without a clear style of play and fragility at the back, It’s challenging to defend Favre even remaining in the job. Dortmund used to be one of the best teams in Europe, with geganpressing at the forefront of their identity. Not only are they back to being their underwhelming self, but they also aren’t even fun to watch anymore. 

 

 

8 Injury-Prone Players Having Excellent Seasons

Let’s look at 8 players who after having a difficult time with injuries, have bounced back this season. Injuries are that part of football that everyone does not want to see. When an player’s fitness and health are so important, the last thing you want to see is someone suffering an injury that will delay their potential in a career that could end in their thirties. Nothing is better to see than a player overcome massive injuries to finally reach that potential we all knew they had.

Sergio Canales

Canales is actually the inspiration for this list. The Spaniard was always seen as a promising player, with his performances all the way back in the 2009/10 season. He scored 6 and assisted 4 in 19 games. For a teenager it was very impressive. It earned him a move to Real Madrid, which saw him only play 293 minutes. Due to such limited minutes, he then went on loan to Valencia. While his minutes did increase to start, this is where the serious injuries back. He already suffered 2 minor injures in Madrid, both being ankle injuries, but nothing to worry about. He suffered a cruciate ligament rupture in October 2011, which resulted in him missing 37 games for Valencia. Things got even worse for Canales, with the midfielder then suffering the same injury a month after coming back, which resulted in him missing 189 days of football. Valencia actually signed the then 21 year old for a reported €8 million and on a 5 year deal. It was proof that they still believed in him. He only started 7 games the following season, which is understandable. He only returned from that second rupture at the start of November, and it takes time to get back to 100% when you suffer an injury that keeps you out for that long. In those brief appearances, he did manage 2 goals and 2 assists. His highlight at Valencia was arguably his performances in the Europa League in the 2012/13 season. Canales scored 2 in 5 starts, and was taking 3.6 shots a gamem the highest of his career. Canales was finally getting the minutes he deserved.

In January 2013, he moved to Real Sociedad, and continued to get the minutes, starting 13 games in the second half of that season. His 2014/15 was notable. It was the first time he started over 30 games domestically, and it was a sign that all those horrible injuries were behind him. Unfortunetly, that same ligament injury came back. In a 3-1 defeat to Madrid in late 2015, he tore ligaments in his left knee. What was most worrying about this was which knee was torn. The other injuries were all in his right knee, which made this injury even more worrying. He missed 266 days of football. While the following season was mostly a recovery process, of trying to get back into the groove of things, he did have a very good 2017/18 season. Like his time in Valencia, his highlight was the Europa League. He got 6 assists in as many starts, and was creating 4 chances a game. He had a very good season overall, but after difficult negotiations with the club over a new contract, he parted ways with Sociedad.

Canales then joined Betis on a free transfer. To say he is in the form of his career is an understatment. The Spaniard has started 21 games, scoring 6 and assisting 2. His numbers are all at the highest they’ve been in La Liga. He’s been taking 2.2 shots, creating 1.8 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. Canales was always seen as a very Spanish advanced midfielder, so technically gifting and showed great ability at a young age. He was one of Spain’s brightest prospects and is now finally showing why.

Marco Reus 

Marco Reus is another who was highly promising at a young age. he started life at Borussia Monchengladbach, where he shined under current Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre. He was just improving every year, and went from scoring 8 in 27 in the 2009/10 season, to scoring 18 and assisting a further 9 only 2 seasons later. He was arguably Germany’s most talented player at the time, and it seemed he would be a potential player of the year. After that stellar season for Monchengladbach, he signed for then champions Dortmund, where he had a great debut campaign, but it was his follow up season where it seemed he could possibly win the Balon d’Or. In the 2013/14 season, scored 16 and assisted 13 in only 30 appearances. He was seen as one of the best players in Europe, and the only way was up.

So when did the injuries start? Well after his supernova season, he started to pick up consistent injuries. He missed 19 games in the 2014/15 season, a season in which Dortmund massively struggled and missing their key player was the last thing they needed. While he did miss 10 games the following season, it ended on a massively sour note. Reus suffered Osteitis Pubis. It forced him to miss Euro 2016, a tournament which would have needed the flair and speed of Reus on that left side for Germany. After making his recovery the following season, it again ended on a huge negative. In the DFB Pokal final against Frankfurt, he suffered a ligament tear in his knee. It ended a campaign that was full of difficulties, and it forced him to miss 220 days. It didn’t see him return until January 2018. He ended the season very well, scoring 7 in 11 starts, and helping Dortmund qualify for the Champions League. He also finally played in the World Cup, even if Germany were really bad.

We now reach this season, where Reus is finally at his best. After perfoming mostly through the middle in the previous season, Favre decided to play him as more of a second striker, to make sure he gets more involved in play and allows the young wide talent they have to play and flourish. Reus has had his best season since that supernova 2013/14 season. With a side so young across all positions, having a player who has been at the club longer than most is so valuable. Reus has went from that young player to helping ones like Larssen, Sancho, Diallo and Hakimi. With Dortmund having a weird striker problem, Reus has been the goalscoring vocal point for the side. He’s scored 13 in 19, and is looking very good, considering the team he’s playing in. Favre famously just allows his attackers to express themselves. It’s different to how Tuchel and Klopp set up, which were to get the most out of the attackers, and to dominate games from the front. It means Reus is more efficient, but statistically, isn’t having his best season. His dribbling is very low, but since he’s more central, he doesn’t have to be beating men as often as he did as a winger. His shot numbers are still good, and is his chance creation. It’s what happens when you age. You shouldn’t be trying to push yourself as much. Players at Reus’s age are starting to fade, so need to play in a way which still allows them to flourish. While he never reached the potential we all knew he could, he has still became a top player, and needs to be credited massively for being able to come back and perform after such a difficult time.

Ilkay Gundogan

Onto another Borussia Dortmund player. Like Reus, Gundogan showed a lot of promise at a young age. He shined at Nuernberg, playing as a central midfielder is excelled in the final third of the pitch, being able to create and score. He scored 5 in 24 for his side, and helped Nuernberg finish 6th in the Bundesliga that season. He then signed for title winners Borussia Dortmund, clearly as a replacement for Nuri Sahin, who departed for Real Madrid. He was so good in their success of keeping hold of the title, that it was as if Sahin never left, but just got a lot faster. He was putting in 5.1 tackles and interceptions that season, and was even creating 1.5 chances a game. It showed he was a very well rounded midfielder, and it highlighted him as one of Europe’s future superstars.

So when did the injuries start? Well 2 seasons later, on the opening day of the 2013/14 season, Gundogan unfortunately suffered an awful back injury. It meant he was forced to miss more than a year of football, and like Reus, forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup, and watch his country win from the sidelines. When he signed for Manchester City in 2016, he told Sky Sports, “I was really scared, and I didn’t know if I was ever able to play football again.” Out of all the players on this list, his injury might be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Spinal injuries are much harder to perform surgery on, because of how vital they are in how your body moves and functions. It’s an experience I wouldn’t want any player to go through. After Dortmund deciding to offload the midfielder, he was sold to Manchester City. After starting 15 games in his debut season, including 6 starts in the Champions League, another injury faced Gundogan. In late 2016, Gundogan was forced off with a ligament tear in his knee, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.

After all these set backs, Gundogan is not the same player as he used to be, but that has not stopped him from contributing to one of the best sides in Europe. With Fernandinho and David Silva all aging, and Manchester City going far in so many competitions, it has given Gundogan a very important spuad role to fill. He is able to fill in every midfield position, and has scored 5 goals in 14 starts in the league, and has become a very important player to Pep. Let’s hope he doesn’t face another long term injury in his career.

Luke Shaw

While the other 3 players might be as discussed as they should be, a majority of football fans are aware of what happened to Luke Shaw. When he broke onto the scene under Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, he was seen as the future England left back, since Ashley Cole was finally aging out, it was time to be finally replaced. Young Shaw was actually in the team of the season in that 2013/14 season. he started 35 games that season, the most of his career. He was only 17 at this point, which shows why he was seen as the future. He was averaging 1.6 dribbles per 90, the only time he has averaged over a dribble in his career. He was also creating a chance a game and was also putting in 3.2 tackles and interceptions per 90, the highest in his career domestically. These weren’t just good numbers for a young player, but a player of any age. It’s what lead Manchester United to break the record for money spent on a teenager, and was hopefully going to be a mainstay in that United defence for more than 10 years. However his first season under Louis Van Gaal wasn’t great. As the likes of Depay, Varela, Januzaj and Blackett will all know, Van Gaal has a very dated approach to dealing with young players. There’s an element of if you don’t perform, you’re out. It’s an attitude that saw all players leave during or right after Van Gaal’s tenure. Luke Shaw struggled just like the others, but things were looking good for the young defender in his second season, which saw him start the first 9 games of the season, and look like he had rediscovered his form that earned him a move to Old Trafford.

Then that game against PSV Eindhoven took place. With only 15 minutes on the clock, Luke Shaw makes a bursting run into the box, and was taken out by Hector Moreno. The tackle was not a pretty one, and it resulted in the young England full back suffering a leg break. When Shaw is asked about this injury, he mentions how he nearly lost his leg if he didn’t have surgery. Just when you watch this injury back, you can just see how seriously hurt Shaw was by that tackle. It’s by far one of the worst injuries that I’ve ever seen and it was going to take a miracle for him to recover.

Shaw returned from injury by the beginning of next season, and he faced his biggest challenge on the pitch, being Jose Mourinho. The three time Champions League winner seemed to not like him in the slighest. It lead to Shaw only starting 9 games that season, during a time when Manchester United didn’t have any other real left back option. After Shaw came off the bench to help United salvage a point at home against Everton, Mourinho came out after the match saying “Shaw used his body with my brain” and was one of many moments where Mourinho seemed to show his dislike to the former Southampton player. Their relationship didn’t improve, with Shaw only starting 8 games the following season, and many United fans were starting to lose patience. He didn’t seem to want to get into the team and fight for his place, and a lifestyle that showed a player who wasn’t in the rush to get in better shape. He was one of many players United fans wanted to see leave the club last summer.

These opinions all changed after that first game of the season against Leicester. Shaw scored and put in a solid performance to boast. He was one of very few United players to not down tools when the results were getting bad. This even continued under Solsjkaer, who has kept him in the side. Shaw has started 23 games this season, more than he’s managed in the last 2 campaigns. I don’t think he has been excellent, but he’s at least playing. He’s looked great defensively, but just needs to contribute more going forward. He’s only completing 0.8 dribbles per 90, but has proved at Southampton that he can do much better. United finally have a left back with dynamism and future, something they’ve lacked since a young Patrice Evra. He will stay at the club for a long time if he keeps up this new positive attitude.

Santi Cazorla

Santi Cazorla has got to be one of the most technically gifted players the Premier League has ever seen. He was one reason why Arsenal’s chance creation was so good during Wenger’s latter years at the club, and ability to find space and pick out the right pass made him their best player that season. I hold the firm belief that if Arsenal did not sell Robin Van Persie that summer, they would have won the league in the 2012/13 season. City, Liverpool and Chelsea all underperformed, and Man United lacking Van Persie wouldn’t have touched that trophy. A lot of Arsenal’s players truly stept up that season, with Podolski, Walcott, Gibbs and Arteta all having their best seasons for the Gunners. Cazorla however was arguably the best player in the league that season. After losing Nasri, Arsenal needed a new creator, someone to help all of these talents score the goals to replace those lost by the departure of Van Persie, and Cazorla fitted that bill. Not only did he replace Nasri, but he made the entire side even better, and must go down as one of the best bits of business Arsenal have ever made in the Premier League era. If Bale didn’t go supernova that season, Cazorla would have won the player of the season. The Spaniard scored 12 and assisted 11, taking 3 shots a game, creating the most chances and completed 2.3 dribbles. He even put in 3.7 tackles and interceptions, putting in the perfect midfield performance. He played every game that season, proving just how vital he was for the Gunners.

This importance did slowly decline once Mesut Ozil arrived, who instantly became their best creator, but that didn’t stop Cazorla contributing. He was moved into wide areas of the pitch, to accomodate their new record signing. However Cazorla still remained effective, scoring 4 and assisting 8 for his side. He was less productive, but since he wasn’t the main focus of the side anymore, that is understandable. He was then moved into a deeper position in the 2014/15 season. Arsenal were suffering from a lot of injuries in midfield, with Ramsey, Flamini, Wilshere and Arteta all missing out in the season. It forced Wenger to recall Coquelin and start Cazorla as a defensive midfielder, and Cazorla still performed great. He massively helped Arsenal in transition and helped get the ball up the pitch much faster. Coquelin gave the Spaniard plenty of protection and concerntrate more on attacking. He lead the team in assists and was key in their FA Cup win.

So when did the injuries start, well Cazorla always had the occasional knock, but nothing like the ankle injury he would receive. He already had ankle damage before. It began all the way back in 2013, where he received damage on his ankle. Even after that injury, he still had a lot of pain in his ankle, but it reached its limit in October 2016, where the worst 2 years any player has experienced. Cazorla missed 618 days due to injury, and it was through multiple problems in his ankle, the worse being a bacterial infection that was eating away at his ankle bone. The injury was so bad, that doctors in London had no idea if he would be able to play again. Those doctors are to blame for a horrible end to a footballer’s career. This infection was there all the way back in 2013, yet they had no idea. Surely a club the size of Arsenal would have a medical team that would at least be able to spot and treat a problem that has halted a great career.

He has since left Arsenal to join boyhood club Villarreal, where he been excellent. He’s started 18 games in La Loga, scoring 4 and assisting 5, so let’s hope he can end his career on a high.

Danny Ings

The final Premier League player to be on this list. Danny Ings has had a potentially solid career delayed thanks to two awful knee injuries. Ings was a promising player during his time in Burnley. The forward was a big reason why they got promoted in the first place, he scored 21 goals in 40 games, which was the driving force for their promotion. He then had a pretty solid debut campaign, scoring 11 in 35 for a side who were destined to go down. his form earned him a move to Liverpool, who at the time just couldn’t make good business. With Ricky Lambert and Mario Balotelli leaving the club after not adding the goals Liverpool hoped, they decided to bring in Ings and Benteke. Both just weren’t good enough for the club. Underwhelming business like this was a reason why Rodgers was eventually sacked, and in came Jurgen Klopp. He seemed to not like Benteke in the slightest, who was eventually sold the following summer. Ings had a bigger problem however. After starting 3 games, he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury, which resulted in the forward missing the rest of the season. What made things worse for Ings was he suffered another knee injury the following season, only 3 months after recovering from his last injury. It forced him out for another season. After having minimal impact in the 17/18 season, he decided to depart the club.

I thought a loan move at the time would make more sense, just to show other clubs that he can play consistently over a season. He was a massive gamble no matter where he was going, but Southampton were the ones who ready to take that risk, signing the English forward for £16 million. Ings has been a hit in South England, getting 8 in his first 14 games. He was a favourite for Mark Hughes and now with Hassenhuttl. He is taking 2.5 shots and creating a chance a game, good numbers from a player in desperation to finish a season. He has truly bounced back after years of injuries.

Ondrej Duda

Arguably the most unknown on this list, Ondrej Duda is currently playing for Hertha Berlin, and is having the best season in his short career. The 24 year old signed for Hertha back in 2016, and had a very miserable 2 years in Germany. He arrived from Warsaw with Pantella problems and didn’t have an impact in the first season and struggled in his second season with confidence. Since he wasn’t playing, it made adjusting to life in a new country so much more difficult.

However this season he finally seemed to be reaching his potential. He’s scored 10 goals and assisted 2 in 21 starts. He’s won Hertha so many games this season. including a massive win over Schalke away from home. He scored 2 goals to beat last year’s runners up. While he is definitely riding hot (he is expected to be on roughly 4 goals), it is still nice to see a player contributing to his side after so much problems.

Max Gradel

And finally we have to talk about Max Gradel. The winger has had quite a tough time in recent years. His injuries began back in 2013, where near the end of the season, he suffered a cruciate ligament injury that kept him out for 6 months. He did improve and scored 17 goals in just 31 appearances (23 starts) and earned himself a chance to shine in England, signing for Bournemouth in 2016. He had a real tough time, suffering from another ligament injury, which kept him out for another 6 months. When a club is trying to stay up, they need players like Gradel, someone who is able to add an element of unpredictability to a side. He is arguably their most exciting signing since their promotion, and it’s a massive shame he just didn’t work out.

He has been absolutely fabulous for Toulouse. He arrived back in France in 2017, and has given them a fighting chance in surviving relegation. He has scored 10 and assisted 4 in Ligue 1, and is completing 2.4 dribbles and taking 3.4 shots, numbers similar to before he moved to England. He has finally found his form and it’s good to see him contributing massively again.

Conclusion

While the last few might seem rushed, it’s because they haven’t had the same long history as Canales and Reus have had. This was originally going to be 10, but because of this taking way too much time, it had to be cut. Hope you enjoyed regardless.

 

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group A

Europe’s elite competition is finally back, so let’s look at how it could shape up, group by group.

Atletico Madrid

After a great summer of signings, with Lemar, Arias, Rodri, Kalinic and more arriving to boost an already strong squad. Having already the best defense in Spain, and now adding the right attacking players to give them more flexibility going forward, it should now be their time to challenge for the league and Champions League right? Well not so far. They have already dropped 5 points out of a possible 9, with a defeat against Celta Viga, and a draw on the opening day against Valencia. The whole team just doesn’t look as sharp as it was at the end of last season. I have a feeling it could carry into the group stages. While eventually they will get their act together, they do not have long to do that however. Their first game of the Champions League is away against Monaco. And while both were incredibly disappointing last season, it will still be a hard game. While I think they will struggle. They will have the players to get out the group’s, so I’m going for a second place finish for Spanish side.

Borussia Dortmund

A side I have been complimenting and criticising. Dortmund go into this tournament with a new manager, and plenty of new signings. Last year, Dortmund started the season under Peter Bosz, they were awful in the champions league, losing both legs to Spurs and Real Madrid. They have a new manager in Lucien Favre. While he doesn’t play the best football, he does solidify the back, and let’s the forward line express themselves. While the signings of Alcacer, Akanji and Diallo are all excellent bits of business, and give upgrades to what they already have, but I labelled Witzel and Delaney as the worst signings of the entire window. I just do not like the additions at all and are spending a lot of money and short term players who are not that talented. However what I will give both of them is that they are disciplined players, and will help make those games where they have less of the ball more difficult for the opposition. A team with the attacking talent of Dortmund. With both Pulisic and Reus being some of the best around, and Sancho looking like the rest deal, it could give them the edge in a difficult group. They will top the group.

Club Brugge

I will not deny that I do not know much about Club Brugge, but after doing some research, I learnt that they won their league by more than 10 points, and went on an impressive 11 game winning run. There is no doubt that they deserve to be there, however there is still a clear difference between their competition. While Wesley and Danjuma have started well, with both contributing to 5 goals in 10 games, they will have to hope that these guys turn up against these very tough opponents. They lost Diaby to Lisbon, who clearly a huge loss with sporting putting a giant release clause on him. It will be a tough campaign for Brugge, so I do not see more than a 4th finish

Monaco

And last but not least, Monaco. The Ligue 1 runner ups have also not had the greatest of starts. They lost two of their midfielders, and lost one of their best creators in Lemar. However they have done well in improving the squad, with Golovin, Pele (not that one), Henrichs, Barreca and Geubbels all adding an already young squad. They have started the new season in pretty bad form, losing to Marseille and Bordeaux, and drawing to Lille. The main reason I’m putting them to finish third is the amount of players they have signed. They are not bad players in the slightest. However the squad is now at an average age of 23.7. That would have beaten Toulouse’s average age of 23.85, making them the youngest squad in Europe. It will be very unlikely to see them get out of the group, because it will be the first time many of these players participate in this competition. They will need the experience first.

Final Table

1. Borussia Dortmund

2. Atletico Madrid

3. Monaco

4. Club Brugge