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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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. 

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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. 

 

Every Champions League Club’s Most Important Player

The round of 16 is where the Champions League truly begins. With the predictable group stages finally over, let’s look ahead to all the teams left in the competition. The previews will be coming, but for now, let’s look at every team’s most outstanding player. These are the players who are irreplaceable in their sides, who will be relied upon to win these close ties. I will not be speaking about these players in the previews, to avoid repeating myself. 

Atletico Madrid: Alvaro Morata 

While this season, with all of the departures in the summer, can be argued as a transitional one, it’s still been very frustrating for Atletico. Their city rivals have been above average, but they’ve had chances to stay closer in the title race. While they’ve remained solid at the back, it’s in attack where, as usual, they’ve misfired. Yet, it’s hard to include any defender as their most important player, when Simeone is so reliant on his attackers to produce some magic. Saul Niguez does deserve mention for remaining as consistent as ever, but Morata is easily the player to be relied upon.

The former Chelsea striker has garnered a reputation for being a poor finisher, which is still valid. Morata has again missed a few big chances this season. Possible game-winners against Sevilla and Real Valladolid and a header against Granada would put him in double figures for goals. Morata has always missed the occasional sitter, but it shouldn’t deflect from his all-round game. He’s still taking the most shots per 90 for Atletico Madrid with 3.5, with 2.3 coming from inside the penalty area. He’s winning over 5 aerial duels per 90, reminding everyone how much of an aerial threat he still is, as well as creating 1.4 chances. Even in a very defensive team, these are great numbers. It becomes more significant when Joao Felix hasn’t hit the ground running, and Thomas Lemar still looks like the same shadow as last season.

Morata will need to be at his very best to beat the best team in Europe. Liverpool have been sensational over the last couple of years, especially in the knockout games. I can’t see Atletico creating many chances during both legs. Morata’s ability to do a bit of everything could help his team get the much-needed goals to advance, even if he won’t be putting the chances away.

Liverpool: Virgil Van Dijk

Embed from Getty Images

There were surprisingly a lot of candidates for Liverpool. Any of their superstar forwards, Alexander-Arnold’s elite chance creation and Allison ridiculous ability to make that defence even better than it already is. But the runner-up for the Balon d’Or is my choice. Philippe Coutinho’s sale and the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk must be considered one of the best deals in the history of the modern game. The Dutchman is fantastic in the air, an elite distributor and a constant goal threat. Not only has Van Dijk been individually unbelievable, but he simultaneously improved everyone around him. Joe Gomez looks like a future England starter alongside him, and Matip began earning heaps of praise for the first time in years. Not much needs to be said. While a lot of money has been spent on Van Dijk, he has definitely paid it back. Two European finals, one Champions League, the third-highest points tally in the history of the league and most likely a first title. His influence and ability will keep his side fighting until the very end. 

Borussia Dortmund: Jadon Sancho

Marco Reus is obviously a contender here, but Sancho has taken another leap in his rapid development. The England international has become Dortmund’s biggest threat in the final third and has been the driving for some of their most significant results this season. Sancho made the difference in their massive comeback against Paderborn and scored and assisted in their 3-3 draw to RB Leipzig. He’s contributed to a goal in all of his past 7 games. Sancho finished the Hinrunde with 9 goals and 9 assists, more goal involvements than Reus and Thorgan Hazard. Sancho has overperformed his xG, but that’s been Dortmund’s story under Favre. The former Manchester City attacker has stood out among other elite attackers. Julian Brandt has been fantastic whenever he’s played, and Thorgan Hazard has, creatively, been one of the best players in Germany. Sancho’s speed, dribbling and chance creation will cause a lot of problems for PSG, especially considering their defensively poor full-backs. I can’t see Sancho remaining in Germany past the summer, meaning this could be his last chance to drag Dortmund over the line.

PSG: Marco Verratti

In a team containing talented players like Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, why have I chosen Verratti? I’ve already expressed my love for the Italian, and even with midfield reinforcements arriving in the summer, he has remained a vital piece in Tuchel’s team. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in the world at pretty much everything that matters. Similar to Thiago Alcantara, Verratti is a fantastic progressor of the ball, either through his incredible ability to pick out one of his teammates in difficult positions or his tireless work rate. Here’s statsbomb’s player radar of Verratti’s 18/19 season, and it’s insane:

Verratti radar.png

Verratti might go down as one of the most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. The popular opinion of Ligue 1 being the weakest league out of the top five, as well as PSG’s dominance, has made it difficult for people to take many of their stars seriously. But it’s not only in France where Verratti has shown his excellence. Time and time again, Verratti has demonstrated the best teams in Europe just how good he is. In their famous 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona back in 2017, Verratti was instrumental in nullifying Rakitic, Gomes and Busquets. Even against (at the time) Solsjkaer’s high-flying Manchester United, Verratti dominated the game at Old Trafford, unbeatable on the ball while being a huge reason why PSG were able to transition so quickly against the Red Devils. I’ll most likely discuss Paris’ attackers during the preview. Still, there’s no debating that Verratti will be instrumental if PSG wishes to dominate the game against a tough and robust Dortmund midfield. 

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic

Papau Gomez is usually the choice for Atalanta’s most important player. And while their captain will need to bring his usual brilliance, it’s hard to argue with just how good Ilicic has been for Italy’s best attacking side. Alongside Zapata or Muriel, Ilicic has involvement in everything Atalanta do in the final third. The Slovenian’s dominates Atalanta’s shots, dribble and shot-assist numbers. In fact, it’s only in shot-assists where Ilicic isn’t top (Gomez averages 3 while Ilicic averages 2.8). The former Fiorentina forward is averaging 4.9 shots per 90, putting him on the Messi and Ronaldo level we wish every forward could reach. His xGChain (the total xG of every possession a player is involved in) is the highest in Serie A, with 14.05 (this is only counting players who’ve played over 700 minutes).

Do I think Atalanta will progress beyond Valencia? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. Atalanta under Gasperini have been so much fun in creating an elite attack, and Ilicic is arguably the crown jewel. His incredible offensive ability, as well as his creativity, could be a massive factor in taken Atalanta to the next stage in their first campaign in the Champions League.

Valencia: Dani Parejo

Not even a competition for this. Dani Parejo is another who’s massively underrated. In a league that’s been dominated by the likes of Modric, Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic and Kroos throughout the decade, Parejo should definitely be considered among those fantastic players. The Spaniard has been so consistent for a team that has continuously changed personnel, whether players or coach. Parejo has been a consistent goal scorer and supplier. Since 15/16, Valencia’s skipper has contributed to at least 10 goals. A lot of goals either come from the penalty spot or free-kicks, but that’s a skill by itself. He’s actually scored 13 free kicks for Valencia, a frankly ridiculous amount for any player. 

Parejo’s biggest strength in assisting his side is by far his leadership. After their poor start to the 18/19 season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Parejo had a massive say in waking his teammates up from their misfortune and pushing them on to finish in the Champions League spots. Even if Atalanta manage to get a first-leg lead, Parejo will do all in his power to turn the tie to Valencia’s favour. 

Tottenham Hotspur: Heung-Min Son

Throughout Tottenham’s run to the final last season, Son was their key man, since Kane (as usual) missed key matches in their memorable campaign. While Lucas Moura did score that incredible hat-trick to sink a young Ajax team, they wouldn’t have reached that point without Son’s goals in the round of sixteen and the quarter-finals. During their first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored the second goal at Wembley, giving them a massive advantage over the Bundesliga side. His performances during their two-legged affair against champions Manchester City were by far the highlight of his season. The South Korean international scored the only goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring that Manchester City were left fighting during their second leg. Son went on to leave his opponents in an awkward position, scoring two goals at the Etihad. 

Embed from Getty Images

With Harry Kane out until April and Ndombele struggling to put together a consistent run of games, it’s tough to argue with Heung-Min Son’s importance to the Tottenham team. Son offers something that none of his teammates can currently offer a consistent goal threat. I much prefer him starting as a winger, because Kane regularly drops deep, Son feels like the only focal point for the team. His pace and ability on the counter-attack make him a threat to every team in Europe.

RB Leipzig: Timo Werner

Julien Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the next level, adding that needed improvement in possession. This allows them to stay competitive against all kinds of opposition, whether big or small. While players like Sabitzer, Nkunku and Mukiele deserve credit for the leaps, they’ve taken in their development. It’s hard to argue with just how good Timo Werner has been this season. The German international is easily the most inform striker in the league. His massive goal tally of 20 is difficult to match across Europe. Not only has his goals gone up, but his creativity is frankly ridiculous. Werner is fifth in the Bundesliga for assists with 6. Not only that, but his xA per 90 is currently at 0.37. Werner has a higher expected assists per 90 than the likes of Filip Kostic, Marcus Thuram and Jadon Sancho. Werner is flourishing in every way under his new coach, and easily the player Tottenham will be looking at stopping.

Chelsea: Matteo Kovacic 

Chelsea were easily the hardest choice here. Abraham, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Kante were all considered, but Matteo Kovacic had to be here. The former Real Madrid midfielder has always been an enormous talent but struggled at his former club. Since signing for Chelsea however, he seems to be finally turning into that world-beater. When playing alongside Jorginho and Kante in a midfield three, it allows Kovacic to focus primarily on his best quality: ball progression. Kovacic has consistently averaged over 10 deep progressions per 90. There aren’t many better players in England who can transition the ball through each zone. It’s arguably been the most significant improvement under Lampard. While they have been somewhat naive defensively, they’ve been better to watch, and the midfield isn’t so static. Kovacic is completing over 3 dribbles per 90 in the Champions League. His defensive work has fallen off a cliff when in Europe, but that’s primarily down to having Kante, as well as Jorginho to do the defensive work. Kovacic will be a player that Bayern Munich have to limit. His ability to quickly move the ball into the opponent’s third is difficult to stop and could be a deciding factor in this huge tie. 

Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski

Whether Bayern are good or bad, there is one player you can always count on, and that’s their superstar striker Robert Lewandowski. Poland’s all-time top goalscorer has been running insanely hot all season. He went on a run of scoring in 15 consecutive games. He ended the Hinrunde with 29 goals in all competitions, more than many talented players manage in a whole season. Not only is his form in the Bundesliga fantastic, but he has brought it into Europe. Lewandowski is currently the top goal scorer in the competition, scoring 10 in 5. His finishes against Tottenham in their 7-2 demolition were outstanding. His first goal saw the former Dortmund star quickly turn his body and hit the ball right between the defenders, making it impossible for Lloris to stop the shot.

Embed from Getty Images

Not only does Lewandowski continually put the ball in the back of the net, but he does so much for his team. I highly doubt Serge Gnabry would have reached 10 goals if it wasn’t for Lewandowski either intelligently dragging defenders away from him, or creating the goals himself. He is a perfect modern number nine but will need to bring his group stage form in the games where it truly matters. 

Napoli: Fabian Ruiz

While Milan and Sampdoria falling down the table is the story of Serie A, it’s Napoli’s drop off which has been the most astounding. Last season’s runners up have looked a shadow of the team they were under Sarri. It was difficult to choose a player here. Not because of a wealth of options, but a lack of them. Key and reliable players like Allan, Callejon, Koulibaly and Insigne have all dropped off massively. The only player that has stood out is former Betis midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has still remained at a high level, even with all of the issues on and off the field. 

The Spaniard is a midfielder who can do a bit of everything. He arrived last season as a number ten or an advanced eight but primarily played in a double pivot under Ancelotti. Ruiz wasn’t necessarily bad there; however, he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Ruiz is an excellent progressor of the ball, continually getting involved during buildup through his passing. The 23-year-old’s xGChain sits at 11.51, higher than anyone else for Napoli. His best strength is comfortably his dribbling, consistently averaging over a 65% dribble success rate. He’s technically excellent and could have a massive say in their tie against Barcelona, who themselves have plenty of midfielders who can dominate a game. 

Barcelona: Lionel Messi 

Nothing needs to be said. The best player to ever grace the game is going to be his team’s most important player.

Lyon: Moussa Dembele

Lyon are having an awful season, on and off the pitch. Sylvinho arrived as the new head coach, with Juninho has the new sporting director, in an attempt to push Lyon to the next level. Unfortunately, this has not worked out so far. Juninho was sacked after only winning three games in eleven. Rudi Garcia was shockingly appointing, which didn’t go down well with the fans, considering he was managing Marseille as recently as last season. When you pair that with Marcelo’s feud with some of the Lyon ultras, this season was over before it even started. 

With Depay tearing his ACL, meaning the Dutchman will miss the Euros, Moussa Dembele seems like the apparent player who could turn the tie for Lyon. Dembele has dropped off slightly from last season but remains a considerable threat. He’s Lyon’s top scorer in Ligue 1 with 11 goals. He’s excellent physically, able to beat players in the air or with his speed. His finishing has always impressed, consistently putting away more difficult chances. The only worry for Dembele is whether he can actually score in the Champions League, something he’s yet to do. Lyon’s sudden nose dive from the top of Ligue 1 has been staggering, and it puts their chances of progressing rather unlikely. They’ll have to hope Dembele can start putting in the performances that made him stand out last season.

Juventus: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions have been slightly worse under Sarri, including Ronaldo. While his form has improved in recent weeks, he’s finally started to look like a 34-year-old. His shot numbers are still on that elite level they’ve been since the start of the decade, but he has begun to look slow, with his start to the season, yet again, underwhelming. Still, Ronaldo is one of the best forwards around, with his knack for the big stage a massive factor when discussing Juventus. His hat trick against Atletico Madrid in last year’s round of sixteen perfectly showcased how Ronaldo can carry a team through the toughest of circumstances. The competition’s all-time top scorer is still the best headerer of the ball in the world and loves a score a spectacular goal. The success of Ronaldo’s transfer to the old lady rests on these big moments. He was brought in for a lot of money (too much), and if he doesn’t win the Champions League, this move will be seen as a failure.

Real Madrid: Karim Benzema

Embed from Getty Images

Moving onto Ronaldo’s former club, who are finally starting to look just as good as they were when the Portuguese superstar was playing in the famous Los Blancos shirt. Even with Madrid looking solid in defence and their young players starting to flourish, it’s Karim Benzema who has remained at the same high level as he has throughout the last decade. Casemiro does deserve a lot of credit for keeping that midfield together, but Benzema has helped keep Madrid in the title race. He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season with 12 and assisting the most with 5. What’s impressed me the most about Benzema is how he’s returned to being more of a goalscorer. His insanely impressive 2 key passes per 90 do show how he is still a great all-rounder in terms of goals and creativity, but his involvement in buildup play has started to decline. This is actually a good thing. Benzema is now 32 and in a team full of future superstars. He is giving these players that reliable, experienced player up front, who will put the ball away when given a chance. Luka Jovic struggling for games is a testament to Benzema’s importance. It wouldn’t surprise to see him play a vital role against the Premier League Champions. 

Manchester City: Aymeric Laporte 

Kevin De Bruyne might be the obvious answer considering how unbeatable he has been this season. However, if Manchester City can reach 98 points with their Belgian playmaker missing most of the season, then he can’t be as vital as Aymeric Laporte. The former Athletic Bilbao defender has seen his importance grow over the last few months. After picking up a severe knee injury in September. It left Pep with a stagnant John Stones and an ageing Nicolas Otamendi as his only recognised centre-backs. While City have been really bad at the back throughout the season, losing a composed, intelligent and dominant defender in Laporte, did make things a lot harder. I have no idea if Laporte will be ready for their colossal tie with Real Madrid. Pep, as well 

The 5 Most Inform Midfielders in Europe

I attempt to make it no secrets that midfielders are my favourite type of players. It’s arguably the hardest position to play since midfielders usually go through different trends. From aggressive destroyers like Roy Keane or Patrick Viera to less physical pass masters in Xavi and Toni Kroos. It’s what makes the very best midfielders today so fantastic because you need to have a varied and balanced skillset to play for the best teams around. It’s why guys like Thiago Alcantara, Marco Verratti, Luka Modric, Fernandinho and Paul Pogba have been so good for the past 5 years. They can do a bit of everything; create, dribble, keep possession and do a lot off the ball. Yet, none of these players feature here, because we’ll be looking at one midfielder from each of the top five leagues who have been excellent and deserve heaps of praise.

Idrissa Gueye

The former Lille midfielder has changed my views on what players over the age of 30 can do. I’ve always thought investing a lot of money in older players is a bad idea, especially if there is someone younger available, but Gueye is different. I’ve always seen Gueye as a great destroyer. He was consistently putting up massive tackles and interception numbers throughout his time in the Premier League, being the reason why Everton’s midfield at least remained solid. In his last season at Goodison, Gueye was partnered with Andre Gomes, who I’ve never been a fan of. However, with Gomes being partnered with someone who can do most of the defensive actions, it allowed the Portuguese midfielder to focus on ball progression. This helped further create this image of Gueye simply being a destroyer, letting other players do all the ball progression. He was the sole reason why Gomes had a decent season in England. Gueye was fantastic for Everton but made it clear in January that he wanted to leave, with PSG heavily interested. This was his last chance to play for a Champions League club, a club which had a massive hole in midfield after Rabiot’s departure.

He has spectacularly filled that hole and showed the complete player that Gueye seemed to be. In a more dominant team, it meant Gueye would have to be more involved in possession and build-up play. The Senegalese midfielder was replacing Adrien Rabiot, one of the best midfielders in Europe, which meant he had to show he was good enough to play at this level. Gueye has had massive help from being partnered with Marco Verratti, the perfect modern midfielder, meaning Gueye was free to not only do his regular defensive work but even progress the ball.

Embed from Getty Images

Gueye has not only continued with his high defensive output but added quality in possession and the ability to move the ball through the midfield which I never knew he had. I’ve watched PSG a handful of times this season, but it was their dominant performance against Real Madrid that really stood out. Gueye was one of many players to impress me that night. Playing against a team that did possess the best midfield three in Europe, Gueye completely outclassed them and had his best performance in a PSG shirt as of yet. He made 7 tackles and interceptions, more than anyone else on the pitch, created 3 chances, completed 2 dribbles and was third in the team for passes completed with 74 (Verratti managed a ridiculous 97). He was one of the reasons why Real Madrid couldn’t get a foot into the game, and Gueye just looked incredibly comfortable. Gueye arrived to add some steel to a midfield that was consistently being beaten in the round of 16, with their loss to Manchester United back in March the most embarrassing. Gueye has definitely added that. He still has a high work rate, continually putting pressure on opposition midfielders and being just as good defensively as we all expect from him at this point. He has been as good as any of the elite midfielders in Europe. His form has actually frustrated me slightly, because it feels like he was utterly wasted at Everton, only doing defensive work when he could have contributed with so much more.

Joshua Kimmich

Benjamin Pavard was a sensible signing for Bayern, and it was assumed he would be filling in at centre-back as he had done for Stuttgart, but has in fact been playing at right-back. This isn’t to say Pavard has been fantastic, but his move to right-back has allowed Joshua Kimmich to move back into midfield. Kimmich is an absolutely sensational attacking player, and even at right-back, has been Bayern’s best creator for years. His passing is by far his best quality, consistently able to pick out either Lewandowski or speedy wingers Gnabry and Coman. His move to midfield has not only given him more freedom to find more players but has fixed probably his biggest weakness. Kimmich isn’t as athletic as other right-backs in the Bundesliga, which meant he could be exposed rather easily if he was caught too far up the pitch. Now in the base of midfield and partnered with another perfect midfielder in Thiago Alcantara, it has given him the freedom to not only push forward and continue creating for his teammates, but it keeps Bayern much stronger defensively. Kimmich is more than just a creator. The Germany international is more than only an elite creator, but like his Spanish teammate, has this ability to avoid pressure with ease. Kimmich is a quick decision-maker, is always aware of his surroundings and is difficult to dispossess.

We saw this against RB Leipzig. This was a tough test for Bayern, facing an opposition with a superior coach and players to match their dominant team. But thanks to Kovac getting his tactics right and making the most out of his midfield, Bayern looked very comfortable, with Kimmich being a big part of that. Leipzig attempted to press him, but he easily avoided pressure and continued to transition the ball into the forwards with ease. This was the game that not only cemented Kimmich as a midfielder but as one of the best players in Europe. It’s strange even to imagine he once played as a full-back, with how comfortable he has looked in the middle of the park. Benjamin Pavard is now probably the best signing of the summer, for allowing Kimmich to play in his favoured position.

Kevin De Bruyne

Manchester City might be quite fragile at the moment, but their attack is arguably better than it’s ever been. All of their attacking players are in fabulous form, and while it has come at the cost of keeping a line that is far too high considering they now lack Fernandinho in midfield, it has made them even better in the final third and gotten the best out of Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian had an injury-struck 18/19 season, featuring very little in another insane Manchester City season. He is now back and looking just as good as in their first title win under Pep. The team seems built around him, with De Bruyne’s accurate crosses City’s leading outlet for creating chances. The Champions usually start their attacks down the left, with De Bruyne drifting to the right. The ball will then be switched from left to right, looking to give the ball to the right-winger (usually Mahrez or Bernardo Silva) and playing a cut back to De Bruyne, who will then aim his crosses for the back post, where David Silva, Aguero, Sterling or Jesus will be there to tap it in. This kind of attack can only work with the best creative midfielder in the world, and luckily for City, they have him. Only Ashley Young has been putting in more accurate crosses per 90 minutes than De Bruyne’s 2.6, putting him ahead of Pascal Gros and James Maddison. The former Chelsea midfielder’s xA is currently at 0.83. If looking at players to rack up over 500 minutes, he leads the league far too comfortably, with Alexander-Arnold second for xA per 90 with 0.41. De Bruyne has been absolutely sensational, and it is no surprise to see him rack up 8 assists already. Part of me thinks he shouldn’t be included here mainly down to the Belgian primarily acting as a number 10 instead of an 8, but it’s hard to ignore one of the best players in Europe in the form of their lives.

Embed from Getty Images

Marcelo Brozović

It seems like the common perception of Inter for years was how they were a one-man team, heavily reliant on Mauro Icardi to win games for them. This is true to an extent, mainly due to the team being built around creating chances for him, but after Spaletti arrived, Marcelo Brozović quickly became Inter’s most valuable player. Over the last 3 years, Brozović has become not only the best defensive midfielder in Italy but arguably in Europe. The Croatian’s skill set is varied, including a fantastic range of passing, the ability to control a game, elite decision making while doing a majority of the team’s defensive work. When Conte arrived, Brozović was the only player in that midfield that was simply undroppable. He kept Inter ticking in possession when the players he was partnered with were either inconsistent or average. Brozović, now under Antonio Conte, is even more irreplaceable than before. He fills that regista role perfectly. During build-up play, Brozović will continuously receive the ball, to either relieve pressure off his teammates through quick passes or play a long, diagonal ball into one of the wing-backs. Conte’s Inter primarily attack through their wing-backs, so having a player who can pick them out with so much ease makes it so easy for the attackers to push and create. His long balls are an essential part of his game, completing 8.6 long balls per game, ahead of every goalkeeper in Serie A.

There is more to Brozović than his importance in the build-up, with the 2018 World Cup finalist sniffing out and stopping danger through a well-timed challenge or a foul. Brozovic is similar to Fernandinho to using any means necessary to protect the back-line. Throughout his time in Milan, he has picked up 44 yellow cards, an astonishing amount for any player. This isn’t even a bad thing, and it shows how he will resort to the dirtier side of the game to ensure Inter win. After two fantastic seasons under Spaletti, it’s hard not to include him in the conversation for the best midfielder in Europe. Now under another manager, Brozović has proved his worth again, allowing Sensi and Barella more freedom and has so far played every minute of every game this season. He could be the reason why Inter could finally break Juventus’ Serie A dominance.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa

If it isn’t apparent by now, Most predictions I make usually don’t pan out. Whether it’s Witsel being a massive flop or Ronaldo being a good signing. I typically predict the wrong outcome. In this case, I was spot on. Zambo Anguissa is a player I’ve been obsessed with for the longest time. During the summer of 2018, I saw the then Marseille midfielder as a perfect option for Arsenal before they signed Lucas Torreira, but suddenly Anguissa signs for another London club, and not Chelsea or Spurs, but newly-promoted Fulham. It was a great signing in terms of adding an outstanding defensive midfielder, able to win the ball back while progressing it well through the centre of the park. However, like all of Fulham’s signing’s that summer, it just seemed not to work out. It wasn’t to say Anguissa was terrible. His numbers were nearly identical to those during his time in France, but the team, in general, was so unbalanced and cobbled together that it made it difficult for many of the new signings to adjust. The other problem Anguissa had was the lack of quality in front of him. While Mitrovic did have a strong start to the season and Babel did well for the six months he was there, there wasn’t an elite creator similar to Payet in front of him. It meant there was more pressure on him to add that creativity to his game, something he has never done throughout his career. Anguissa works best when focusing primarily on ball recoveries and progression, giving the ball to talented attackers in front of him.

Embed from Getty Images

Luckily for Anguissa, he has that at Villarreal. Going into the season, the yellow submarine had Vincente Iborra and one of my favourite players of all time, Santi Cazorla as their starting midfielders, Both were over 30 while they clearly offered experience and mix of the old-school Spanish style and the style that won Spain the World Cup, they needed a younger, more mobile player alongside them. Anguissa fitted this mould perfectly, while still being comfortable in possession. As mentioned, Anguissa wasn’t bad at Fulham, with his national team’s staff not spotting any regression in his overall quality, making him a sensible loan signing for Villarreal. Anguissa has fitted seamlessly into their midfield, complimenting Iborra and Cazorla so well, while allowing his own skills to blossom. Both him and Iborra put in a lot of defensive work, but Anguissa offers that extra strength and mobility when moving the ball into the final third, with no other player for the yellow submarine completing more than Anguissa’s 2.9 dribbles per 90. With Cazorla ahead of him, Anguissa has a player who can shoulder the creative responsibilities, something the former Arsenal midfielder still excels at, even after a terrible ankle injury and now being 34. The 23-year-old is a tremendous defensive midfield talent, and when placed into a side where he only has to play to his strengths, he can become a valuable member to any team. Let’s hope he continues to succeed in Spain, so he can go back to playing at the level to show off his talents.

Will Solskjaer Get the Job FULL TIME? Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League Preview

By far one of the clashes of the tournament. The french champions go against a high flying Man United side. It’s a tie that could go either way and it’s very difficult to even predict this, but I’ll try my best.

Let’s start with Manchester United, who three months ago, would have made this fixture so easy to predict. Under Mourinho, this side were absolutely awful.There was no clear future and seemed to change how the team set up in every game. In the end, why even blame the players when the manager was doing so much wrong. Now under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they look like a completely different team. They attack much faster and take advantage of the incredibly talented attackers they have. Who knew that playing Martial and Pogba, two of the most talented players in the team, would help win games? Since the Norwegian has taken over, United have closed an 11 point gap, to overtaking Arsenal and only a win away from top 4. They are unbeaten and even beat Asenal and Tottenham in the process. Even looking at xG, only the Tottenham game can be seen as a game where United rode their luck, but you can do that when you have one of the best keepers the game has ever seen. I think what’s most impressive about Solskjaer so far is just how quickly he identified the problems. He brought Herrera back into the team and made Martial and Rashford key players in what he was trying to do. This is the best United have been playing since Sir Alex retired, and is arguably the most likeable United have ever been.

Their key player for this fixture is not even a debate, and that is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s form has been next level in recent months. He has more goal contributions than any other Manchester United player, and is performing at the level we all knew he could reach. Pogba has always been incredible for United, but now he’s adding those goals and assists that all of his critics have been craving. His numbers have been absolutely sensational this season. He’s taking 3.5 shots a game, making 1.6 key passes and completing 1.9 dribbles. No other United player ranks higher in these departments. He is essentially carrying the attack and he seems to be loving it. He is especially good when it comes to counter attacks. It’s an approach that the team have been using in the tougher games, and thanks to Pogba’s strength and vision, it’s working. While Pogba as been the best player, Marcus Rashford isn’t far behind. The forward was one of few players who showed a lot of fight even when Mourinho was at the helm. He has been the first choice number 9, since Lukaku just doesn’t look up to it in this system. Rashford’s speed and ability to interchange with the other forwards making an unpredictable threat. His shot numbers since Solskjaer took over have gone to Harry Kane numbers. He’s averaging 5 shots a game, and is really looking like a player I never thought he would be. It’s great to finally see the 21 year old look like a player who truly is deserving of starting for the club.

Let’s look at Paris, who while having a record breaking start to the season, amassing 14 wins in a row, seems to be surrounded by off the pitch problems. The first seems to be Thomas Tuchel’s transfer demands. The former Borussia Dortmund coach seems to have this reputation of having high demands. He fell out with the Borussia Dortmund board because of the issues he was having regarding transfers, and it seems to have continued him into the French capital. Before the season started, Tuchel made it very clear that full backs he had were in his view, not good enough. With Thiago Motta retiring, it left Paris without their best defensive midfielder. What made things even worse was Rabiot’s contract situation. He was refusing to sign a new deal, because he wanted to play for Barcelona. The board did not like this, so Tuchel is now not allowed to play him at all. The problem is none of these issues have been resolved, and it has left Tuchel very frustrated. Juan Bernat was the only full back that was signed in the summer, and only last month the club decided to replace Motta, with Leandro Parades, a player who I really like. The problem is it should have never been left this late. They are still a midfielder short, and with their failed attempt to bring in Idrissa Gueye from Everton, it has left Tuchel wondering if his club really want to win the Champions League. Their performances in the league have been amazing, but you expect that. When you some of the best attackers in Europe playing in the worst out of the top 5 leagues, of course they are going to perform exceptionally. If you just focus on their performances in Europe, there is a significant difference. That is going to happen when playing better opposition, but it’s staggering how much of a difference there is. Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria have stayed consistent, but the likes of Bernat, Cavani, Kimpembe and Marquinhos all look worse. It does address a problem this side have. Many of their players just aren’t elite. They have these high ambitions of winning the Champions League, but you look at the other top teams, like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City, they have talent in every area of the side. Paris’s full backs aren’t good enough, and have a lot of players starting to age out. It isn’t their fault entirely. They play in a league where attracting talent can be difficult, but it begs the question why not focus on their domestic league? Ligue 1 is not as competitive as other leagues, but you can go into every single team and you would be able find one talent that is stand out. Sangare, Thuram, Pepe, Thauvin, Aouar, Atal, Lala. My point is they should be smarter regarding bringing in talent. It has hurt Bayern to an extent, but Juventus and Lyon have all excelled when finding domestic talent. They are the only top club in Paris, so why do they not use that pull to bring the best talent in the country?

Anyways, lets look the players that Manchester United should truly be worried about. There is no other place to start than arguably the best young talent in the history, Kylian Mbappe. The World Cup winner has actually taken his game to a whole new level this season. With Neymar mssing both fixtures thanks to another injury, the pressure is on the young forward to step up on the big stage. While Neymar was comfortably their best player in the group stages, Mbappe was still amazing. He started all 6 games, and finished the group stages with 7 goal contributions, the same as his Brazilian teammate. No other player in this side was taken more than his 3.1 shots per 90. He was thir most lethal player in the box. With Neymar dropping incredibly deep in some games, it left Mbappe as one of the most advanced players. He was also creating 2.3 chances a game, and even completing 2.5 dribbles a game. He will be a massive handful for which ever defenders are selected for the game.

With Neymar out, there was also concern that Marco Verratti would also mix the tie. Thanfully for Paris, he will be available for this game. Verratti has been the best midfielder in France and one of the best in Europe. He has been in the Ligue 1 team of the season every year for the past 4 years (Don’t quote me on that). Even after initial problems with Tuchel, with the German claiming Verratti was overweight, he is back to his best this season. In the Champions League, he was averaging 85 passes a game. No other player in the squad was making more than the Italian international. He also had the highest pass accuracy than any outfield player to start more than 1 game. He was winning the ball back more than any other Paris player, with Verratti making 4 tackles a game, twice more than anyone else. He is the reason why the French champion’s midfield is even functional. His distribution and ball winning ability make him essential in linking the defense and the attack together. Without him, they look so much slower and have less of that drive in the midfield. He is a vital player to PSG.

If Manchester United want to progress to the next round, there is one thing they must do. Play on the counter attack, in a similar fashion to how they did against Arsenal. They play full backs that love to go forward, but don’t have the speed to get back if United move the ball. Rashford, Martial and Lingard have to start this game. If Rashford and Martial split wide, it will make life very difficult for their defense. A lot also rests on Paul Pogba. Their midfield isn’t the strongest. If the Frenchman can use his incredible athletic ability and passing range to find the forwards, it’ll mak United very difficult to deal with. They are missing their best player, so it’s vital that they take advantage of that.

If Paris wish to advance to the quarter finals, they must attack more centrally. While Herrera and Matic have both been good under Solkjaer, Herrera has this habit of going out of position to recover the ball, and Matic is also very slow. You expect intelligent passers like Verratti and Parades to find the holes to get through the wall. It also helps that United’s defense has this habit of making mistakes. Mbappe and Cavani have to make sure whoever is playing with Lindelof is the one receiving the ball. Lindelof is the only one with the confidence to try and break out of the line. If you limit United to goal kicks and long balls into the channels, it makes dealing with their attack much easier. While they have improved, there is definitely still a Mourinho-sized shadow looming over some of these players.

This tie is so hard to predict. Paris can beat anyone on their day, but their inability to deal with sides with good wingers makes them quite easy to beat. Liverpool and Napoli proved that beating this side is not difficult. United have proved that they know how to deal with tough away games and come back with the 3 points, as seen by their wins in North London, but Europe is an entirely different stage. I think I’ll go for a United win. Tuchel still hasn’t got this side as good as it should be, and with their midfield looking worse than the Red Devil’s, it is just the perfect time to play them.