The Next Mbappe? UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group E

Red Bull Salzburg 

Let’s start in Austria, where Salzburg are back in the Champions League, after being stuck in the Europa League for the last 5 years. The Bundesliga champions have been one of the most exciting sides during the past decade, with their focus on hiring innovative, young coaches to guide their usual crop of young talent. Adi Hutter, Roger Schmidt and Marco Rose all moved to a bigger league, and it shows just how good of an eye Salzburg have for spotting elite coaches. 

Salzburg’s team under Rose was uniquely entertaining. The German tactician formed a side which was aggressive, forward-thinking and very flexible. Full-backs bombing forward, midfielders overloading the centre, strikers splitting wide, it was a side that was genuinely unpredictable in how they attacked. They reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2017/18 and went unbeaten in the group stages in the following season, a group containing RB Leipzig and Celtic. Their quality of manager and talent allowed them to perform far better than expected and helped highlight the young talent playing in some of the weaker leagues across Europe. 

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By far their biggest threat is young superstar forward Erling Haaland. The 19-year-old has recently had the spotlight shining brightly onto him after breaking the record for most goals in a U20 World Cup game, scoring nine against Honduras (yes, nine). In 2018, Dortmund, Juventus and Manchester United were all showing massive interest in the striker, but Haaland chose to join Salzburg, a sensible move if one is searching for guaranteed first-team minutes. He didn’t play much in his first season, with the Austrian club preferring to let him settle first before throwing him into the deep end, but now with Dabbur gone, Haaland looks ready to tear Europe apart. While I haven’t had a chance to watch Haaland, a look at his numbers and goals show a player who could become one of the world’s best. If I had to compare him to any great forward in terms of skillset, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sebastien Haller is the first to come to mind. As the pair, Haaland is absolutely massive, being 6.2 while having the muscle of someone much older. His size and strength are reasons why he’s been able to start regularly at such a young age, but there is more to him than just physicality. Haaland is a fantastic dribbler, as well as being a very creative forward. For Salzburg this season, the Norwegian has been completing over 2 dribbles per 90, and his xA is currently around 0.30, more than Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah. He’s a clinical finisher who could similarly break onto the scene to Mbappe even if he might struggle in this group. Just remember Erling Haaland, because he is a potential superstar.

Do I think Salzburg have a chance to reach the round of 16? Not likely, but they could still cause a few surprises. Napoli look surprisingly vulnerable in Serie A, and Liverpool failed to win an away game in their group last season. While they aren’t one of the favourites to finish in the top two spots, they are likely to return to the Europa League once again. 

KRC Genk 

Genk play in the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12, when Kevin De Bruyne was still playing for the club. The group stages have come at the wrong time for Genk. After winning the league last season, they lost some of their best players. Alejandro Pozuelo left in January to join Toronto for £8 million, while Leandro Toussard departed the club in the summer, joining Brighton for £18 million. The pair were essential members of the team, especially Toussard, who was fantastic for Genk last season. Their departures have coincided with a poor start to the season, with De Smurfen sitting in 9th.

While the losses of two of their most important players were problematic, their replacements haven’t settled as of yet. Theo Bongonda, formerly of Celta Vigo, arrived from Zulte Waregem for £6.30 million. He was pretty bad when the 23-year-old was playing in Spain, only managing 4 goal contributions in his final season. He has since found form but hasn’t made an impression at his new club yet. 

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If Genk want to finish in the top two, they’ll have to hope Samatta can bring his form into Europe’s premium competition. The Tanzanian striker has been a constant goal threat since arriving at his new team, scoring 41 goals in 86 games since signing from TP Mazembe. He’s a classic goal poacher with the added benefit of pace, being able to play on the last man find the right areas in the box. He has so far scored 5 goals this season and is arguably Genk’s best chance of getting any good results in this competition.

Unsurprisingly, Genk are my favourites to finish bottom of the group. Before even looking at their summer business, the other sides in this group were of a higher quality. Not only are they the worst side here, but they’ve started the season poorly, and it’s hard to see Genk standing a chance, based on their competition. 

Liverpool 

Onto the current holders of the competition. Not only are Liverpool the favourites for this year’s Champions League, but they’re most likely going to top this group. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t holes in this squad. Liverpool still has a few key areas that needed addressing, yet didn’t. It could be down to spending so much on players in 2018, with Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Shaqiri and Allison arriving for a lot of money. Klopp was clearly happy with his squad, but I worry if Liverpool does suffer from some severe injuries. Centre-back depth is still a problem, especially if Van Dijk suffers any kind of injury. The Dutchman transformed Liverpool from a fun, attacking side to arguably the second-best team in Europe. If he is out for any period, It will make Liverpool extremely vulnerable, even though Van Dijk isn’t the sole reason why they improved at the back. There still isn’t depth at left-back now with Moreno released, and Origi just isn’t good enough at all to be covering on the left if Mane suffers an injury. Liverpool have a fantastic team, but they were very fortunate in the fact that all of their key players didn’t experience any long term injuries last season. 

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Nevertheless, the Reds still have plenty of threats in attack. Mane, Firmino and Salah always turn up on European nights, with the three forwards scoring a combined 43 goals in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, they are not who I will be highlighting today, instead the full-backs, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold. Beginning with Robertson, who has been one of the best signings in recent memory. The Scottish captain doesn’t possess the same talent as the likes of Marcelo or Alba but just does everything so well in terms of passing, dribbling and defensive actions, that it makes him one of the best in Europe. The difference between him and Trent is that extra bit of quality. Robertson is a terrific passer, but there aren’t many full-backs in Europe that can boast a spectacular passing range similar to the Liverpool right-back. His vision and ability to pick out his teammates from set-piece situations or from open play make him one of Liverpool’s best attacking threats. 

There aren’t many issues regarding Liverpool’s team. They did struggle away in the group stages last season, failing to win any of their away games. However, while Napoli is a challenging game, they shouldn’t have much of an issue with the others. Liverpool are favourites for the top spot, and only fatigue could stop them from reaching the round of 16. 

Napoli

Switching from Sarri to Ancelotti might not seem like a drastic change, but it’s had a clear impact on the team. Partly due to the sale of Jorginho, Napoli switched from a possession-based brand of football to a more quick and direct style, getting the best out of the talent there. Fabian Ruiz had a fantastic debut season, Mertens and Milik were goal machines, and Zielinski was finally given substantial minutes. With Jorginho gone, Napoli didn’t need to build up play as patiently, instead opting for long balls into the channels to quickly transition the ball. Napoli did at times lack inventiveness in the final third without Sarri, but there was still room for this current group of Napoli players to improve. 

Mertens, Insigne and Callejon, while reaching the twilight years of their careers, are still one of the best front three’s in Europe, but one of their new arrivals has to be the player to watch. After leaving Mexico and joining PSV, Hirving Lozano finally earned his move to one of Europe’s elite, moving to Naples for £36 million, a fair price for a player clearly too good for the Dutch top-flight. Lozano is everything you want from a winger. Able to play on both wings, the Mexican international can create, dribble and score plenty of goals. What makes Lozano so unique is just how raw, yet clinical he is. He runs at defenders with drive yet is so composed in possession. If anyone is going to replace the insane output that their front three have been producing, Lozano is the beginning of that move forward.

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While Napoli’s attack remains exciting, their weaknesses in defence have been well-known by this point. The loss of Raul Albiol must have had an effect on the side. The Spaniard remained fantastic even in his early thirties, and replacing him with Manolas was rather strange. The Greek defender isn’t necessarily bad, but his overreliance on pace to recovery from his own mistakes is not good when said player is reaching a point where his pace may start to decline. Spending over £30 million on a 28-year-old defender was insane to me. I’m not also unsure if Di Lorenzo is even good enough for Champions League football, and it’s made Napoli look somewhat vulnerable, and I can see their visit to Anfield being an ugly one. Nevertheless, they should qualify for the round of 16, if Salzburg doesn’t reach the level they could.

Predictions for Serie A – 19/20

Last, but certainly not least, is Serie A. While not my favourite league to watch, there are still plenty of things to look forward to. With the Milan clubs under new management, Napoli ready to challenge Juve and Atalanta now in the Champions League, let’s go through who will stand out and who will fall behind.

Outside Shout – Roma

After their fantastic 16/17 season, which saw them finish with over 90 points, there was supposed to be light at the end of the tunnel. Nainggolan had a stand out season playing as a forward, Mohamed Salah reached his potential and Dzeko had arguably his best season since winning the title with Wolfsburg. The season did end in the departures of club legend Francesco Totti and manager Luciano Spaletti. However, the arrival of Monchi did present a future where they could remain competitive with Juventus. The appointment of Eusebio Di Francesco, who finished 10th with an interesting Sassuolo side, seemed to be a promising choice as Spaletti’s replacement.

However, Roma became a lot worse over the space of a few months, and for obvious reasons. Nainggolan’s goal output vanished, and Salah’s departure was huge. This was the same season where Dzeko began to decline in terms of goal output. The problem Roma have had since Monchi’s arrival, and even after the Spaniard’s time as head of recruitment, is their failure to replace their best assets. The 17/18 season epitomised this perfectly. With Salah, Rudiger, Totti and Parades all departing, finding adequate replacements for them was vital. However, they opted to take 4 low-cost gambles on players, in an attempt to highlight how good Monchi is at finding those diamonds in the rough. Cengiz Under, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Patrik Schick and Rick Karsdorp all arrived for a combined £44.3 million. While the financial risk isn’t bad, there was a lot of pressure on the young players to succeed. It just hasn’t worked out for any of them, with the reliance on the older players still prevalent. Under is arguably the most significant success out of the bunch, with the Turkish winger starting over 15 games in Serie A in each of his two full seasons. While his game time is impressive, considering he was 20 when he arrived, he still has a lot of work to do in regards to development. He’s an average dribbler with a weak shot selection, with Under often going for a spectacular effort over what’s best for the team. The other three have suffered from other problems. Karsdorp has struggled with injuries since day one. Pellegrini just doesn’t seem in favour at the club, and Schick just couldn’t replicate the form he showed at Sampdoria.

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After last season, which saw Di Francesco sacked following a defeat to a relatively weak Porto side in the Champions League and a defeat to arch-rivals Lazio. Monchi shortly followed him out the door, showing how the whole project was a massive failure. This was such a shame because a majority of football wanted to see Monchi work his magic in Italy, and hopefully lead to Juventus’s dominance finally being toppled.

So where do Roma go from here? Well, there have been some optimism in terms of their recruitment. Paulo Fonseca has finally arrived in one of the top leagues. His work with Shaktar earned him plenty of plaudits, getting the best out of their model in discovering some of Brazil’s most promising talents. His arrival coincided with a window full of smart signings and risks. Spinnazola and Zappacosta are reunited since leaving Atalanta and give Roma two attack-minded full-backs with more athleticism than their options in the past. Veretout and Diawara arrive to add even more talent in that midfield. Veretout is a reliable creator with the habit of gathering plenty of yellow cards, while Diawara was once one of the hottest prospects in Italy. He signed for Napoli with the expectation of succeeding Jorginho, but never got the game time required for a young player. This move to Roma could be his best chance at finally playing games, and showing why he was rated so highly at Bologna. These good signings blend well with some intriguing risks. Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrive after being pushed out by Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer and Unai Emery respectively. There’s a good chance they’ll fail, but they’re only on loan, meaning their failure wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen.

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It’s difficult to predict how good Roma will be. In an ideal world, all of their signings could work out a top 4 push would be entirely possible. There is still a chance that these risks don’t pan out, and Roma finish behind the Milan clubs once again. Nevertheless, Roma are a team you have to watch this season.

Over-achievers – Inter Milan

Antonio Conte is a fantastic coach and can turn any side into an organised, well-drilled machine. While his Chelsea side did have a very mediocre second season under the Italian, that can primarily go down to a lack of backing in the market. Conte turned two underachievers in Chelsea and Juventus into title winners and some of the best sides their respective leagues have ever seen. I must admit, however, this Inter team is arguably the most challenging task in Conte’s career as of yet. The Nerazzurri have been a mess for years now, due to poor recruitment, which lead to multiple investigations from FFP. My biggest issue with Inter has been the overreliance on their more established talent to drag them over the line. Dalbert, Gagliardini and Keita Balde were all extremely underused last season. Lautaro Martinez did eventually get the game he so very much deserved, primarily down to the controversy surrounding Mauro Icardi.

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The absolutely dreadful signing of Nainggolan and Icardi finally tiring Inter with his drama seemed to have changed Inter. Before the start of the season, Conte made it very clear that the pair of misfits had no future at the club, and had to leave. They did, alongside Miranda, Joao Mario, Perisic, Dalbert and Ansaldi. Many of these players overstayed their welcome, and their departure meant a better and less drama-filled future.

The reason why Inter Milan are my potential over-achievers this season is simply down to the magic of Conte. If Inter do manage to reach the top four, it’ll primarily go down to the Italian. He will fix this Inter side and will find as much value out of many of their less talented players. Inter do not possess the same talent as Juventus, Napoli and arguably their local rivals. However, a good defence can carry you through large chunks of the season.

Under-achievers – AC Milan 

Milan’s summer recruitment was on a whole, impressive. Bennacer, Leao, Hernandez and Duarte highlighted a summer with a focus more on younger talent, with the oldest arrival being Ante Rebic, who’s still only 25. This new focus mixed well with the appointment of Marco Giampaolo. While his league finishes with Sampdoria were slightly underwhelming, his ability to get the best out of young players seemed to be exactly what Milan were looking for. The Italian helped bring the best out of talent like Joachim Andersen, Lucas Torreira, Milan Skriniar and Bruno Fernandes. His Sampdoria side played a more enjoyable brand of football than Gattuso’s Milan, who scored less than Giampaolo’s former club. With the new young arrivals, as well current talent like Piatek, Paqueta, Calabria, Donnaruma and Kessie, this side, if kept together, could be a side to reach those Champions League places once again.

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That is precisely why they’re my under-achievers this season. There is a lot of promise in Milan, but this is definitely a transitional season. It’s all about finding the best system to fit all of their new players. Piatek has to be the player to watch. He has done well since arriving in January but could be taken to the next level under Giampaolo, who managed to get 26 goals out of a very old Quagliarella. He is the key to what Milan do in the next few years. Depending on the performances on the pitch, this could be the start of something big from Europe’s most successful clubs.

Best Transfer – Hirving Lozano

I tweeted back in June that if Napoli did manage to bring Chucky Lozano to Serie A, it would be the signing of the summer. Even though I loved De Ligt’s signing, Lozano is just so perfect for Napoli. Ancelotti’s side were excellent last season, but the weaknesses in their team were becoming apparent. Callejon and Mertens were starting to show their age and right-back still had a massive question mark, even with Malcuit’s impressive form. I wasn’t sold on a majority of Napoli’s business over the summer. The rumours of Milik possibly leaving were confusing considering how good he was last season, and they massively overspent on Kostas Manolas. I mentioned in my preview for Napoli’s season that they were the favourites to sign James Rodriguez. If they did, they’d comfortably be the favourites to challenge Juventus. However, they couldn’t agree on terms with Madrid. Missing out on him was huge and would have taken them onto the next level.

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One benefit or downside depending on how you see it, with Ancelotti is he can give a group of talented players the push they need to succeed. He can quickly devise a system to get the best players into the same team. However, Napoli still wasn’t nearly as good as their final season under Sarri. If they wanted to compete, they needed an elite winger, someone to replace Callejon on the long term, and Lozano fits that profile. The Mexican international was fantastic during his 2 years with PSV, contributing to 50 goals in the Eredivisie. He was a perfect attacker, being able to create and score, while also possessing elite dribbling. He’s such a direct player and represents everything good about Ancelotti’s Napoli side, just like Jorginho did with Sarri’s. 

Potential Flop – Alexis Sanchez

Manchester United’s worst signing of the decade was easily Alexis Sanchez. It wasn’t only his consistently poor performances on the pitch, but the effect he had on the rest of the team. Both Pogba and De Gea wanting pay rises due to their importance to the side, while the best-paid player was sitting on the bench. Sanchez needed to leave for the sake of everyone involved. While United are still paying half of his wages, he has finally departed the club for the season, joining Inter on loan. Sanchez could rediscover the form he showed for over half a decade, with a change scenery being what he needs. However, I’m genuinely not a fan of this move in the slightest. It’s as backwards as PSG signing Mauro Icardi when they made it clear they were done searching for superstars. Sanchez represents everything Inter wanted to change. A superstar with a big ego, who has the potential to be a huge problem. 

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #3 – Conte turning Inter into Scudetto Challengers?

De Ligt Joining Europe’s Elite 

This transfer window has been the summer full of players that everyone knew were going to move. We have already seen Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann make their dream moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. The next player who is likely to leave their club is Matthijs De Ligt.

His growth from a frail kid playing against Manchester United in the Europa League to becoming a generational talent, while not as fascinating as the journeys of Jamie Vardy or Ollie Watkins, it still fantastic just because of the calibre of player De Ligt now is. The Dutchman is the complete package in what teams want from a centre back. He is an elite distributor, possessed a large frame, can catch any forward with his pace and was his team’s captain at only 19. The Eredivise has kept its reputation of being a flip of a coin in terms of either fantastic talent like Van Dijk or Memphis Depay, or a player who struggles to adapt to a better league (Bas Dost and Vincent Janssen spring to mind). De Ligt is different. His numbers in his domestic league are outstanding (he’s been taking more shots in the league than Diego Costa this season) but what makes the prospect of seeing him in one of the top 5 leagues is what he showed in the Champions League. He put fantastic performances in both legs against Juventus and Tottenham, scoring against both teams, including the winner in Turin. It’s arguably my favourite trait of his, being his presence in the opposition box. When Ajax would get a corner, the cameras would zoom in on De Ligt, and around him were usually two players, ensuring he cannot make those deadly runs into the box. What’s so fascinating about this is De Ligt is unstoppable. His winner against Juventus was headed between Pjanic and Sandro, where they could not do anything to stop him. Set-pieces have become more critical than ever, with clubs in desperation to take advantage of a goalscoring opportunities that many have failed to seize. It’s why Van Dijk and Harry Maguire are valued so highly. Their threat in the box gives their team an outlet that can give them those extra goals to move further up the table. De Ligt is among Europe’s elite defenders already, and it’s what makes all the big clubs desperate to get his signature.

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His strengths are well known by now, but where should the Dutchman go? De Ligt is linked to numerous big clubs, with Juventus, PSG, Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona all interested in getting his signature. He would be a perfect addition to all these clubs. Barcelona will have their long term heir to Pique while allowing them to sell Umtiti, a player who is currently out of favour with Valverde. PSG would get an improvement over what they now have in defence and would most likely give De Ligt a league title for every year he plays. PSG were rumoured to have offered De Ligt a 4-year deal. He could finish the contract, and he would still only be 23, meaning he would still have a future to join other clubs with even more title-winning medals. Manchester United should sign him if they can, but I would not recommend De Ligt join that sinking ship of a club.

Juventus are the favourites to sign him. The Old Lady have done some great business during the summer window. Both Aaron Ramsey, Gianluigi Buffon and Adrien Rabiot have arrived on free transfers and three defensive prospects in Luca Pellegrini from Roma, Cristian Romero from Genoa and Merih Demiral from Sassuolo for over £50 million (It’s important to note that Spinazzola, Sturaro and Rogerio have been swapped for the respective clubs). So many football experts have been wondering how Juventus have this much money to spend. A club that can pay Ronaldo’s wages, as well as a dozen of other high earners is also able to pay £60 million for De Ligt as well as paying his rumoured £350k a week he is demanding. It’s interesting to see what Juventus would be willing to let go to ensure they can get their man.

Even with Juventus most likely to sign him and the likeliness of this happening now very low, I would love to see De Ligt playing under Jurgen Klopp next season. Liverpool, while arguably one of the best in the history of the league and possessed a side that only conceded 22 goals last season, the best record in the league. Most of that is down to Van Dijk and Allison having superb seasons and keeping their side organised. They have a fantastic defence, but the departure of Moreno and possibility of Lovren leaving the club has left space in the squad for additions. While the pair were not essential members of the team, they at least gave cover to positions that needed reinforcements. While left-back is by far the priority for signings this season, adding a player as good as De Ligt is a great idea. Van Dijk is fantastic, but if he does suffer a significant injury, which he has in the past, would leave Liverpool at a severe disadvantage in their attempts to challenge Manchester City once again. It would give Liverpool the best centre back partnership in the league, and if Van Dijk were to get injured, they would cope without him. While De Ligt would be successful no matter where he goes, he would genuinely show his talents and increase his reputation for playing for one of the best sides and under an elite coach.

Leverkusen’s Best Chance

Moving back to the Bundesliga, let’s look at another side that could be very exciting to watch. Peter Bosz is a coach who, while not making the sturdiest defences, he can get his side scoring goals. His Ajax side did show immaturity at times, but Bosz did manage to get a lot of goals out of Kasper Dolberg, something Ten Haag has failed to do. Think of Bosz’s side as the start to the what Ajax did last year. After his disastrous spell with Dortmund, being offered a job at a team full of attacking talent was precisely the job Bosz needed.

It is no understatement when mentioning how attacking Leverkusen are now being managed by Bosz. This change was so significant, and it seeing how well Leverkusen were performing before and after his appointment. Leverkusen were sitting in 9th, and deservedly so. They only managed seven wins out of 17 and most worryingly, were 9th in goals scored with 26, behind Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg. It’s arguably what got Herrlich sacked and why Bosz came in. They have a terrific group of players, especially in attack and should consistently be in those Champions League places. Havertz, Brandt, Volland and Bailey are talented enough to compete with anyone in the Bundesliga.
The issue has been trying to get all their talented players in the same team and getting them to perform at their highest level. Bosz seems to have done this, with many players standing out since his arrival. His first change was the formation, going from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. It involved moving Brandt more centrally and turning Havertz into a free-roaming 10. It brought the best out of both players. It gave Brandt the chance to get involved more on the ball, enabling him to use his intelligence and exceptional passing to help find gaps in opposition defences. Brandt had a fantastic second half of the season. He ended the season with 18 goal contributions, and 14 of those came after Bosz arrival. His new coach was the first to turn Brandt from a talent into an excellent player. Brandt isn’t the only attacker who has improved massively under Bosz. He has pushed Havertz to another level from the high bar he has already set, got Volland performing more consistently than ever before and managed found goals in Alario, with his xGP90 under Bosz sitting at an incredible 0.88.

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Leverkusen’s current crop of players is very exciting, but some of their new additions make their prospects even more impressive. With Brandt leaving for a small £21 million, being one of the bargains of the summer, but Leverkusen’s replacement is even better, with Kerem Demirbay arriving for £28 million. I’ve spoken heavily about Demirbay before, but it’s hard to deny just how good of a replacement this is. The German attacker has been Hoffenheim’s drive in attack since his arrival. Aggressive, a great passer and a love for a longshot, Demirbay will give similar productivity to Brandt, with the added benefit of possessing a real cutting edge in the final third. Mousa Diaby is another exciting arrival. Leverkusen managed to get the French prospect for a bargain £13 million thanks to Paris having to deal with their FFP problems. Even with his limited minutes, he managed to make an impression. Out of under 23 players in Europe who played over 1000 minutes, only Sane, Iwobi and Gnabry finished the season with a higher xA per 90 than Diaby. While you can argue that he was playing for a team far above their competition in terms of talent, he was still performing whenever given a chance. He’s still only 19, and if Bosz can give him the minutes he needs at a young age, he could develop into another breakout star to develop in the Bundesliga.

My only doubts towards Leverkusen next season is the rather negative reputation Peter Bosz has had in terms of his tactics in the big games. While a win over Bayern was impressive, Leverkusen did faulter against the other top sides in the league, with defeats to Hoffenheim, Dortmund and RB Leipzig showing once again how better coaches consistently outclass Bosz. He doesn’t have that same reactive thinking that has helped Pochettino and Zidane stand out in the past. There is a very slim chance they will challenge for the title, but if you want to see a good team play arguably the best football in the league, Bayer Leverkusen should be the first team to watch.

Napoli’s Scudetto Challenge 

We’ve already discussed their chances not long ago, so we’ll keep this short. Napoli are the only settled team out of the top sides in Italy. Juventus have just appointed Maurizio Sarri, a manager who as we’ve recently seen with Chelsea, will need time for his players to adapt to the system that Sarri will attempt to place on the side. While Napoli have made fantastic signings, especially a generation talent in De Ligt, there are still many senior players in that side that need to be moved on. It’ll be challenging for Juventus to compete on all fronts and I doubt if they do finish next season as Champions, it will not be nearly as comfortable as it has in the past. Milan, Roma and Inter (we’ll get to them soon) are going through similar situations, so it makes them unlikely contenders.

It leaves Napoli in an excellent position. Ancelotti attempted to change Napoli from a dominant possession side into a more direct team focused on an energetic midfield and fitting in forwards like Insigne and Mertens into partnerships and cover the channels. Napoli primarily deployed a 4-4-2 and meant they could play more of their attacks and aim to attack through the wide areas. It made them way less patient in build-up, and while it did leave them fragile at times since they weren’t retaining the ball nearly as much, it did make them just as fun to watch and brought the best out of many players in the side. After an excellent debut season, which saw improvement in some players and a drop in others, it showed the potential that Ancelotti’s side could reach when given more time and better players.

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They’ve already made smart moves in the market. They offloaded both Albiol and Diawara. Albiol was getting old, and it was about time for him to leave the club and Diawara wasn’t getting the game time we’ve all wanted him to get since his arrival from Bologna back in 2016. The midfielder’s departure gave Napoli the chance to bring in Kostas Manolas. While he can be wreckless and was apart of a weak Roma backline, he is younger than Albiol and possesses a vast passing range and has the pace needed to cover the vast distance required in a high line. If they can get a deal for James Rodriguez over the line, it could be the signing to give Napoli their best chance to win Serie A for a very long time.

Conte Fixing Inter

Inter Milan have been extremely disappointing for the past couple of years. The appointment of Luciano Spaletti and some huge signings during his tenure showed ambition and a goal of competing with Juventus. However, even with some huge additions in Skriniar, De Vrij, Nainggolan, Martinez and Vrsaljko, their new quality was not seen on the pitch. While the defence remained fantastic throughout Spaletti’s spell at the club, they still had a lot of players who were not good enough. Sime Vrsaljko wasn’t registered in the squad after January due to consistent injuries, and Nainggolan faired even worse. Spending over £30 million on an ageing midfielder who famously had a very unhealthy lifestyle should never have happened. Nainggolan was fantastic during Spaletti’s reign at Roma but had a very average season under Di Francesco. His goal contributions were dropping, and he was consistently putting in less defensive work. He continued showing these negative sides to his game and has gone on to be one of the worst signings in the past decade.

Conte has a lot of work to do in Milan. The Nerazzurri finished 21 points behind Juventus and need to close that gap. Conte is arguably the best defensive manager in the world and can organise any side in Europe and ensure they are at least stable. One of his first signings for next season was Valentino Lazaro. The Austrian, able to play at either right-back or right midfield, puts in above-average defensive numbers while pushing forward to help Hertha Berlin in the final third. He would be a natural fit in Conte’s famous 3-4-3 formation. Inter’s starting back three for next season could be the best in the league. Skriniar, De Vrij and Godin offer a tough and experienced backline that can deal with a majority of attacks in Europe. All are comfortable on the ball, and while Godin is far past his best, he will help keep them organised on the pitch.

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Their midfield offers versatility and quality, with players able to fill in multiple roles to help Inter dominate the centre. Conte has always preferred hard-working midfielders who can stay organised and put in a substantial amount of defensive work. His title-winning partnership of Ngolo Kante and Nemanja Matic displays this correctly. It isn’t a surprise that Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio had the best years of their career under Conte. Two players who were known for their energy, strength and defensive power in the midfield. Inter, even after the signing of Italian midfielder Nicolo Barella, have an imposing midfield roster. Marcelo Brozovic has been one of the best midfielders in Serie A for years now, with his fantastic passing ability and impressive defensive output showing his superiority in the middle of the park, even if he does rack up a lot of yellow cards. Vecino offers a solid yet unspectacular option, and Gagliardini was a promising signing at the time but has never been given the game time by his previous managers. There is enough talent here for Conte to work with and could get the best out of past players who failed to shine under Spaletti.

The midfield and attack were never a huge issue as a whole; instead, it was in attack in which Inter were continuously struggling, with issues on and off the field showing Inter as arguably the worst attacking side out of the top 7. It has to begin with Mauro Icardi. While undoubtedly one of the best finishers in Europe, his off the field issues have consistently halted his career and is why so many clubs are put off by him. His deliberate attempts to frustrate Maxi Lopez, threatening the Inter ultras and now faking injuries to avoid playing for the team. He would be problematic for clubs, and it’s why Inter are pushing him out of the club. The issue is no one will want to sign him, meaning Inter will have to persist with him until the end of the Argentine’s contract. Icardi’s trouble has forced Inter to look elsewhere for a forward, with Lukaku being Conte’s first option, which isn’t the first time the Italian coach has pursued Lukaku. In 2017, Chelsea were seen as the favourites to sign the Belgian marksman, but Manchester United swooped in the last minute to sign him. Conte seems desperate to work with Lukaku, and it’s easy to see why. He is a great finisher who can score all types of goals. He is a physically gifted striker, able to chase balls into the channel or play as a more old fashioned number 9. While Icardi is a deadly marksman, Lukaku will give them the better all-round striker and could offer more in build-up play. The issue with signing Lukaku is just how poor he was playing at times last season. He looked lethargic and was aiding the opposition in neutralising any threat posed by United. If Inter can get Lukaku at his best, he will score bags of goals for them.

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Am I expecting Inter Milan to win the Scudetto in Conte’s first season? No, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I remember doubting Conte and what he could with Chelsea when he arrived in England. He was up against Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp and Mourinho. I thought they wouldn’t get near the title, yet Chelsea went on to be one of the best sides the league has ever seen. Conte is that good of a coach that Inter winning the league is never off the table.

PSG’s Change in Approach

It’s safe to say that the Neymar project has been a colossal failure. He arrived to help push PSG closer to winning the Champions League, while also increasing his chances of winning the Balon d’Or by exiting Messi’s shadow. Neymar has been fantastic whenever he has played. The issue is he has not played nearly enough minutes for the most expensive player of all time. He missed PSG’s round of 16 clashes once again, and his complaints regarding their lack of competitiveness in Europe’s premium competition is hypocritical, considering he failed to help PSG reach their goal of being taken seriously among Europe’s elite. His consistent injury problems and awful attitude has meant that the spotlight is on Kylian Mbappe, who has been the second-best player on the planet in the last 18 months. While he has struggled at moments, he has been sensational and is the best young player I have ever seen. Last season, he was the first player under 21 to score over 30 goals in the top 5 leagues since R9, which should show the gap Mbappe has made between himself and the competition.

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With Leonardo now PSG’s sporting director, his first aim was to discard the superstar approach that the Champions had in the past. He seemed to be targetting Neymar, and it’s so easy to see why Leonardo is tired of the Brazilian. Mbappe has taken over as PSG’s best attacker so selling Neymar for as much Barcelona are willing to offer the best plan of action. I agree with Leonardo’s new look at PSG. While they do provide the same wages the other superclubs can, they can’t offer the same competitiveness as Real Madrid or the top Premier League clubs. They cannot please players like Neymar, and it makes his decision to leave Barcelona in the first place even more moronic.

Paris are taking the right steps in reinforcing their new strategy. The arrivals of Herrera, Sarabria and Diallo are sensible moves that improve the team. While Herrera is on the older side, he offers that bite and defensive work rate that will make him a great choice in the bigger games. He won’t start every game but will be a valuable player for Tuchel. Sarabria was another smart piece of business, arriving for £19 million. He was one of the best creators in La Liga and has worked well with managers who demand a lot from their players physically. Diallo is another astute signing from the Parisians. He was made seemingly available after Dortmund’s purchase of Matts Hummels, and it’s safe to say Paris have the better end of the deal. Diallo offers a comfortable ball player and physically strong defender who is still very young for only £28 million. He might not be as good as De Ligt, but he is a fantastic acquisition.

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These new arrivals blend well with the departures of Buffon, Alves and Rabiot. Three players on high wages, who were replaceable. PSG now have more of a bite in the team, with players willing to do the hard yards that Tuchel will demand. Even though losing Rabiot is enormous, he has obvious attitude problems and is the last player you want in a dressing room. PSG have a complete side and arguably look better than ever to challenge for the Champions League.

Are Napoli Favourites for Serie A?

While Madrid is spending a fortune on talent, the Neymar transfer saga and Bayern Munich looking to future proof their squad, it seems Serie A has been left in the dust. It’s strange considering Italy is by far at its most intriguing since Allegri joined Juventus back in 2014. There has been a lot of managerial turnover in the last couple of months. After having an underappreciated short time at Chelsea, he has arrived in Turin to give Juventus a more attractive style. While I have already spoken about how I think this move doesn’t make much sense, you can at least admire the optimism. Both Milan clubs have also seen changes in managers, with Conte replacing Spaletti after his struggles in taking Inter to that next stage, and Milan bringing in Marco Giampaolo who saw success with Sampdoria through developing their younger talents. Roma are the final top side to see a change in their coach. After Monchi and Di Francesco failed in the capital, former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Paulo Fonseca who has been a top target for many other top clubs for a while. It means many of these clubs are in a state of instability, with their new coaches needing time to adjust with a new group of players and employing their preferred systems. It means only three clubs are not going through a transitional period, being Atalanta, Lazio and Napoli. Gasperini has done miracles in finally getting his side into the top four, securing Champions League football for Atalanta for the first time in their history after coming close on numerous occasions. They could be a threat once again next season but are unlikely to challenge for the title. Initially, it seemed Juventus have chased Lazio for Simone Inzaghi, but they were unwilling to their manager leave for the most hated club in the league. Le Aquile are in a similar position to Gasperini side. They will not be challenging for Serie A but could be a problem for the other top clubs with their attacking approach to games. It leaves Napoli has the most secure side in the league, so let’s look to see if they are capable to finally ending Juventus’s dominance in Italy.

Ancelotti’s appointment last year made a lot of sense. His predecessor built a team playing arguably the best football seen in Italy since, coincidently, Ancelloti’s Milan side full of elite playmakers. This was easily Napoli’s best side for a long time and needed a combination of elite talent and a coach to get that talent performing to its potential. Ancelotti has had a history of getting the best out of teams full of talent with Italian being one of the very few managers who can handle the egos seen in the game today. He built an exciting side through deploying 4 playmakers in the same team with Kaka, Serginho, Rui Costa and Seedorf and finding success. He did similar work at Chelsea, where he brought the best out of Anelka, Malouda, Drogba and Anelka. His has seen success wherever he has gone but has come across issues in some of his most recent jobs, most notably Bayern Munich, which saw club legend Arjen Robben criticising some of Ancelotti’s methods for lacking intensity. It’s understandable why the players were having issues with Ancelotti. Bayern had appointed him right after Pep, arguably one of the most demanding managers in recent history. Ancelotti is excellent at getting the best out of sides packed with talent but might struggle in more demanding leagues. It’s why a return to Serie A for a team who have a core of players ready to start winning. While they were a pressing side, it wasn’t their main approach to games as you’d see at Liverpool or Salzburg, instead focusing on possession. This is a more suitable style for the former Madrid manager, enabling his current group of players to perform at the same level they were under Sarri.

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Ancelotti couldn’t possibly keep Napoli playing the exact same way, so how has he added his stamp on the side? He has substituted the slower build-up play into a more direct style, making transition much more fluid and attempting to make them less predictable. This can be seen by a couple of things, the first being the signings. Dani Ceballos, Fabian Ruiz and Giovani Lo Celso have all been developed into top talents by Real Betis. While Ceballos and Lo Celso have had struggles at bigger clubs, Ruiz has been a success. He was one of Ancelotti’s first signings when he was appointed and was a transformative signing. He perfectly summarises the contrasting styles between Sarri and his successor. Ruiz arrived as Jorginho’s replacement, yet couldn’t be more different. The Spaniard excelled as creative number 8 for Betis, combining fantastic dribbling, creativity and solid defensive work, while Jorginho possessed a tremendous pass, a good reading of the game and retained the ball well. Jorginho was immobile, but it worked thanks to Serie A not being as aggressive as the Premier League and the slower pace of the league has turned Ruiz from a knife into a sword. While he hasn’t started as many games as I would wish, he contributed to 9 goals from 20 starts, an impressive return for his first season with a Champions League-level club. The departure of Hamsik means that there are even more minutes to go around and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ruiz becomes a key player for Napoli next season

Replacing Jorginho with a more direct player was one way of changing how Napoli plays, but the other difference was the flexibility in formation. Ancelotti quickly released he didn’t need to set up his side in 4-3-3 because they didn’t need to build up possession in the same way without their Italian maestro. They quickly changed to a 4-4-2, and it was a genius move from Ancelotti. It was built on an energetic and powerful midfield duo of Ruiz and Allan. Both are great at ball recovery and fantastic in transition, with Allan being an elite dribbler and Ruiz, as previously mentioned, is an excellent creator from deep. It emphasises just how direct Napoli have become under their new manager, taking away the regista and inserting more physically threatening players. The strength in midfield is a benefit due to the change of formation, but the real boost has been in attack. It has (as expected) allowed Ancelotti to field an extra attacker, usually Milik playing alongside Mertens or Insigne. All have been given plenty of opportunities to play, with the three all starting over 20 games in Serie A.

Milik’s transformation to a critical member of the squad has been fantastic to watch. He arrived back in 2016 after the sale of Gonzalo Higuain for nearly £30 million to give that needed firepower. However his first season in Naples was cut short after suffering from a long term injury, which forced Sarri to deploy Dries Mertens as a false nine, which worked so well, in fact when Milik eventually came back, he couldn’t get back into the side. What made things even worse for the Polish international was a second long term injury suffered in his second season, forcing him to miss 29 games. What has been fascinating about him is he hasn’t stopped scoring. He played just under 1000 minutes under Sarri, yet managed 10 goals which is astounding considering he only started 10 games. His shot numbers are high, he is good from set pieces and is pretty creative for a striker. He isn’t a fantastic dribbler or excellent in the air, but Napoli plays to his strengths and has brought the best out of him. Milik has never necessarily struggled for Napoli but has finally finished a season without a serious injury.

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After going through the difference Ancelotti has made, let’s look at how he has done in his first season for Napoli, which is mostly positive. I thought they were again the best side in Serie A. With Juventus having an awful season in terms of entertainment value and quality and the Milan clubs showing their lack of direction on the pitch, it made it very easy for Napoli to stand out. They were one of the most dominant sides in possession, outshot all of their competition, including shots on target. They completed more passes than any other team in Serie A and were creating more chances than any other side. On paper, they were clearly better than their opposition, and expected goals show that, with understat.com showing them to have the highest xPTS in Italy, 2.57 ahead of Atalanta in 2nd. They slightly overperformed by 4 points, but that is nothing compared to the 19 points Juventus overperformed by.

Starting from the defence, they primarily defended through pressing. All of their players have the mobility and can cover large areas of the pitch. It’s why Zielinski and Callejon have mainly been the first choice wingers. They are energic players and are assisted by their teammates in pressing teams in the wide areas. It’s similar to how they were defending under Sarri, but the pressing, in general, has looked more aggressive and is using the fitness and energy of the whole team to their advantage.

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Napoli have stayed very similar in defence, but it’s in attack where it has looked interesting. In build-up play, Sarri’s side usually kept possession through the centre backs, fantastic passers Albiol and Koulibaly, and Jorginho, waiting for space to open up and play through the wide areas, with the other two midfielders pushing forward. Ancelotti has effectively taken the middle man out of that build-up, with the centre backs now quickly hit the ball into the channels for either the fullbacks or wide players to receive. While a small change, it has made Napoli much quicker in the build-up and has effectively adapted to attacking without their key midfielder. This change highlights Ancelotti at his best, being able to get the best out of what he has been given and making an effective attack.

One of Sarri’s most significant faults as a manager is his lack of rotation. It’s down to him preferring a very small group of players he likes, and will only change if faced with injuries or suspensions. This can be seen in his final season for Napoli, where only 13 players started over 10 games. With a team full of talent, it’s an issue Ancelotti has attempted to address. Ancelotti’s debut season saw 17 players play over 10 games, a vast improvement for the players. He turned Zielinski from a squad player into a vital member of the squad, with only Koulibaly playing more minutes than the former Empoli midfielder. He has been used effectively as a wide playmaker, with a substantial defensive contribution and 1.6 key passes per game have shown why he has been heavily favoured by his manager. It’s in the forward area where his squad rotation has been most impressive. As mentioned, Insigne, Mertens and Milik have played a similar amount of games. This was unimaginable at the beginning of the season.

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Insigne has been one of the best wingers in Europe for the past 4 years, and the idea of him taking a lesser role was insane to imagine, but it has worked for all players involved. Milik’s impressive form has made it nearly impossible to drop him, with the striker scoring 17 goals in 27 starts. Ancelotti has seemed to be more careful in how often he has deployed Dries Mertens. The Belgian international became a vital player for Sarri but has seen his game time decrease under his new manager. It’s thanks to Mertens now being 32 and is at an age where Ancelotti doesn’t want to rely on him too heavily. The Italian has also historically preferred to have a more traditional striker has his first choice, with Inzaghi, Benzema, Lewandowski and Drogba performing very well under him in the past. While Mertens did transform himself into a very good poacher, Milik is 7 years his junior and has the same energy and intelligence in the box as his teammate. It seems Ancelotti has attempted to push Mertens away from his importance to the side slowly, and put more emphasis on using Milik.

Before looking at if this side is ready to face Juventus for the title, we have to discuss the potential signing of James Rodriguez. The Colombian is my favourite number 10 in Europe and will go down as one of the underutilised players in the history of the modern game. He’s been fantastic whenever he has played, but managers have preferred other players over him, making it difficult for him to nail down a starting place. After a season that didn’t see enough game time for a player of his talents, there seems to be only one man that can fix that, and that’s Carlos Ancelotti. Rodriguez was fantastic in his debut season under Ancelotti and after his struggles under Zidane, went to join the Italian again at Bayern. He excelled again, with his chance creation being outstanding, even during his last season under Kovac, he was still Bayern’s creator. In only 13 starts in the Bundesliga, The former Monaco midfielder contributed to 10 goals, creating 2.6 chances which were the most for his side. He even showed a solid defensive work rate too, consistently tracking back in more pragmatic Bayern side. Napoli already possess gifted playmakers, but Rodriguez is a next level player and could fit in well in Ancelotti’s system. The Italian has experimented with a 4-2-3-1 before, which is perfect for James. The argument could be made that his arrival could limit Insigne’s game time, which is likely. However, as mentioned previously, Ancelotti has given a healthy amount of minutes to all of his forwards, and all seem pleased with the game time they are getting. James can play out wide as a playmaker if needed and can arguably play in a 4-3-3 as an advanced number 8. He has had a history of playing multiple positions at club level, so finding a place for such a quality player has to be done. He’s insanely gifted as a footballer and has one plenty of trophies, something he could bring to a group of players who have struggled to win in the past to earn the silverware.

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With the possibility of Juventus having a down year, there isn’t a better chance for Napoli to win Serie A. They have had a season to adapt to Ancelotti’s more direct style, they have a right blend of young, prime players and the more experienced and with the possible addition of James Rodriguez. It has given them that star quality that could finally break Juventus’s dominance. Ancelotti is at his best when given players who just need that extra push to succeed, and there isn’t a team that needed it more than Napoli.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Kieran Trippier and Brits Abroad

With the Premier League becoming the most popular and money driven league in the world, it’s an attractive prospect for both player and manager, with the league becoming the most desirable item for broadcast companies. It’s helped attract elite coaches like Sarri, Pep and Klopp, which in turn became a reason for some of the best talents to join the league. With the increase in money and popularity, it did leave one massive issue that not many other leagues experienced, the lack of British players moving abroad. Thanks to no other league being able to offer the same high wages as Premier League clubs could offer, they had no real insentive to move. Thanks to the elite coaches in the league, the players didn’t have a football related reason to leave. While it could be a sign of laziness, why leave your country to be paid less in different and unfamiliar environment. While we have seen a rise in young British players moving to the other top 5 leagues for the purpose of game time (Sancho, Oxford, Nelson and Aina to name a few), many English players in their prime do not leave the Premier League.

It’s what makes the idea of Kieran Trippier moving to Ancelotti’s Napoli an interesting idea. Since Sarri departed the club to join Chelsea, bringing Jorginho with him, the former Bayern Munich and Real Madrid manager has tried to stamp his own identity onto the side. He has made them less of a team reliant on build up through long stretches of possession, into a side which is slightly more direct. While they haven’t been as good as they were under Sarri, they’ve been able to keep their place in the top four. Ancelotti has been able to get the best out of some of the talent his disposal, with Milik, Malcuit and Ruiz having great seasons for the Gli Azzurri. The issue they currently face is moving on some of their older stars. While Serie A does have a well known reputation for hosting many players in their twilight years, but there does come a point where some of these stars have to be replaced. Mertens, Albiol and Callejon have been vital to the side over the past couple of years. While they have young players, they do have some important business to make if they want to remain competitive.

Trippier could be a very useful addition for Napoli. The former Burnley defender has gained a reputation for being one of the best creators in the league. He became a well known player after his stand out performances at the World Cup. While I did put Sime Vrsaljko as the best right back in Russia, Trippier wasn’t far behind. He flourished playing as a wing back for Gareth Southgate, and was vital for England on the attacking side. He has continued this incredible attacking output this season. He’s averaging 1.8 key passes per game, the second highest in the Tottenham squad, and has been averaging 2 crosses per game, the joint second highest in the Premier League, and the same amount as Trent Alexander-Arnold. He has consistenly improved every season, from being Kyle Walker’s understudy, to being a player heavily relied on by Pochettino. During Spurs’s incredible comeback against Ajax, Trippier was vital. He was adding the width and creativity that they needed to beat a very good side. His threatening ball to Llorente was important in the second goal. He is arguably the best creative full back in the league, and continues to give his side an option down that right side.

So what are his drawbacks? While he is great at going forward, it’s the defensive side that leaves a lot to be desired. Walker had these same problems, but he had least had the pace and strength to recover for when an opponent found space past him. Trippier doesn’t have the same luxary. If he is caught out in possession, he is unable to catch players like a Sadio Mane or Leroy Sane. It’s one reason why Tottenham went behind in the first half in Amsterdam. Ajax were constantly attacking down his side, knowing how they can overload that area and expose his weaknesses. These issues can be fixed when Tottenham deploy a back three, so there isn’t as much space left when he goes forward. It’s why he was so good in the World Cup. England were playing athletic defenders in Walker, Stones and Maguire, to cover the wide areas while the wing backs could push forward. He doesn’t have that same advantage when playing for a Tottenham side struggling with injuries all over the field. Trippier’s strengths are as a wide creator, and will fail if asked to cover the areas you expect more athletic defenders to be able to cover.

So where would he fit into this Napoli side? While saying at right back would be a simple observation, he would actually be much better as a right midfielder, taking over from Jose Callejon. While Callejon has been very good since signing from Real Madrid, he is a player who is going to struggle as his pace begins to drop. Trippier could help give width for a side without consistent wide talent. When playing further up the pitch, he wouldn’t be exposed as easily as he does in a back four. He would also had a better defensive presence to the side. While Callejon works well in a 4-3-3, playing further back means more defensive work is required, since the midfielders aren’t able to cover as much ground. Trippier could be a great option for Napoli in the wide areas, adding the same creativity while also adding something different.

If this move does end up going through, he will be the first notable English player to move abroad since Joe Hart. With younger players already seeing the benefits of playing in other leagues, maybe it’s time for the more experiences players to test themselves in a different environment, in a side that eager to challenge for a title.

5 Players Who Have Started the Season Well

While there have only been around 5 games in each game played, there are already players who are in electric form. So let’s go through some players who have had good starts to the season. There will only be 1 player per Top 5 league, to add variety.

Ligue 1 – Dimitri Payet

Starting in France, Dimitri Payet has to be here. While Paris have won every game they’ve played (no surprise there), it does take a lot more to impress me, because of their superior talent. But Payet is by far good enough to play for them. He is has been the key player in a Marseille side that has been incredibly interesting to watch. Marseille over the last couple of seasons have transformed into a team that was Europe’s next giant to fall, into a side that are only on the way up. Marseille have mostly been making smart business. It was something I would not have expected, with most new owners trying to fix a team instantly, but in Marseille’s defense, they’re signings have been very good. Just last summer, Marseille signed Amavi on a permanent for only £9m and brought in Kevin Strootman to replace the outgoing Zambo Anguissa for the same price. They have a blend of solid players and players with a lot of skill. Payet is the lynch pin for the whole project. The ex West Ham midfielder has been a sensation since his return to Marseille, and has continued his form into this season. In the first 5 games, he has managed 3 goals and 2 assists. Payet has been one of the best creators in Europe since 2014 and has shown it, making an incredible 4.4 key passes per game this season. A huge issue for Payet himself over the last few years is the lack of talent in front of him. His incredible creative ability has been wasted with average talent like Germain, Mitroglou and Andy Carroll being in front of him over the years. It makes it even more impressive to see that Marseille have already scored 14 goals in 5, which is 2.8 goals a game. Payet is the reason why Marseille are so good going forward, and will continue to be vital in that area. If he can stay injury free (which has been a problem for him at times), then he could drive Marseille into the champions league positions.

Serie A – Allan

There haven’t been any outstanding performances from forwards so far this season. Ronaldo hasn’t hit the ground running as expected, Icardi is yet to score a league goal, Dybala’s game is getting sacrificed for Ronaldo’ benefit, and Immobile has only managed a goal so far. Looking away from the forwards, there has been one midfielder who has excelled so far this season, and that is Napoli midfielder Allan. The Brazilian has been one of the best ball recovery players, and also one of the best carries of the ball. He is excellent at quickly transitioning play and hitting an opposition quickly. This season has brought out some more qualities out of Allan. Napoli have looked weaker since the departure of Jorginho, because his replacement just hasn’t been performing for me. Don’t get me wrong, Zielinski is a good player, but I don’t he suits the role of controller of the game. He is a better attacking midfielder, who takes a lot of shots and helps the forward three. It just comparing Jorginho and Zielinski this season, the Pole has been dispossessed 1.6 times, while Jorginho only 0.8 times. I bring this up to show why Allan has performed so well. Allan has had to do even more work in middle of the park to compensate for the loss of his midfield partner. Allan is putting in nearly double the tackles in from last season, from 2.8 to 5.5, but because of his high tackles numbers, he is committing more fouls (with Zielinski losing the ball more it’s clear to see why). Even creatively he has improved, with his key passes doubling to 1.6. While Napoli have not shown their best this season, it’s good to see their most industrious midfielder still playing to his best.

Bundesliga – Ondrej Duda

It might be strange choice, but with Bayern being their usual boring perfect self, and Dortmund starting okay, it’s actually Hertha I’m most impressed with. They sit at second place with ten points, and after getting seven points out of Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Schalke, they have to be given some credit. This form will not be consistent, but I’ll give credit where it is due, and the player that gets most of the credit will be Ondrej Duda. The Slovakian has scored 4 goals in 4 games, and there are a few things to be impressed by. The first seems to be his versatility. He has started already in central midfield and in the no 10. Being able to play in both positions does tell you a lot about the player, and the importance of him in the team. But what’s most impressive for the player must be that he has started the season in general. Duda’s time with Hertha has been nothing but injuries. He only managed 9 starts last season, after struggling with fitness. Seeing the player finally put a string of games together is great to see. After his brace against Schalke, he came out and said he doesn’t think he ever scored more than a single goal in a game before. It just goes to show how good he is playing at the moment. His performance against Schalke is the one I’m going to highlight. Lazaro said after the game that Duda’s game was to put pressure on Sebastian Rudy and to make sure he is ineffective, and to see that Rudy only made 18 passes with a bad 61.7% pass accuracy, he clearly did his work. He also scored both of the goals, with the first showing his how good he is at late runs into the box, and the second being a brilliant free kick. He was by far the best player on the pitch, and has been the best player in the Bundesliga so far.

Premier League – Eden Hazard

Not even a debate here, Hazard has been absolutely incredible since June (where he was robbed of the player of the tournament), and has carried that form on into the new season. He has already scored 5 in 6 games so far this season, which included his first hat trick in 4 years. Hazard is a player that just doesn’t get the credit he deserves. His ability to perform under so many different manager’s just shows his talent and flexibility. Players like Alli, Sterling and Zaha are great players in the system they play, but Hazard is able to perform under any manager. He is by far the best attacker in the league. The problem for Hazard is the managers he’s played under. Guys like Benitez, Mourinho and Conte are all defensively minded managers. He has never been able to express himself under an attack minded coach, until now. Sarri is playing him in the Insigne role (his job to create and score) and he could even be performing better than the Italian. Hazard no longer has the sole responsibility of driving the team up the pitch, because of Kante, Jorginho and Kovacic all having plenty of control in the midfield, meaning Hazard does not have to drop so deep. His numbers this season have went supernova. While his dribble numbers have dropped, it’s because he is staying further up the pitch now. He doesn’t have to drop so deep to receive the ball anymore. His shooting numbers have went up from 2.1 to 2.7. His passes per 90 have went from 32 to 57, his pass accuracy as went from 83% to 88%. His key passes have stayed roughly the same too. There is still a question mark on whether he can keep these numbers up, mainly because Sarri still needs time for system to be perfected. I am not doubting the player at all, but Sarri needs time and it could mean some inconsistent performances from Chelsea. It’ll be interesting to see how he progresses this season.

La Liga – Ousmane Dembele

While Bale and Benzema have been excellent at the start of the season, I’m going for Ousmane Dembele. The world cup winner has started the season brilliantly. He didn’t have the best debut season after his £135.5m from Borussia Dortmund. He suffered an injury that kept him out for 3 months, and then Valverde just wasn’t playing him. He stuck to a very safe 4-4-2, which didn’t give much of a chance to Dembele. But Valverde has changed it up this season, going to a more Barcelona style 4-3-3, with a front 3 of Messi, Suarez and Dembele. He has been excellent this season and is finally showing his worth after many doubted him. Dembele is chiefly a creator, not a scorer. But is doing both at the moment. He already has 3 goals in 5 games. His ability to beat a man and pick one of the other forwards is by far his best skill. His stats show just how well he’s been performing for the Champions this season. He has been making 2 key passes per 90, taking 2.8 shots, completing 50% of his dribbles, and completing 1.2 crosses per 90. He’s just had a great start, and for the sake of football Barcelona, let’s hope he keeps it up.

Spurs To Drop Out? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes

My new series, where I look at 5 players/managers who have had a good or bad week in the champions league. Let’s go!

Hero – Paul Pogba

The Frenchman has been under constant scrutiny through out his time at United, for dancing, too much social media use, and not performing well enough in the bigger games. I am a huge Paul Pogba defender. I think he has been United’s most consistent outfield player since his arrival. He as just been unfortunate in both of his season. He had an Ibrahimovic who just couldn’t finish the great chances he was giving him, and he missed a lot of games last season. Last season, the injuries began on that first Champions League night, so finishing the game as captain was a huge deal. He did that, while also scoring 2 and assisting Anthony Martial. He was fabulous on the night and was the driving force for United on the pitch. He made 3 key passes and had a 92.6% pass accuracy. Another great performance from the Frenchman. His first goal was also brilliant

Zero – Mauricio Pochettino

The Tottenham manager was asked so many questions regarding his decision to not take both Trippier and Alderweireld to Milan. He defended his choice and said the places he took would be enough. While I think Aurier did make more sense to play, because Perisic can be a handful to deal with, it’s Alderweireld where I have an issue. In that first half, Spurs were so sloppy on the ball, giving away the ball so cheaply and allowing Inter to press them, knowing they seemed so threatened on the night. Alderweireld is an excellent distributor, and would have definitely made a difference on the night. Spurs having a lead, and losing it thanks to a moment of magic from Icardi, and a moment from madness from the backline, was the last thing Poch needed. It put further inspection onto his decisions on the night. The post match press conference was not pretty. It was as if I was watching Mourinho after the Spurs defeat. A man who couldn’t protect his players except from pulling attention away from them. Not a good night for the coach.

Hero – Lionel Messi

Praising Messi is a normal occurrence for everyone in football, but just because he gets love for being the best, doesn’t mean she should stop receiving it. Messi was the star as Barcelona dispatched of PSV Eindhoven 4-0. Messi ended the game with a delightful hat trick, with two of the goals just showing his excellent ability at scoring goals under any circumstance. This is a big year for Barcelona, and Messi. After their collapse in Rome last season, they need to put that behind them and push for the big prize. Messi needs to remind Ronaldo who the real winner is. Ronaldo’s record in the competition is frankly ridiculous, and Messi has fallen behind in recent years, because of Barcelona’s inconsistent form. With Ronaldo now suspended (we’ll get to that), it gives Messi a chance to close the gap on the all time scorer. It’ll be a big season for the football legend.

Zero – Cristiano Ronaldo

What a terrible way to start the new Champions League season. Ronaldo received a red card for his actions towards Murillo. It could have been the hair pull or the push, but it’s unsure what exactly he was sent off for. But no matter what it was, getting sent off is the last thing that Ronaldo wanted. Ronaldo is a serial winner. He wants to score the most goals in every competition, and now with him having the chance of being suspended for 3 games, it gives him less time to score goals. Ronaldo has been the top scorer now for the last 3 years, and he wants to keep that going until his retirement. Juventus still managed to win the game, thanks to penalties taken by Pjanic. Ronaldo needs to now focus on the league, until his eventual suspension is over. Juventus will still be fine. That team will always find a way to carve out a good result.

Hero – Nabil Fekir

The Frenchman was the driving force behind their surprise win over Pep’s Manchester City. I mentioned in my preview for their group that Lyon have been so frustrating and it’s impossible to tell which Lyon would turn up. The best one turned up today. Fekir was the stand out player for the French side. His qualities are seriously underestimated. He is just an incredibly versatile forward, being a great at getting goal scoring chances, creating, and he is a great dribbler. He is Lyon’s most important player because he is that player who can win them a game. He was at his best today. He managed 3 shots, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was fouled 5 times in this game, showing how much of a threat he was in this game. Lyon set up in a 4-4-1-1, to help defend against a strong city side, and player more on a counter attacking way, using the pace of Cornet, Depay and Fekir to hurt them when they had the chance. The whole team put in a great defensive show, and Fekir highlights this. He put in 3 tackles in the game. Fekir is a player who usually does not do defensive work, but in this game it was all hands on deck to defend the narrow lead they had. An excellent performance and let’s hope they continue on these performances in the league.

Zero – Napoli

Carlos Ancelotti’s side failed to make the most of their easiest opponent in their group. They drew 0-0 against Red Star Belgrade, meaning they now have to play Liverpool and Paris without a win under their belts. The worst part for Napoli is they had the chances to seal the game, yet didn’t put the ball away. Callejon had a half chances that could have easily been a goal. The worst one by was Mertens, who miss hit the ball from a few yards out. Napoli had 73% possession, and had 20 shots, yet just couldn’t find a way through. Even though Napoli did dominate the game, and outshot their opponent, they still didn’t threaten Red Star enough. The majority of the game was spent in the middle third of the pitch, with 50% of the game being spent there. 34% was spent in Red Star’s third of the pitch. Napoli just didn’t do enough on the day. Mertens was the only one with the clear chance in the game, which isn’t good enough. It leaves Napoli in a bad place. As seen from my preview, Napoli are not a stronger side than Paris or Liverpool, and now having to play both of them could mean their elimination is decided early. They needed to capitalise on having the easier side to start, to get the momentum for their next fixtures. It’ll make getting out of this group even harder now.

Hero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool (as predicted) are now in the driving seat for group C. They beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-2, with Roberto Firmino scoring the late winner off the bench. Klopp is the winner here for carrying his league form into Europe’s elite competition. One of the criticism of teams who play with a high intensity is their inability to play that same way multiple times in the same week. They were very good against Paris. They exploited their weak and imbalanced midfield by playing a very workman like midfield, of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum. They made the Ligue 1 champions look average at best. A performance that makes Liverpool a threat on both ends this season.

Zero – Thomas Tuchel

I do have some sympathy for Tuchel. He said before the window ended that the full backs were not good enough. And that they were desperate for a number 6, and only brought in Juan Bernat. It left him in a position of weakness, because he couldn’t use the squad to its full potential. He was forced to play a midfield three of Di Maria, Marquinhos and Rabiot. None of them managed a key pass between them. They were largely ineffective and couldn’t control the game. It is clear that Paris are missing Veratti, but it doesn’t excuse Lo Celso joining Betis. He would have done a better job than Marquinhos in that role. Juan Bernat also didn’t cover himself well in the spotlight, with the Spaniard giving the penalty for Liverpool. It was a needless challenge to make, because Wijnaldum was not a threat. Tuchel is at a disadvantage, not having the players he wanted, but this team has some incredible talent, and he needs to do better against Red Star and Napoli.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group C

While I’d argue that Group B is the group of death, Group C is seriously not far from it. With last year’s finalists, Ligue 1 champions, Europe’s hipster team, and the team with the craziest fans, it’s going to be every interesting.

Red Star Belgrade

Talking about the way Red Star play or their threatening players is difficult because I do not know much about them at all. All I can take is how they performed against Arsenal last season in the Europa League, where they defended well and caused Arsenal the occasional problem. They only just about reached the competition, by beating Red Bull Salzburg on away goals. They have won every game so far this season, with their most recent win being a Vojvodina 4-1. They go into the competition in good form. However what they are most known for is their crazy supporters, to a point where they have been banned from the away games. They will create an atmosphere that will trouble all the teams that will go there, and could even cause an upset with their crazy supporters behind them. But the quality of the other teams is too high, so a bottom finish for them, but they will surely be entertaining.

Napoli

Napoli were absolutely sensational last season. They played some of the best football in Europe, with a team so balanced and full of players that have turned into real world beaters. However unfortunately for them they were against Allegri’s winning machine, and couldn’t beat them over the line, but they did come so close, and kept Serie A entertaining. However the summer wasn’t great. While Ancelotti is a solid appointment, Sarri built that team in his image, and it’ll be difficult to change it. Losing Jorginho was predicted, but still difficult. He is one of the best controllers of the game in Europe. He is one of the reasons Sarri ball worked so effectively. Fabian Ruiz is a fine addition to the side, and Diawara and Zielinski are both talented enough to fill that void effectively. Napoli have been slightly inconsistent to start the season, however they have had a difficult start to say the least. Playing Milan, Lazio, and Sampdoria to start the season is a tough way to introduce a new manager. Their 3-0 defeat to Sampdoria was difficult to watch, with Napoli just being so poor on the day, especially in attack. I do think they are going to struggle in this group. They play 2 sides that are so good at counter attacking and can hit so hard on the pace that it’ll be difficult for Napoli to compete. While they are a very good side, they just had the wrong end of the draw. Europa League again for the Italian side.

Liverpool

Liverpool go into this group as my favourites. Their team is now at a stage where it can win a major trophy, whether it’s a league title or this competition. They fixed some of their bigger areas, being their midfield and goalkeeper. Allison already looks like twice the player that Karius was, being so composed and confident in goal. The additions of Naby Keita and Fabinho give some great depth in an area I have criticised Liverpool for not addressing for a while now. Keita is one of the most complete midfielders around and Fabinho is excellent in the air and gives good defensive support to the centre halves. Speaking of centre halves, the difference Virgil Van Dijk has made to that side is just outstanding. Having a defender that confident, strong and intelligent, just makes the rest of the team so much more confident. He is by far Liverpool’s most important player, and has transformed himself into one of the best defenders in the world. However it’s their attack that always catches the headlines. Salah, Mane and Firmino is easily the best front three in Europe. While it can be argued that Barcelona and PSG have better individual players in those as areas, they just work so well as a unit. Mane is incredibly flexible, and can create and score. Firmino gives so much for team, with his tackling and movement, and Salah is just a goal machine. They have the ability to beat anyone, and I think they will top this group.

Paris Saint-Germain

The Ligue 1 champions look extremely deadly going into this tournament. They finally have a coach that can match their ambition of winning a champions league. Tuchel’s coaching ability cannot be underestimated. He kept Dortmund competitive and will now make Paris better than they’ve ever been. They have improved on areas in their squad I have had issues with. Mainly their goalkeeper and left back. I never liked Kurzawa. His off the field antics kept him from being a top level defender. Bringing in Juan Bernat, a player with a great dribbling ability and contributes well in the final third, is a great move. Gianluigi Buffon is a great signing. He is the best goalkeeper of all time in my opinion, no matter how old he is, he will add something to any team. Their attack is still incredibly deadly. Mbappe is coming off a historic world cup, Cavani is an elite forward, and Neymar is an excellent player, and continues to fight for that Balon d’Or. However he is part of the problem with this team. He seems to be a problem for the team. His clear ambition to move to Madrid will hold Paris back in the long term. Rabiot is another who as emerged as a real problem. The Frenchman acted incredibly immaturely when not selected for the France squad before Russia. Marco Veratti is another who seems to not be on good terms with Tuchel, with the manager making the midfielder lose weight because he doesn’t deem him fit enough to play. Tuchel has a lot of work settling this squad. But they are still so talented and will get out of this group based on manager and player quality.

Final Table

1. Liverpool

2. PSG

3. Napoli

4. Red Star Belgrade