FC Barcelona: Europe’s Cavaliers

While being a huge fan of European football, I’m also an avid viewer of the NBA. And something that’s becoming clear is the mismanagement of some organisations in both sports and their similarities. In this case, we’ll be looking at the LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and how their stories will potentially intertwine. 

We’ll start with the Cavs. After leaving his hometown team in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James went on to win two rings in South Beach and cemented himself as the league’s best player. But the possibility of James returning to Cleveland remained in the air, and in 2014, King James came home, with the sole drive of finally winning Cleveland their first championship in 52 years. 

LeBron couldn’t do this on his own, so Cleveland paired him alongside Kyrie Irving, who had been the Cavs’ best player since being drafted first overall in 2011, and Kevin Love. The Cavs traded their number one pick in 2014 (Andrew Wiggins) and Anthony Bennett (the worst number one pick in the history of the league) for Love. This gave the Cavs their best chance of winning the championship in their history.

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The set-ups do differ in specific ways. Messi had never left Barcelona and won plenty of trophies for his team. However, in 13/14 can easily be seen as their worst. The team looked stale and ended the season with zero silverware. Tata Martino was replaced with Luis Enrique, who carried their important (yet incredibly pretentious) Barca DNA. Not only were the main core from their 2011 double success still there, but they also had Neymar alongside new signings Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Claudio Bravo and Andre Ter-Stegen. A majority of these players were ready to go now and didn’t need any time to develop. This was the first time Barcelona began stockpiling their team with older guys. During Pep Guardiola’s reign and even under Tito, Barcelona would have their experienced, elite talent in the first team (Henry, Eto, Xavi, Puyol for example). Yet, would have a combination of cheaper, versatile players and some La Masia graduates. It’s what made them pretty likeable at the start of the 2010s. However, innovators have the potential to become imitators. 

Neymar was the first colossal money signing, but his ceiling was huge and even looking back now, was worth the massive fee. Luis Suarez was arguably the best striker in the world when the club signed him and gave them a similar rawness and aggression I hadn’t seen in a Barca forward since Stoichkov. The issue with Barcelona since 2014 is their lack of patience. They do not want to give up their place at the top of Spanish football, even if it jeopardises the future of the first-team. 

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The Cavs ended up reaching the finals in LeBron’s first season back but were comfortably beaten by the Golden State Warriors, mainly down to injuries suffered to Irving and Love. It was the following season where they finally won the championship that had eluded LeBron and his legacy. Irving and Love were both healthy and, Irving especially played a huge part in their famous comeback. The Cavs were 3–1 down but managed to bring it back and win the series 4–3. LeBron was in tears, finally doing his hometown proud and fulfilling his promise. 

While Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 wasn’t as dramatic, it was one of the most dominant knockout round runs in Champions League history. Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Laurent Blanc star-studded Paris Saint-Germain and Pep’s Bayern were all champions in their respective leagues, yet Barcelona managed to outclass them with ease. Juventus were their final opponents, who just didn’t have enough to beat Barcelona and their superstar forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (MSN as they were later nicknamed).

Both teams won the big prizes in different seasons, but their collapsed happened simultaneously. The Cavs were beaten yet again by the Warriors in the 2017 finals. This defeat resulted in Kyrie Irving demanding a trade away from the Cavaliers. Irving was tired of being second fiddle to LeBron James and wanted to be the main man in a title-winning team. Sound familiar? Well, it should because it’s what happened with Neymar and Barcelona. The Brazilian thought the best way to win the Balon d’Or and cement himself as the best player on the planet was to step away from Messi’s shadow and be the best player on another team. Messi was left with an ageing Luis Suarez, while James was left with Kevin Love, who was also on the decline. 

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The power that both players had at their respective teams was being to show itself. James embodied the Cavs and all of their decision making. The team would consistently make decisions to please his ego. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith were given big contracts because LeBron liked them. Tyronn Lue, an average coach at best, was there for so long because LeBron was friends with him. The Cavs’ team had zero squad cohesion. The team was incredibly old and couldn’t play defence, relying heavily upon LeBron to bail them out of every bad situation they found themselves in. 

Messi might not be as vocal of a figure as James, but his grip at the club remains as firm. Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived for an insane fee in 2009, but only lasted a season, with one of the reasons being that Messi felt like he wasn’t the main man anymore. Enrique was close to facing the sack after nearly falling out with Messi, and Valverde only remained at the club for as long as he did because Messi liked him. One anecdote that helped me understand Messi a lot more recently featured in The Athleticwhere Messi apparently wasn’t fond of Guardiola’s obsession with tactics, and just wanted to see the best players on the pitch. This might sound small, but it explains a lot on why Barcelona’s team is all over the place. Busquets still plays nearly every game, even when he’s physically falling off a cliff. Suarez plays every game even when he doesn’t have the same speed and bite from 2015. Realistically, the club should bring in players who could help Barcelona on the defensive side. They might not be as talented, but they could offer something different to help balance out the squad. Yet, that just isn’t going to happen. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Griezmann’s signing made zero sense, and the idea of Neymar returning to the club is a disaster waiting to happen. Messi seems to have zero consideration for the future of the club, only looking at the here and now. If selling Ansu Fati, their most talented young player I’ve seen in years would help bring Neymar back to the club, they wouldn’t hesitate to do it. Messi putting his ego aside and showing more of a consideration for what the team needs would be hugely beneficial.

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In summer 2018, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time to join the LA Lakers; due to the team failing to provide him with adequate support and to follow his dreams of making movies. The Cavs have since gone back to being one of the worst teams in the whole NBA. Messi’s future could have similar, if not as extreme, consequences for Barcelona. They can give Messi what he wants now and overpay for older players on the possibility of winning the Champions League or actually start to plan for life without the Argentine. Messi is everything for that club. But he’s 33 and the club’s desperation to please him in every department could result in the team potentially falling far behind their rivals, domestically and on the continental stage. 

Why Zidane is a Problem! – UEFA Champions League Preview 19/20 – Group A

The competition I never stop talking about has finally returned, full of the same juicy fixtures that excite all football fans. There are plenty of talking points in all of the groups, and group A is no exception. While this group doesn’t look competitive on paper, the specific context has made it slightly more open. On a side note, there will be particular clubs (like the first one here) that I don’t know that much about, so apologies if I lack any depth with specific teams.

Club Brugge

Starting with arguably the weakest side in the group, let’s look at Club Brugge. The Belgian club finished runners up in their domestic league, allowing them to qualify through the third round. Their place was finally secured after victories over Dynamo Kyiv and LASK. 

They’ve become a European regular in recent years, with their performances last year being better than expected, finishing third in a tight group including Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. While smashing Thierry Henry’s awful Monaco was a surprise at the time, they still managed to stop Atletico and, most impressively, Dortmund from scoring. They didn’t necessarily offer much in attack, yet they shouldn’t be looked down upon by any side. Last year, they adapted to their opponents, changing to a 4-4-2 to suppress Dortmund’s attacking talent, then switching to a 3-5-2 to stop Simeone’s side. 

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Their summer window saw three of their first-team players leave the club, with Wesley and Nakamba both joining Aston Villa, and Danjuma joining Bournemouth. Yet, the summer did include the arrival of Philippe Clement as head coach. The former Brugge player arrived after winning the league with Genk and started the season well with his new club, getting 11 points out of a possible 15. They’ve looked the best side in the league and are arguably in a better position than last season to reach the round of 16.

However, even with their strong start to the season, I don’t expect Brugge to escape this problematic group by any stretch. It’s still tough to tell just how good the Belgian top-flight actually is, to know if their players are genuinely talented or just performing well in a bad league. Two of the other teams in this group are arguably favourites for the competition, making it very hard to expect any surprises. They’ll most likely finish bottom of the group, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the big sides frustrated away from home. 

Galatasaray

With data being available from the Super Lig, it makes predicting how they will play a lot easier. Galatasaray have been one of three big names in Turkey, alongside Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe, to consistently partake in the competition every year, yet barely make an impact. This primarily goes down to the reliance on players who simply aren’t good enough to be playing at the top anymore. Turkey has been seen as one of the many favoured retirement leagues, due to the clubs willing to pay the high wages of ageing stars. We’ve seen Pepe, Quaresma, Fernando, Van Persie and now Falcao all move in search of one last payday. 

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What makes Galatasaray so much more enjoyable this season is a slight change in that tired approach. In fact, the club have brought in Jean Michael Seri, Mario Lemina, Emre Mor and Florian Andone all arrive on loan this summer. Their profile is different to who you expect to be coming in Turkey. All are under 28, are in their peak years and are ready to contribute now. While Seri and Mor have had minimal impacts at their previous clubs, Andone and Lemina were let go when they were clearly good enough to be playing in the Premier League. I expected Manchester United or Tottenham to pick up Lemina, yet unfortunately, he has joined a club where you have to feel his talents are slightly wasted. 

Yet, they’ve paired those attractive acquisitions with two ageing stars in Falcao and Steven Nzonzi. While Falcao has something to offer, I do not like Nzonzi’s signing at all. The Frenchman was very poor for Roma last season, being a shadow of the player he was at Sevilla. I don’t expect his legs to suddenly work as they used to, making it hard to believe he will succeed in Turkey.

The club have had a mixed start to the season, but I fully expect them to finish third. Their chances of escaping this group rest entirely on how well they perform at home. If Ryan Babel can continue with the form he has displayed in the past year, there is a chance one of the big sides will be left disappointed.

Paris Saint Germain

Now onto a team I have some knowledge about. Paris have been one of the most frustrating teams in the Champions League in the past 5 years. From giving up a 4 goal lead against a weak Barcelona side to letting an injury-riddled Manchester United team come back and win in the Parc des Princes. It’s always been a slight mystery to how PSG keep consistently fail in Europe. Personally, I think it’s been a combination of poor recruitment and individual mistakes in the big games. PSG’s signings before deadline day were generally excellent. The midfield finally was given some steel in Herrera and Gueye, two players known for high tackle and interception numbers, with some dark arts to help hold onto leads. They are both turning 30 this season, but they definitely offer something for Tuchel to deploy against tougher opponents. Pablo Sarabia arrives for a bargain £16 million after a stand-out season with Sevilla, where only Messi assisted more goals than the Spaniard. With Di Maria ageing and Neymar not playing enough, adding another creator for a very reasonable amount made a lot of sense. As mentioned in my Ligue 1 preview, Diallo was my signing of the season. PSG, like Sarabia, took advantage of a player being extremely undervalued by their club and took Diallo for as much as Dortmund bought him for from Mainz. 

However, I still have my doubts on whether PSG can finally have an effect on this competition. It all begins with just how poor they were at the end of last season, where they just couldn’t put the title to bed. It was a poor finish which also saw them lose in the Coupe de France final to Rennes, a team that comfortably beat Tuchel’s side at the start of this season. Even with the clear steps forward they’ve taken in terms of resolving some of their most pressing issues, they’ve still failed to address their most significant issue, being full-backs. Last season Tuchel said that the full-backs weren’t good enough, and funnily enough after failing to recruit there once again, they still aren’t. The whole Neymar saga seemed to turn their attention away from fixing their most significant issue, and it’s hard to see PSG as a serious contender once again. 

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What makes things even worse for Tuchel is injuries. During their 4-0 win against Toulouse, Mbappe, Cavani and Diallo all suffered injuries. While Diallo’s wasn’t something to worry about, Mbappe isn’t returning until October, and a question mark still resides over Cavani’s return. This is a huge problem that is difficult to ignore when predicting how they will do in the group. Mbappe is everything to Paris. He is the attacking player that can add that moment of magic to any game. We saw this last season against Manchester United, where his blistering run through Bailly and Lindelof allowed him to finish past De Gea efficiently. Without the young Frenchman, Paris lose their ace.

I mentioned before how I liked PSG’s business up until deadline day, where they made one final deal which baffled me. I liked Keylor Navas’ arrival a lot, who needs to be appreciated by one big club before he retires. My issue is with the loan signing of Icardi. I’ve said before that all clubs should stay away from him. He is not worth the trouble for anybody, and if PSG do decide to sign him permanently, I worry if they’ll ever be able to get rid of him once he begins causing problems. His quality cannot be questioned, but in a summer which saw Leonardo state the club were moving away from the superstar approach from the past, it’s strange to see the club sign one of the worst ones out there in terms of all the off-field problems he will bring. 

Nevertheless, PSG will escape this group. The other opposition, bar Real Madrid, shouldn’t be too much of a problem for them and I fully expect Tuchel to figure out a way for his side to continue performing at the same high level without Mbappe for the first couple of games. 

Real Madrid

The record champions go into the competition with familiarity. Zidane is back in the dugout, with plenty of expensive additions to add to an ageing squad that just isn’t good enough to be winning the Champions League anymore. Their new additions made a lot of sense in terms of their importance. Eder Militao joined an ageing defence and can also play right-back. Ferland Mendy is one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe and is an ideal replacement for Marcelo. Luka Jovic is by far the most interesting of the new arrivals, with his goalscoring earning him plenty of praise in Germany, making him a great choice to bring much-needed goals to the side. Eden Hazard arrived for an insane amount of money, and while they have definitely overspent, there is doubt he is an improvement over what they had. 

I liked their business, but there are still plenty of problems in the side. The first being Zidane. After Lopetegui and Solari failing to get Madrid contesting with Barcelona and overseeing an embarrassing Champions League run, Zidane returned with all the power given to him. I’ll definitely credit Zidane for getting his way, but Madrid bringing him back just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. My worry with the Frenchman’s return is how willing he seems to completely ignore the new talent, and continue using the players who should start being faded out by this point. Zidane’s treatment of many players is frankly awful. At one point, Isco seemed to be his favourite player at the club, and suddenly his game time was gone, similar to what’s happened with James Rodriguez. The Colombian playmaker was thought to be the first player out of the club as soon as the window began, but he’s still there, with Zidane seemingly changing his mind. While the treatment of the pair is confusing, how he has acted towards Bale and Jovic is even worse. Zidane publicly stated that Bale was not in his plans, hoping the Welshman would leave the club after having arguably his worst season for Madrid. However, once again he has changed his mind, with Bale now staying. There were rumours Zidane was far from a fan of Luka Jovic, with the Serbian seemingly likely to go out on loan. While Zidane did deny those rumours, it is worrying when he wants to get rid of a player after one injury in pre-season. 

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I just worry that Zidane will continue to ruin the reputations of the players that gave him success at the beginning of his reign. After the sales of Llorente and Kovacic, as well as Ceballos going out on loan, we’ll still likely see the same old midfield of Modric, Casemiro and Kroos. The trio should not be starting together anymore. Modric is now 33 and is unable to do everything to the same level as he once could. Kroos is such a liability out of possession that even Casemiro won’t be able to cover for him adequately anymore. What makes their situation even worse is how Ramos still remains to be so important. Their club captain is now 33, and I worry that his evident decline will hinder not only the team but his reputation. This is my problem with Zidane. His reliance on these older players does not only limit them in moving on but could ruin their legacies. He’ll still be starting Benzema and Marcelo week in, week out until they are unable to run anymore.

Madrid’s failure to recruit midfielders and the many injuries throughout the squad means they are at their weakest in years. If PSG can get their act together, I can’t see Los Blancos topping this group. 

My Football Opinions: Teams Recruiting Poorly

While the transfer market has its enjoyment, it ultimately does take away from the reasons we all love football, to watch the game itself. The summer window is full of twists and turns, from players turning their backs on their respective clubs, to owners desperate to improve their teams. The area we will be discussing today is clubs who recruit in the wrong areas, and why it is so frustrating.

When talking about this problem, it comes back to one of the best managers to ever grace the game, Valeriy Lobanovskyi. His influence on the game cannot be underestimated. From introducing statistics and the power of science to the game, he also had one belief that should be embraced by all clubs, being the weak link. The legendary Dynamo Kyiv coach believed that a team’s success was primarily down to which side made the least amount of mistakes. Lobanovskyi famously said, “a team that commits errors in no more than 15 to 18 per cent of its actions is unbeatable.” It isn’t the number of superstars you have in attack that wins you titles, it’s how good or bad those lesser players are.

This belief has been tested throughout history, but no one pushed it further than Florentino Perez with his infamous Galacticos project. The idea of overloading your side with the best attackers was something never believed to be possible, and for a good reason. There isn’t a world where you can afford players of that world-class level and keep them all happy while keeping the side defensively solid. This turned out to be partly right. While one La Liga and a dramatic Champions League win in 2002 can be considered successful, it just wasn’t enough for the insane amount of money spent. The team was imbalanced to put it lightly, with Claude Makelele’s role in that team vital in doing all of the defensive work in midfield. You look at the signings during Perez’s first tenure. This included Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, R9, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Walter Samuel, Sergio Ramos and finally Robinho. While these aren’t all the signings Real Madrid made between 2000 and 2006, they were the most expensive. It’s clear where Perez was prioritising his finances, on selling shirts with the most attacking players in Europe. Only two of them I would consider being defensive signings. Los Blanchos’s team was built so irresponsibly, that it was no wonder the project was considered a failure.

I thought that Perez’s failed project meant that no other side would ever try and win similarly, yet I was wrong. While Barcelona haven’t gone as crazy as their rivals in terms of signing everyone available, their recent signings in the market scream a lack of planning. The signing of Griezmann shows how Barca are continuing to ignore the more pressing issues in their squad. Busquets, Pique and Suarez still remain without a worthy successor. They are blessed to have the greatest player of all time, yet seem to ignore the other parts of the side despite Messi now reaching the twilight of his career.

While these examples are on a grander scale, we still see clubs signing a player for a hefty fee without any idea of what to do with them. United signing Alexis Sanchez, even though Rashford and Martial were in fantastic form before his arrival. Everton brought three number 10’s in the summer of 2017, and it begs the question of why they needed to bring those players in when they failed to add pace in the wide areas. Even Arsenal signing Aubamayeng for a club-record fee can be seen as quite reckless considering the weaknesses that side had in midfield and defence.

The point remains. The clubs who succeed in football prioritise fixing their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths. It isn’t a surprise that Manchester City and Liverpool are the two best sides in Europe. In recent years, the pair have always addressed their most significant issues first. The Reds did overspend on Alisson, but he solved their most significant problem; the lack of a commanding presence in goal. Manchester City’s first signing of the current window was Rodri, the Fernandinho replacement they were in desperate need for at specific points last season. It’s why they are miles ahead of their Premier League opposition. Their intelligent recruitment and desire to stay away from a messier side of the transfer market.

Even Manchester United, a club ridiculed for its inability to recruit adequately in the market, have begun moving towards signing players in their weakest positions. The arguments can be made for how much they are spending on the likes of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There are premiums they are forced to pay for players with quality that can be questioned in certain areas. It’s vital that instead of spending an insane amount of money on Bruno Fernandes, they have stayed away in pursuit of a defender.

These points had to be made due to potential moves possibly being made in this transfer window, primarily Neymar. Barcelona might perhaps form the most fearsome frontline in world football, but in reality, Neymar might only improve Barcelona by around 5%, with their attack already the best in the division. Adding to that position is needless when other areas on the pitch need addressing. Studies have been made in the past that show the importance of clean sheets over goals. While goals to win you games, you realistically can score 2 goals and become the favourites to win the game. What’s essential is not throwing away those leads due to ageing stars in defence. If Barcelona invested a potential £200 million in resolving their right-back and centre half issues, it would make them a much better team than resigning Neymar. There is no need to continuously allow your weak points to increase, in favour of slightly improving your strengths.

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

Los Blancos’ Return 

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

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

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

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

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

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

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

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

Barca’s Ageing Squad

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Team of the Group Stage

With this year’s exciting group stages over, let’s look at the players who have stood out massively this year. The only rule is 1 player per team, to add some variety to this team and to not go on about the same players. There are some great players in this side, so let’s get straight into it.

Allison

While Szczesny and De Gea are also great shouts in between the sticks, Allison just has to win it for me. While many have been critical of his occasional errors, he has changed that defense, along with Van Dijk. He has added that reassurance to his teammates, that there is nothing to worry about. The way he commands his goal is incredible and his presence is why Liverpool have improved so much this season. His game against Napoli at Anfield was great, making an incredible close ranged save right at the end of the game to deny Milik a change to send his side through. He is the reason why Liverpool were able to get out such a tough group.

João Cancelo

He has been absolutely sensational this season. While I have covered him previously, with his great performances against Manchester United and Inter Milan all highlighted, he has been a key member to a Juventus side that easily qualified, thanks to underperforming opposition. He was such a great outlet for a side that has found it difficult to find a consistent player in that right back position since Dani Alves departed. His pace, dribbling and defensive work make him a perfect modern full back. While it is questionable to put a player who only played 3 games in here, he was just that good. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions, completed 2.7 dribbles and even was taking 1.3 shots per game. A real stand out performer for a side who are looking to finally win the trophy after waiting so long.

Aymeric Laporte

Man City were very good in the group. While they had massive struggles when playing Lyon, failing to win in both games against the French side. They were still able to get top of the group, and that was mostly thanks to their own french defender, Aymeric Laporte. He was at his best in the Champions League. He was great on the ball as usual, completing 5 long balls per game, and having a 93% pass accuracy while doing so. His defense work is quite difficult to judge, considering Man City are such a possession heavy side. He did put in more interceptions than any other defense for his side, and also won 2.2 aerial duels per 90, only Fernandinho and Otamendi winning more. However he will be remembered for the 2 goals he scored. The first was to help his side secure a 3-0 win against Shaktar, and the other was to draw his side level with Lyon in their final encounter. He is has truly turned himself into a key player for Pep, and has been their best defender throughout. Alongside Ederson, he has played every minute of the Champions League. To do that under a manager who usually rotates all of his outfield players, it tells a lot about how well Laporte has done.

Mattias De Ligt

Ajax have been a huge surprise this season. Their two great performances against Bayern Munich showed this team has the potential to remind Europe why they were once a European Giant. Their blend of youth and now experience, with players like Blind, Tadic and Huntelaar all helping talents like Van Der Beek and De Jong perform at a higher level. But the player I’m choosing here is De Ligt. The Golden Boy winner has truly shown why he currently holds that award. When I first watched him back in 2017, I thought he was a player who had a massive ceiling, but didn’t have the stature and size to be able to perform against the top sides. Two years later and he has turned into the most wanted defender in Europe. The Dutch International showed his quality in the group, showing maturity and intelligence for a player so young. It does help being paired with Daily Blind, one of the smartest players in the competition when it comes to reading the game. While he is a good defender, he lacks the size and physicality that De Ligt has. It gives their back line a lot of balance, and great ability on the ball. De Ligt averaged a 93% pass accuracy, and won 3.1 aerial duels per 90. His stand out performance was against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. It was a game that showed Ajax are finally back to being taken seriously. While Zieych and Tadic were all great, De Ligt was also very good. He completed the most passes out of the Ajax back line, won 5 tackles and even had 2 shots. It showed that he is a potential super star at the back, performing at a ground where many have struggled. What a season the Dutchman is having.

Alex Grimaldo

While Benfica have yet again disappointed in the Champions League, it was a tough group to get through. Both Bayern and Ajax are good sides, they still seemingly haven’t recovered since losing Lindelof, Ederson and Semedo back in 2017. They are good domestically, but those players were truly a step above what they currently have. One player however who has stayed forever consistent is Alex Grimaldo. The Spaniard has been one of the top left backs in Europe since his time playing for Benfica. Coming from La Masia, it has helped give Benfica a great dribbler and creator from the flanks. While his stats are great, with his chance creation looking exceptional, it has been swayed thanks to the Spaniard taking his side’s free kicks. But they are still great. He put in 5.2 tackles and interceptions and 2.2 clearances. He was able to attack just as well as he can defend. He was taking 2 shots, creating a chance and completing 1.5 dribbles. He has continued to show why many top clubs are still very much interested in him.

Axel Witsel

This whole midfield is going to very different, considering none of them play for super clubs, like PSG and Bayern (sticking to my one player per club rule), so let’s begin with Witsel. A player I used to hate for so long, but he has been absolutely sensational this season, and has actually changed my opinion of him. I used to think he was a clumsy player who loved to put in a late challenge, but now he has turned into a really good passer, and is so important to what Favre is doing. Only Diallo has played more minutes than Witzel. He has also completed the most passes with the highest pass accuracy of any midfielder at the club. He helps massively in build play retaining the ball. He has improved Dortmund massively and is one of the key reasons why they have been this good so far this season.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Another player who you might not expect to be here, but deserves to be. Pellegrini is currently in his second season in the capital, and after a season where he wasn’t given as many chances as the likes of Nainggolan and Strootman. But as soon as they departed, The Italian has truly stepped up to the plate in this competition. While he has been good in Serie A, it’s in the champions League where his stats have rocketed. He’s got 3 assists in 3 starts, creating 3.5 chances per 90. It’s the highest in the Roma side and only Depay and Kroos (a player who maybe should be here) have created more chances per 90. He’s stepped and is finally showing why United seem so interested in him.

Nikola Vlasic

The final surprise pick if this XI. As previously mentioned, Kroos and Pjanic all would have been good options, but I’ll stick with arguably one of the surprise packages of the Champions League. The midfielder is currently on loan from Everton, after a season of a lack game time. He did show moments of real quality, but he just wasn’t able to show it. He was the best player in the group stages, when not including a certain Argentine. Vlasic was massively influence in their two leg shock over Real Madrid. He was the man of the match in both, scoring in the first and assisting the second. His numbers are just outrageous. Playing as an inside left forward, he played every minute for Moscow, and there’s a reason why. Per 90, he was taking 2.5 shots, creating 3 chances, completing 3 dribbles and even put in 2.3 tackles. It’s crazy to see that from a 21 year old. While Moscow are out of the competition, Vlasic has definitely put his name on some club’s radars.

Lionel Messi

Of course he has to be here. The best player of all time, even when he barely starts in the competition, still managed to score 6 in only 4 starts. His highlight so far was easily his performance against Tottenham at Wembley. The GOAT played Tottenham like they were Leganes. He had 6 shots and 4 on target, the highest in the match. Messi is arguably the only player in Europe where he is truly unstoppable when he is at his A game. His performances throughout the champions league have highlight just how irrelevant the Balon d’Or is, if Messi finishes fifth. The best player to ever play the game, the golden boot winner and has already got double figures in goals and assists, and is the top scorer in La Liga, even with missing a month through injury. He is the best player of all time and will always deserve a place in this side.

Robert Lewandowski

While Dzeko, Dybala, Tadic and Marega all deserve mentions here, Lewandowski scored the most goals in the group stages, giving him the spot for the best number 9. While Lewandowski is starting to show his age, with his mobility being the biggest problem as these years go on, he is still a very good striker. He was taking a very good 4 shots a game, with 2.7 of them coming from inside of the penalty area. Like in the Bundesliga, Bayern were not vintage in the champions league. Their massive struggles against Ajax highlighted that this team is definitely beatable. They couldn’t handle Tadic’s movement in the first leg, and played an entertaining second leg. They finished the group unbeaten. This is what you expect from them however. Their group was a gift. A poor Benfica side and Athens made it so easy for them. Lewandowski did definitely show his best though. Bayern will have to keep him fresh.

Neymar

I have made this very clear in the past, but I can’t stand Neymar as a professional. I think he takes the dark arts of the game too far sometimes and seems to have zero professionalism on the pitch, refusing to shake player’s hands because of disagreements on the pitch. While I can’t stand him a majority of the time, he is still just so incredible to watch. His hat trick against Red Star, including 2 delightful free kicks, was Neymar at his best. Even against Napoli, a game where he didn’t score or assist, he still managed to complete 13 dribbles and create 4 chances. He is arguably the most talented player in Europe. It is a shame he has a horrible way of showing it.

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