Why So Many Crosses? Real Madrid vs Manchester City – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

The final battle of the round of sixteen, and it might be the best one. Real Madrid, the only team to win the competition three times in a row; against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the best attacking team in Europe. Will their attack be enough to overcome their defensive instabilities, or will Madrid return to the winning machine we saw during Zidane’s tenure. Let’s find out.

We’ll start with Los Blanchos, who have arguably been the best team in a rather weak La Liga season. Real Madrid are the second best defensive team in the league, only behind their city rivals for xG against. They’re second in the league for shots against, with the league’s surprise package of the season, Getafe, being the only side bettering their 9.2 shots against per game. Madrid restrict their opponents to poor shots, which is different to the defensive performances seen during Zidane’s final year. Madrid were heavily reliant on Ramos or Varane to bail them out of poor organisation. Now they’re more of a cohesive unit, able to surpress the best attacks in Spain.

What’s helped Madrid a lot is improvements in personnel. Ferland Mendy has become the starting left-back for the club and while he isn’t nearly as fun to watch going forward as Marcelo, he’s younger and has the pace to recover; something Marcelo simply doesn’t have anymore. Courtois has gone from a underwhelming to above average again, and Carvajal has returned to his best.

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It’s in midfield where personnel has been a factor, with the way Zidane has managed to make them functional deserving plaudits. I criticised Madrid for not buying a midfielder in the summer, while allowing both Kovacic and Ceballos to leave the club. It left the midfield without balance, and put even more pressure on Casemiro to do the hard yards for Kroos and Modric. I expected Zidane to keep playing the same midfield trio he did during those successful Champions League wins, even with Modric now 34 and far past his best. Yet, he’s surprised me again. Casemiro has been the best defensive midfielder in Europe this year, putting in an insane amount of defensive work for the team and even contributing in ball progression; with no one in the squad completing more through balls than Casemiro’s 6.

Casemiro has been sensational, but Fede Valverde’s involvement in the team was the balance needed to compliment Casemiro’s defensive work and Kroos’s ball progression. Valverde is obviously not the player Modric was four years ago, but he is exactly what Madrid need. He has the energy to cover the distance, and is the only player in midfield who can press. Valverde isn’t the flashiest, but is comfortable in possession and does the defensive work needed to help carry some of Casemiro’s load. The 21-year-old has played in a majority of the big games, and wouldn’t surprise to see him start against Manchester City.

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Real Madrid have always garnered a reputation for having some of the best attackers to ever grace the game. However under Zidane, it’s arguably been the most boring and unimpressive part of their game, even when Ronaldo was still there. Madrid’s main outlet for attacking is crosses. No other team in La Liga has completed more crosses than Zidane’s team. It’s always baffled me why they do it. Crossing is famously one of the most ineffective ways of scoring goals, and only works when you have a team of excellent passers. Madrid use their full-backs for a majority of creativity, with Carvajal and Ferland Mendy completing a combined 13 crosses into the penalty area in La Liga. It might not sound like a lot, but crossing is an unproductive use of possession. If looking at quantity over quality, Mendy and Carvajal have attempted roughly 122 crosses, which means they have around a 10% success rate.  (These have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve used fbref.com to find the crosses into the penalty area and whoscored.com to find the amount of crosses attempted. Nevertheless, the point still stands).

Their style of crossing can perfectly define their attack this season: quantity over quality. Madrid are top of the league for shots taken per game with 16.02, nearly 3 shots more Villarreal, who are in second with 13.42. Top teams should always be the ones racking up the most shots, since they’ll be dominating games and have more of an opportunity to do so. The volume is good, but the quality is not. Their non-penalty xG per shot is at 0.10, placing them seventh in La Liga and behind their classico rivals Barcelona with 0.13. Zidane has gone down the logic of if we create enough chances, no matter the quality, we’ll eventually score. This does work against inferior opposition, but without Ronaldo, this just isn’t as effective. Benzema has been great this season, but the question marks surrounding his finishing quality persist. Luka Jovic could be that guy, but right now it makes Madrid a team with all bark but still without the bite.

Let’s move onto Manchester City. It’s hard to talk about the champions without discussing their upcoming European Ban after constant Financial Fair Play problems. Unfortunately, this is an area where I don’t have a full opinion on, based on the fact I don’t know the full extent of the rules and the full story; it simply isn’t my area of expertise. We’ll stick to the football, where it’s the best in Europe at times, and frustrating at others.

Pep’s quest for creating the perfect attacking has reached a new peak this season. With Kevin De Bruyne back and fully fit, It gave City their best creator back. Bernardo Silva did a fantastic job in filling for De Bruyne, while adding that extra bit of energy in midfield, but lacked the same level of creativity his Belgian teammate could offer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better passer in the Premier League than De Bruyne. His vision and way he can hit a pass just perfect for one of the forwards to reach it in the box is pure magic. It’s not even on the eyes where De Bruyne blows me away, but in the numbers. He’s top of the league with passes into the penalty area and 11th for passes into the final third, showing just how influential he is for not only chance creation, but ball progression as well. He comfortably leads the league for assists with 17, making De Bruyne incredibly likely to beat Thiery Henry’s record of 20, by quite a margin.

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The most interesting part about Manchester City’s attack is, like Madrid, crossing. Even excluding De Bruyne, Manchester City do possess some of the best passers in the league, and have looked to beat teams through the elite passing ability of their players. City comfortably top the league for crosses attempted and completed. This has worked in a way.  Having De Bruyne sending the balls into the far post is cheating slightly, since he’s so good at it. I still don’t like crossing as a main method for scoring goals, but it’s hard to deny City have the talent to pull it off, even if they shouldn’t do it.

The Belgian playmaker’s success does dovetail quite nicely to why City have just been so far behind Liverpool in the league. Luck does definitely play a part in this. City have underperformed both in xG for and against. There have been some games (both games against Spurs are perfect examples) where City have dominated the game and created enough chances, but failed to score the decisive goal; mostly down to poor finishing.

However, it’s defensively where the issues are most apparent. Just starting with the backline, Manchester City have faced a massive injury crisis. Laporte suffered a long term injury; when combining that with Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones struggling to find form all season, it leaves City with a lot of uncertainties at the back. Fernandinho has had to cover there for most of the season. The Brazilian is very old now, and while he’s still great, his aggression and issues in the air become more apparent when playing further back.

Manchester City’s very long pursuit for a new defensive midfielder to replace Fernandinho took far too long, which ended up with them spending a lot of money on Rodri when they could have gotten him a year earlier for far cheaper. That’s another topic entirely, but the adaption period hasn’t been as smooth as expected. Rodri and Fernandinho are very different. Rodri is a better passer, more physically dominant and of course, younger. The issue is his lack of speed and just lacks the experience of his Brazilian teammate. City face a lot of counter-attacking opportunites and having someone with the in-game awareness of Fernandinho, massively helped in supressing any potential goals. He regularly put in a foul, just to stop any attacks materialising. Rodri does actually commit a lot of fouls, but not in same vital way that Fernandinho did, instead doing it out of desperation rather than reading the situation.

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Rodri wouldn’t be as much of a problem in midfield, if it wasn’t for the attacking dominance. As mentioned, Pep has sought to keep getting the attack better, even at the cost for defensive solidity. Their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at home epitimised the Champions at their worse. They consistently left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks; arguably Manchester United’s biggest strength in attack. It’s baffling because it seemed Pep was desperate to protect his team from counter-attacks, but has instead increasingly left them more open. Pep’s side has the joint worst xG per shot against in the league, alongside West Ham United. City give up the ball rarely, but when they do, they constantly give their opponents great scoring opportunities.

De Bruyne is a problem in this regard. Guardiola has tried to adjust his lineup, in an attempt to give De Bruyne a free role in attack, and cover for the space he opens up for his general lack of defensive work. Playing Rodri as a single pivot just doesn’t work against teams who can punish them with counter-attacks. Pep has switched to a 4-2-3-1 in a handful of games this season, playing Gundogan alongside Rodri, but this hasn’t lead to much success either. City will always be vulnerable to counter-attacks, but I’ve never seen a Pep team look this bad when caught out of possession.

This tie is so difficult to call because even after looking at both teams, I still don’t know who will go through. Madrid still have the experience of winning these knockout games and could take advantage of how poor Manchester City is in defence at times; but Benzema could have one of his off-days and not be decisive enough in front of goal. Man City have the best attack in Europe and could simply overwhelm Madrid. I’d probably back Madrid to win both legs, especially with how unlucky City have been at times this season.

Niko Kovac and Bayern Munich Were Never Meant to Be

Bayern Munich have been one of the dominant sides of the decade; domestically and on the European stage. For the past 10 years, Bayern have attempted to form a style to keep their dominance in Germany for a sustainable period. It can all traced back to the appointment of Louis Van Gaal, a manager known for having a particular way of playing, that demands a lot from his players in terms of shape and offensive positioning. While Van Gaal did fail in entertaining the fans (something that would repeat in England) and bringing trophies in his second season, he nevertheless planted the seeds for what Bayern would become. He taught the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm how possession football should be played.

After Van Gaal’s departure and Jupp Heynckes’ treble success, Bayern Munich landed the most desirable manager in the world: Pep Guardiola. The Spanish genius sought out to do precisely what Van Gaal was asked to do; define a possession-based, style of play for the Champions.

Pep’s time at Bayern was easily the most interesting of his career. He attempted to implement the same template he used at Barcelona. Which later, Guardiola quickly realised wasn’t possible, and changes were needed to be made. The Bundesliga is a league full of teams which can counter-attack with great speed and numbers. Pep was already used to teams trying to beat his Barcelona sides through quick counters, but German clubs were much better at doing this, especially during the rise of Geganpressing. Guardiola seemingly became paranoid, desperate to retain domination, while also keeping his Bayern Munich side defensively solid if a counter was to arise. He did this through the full-backs. Pep was lucky to have David Alaba and Philip Lahm as his primary full-back pairing; two players so comfortable on the ball, they could seamlessly play in midfield, a position the pair have played before. With Bayern having two of the most fantastic wingers in the world in Ribery and Robben dominating the flanks, it gave Guardiola the option to play Alaba and Lahm as half-backs. Most of the ball progression didn’t need to go through the midfield anymore. With Robben and Ribery being two of the best dribblers of the decade, it allowed Guardiola to give them more space to dribble, create and score, instead of the inside forwards he was using at Barcelona. Guardiola’s Bayern was more disciplined and structured than ever before. With the Bundesliga’s lack of competition during Guardiola’s three-year stint with the Bavarians, it allowed him to experiment with different formations, with the Spaniard at one point setting up his team in a 2-3-5, a real throwback formation. While this was impressive on paper, Bayern were already doing this in a lot of their games. The full-backs would come inside, the number 10 and one of the central midfielders (usually Kroos) would push forward alongside Mandzukic, and Robben and Ribery were left as the primary outlet on the wings.

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Guardiola did what his former manager could not; define how Bayern Munich should be for the next decade, with a focus on possession play, a high press and a more traditional striker who can link-up with the forwards, first Mandzukic then Lewandowski. I could go into a lot of depth in terms of Pep’s Bayern, but it was more to explain why Bayern fans have become frustrated since the Spaniard’s departure.

Ancelotti was first, and arguably where the problems began. This isn’t to say that he’s a bad coach, but he isn’t Guardiola. Ancelotti is at his best when he’s given a very talented group of players, that just need a push in the right direction. He’ll usually resolve some of the more apparent problems while making the attack function. His success at Real Madrid and Chelsea showed this, where he was given two fantastic groups of players. In Chelsea’s case, they recently missed out on their first European trophy, while letting their league form slip after Jose Mourinho’s departure. He did the same at Real Madrid and actually made them fun to watch after the frustration that was Jose Mourinho’s final season. Bayern weren’t bad under Ancelotti, but it didn’t feel like they weren’t getting better. He did win the Bundesliga as expected. However, a semi-final defeat in the DFB Pokal to Dortmund and a rather unfortunate defeat to Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League did show a noticeable downgrade. Ancelotti’s short second season in charge saw them lose to Julien Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim and a rather embarrassing 3-0 defeat to PSG, which saw Ancelotti’s naivety exposed. Nagelsmann at only 29 already looked the more tactically astute manager, in a similar mould to Pep and being a Bavarian himself. He was who Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge wanted more than anyone else.

The other reason for Ancelotti’s dismissal was man-management. As mentioned, Bayern weren’t getting better, and the team lacked the same edge they had under Pep, with more reliance over the talent Bayern have over the rest of the Bundesliga. The players were generally unhappy with how Ancelotti’s training sessions were so much more laid-back than under Guardiola, with Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Hummels and Boateng all particularly unhappy. Reports were surfacing that the players were having secret training sessions behind Ancelotti’s back because they felt they weren’t being pushed enough. The influence Pep has had on this team is clear, and a manager with the same tactical nous and flexibility was needed, to keep Bayern playing in the same way as seen during Guardiola’s tenure, to keep the players happy.

So, why Niko Kovac? It’s the question that has perplexed me for nearly a year now, and after looking into it for a while, I finally figured that out. Jupp Heynckes returned to the club once again, and Bayern went back to their best. They were so good that Uli Hoeness desperately tried to convince him to stay on. Heynckes, understandably, said this was going to be the last time he managed a club, leaving Bayern to look at other options, to help continue the foundation that Pep established.

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Julien Nagelsmann was the first name on their list, but Red Bull were a step ahead of them, convincing Nagelsmann to move to Leipzig instead of Munich. Red Bull are ran so well, with some of the best talents in Germany to work with. This must have been a more exciting project for Nagelsmann than managing a rather difficult Bayern team. Thomas Tuchel was next on their list. Like Nagelsmann, Tuchel is a Bavarian and was clearly interested in the job. Yet, Bayern were taking too long in approaching the former Dortmund manager, leaving Paris Saint-Germain with an opening to take Tuchel from right under Bayern’s noses.

Bayern seemingly chose Kovac because that’s all they were left with. His CV wasn’t nearly as impressive as Tuchel or Nagelsmann’s. Kovac did help keep Frankfurt in the Bundesliga in his first season, to then finishing 11th and 8th and taking Frankfurt to two consecutive Pokal finals, winning his second against his future employers. This was an impressive feat, but the big question was could he effectively manage the best team in Germany and a group of players with incredibly high standards. At Frankfurt, Kovac was more focused on how to set his side up defensively and work on off the ball positioning. Kovac would need to change this, since Bayern are the most dominant side in the Bundesliga in terms of possession and shots, off the ball work wasn’t a priority. It’s where Kovac differs from Tuchel and Nagelsmann; two coaches who have shown the ability to build a cohesive and robust attack, with Dortmund and Hoffenheim being two of the best attacking sides during their respective reigns. Convincing the Bayern fans and board members that he was the right fit for Bayern was going to be extremely difficult.

Kovac’s final game in charge, a 5-1 defeat to Frankfurt, wasn’t the first poor performance we saw from his Bayern Munich side. In fact, it was seen from the beginning of his reign. Kovac had a very mixed start to his tenure. They began dropping points, failing to look comfortable in the final third. After winning their first 4 games of the season, they dropped points in 3 consecutive games, and the same problem can be seen in these games: a lack of quality chances. Their 2-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin perfectly showcases Kovac’s most significant issue when it comes to Bayern on the pitch. While Bayern did dominate the game, their shot map was a mess:

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Bayern just seemed to lack an attacking plan under Kovac, relying more on the experience of a title-winning team full of winners than his own ability to coach. This three-game stretch displayed how poor Bayern was at creating high-quality chances compared to the same team under Pep or even Ancelotti’s. His overreliance on Lewandowski was becoming more apparent as the match days were rolling by. The Polish marksman was the main thing keeping Bayern’s attack ticking, with Lewandowski not only winning the golden boot in the Bundesliga with 22 goals but also assisted 7. He created over a chance per 90, and his sheer quality not only kept Bayern as one of the best attacking sides in Germany but got a lot out of other players in the team. I find it highly unlikely that Gnabry would have finished with his impressive goal tally last season, if it wasn’t for Lewandowski dragging defenders with him, and dropping deep to create space.

Der Klassiker was by far lowest point for Kovac in his debut season, for perfectly exhibiting everything wrong with Bayern’s attack. Bayern struggled against their rivals for the first time in years. Dortmund were riding high at this point, looking unstoppable with Sancho, Reus and Alcacer having fantastic starts to the season. But this is a fixture where Bayern have always turned up, with their last defeat coming in 2016, where they were somewhat unlucky to lose. This time was different. Bayern did get an early lead thanks to Lewandowski and went on to have a positive first half, with Burki tested through efforts from Ribery and Gnabry. Bayern were dominant and played some of their best football of the season. But Dortmund’s character and determination showed, with Reus scoring two and Alcacer getting the winner, to put Dortmund in the driving seat for the title.

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Bayern were shambolic in the second half by their standards, only mustering Lewandowski’s goal and a few half chances from Ribery and Muller. Dortmund looked like they wanted it more, creating countless opportunities and could have easily won that game by more. Even after Alcacer’s goal, Bayern still had 18 minutes to get an equaliser, yet had no ideas in achieving that, neither did Kovac. Favre reacted to his team’s lack of goals by introducing Mahmoud Dahoud to add some energy in midfield and Paco Alcacer, one of the best bench options around. Kovac, on the other hand, reacted by bringing on Renato Sanches for Serge Gnabry, one of the only players with pace in the team and Sandro Wagner, a player who doesn’t add anything different to what Lewandowski can do. It was so uninspiring, especially when James Rodriguez was on the bench. It still surprises me that Kovac managed to last longer than that defeat.

However, something changed in Bayern’s form. After that defeat to Dortmund and a subsequent draw to Dusseldorf, The Bavarians suddenly awoke from their 6-month slumber, and turned into the ‘Super Bayern’ we know and, at least, admire. From December 1st to the end of the season, Bayern only dropped 9 points, losing a single game. This run included scoring 5 goals or more against Meinz, Gladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg and Dortmund.

This improved form and title win would make you believe that Kovac had turned it all around, but that still wasn’t the case. Two toothless and rather abject performances in the Champions League against Liverpool showed Bayern at their worst in Europe since their demolition by the hands of Real Madrid in 2014. The Bundesliga Champions failed to register a shot on target during their 0-0 draw at Anfield, placing them in a position where they just needed to win at the Allianz. The problem with treating your away legs as damage control means there is even more pressure on you to win at home than before, and if your opponent does manage to score in your own back yard, it makes that mountain even steeper. Kovac’s approach here screamed naivety. Liverpool is one of the best teams in Europe, and assuming they can’t score at the Allianz is ridiculous. The best teams in European competitions know how to win both home and away. This remarkably unambitious approach has been used and failed by many coaches. Mourinho did it with Manchester United during a round of 16 encounter with Sevilla, where they earned a goalless draw in Seville, only to lose the return leg in one of Mourinho’s worst games as a manager. Valverde did the same against Roma in 2018 and against eventual champions Liverpool last season, hoping a strong home victory would be enough to secure the tie. It’s ignorant and frustrating to see coaches still see the away leg as a game where keeping a clean sheet is all that matters.

Their defeat at the Allianz to Liverpool was the final straw for many Bayern fans, with the most worrying element of the loss being how far behind Bayern looked compared to Klopp’s team. Bayern lacked the same intensity we saw under Pep and were by far the second-best team in both legs. The gap between Jurgen Klopp and Niko Kovac was enormous at this stage. Even with Bayern’s improvement in the league, it was a huge step back in terms of Kovac being the right man for the job.

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Even Bayern’s change of form during the second half of the season did raise some doubts. Did Kovac suddenly get the players on his side with his approach being implemented on the pitch, or did the players suddenly remember they are supposed to be the Champions and need to prove that for their own reputations? The latter seems to be accurate, with reports surfacing that the Bayern players agreed to do everything to ensure they remained the Bundesliga holders.

Kovac’s biggest crime as Bayern coach was easily the collapse in his relationship with Thomas Muller. Personally, I do not like Muller at all. While he is clearly a talented player, he is not at the level to have as much power at Bayern Munich as he does. Muller commands a lot of influence in the dressing room and was one of the leading figures in Ancelotti’s dismissal, not satisfied with his lack of game time. The former Milan coach did actually play Muller a lot during his first season, but Bayern decided to add one of the best number 10’s in the world, with James Rodriguez arriving on loan. It was the first time Muller faced apparent competition in the squad, which he didn’t like. He then does what he usually does, and talks to reporters, which lead to more pressure on Ancelotti. The point is as Bayern coach, you should never leave Muller out of your first-team plans. The World Cup winner has recently been forced out of the national team by Joachim Low, a decision I respect and appreciate.

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So just like Rodriguez’s arrival, Muller was again unhappy to see himself dropped after Philippe Coutinho arrived on loan; an incredibly talented player who was an improvement over the ageing Muller. Kovac even admitted that he wouldn’t field Countinho and Muller together because it would be “too attacking.” It was evident by the start that Coutinho had to the season, that he would be preferred, looking more like the player we all adored watching at Liverpool. Coutinho clearly enjoyed working with Kovac, saying, “He is a top coach and a great guy who likes to work hard.” Coutinho’s presence in the side seemed to be an attempt by Kovac to push his own authority, but he clearly lost. Kovac even referred to Muller as “emergency nail,” showing just how Kovac was ready to change the norm in Munich. Kovac did later backtrack on this comment, which says everything you need to know about Muller’s influence. During Van Gaal tenure as Bayern coach, he famously said “Muller always plays,” a statement that rings forever true as the years go by. Ancelotti was sacked for not playing Muller, and Kovac is another to attempt to cross the German forward, only to lose the battle, and his job.

I can’t really blame Kovac for resigning. Even if he didn’t, there was a high chance he was going to be sacked. A squad relying more on individual quality than a tactical blueprint, taking Bayern Munich from the most dominant team in Germany to one that could be toppled and falling out with key members of the squad. I do genuinely sympathise with the situation Kovac was in, but the Bayern job, like many big club jobs, is different. There are different standards, players have higher demands in terms of what the coach should be doing, and they expect a certain level to be playing at. I still believe Kovac isn’t a bad coach. It’s just his style of coaching isn’t suited for a club of Bayern’s expectations. He arrived as the third choice option. He was always going to struggle to win over the fans, the players and the board. Kovac and Bayern were so different that it’s hard even to think that this was going to work in the long term. This was an appointment that felt wrong from the beginning, and even if I did hope he would find his feet in this massive job, it’s clear that this was never going to work out.

 

Most Overrated Manager? Ranking All 20 Premier League Managers

I’ve been meaning to do one of these lists for a while, but because of the whole manager merry go round that is the Premier League, I decided to wait for the season to reach a point that contained an element of stabililty. The table doesn’t look like it will change from now on so let’s rank all 20 Premier League managers. There is definitely some controversial choices here, but this list isn’t permanent, meaning these could change by the next year. I do believe that needs be stated, so let’s begin

    20. Scott Parker – Fulham

By far the easiest choice here. This isn’t anything personal against Parker. The former England midfielder has only been in the job for a handful of games, meaning it is difficult to judge him. Parker took charge after both Jokanovic and Ranieri failed in keeping Fulham out of the relegation zone. Fulham do not look like they will be appointing another manager, and right it seems to be damage control. This has been a failure of a season for Fulham, and now Parker has been left in a very difficult position. Let’s hope he can find his feet in the game and recover from being in this circumstance.

    19. Jan Siewert – Huddersfield

Another who has joined a sinking ship, Jan Siewert is another I sympthaise for. His appointment seemes to be in the hope of regaining promotion back into the Premier League, instead of survival. Huddersfield are already one of the lowest scoring teams in Premier League history, and have a squad that is arguably worse than some teams in the Championship. The fact that Huddersfield survived last season was nothing short of a miracle, and now it seems reality has hit them. A poor summer window just showed that this is a side that just isn’t ready for the Top flight, and need time to establish themselves as a bigger club. I have no idea if Siewert is the right manager to do that, but he seems to be a long term fix, rather than trying to fight the inevitable.

    18. Chris Hughton – Brighton

While I do like Hughton as a coach, being able to build a solid defensive structure and having experience in getting sides promoted, the disconnect between transfers and coach seem to be so apparent that it makes Hughton a very frustrating figure. When teams get promoted, what they need most is creativity and to beat the teams closest to them. Brighton did this, mainly down to Pascal Gros bringing the chance creation that he showed at Ingolstadt, and was the main reason why Brighton stayed up. Other signings like Matt Ryan and Davy Propper helped in this regard too. It is clear that whoever is in charge of Brighton’s transfers is incredible at finding great talent for very reasonable fees. They did similar business in the summer, with talents like Bisouma and Jahanbakhsh arriving, but this is where my frustration with Hughton is from. The higher ups at Brighton are bringing in very talented footballers, yet Hughton just isn’t playing them. Bernardo, who arrived from RB Leipzig, has played less games than 30 year old Gaetan Bong. Jahanbakhsh has only started 6 games, while Anthony Knockaert, one of the worst players in the league, has started 15. While guys like Sarri and Guardiola can get criticised for never changing the way they play, Hughton is being gifted improvements over the players he has, and isn’t using them. They have one of the best defences in the league, if Hughton actually decides to start his best players. I just worry for Brighton. I do not like to see clubs who are doing good things struggling because of one man refusing to use his best tools. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hughton is let go in the future at some point

    17. Eddie Howe – Bournemouth

While many might see this and disagree, I do believe he is the most overrated manager in the league. I think there is an element that the English media wants to see an English manager succeed, especially when they are young and have built a football romance story by getting Bournemouth to the Premier League. This doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t a great manager. By far his best quality is building solid attacks. Howe has been given some very good players in Wilson, King, Fraser and Brooks. He uses these players very effectively, and has been able to get all of these players into the same team, and working well. Fraser is only behind Hazard in assists in the league, and has turned into one of the most effective wingers this season. David Brooks is currently having one of the breakout seasons, scoring some important goals and showing himself to be a very flexible attacker. Howe has turned Bournemouth into a fast, counter attacking side, and has shown some adaptability in changing his style. By far the worst part of his Bournemouth side is their inability to defend. Bournemouth have conceded 56 goals this season, with all sides in the bottom four conceding more. It means that Brighton, Southampton and Newcastle, all sides below them in the table, have better defences than them. Newcastle and Manchester United both face roughly same amount as shots as Bournemouth, yet have much better defensive records. It shows that Bournemouth are giving their opponents great chances to score, consistently. The argument is made that they are a small club, yet both Hughton and Benitez, two managers working with more of a budget, concede less goals. Until Eddie Howe learns how to actually build an effective defence, no club will consider him. He is still young however, so there is plenty of time for him to learn.

    16. Neil Warnock – Cardiff 

While his methods of coaching can definitely be questioned, there is no argument that he is a specialist in promotion. His Cardiff side were arguably the worst out of the 3 sides that got promoted last season, yet they still deserved to get promoted. He is an old fashioned coach who likes an old fashioned way of playing, and it is very effective. Before the season started, I thought they would be going straight down. They didn’t seem to recruit in the right areas and were going to have to be very lucky to survive. Somehow Warnock is doing the impossible, and is getting the best out of what he’s got. They are one of the best sides in the league when it comes to aerial dominance. They are good at creating chances too. The Welsh side have taken 1.1 shots a game from inside the six yard area, only 6 teams are ahead of them, and are actually better than Chelsea. Warnock has even been saying at the beginning of the season that surviving was nearly impossible, and he was right. They haven’t been great, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as Fulham and Huddersfield. They rank bottom for possession and passes, yet Warnock has kept them out of the relegation zone for most of the season. From moving Callum Paterson from full back to a striker, dragging every ounce out of 34 year old Sol Bamba, and fitting Camarasa and Josh Murphy right into the side, he is getting the best out of what he has and is giving them a chance of survival. They have been on the end of some huge defeats, that will happen when you have a Championship level squad. What he has done for Cardiff is another achievement for Warnock. Even at the age of 70, he still remains a good manager in improving a side on the short term. I like Warnock, but there are 15 other managers who I think are better.

    15. Sean Dyche – Burnley 

It might sound stange, but there are some clear similarities between Sean Dyche and Diego Simeone. Both build very resilient back lines, use two blocks of four to defend, and require a lot of defensive work from all their players. One other similarity is how they are awful at using more flair players. While Dyche doesn’t have Lemar, Carrasco, Gaitan and Martins as a list of failures, there are stll some clear standouts. Nakhi Wells is the first. He was the first of a few attempts to add something different to his attack. It didn’t work out in the slightest, and is now at QPR. Another player who came in was Steven Defour. At the time, I thought he was a very good signing, but it’s a shame he didn’t play much. Last but not least would be Vydra. The Czech Republic striker had came in after having a steller season with Derby, and like the others, just hasn’t been getting the minutes. Dyche is just afraid to risk that small chance of relegation, in favour of spicing up is attack. While Burnley did really well last season, their drop off was expected. Dyche was defying expected goals. By putting nearly all of his outfield players in the 18 yard box. It tricked the system because even if the opposition were getting in good positions, they were never having clear shots at goal. It did also help that Nick Pope had a great season, and made sure that Heaton’s presence wasn’t missed. Burnley’s luck has just ran out. They have struggled all season defensively and struggle in creating good chances. Without that solid defence, it puts even more pressure on the forwards, and aren’t producing. Dyche does things that I like, but he might need to start changing his methods. It’s a shame too, because this team still contains good defenders, but maybe using Vydra, and not building a defensive system based on luck isn’t a great idea. I trust that he could do this, but if they do not improve, they might be trouble.

    14. Marco Silva – Everton

I liked what Marco Silva had done with Hull. He turned a side that had less than 18 first team players at the beginning to the season, to giving them a fighting chance to stay up. He continued this good work at Watford, where he made a hard working side with a real attacking drive. It didn’t end well for Silva in London. After accusations that he was starting to look unfocused, after interest from Everton, he was sacked by Watford. It was still understandable. These accusations happened while Watford were in dreadful form, so it was quite understandable. He has since joined Everton, where he has been hit and miss. He has improved the attack. The toffees have went from 9.4 shots a game to 12.1. They’ve already scored 43 goals, one less than they managed in the entirety of last season. He has given some consistency to the team and has given the team some flexibility. They aren’t as predictable as they were under Allerdyce. Richarlison has been a huge signing for them. He has continued in getting into great positions, just like he was at Watford. The difference is he is now scoring them. The attack has improved, but the defence is the problem. Setpieces are the biggest concern. By the 6th of February, no other Premier League side had conceded more goals from set pieces than their 11. They use zonal marking, like many sides, but the problem for a majority of the season is they aren’t very good at it. They have improved slightly in recent weeks, but it just hasn’t been good enough. There was always a huge gap between the goalkeeper and defence, meaning it’s simple as one good ball into the near post would gift a team with a goal. As mentioned, Silva has improved in this area, with their 2-0 win over Chelsea showing this, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Their home form has to be better. If they want to be considered European football contenders, they have to stop losing in a ground once considered one of the toughest to go in England. Silva still seems to have a lot to learn in the game, and it’s why he is so low down on this list.

    13. Javi Gracia – Watford

Now onto Marco Silva’s replacement at Watford. Javi Gracia came in with the job of damage control. Watford had a strong start to the season, but thanks to a very poor winter period, they needed a boost. Gracia did that, and after a summer that saw improvements in the goalkeeper and forward departments. For the first time, Watofrd didn’t go crazy in the transfer market, and instead were willing to get the most out of what they had. Gracia has now built a very direct, aggressive and physical side that are deservingly in the top half of the table. They have been quite fortunate in a handful of games however, with their 5-1 win over Cardiff definitely flattering to decieve, but they have been winning games and playing to their strengths. No other side in the league attacks more centrally than Watford, with 31% of their attacks coming through the middle. He full backs provide width, while Troy Deeney gives an aerial threat that is almost umatched in the league. I like how Gracia has finally made Watford a real tough team, without having to spent much at all. Instead he made a system that gets the most out of the tools he has, and it makes a lot of these players look great. Deulofeu is finally looking like a good footballer, and Jose Holebas is having a real standout season at the age of 32. He’s found a core group of players he can use and the players seem to enjoy what he’s doing.

    12. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Manchester United

While many might see this and think why is the current Manchester United manager not even in the top 10 managers in the league, well I have my reasons. I still believe that any manager could have came in and improved the squad in the same or similar manner as the Norwegian has done. United fans a lot of the media see this appointment and love it in the romantic sense, which is understandable. It’s good to see a former player come back and join the club where he had plenty of success, and the fans still love him. But many are overlooking the obvious. The first and most obvious is that any manager could have came in and improved this squad after the disaster that was Jose Mourinho. If a manager came in and just played Pogba and Martial, you would have a clear improvement. It’s why I find what he’s done so far not that impressive. When United have been very fortunate in games against Tottenham and Paris, there is an element of the truth being hidden by the scoreline. United did not deserve that win against Paris. They only created 2 chances, and on any other day, they would not get that comeback. I do like some of the changes that Solskjaer has made, including playing to Rashford’s strengths and bringing the best out of Ander Herrera, but I do think if United want to insert themselves back into the European elite that they so crave, they must at least try and look at someone like Pochettino. With the fans and media both saying that Ole should be given the job permanently, it means the board might not even try looking at a director of football or even another manager. Every top club now has a director of football, someone with a clear view of where the team will be in the next 5 years. Solskjaer could definitely become an elite manager, but having a world class would at least make the prospect of joining United more tempting.

    11. Roy Hodgson – Crystal Palace

Out of all the managers, Hodgson’s position on the list is very questionable. When he arrived at Palace, his failure with England was still fresh in the minds of many, so his appointment was definitely a strange one. He was also 69 at the time, which meant it wasn’t exactly long term. I only think Palace are one of the top 10 teams in the league, and a lot of it is down to Hodgson. He’s the first manager to truly get any sort of consistency out of Wilfred Zaha. He turned Palace into a speed machine. With dynamic fullbacks in Van Aanholt and Wan-Bissaka (one of the best full back pairings in the league) running up and down the wings, and Zaha and Townsend adding that sprinkle of unpredictability, it makes them a very good side against any opposition. They are also aggressive. Wan-Bissaka, McArthur and Milivojevic are all great at winning back the ball. They play in a direct and straight forward way, but it’s so effective. Palace are 7th in shots per game and are 3rd in dribbles. While both are mostly down to Zaha, they are still great to watch. Hodgson has done wonders and done something no one would have expected. I put him over Solskjaer because he pulled off an impossible job at the time, and if Palace just had a striker with actual confidence, they could really fight for a top 10 manager. An old manager who seems to still have a bit of life left in him.

    10. Manuel Pellegrini – West Ham United

Now onto the top 10, and first it’s West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini. West Ham have been a real laughing stock of the Premier League for the last 2 years. unplanned signings, bad protests, owners leaking transfers, hiring David Moyes. These are just a few things that made West Ham impossible to take seriously. It all goes back to that awful stadium move, but after nearly 3 years, they seemed to have finally settled. Last summer was the first time West Ham seemed to make smart business. Issa Diop, Balbuena, Fabianski, Yarmolenko and to top it all off, Felipe Anderson. The Brazilian has been West Ham’s best player all season, and arguably the best player they have had in the last decade. He’s an excellent dribbler and everything good that West Ham do goes through him. Even though he is going through quite a dry patch, with Anderson failing to score in the Premier League in 2019. He has still been really good and has been the boost they need. Pellegrini has mostly used a 4-1-4-1, to give midfield protection and make sure they aren’t exposed on the flanks. It worked well, with the side being great to watch in attack and having the occasional good defensive display. Pellegrini has made them unpredictable to say the least. One game they will put in an unbelievable display and beat Arsenal and Manchester United, and another they conceed 3 to Huddersfield. He has still improved that defence, and has found new life in Snodgrass, Zableta and Cresswell, players previous managers didn’t favour. He’s actually built a functional midfield out of a group of players that I never thought would do anything. Rice is now one of the names on everyone’s lips, with the now England midfielder looking like a solid distributor. There is still plenty of work to be done for Pellegrini, but he has given them a future.

    9. Rafa Benitez – Newcastle United 

How Rafa is still at Newcastle I will never know. The Spaniard has proven to be one of the best defensive managers in Europe. Newcastle have an owner who almost refuses to invest in the club, and it’s left Rafa with one of the squads in the league. Almiron has recently just broken a 14 year old transfer record, held by Michael Owen. He has been a massive boost for them, adding that creative spark they previously didn’t possess. Benitez is in the top 10 for the reason of being able to keep this side in the Premier League. You give this team to any other manager in the bottom half of the table and they would struggle to stay out of the relegation zone. However thanks to Benitez adding that solid defensive structure and midfielders like Hayden and Longstaff covering the backline, it has made them one of the toughest teams to break down. The only reason he is not any higher is because while they are a defensive side, they can be a bit too pragmatic. Throughout the season. Rondon can be seen so isolated, because they are so focused on keeping goals out instead of scoring. This has been different since Almiron’s arrival, so let’s hope Benitez can bring Newcastle back to their glory days.

    8. Brendon Rodgers – Leicester City

This might be one of the toughest to defend, but I do believe Rodgers is a great manager. He gave Liverpool a genuine hope of a title, even if Manchester City were always better (sounds familiar). The problem he had Liverpool were making really bad decisions in the transfer market over and over again, and it left him with a really difficult squad to work with. He did make plenty of mistakes along the way, but his time at Liverpool should still be looked at one a more positive note. He then went to Celtic and actually imprvoed them. They went unbeaten for nearly 2 whole domestic campaigns. While they were embarrased multiple times in Europe, they are Celtic, so not much should be expected. He’s arrived at Leicester with the hope of making them more consistent. Puel is a good manager, but he was making decisions that were baffling at times. Dropping Vardy, putting Pereira as a winger even though he is one of the best tacklers in Europe and starting Morgan way more than he should be. Leicester have the best squad outside of the top 6. Some of the best full backs in the league, One of the best creators and prospects in Maddison and other young players like Ndidi, Chilwell, Iheanacho and Barnes. Rodgers has a great group of players to work with here. He started his first game against Watford with a 3-4-3, and he’s on the right track. Why have wingers when you have incredibly good full backs who will provide plenty of width. It means Maddison can play further up the pitch, and when he’s averaging 2.9 key passes, that’s what you want to do. I am very excited to see where Rodgers will take this side. Next season they could be one of the best attacking sides in the country.

    7. Nuno Esperito Santo – Wolves

Nuno Esperito Santo has taken the Premier League by storm. Wolves are one of many clubs that have risen since massive investment, but one massive difference has been they have constantly made good decisions. During their last season in the Championship, they focused on bringing a handful of players on loan, like Diogo Jota and Willy Boly. Soon as their promotion was confirmed, the first thing they did was sign these guys on a permanent deal, to keep the chemistry in the squad at a high. Great signings like Jimenez, Patricio, Jonny and Moutinho have given them one of the strongest starting 11’s in the league. Nuno was so happy with his side, that he just didn’t change it. He kept the same XI for the first couple of months, because of how good they were performing. Nuno had made the side so difficult to deal with, especially for the big sides. Intelligent passers in midfield, wing backs who comfortable in defending and get into good areas and a defence that has continued so strong from the Championship. The addition of Patricio has made this side even better, adding an experienced goalkeeper with great shot stopping and distribution. Wins against Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea, and taking points off City and Arsenal have made them a side to be feared. The best thing about Nuno is he wasn’t afraid to change it. After a few bad results, the former Porto manager realised a midfield two of Moutinho and Neves just doesn’t have the legs to compete against more energetic midfields. After losing back to back against Huddersfield and Cardiff, Nuno tweaked his side a little and changed from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2. He dropped Helder Costa, who wasn’t performing consistently enough, and added Dendonker to give the midfield some energy. He has never looked back since. They are now able to control games much better and even counter with better quality, since Jota and Jimenez are now closer together. Nuno has built a side that are great defensively, and create high quality chances. They have a great group of players, and a top level manager to push this side to upset the rest of the league.

    6. Ralph Hassenhuttl – Southampton

Putting a manager who’s side is battling relegation might be quite left field, but there are reasons why he’s so high up. Let’s start with his Leizpig side. Hassenhuttl built a great young side, which saw the best seasons from Emil Forsberg and Naby Keita, and saw them finish runners up in the Bundesliga, ahead of the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke. It was clear that the Austrian took insperation from Jurgen Klopp, with the east German side pressing aggressively from the front. It’s what made them such a threat, having players with the ability to go head to head against anyone. Southampton have had a clear drop off since the departure of Ronald Koeman. While Puel wasn’t bad, they were hoping for more from him. Pellegrino turned out to be an awful appointment, but it was the appointment of Mark Hughes that made me almost lose hope in them. Hughes is just really bad and it seemed to be a sign of desperation. However after they finally made the right decision in sacking him back in December, they appointed Hassenhuttl, which was very reminiscent of the smart choices they made in Koeman and Pochettino. He has so far been a success. While he still seemingly struggling to find his best XI, he is making slow progess. For years, Southampton were an example of a side with good full backs, but after both Bertrand and Cedric forgot how to attack, Hassenhuttl put young full backs Matt Targett and Yan Valery into the side, and it has given them a huge boost. Targett has already got 3 assists this season, more than anyone else. While Valery hasn’t been sensational, he has looked very good and shows more courage to attack than Cedric ever did. He has made Southampton better in midfield and has helped Bednerak and Vestergaard establish themselves in the league. If Hassenhuttl is given time and backing, they could go back to a side who were fighting for European football.

    5. Unai Emery – Arsenal

The top 5 from here aren’t really any surprises, but some managers here I haven’t actually spoken about at any point. First is Emery, who while hasn’t been the instant hit, has shown a lot of promise. His appointment back in the summer felt like it was out of nowhere. It’s strange to think that, but I almost forgot that he was available. With Allegri and Tuchel on the lips of all Arsenal fans, it was expected that they would have tried harder for one of them. This isn’t to say Emery is a bad appointment, in fact I really like it. He has always been good at getting the best out of players under his management. While they have not been as good in attack as they were under Wenger, they have improved defensively. Bellerin, Kolasinac and Holding are all having their best seasons in an Arsenal shirt, he has also gotten the best out of the signings. I criticised Arsenal’s business in the summer, and rightly so. They didn’t bring in another defender, since Mustafi just doesn’t look good enough. Sokratis was seen as the worst for me. I never understood all the praise he was getting in the Bundesliga, with his positional sense being questionable at best and his recklessness making him a liability on the pitch. He has not been as good as the likes of Laporte or Rudiger, but has put in some big performances for his side. Emery also has got both Aubameyang and Lacazette firing, with the pair scoring 29 goals in the league. He’s also getting a lot out of fringe players like Guendouzi, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. He’s given this side a boost and has attempted to even get Ozil to work in his system. He’s been very impressve in some of the big games. Wins against Tottenham, Chelsea and Man United, and even taking points from Liverpool. He has shown versatility and has changed his approach against tougher opponents, known his side can’t out play them. The Europa League will most likely define their season, and they have been very good. While they suffered a big defeat to Rennes away from home, Emery has still been smart in squad rotation. He played a lot of young talent in the group stages, giving them the opportunity to give the manager plenty to think about. Emery won this compeitition 3 times on the bounce, so it’s an area you expect them to succeed in. Progression has been there, but slow. You can trust Emery to advance Arsenal even further in the next couple of years. With the likes of Aybameyang, Sokratis, Ozil and Koscielny all approaching the latter years of their career, there is a lot of work to still be done.

    4. Maurizio Sarri – Chelsea

Sarri has been getting a lot of criticism in recent weeks, and a lot of it is understandable. I still do not understand why he has been playing Ross Barkey over Loftus-Cheek. Barkley isn’t as intelligent as his England teammate, and is poor as a number 8. I do think he has made some mistakes, but it seems the criticism that Chelsea fans are aiming at him is quite extreme, regarding his lack of squad rotation. The Chelsea board should have known what to expect from him. Sarri rarely ever changed his Napoli side, with players barely being given a chance to play. Ounas and Rog didn’t even start a game last season in Serie A, and 10 players started over 30 games. The XI was only changed when Ghoulam suffered a serious injury, which resulted in Mario Rui coming in. Sarri likes to play a core group of players and stick to it. This strict approach has caused some players to miss out on game time, and has also exposed some of the weak areas in the team. Marcos Alonso has shown himself to be one of the worst left backs in the league, with his lack of speed and defensive awareness, it makes him so easy to beat. While I like Azpilicueta, he just doesn’t contribute enough in the final third to justify starting him. Chelsea are already at a massive disadvantage next season. This squad needs a lot of work, and now without the ability to buy players in the summer, it means they cannot improve. Sarri is a great manager, but you need to give him what he wants. He obviously has problems with this squad, but now is unable to solve them. Sarri is still a great manager. His Napoli side was one of the best in Europe at ball progression, and successfully turned Insigne, Koulibaly, Jorginho and Hysaj into some of the best players in their positions. He also got the best years out of Higuain and Hamsik. Sarri’s Chelsea have shown many times that there is definitely potential to see a real great side here, but patience is needed. This isn’t like having Conte or Mourinho, two managers who can instantly improve a side. If Chelsea want to see success under Sarri, they need to give him time, even under the most difficult circumstances. The Blues aren’t exactly in the best position to be looking for managers, so it’s important that Sarri is given the time and resources he needs. He will build a spectacular side, that will challenge across the board. His sides play football in the way the world want to see it be played, and it’s why I constantly defend him. He’s above the likes of Emery and Nuno because I know just how good his sides can be. He has a philosophy and style that guarantees long term success.

     3. Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool

While I can assure that my ranking of the last 17 managers has been subjective to say the least, I’d be surprised if anyone disagreed with the next 3. The argument of winning defines a manager is a one I can’t disagree with more. A manager not winning trophies should not discount the work and improvement he has done, and Jurgen Klopp’s work should not be forgotten. He has taken Liverpool back to the top of world football, with smart spending, a positive brand of football and even taking advantage of set pieces, Klopp has added elements to the side that make them challenge contenders. Soon as he arrived in England, players like Henderson, Milner, Coutinho and Lallana all finally started showing the potential they had. He turned Liverpool from a side overreliant on individual talents from the likes of Suarez, Sterling and Coutinho, to building a functioning team with a way of playing that revolves around defending from the front and almost being the weakness to possession sides like a Barcelona or PSG. While the cash has definitely been splashed, with players like Alisson, Van Dijk, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlein all coming in for big money, but it’s what has to be done. He’s blended big signings with players who can add something to his team. Robertson, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri, Matip and Alexander-Arnold adding some balance to the side. What I’m most impressed about with Klopp is the changes he’s made to his side. Last season, Liverpool were a machine going forward. They were arguably the second best team in the Premier League last season, and even broke the record for most goals in a single Champions League campaign. They were ruthless in the final third, but the other areas of the pitch needed fixing. Bringing in Alisson gave them a better distributor in goal, and adding more of a presence there. He also gave his midfield better ball carriers, with Keita and Fabinho adding that extra bit of quality that improved an area which was exposed in last year’s final. These changes allowed Klopp to play a less heavy metal approach, and give his side a much better defence. They’ve also not been pressing as much, since he wants to compete on all stages, instead of having to focus on a singular competition. While they have had some bad performances this season, Klopp has arguably made the best Liverpool side of the century. They’re flexible, solid and have finally looked like the team that could keep Liverpool as European elite for a long time, and having a manager who gives Liverpool such a scary image is exactly what they needed.

     2. Mauricio Pochettino – Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Heung Min Son. These are just some of the players who’s price tags have sky rocketed since Pochettino arrived in England. the former espanyol manager successfully turned Tottenham from a punchline, into the best side in London. The main reason why he’s so sought after for clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid is because of how he can bring the best out of players, and is incredibily versitile. Pochettino has been able to make plenty of in game adjustments, whether it’s changing from 3 to the back to 4, or adding an extra striker up front. He has given his side the ability to be able to change formation and systems on the fly. The most impressive display from Pochettino was actually against Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier in the season. Pochettino made roughly 8 in game changes throughout the game. Moving Lucas into a central position, moving Dembele deeper, asking Kane to move a bit deeper. It’s what makes Tottenham so difficult to play at times, because you do not know how they will approach each opponent. While Tottenham have arguably had their worst season since 2014/15, this might actually be Pochettino’s best. He’s been struck with injuries all over the park, and has been using everything he has to get Champions League football. He got a man of the match performance out of Jan Vertonghen at left back, and even got some spectacular performances out of both Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, a sentence I never thought I would say. He has done so much considering the situation. While they have dropped off in recent weeks, the fact they have stayed this competitive just speaks volumes on how good of a manager Pochettino is.

     1. Pep Guardiola – Manchester City

Who else? Pep Guardiola is not only the best manager in the league, but in the whole in Europe. He has built some of the best sides in the game’s history, and this Man City side is among them.  Pep has built a side that is nearly unbeatable on their day, with their losses usually going down to missing key personel. Many like to point out that Pep didn’t need to do much since his club have spent an obsene amount of money, but these are arguments that hold no real weight. Sure having some top quality talent helps, but Pep’s touch on this side cannot be argued. He turned Raheem Sterling from an inconsistent winger into a certain PFA player of the year contender. John Stones’s reading of the game has grown since his arrival in Manchester. He has even gotten some of the best year’s out of City legends Aguero and Silva. His biggest achievement by far was how he adapted. His first season in charge was definitely a learning curve, with humiliating losses to Everton and Leicester highlighting just how much work needed to be done. He instantly fixed his full back areas, to give his side much more in the wide areas, and to keep Sterling on the right side, and Sane on the left. It was to ensure that they could receive the ball wide, and when you have incredible passers in Silva and De Bruyne, it makes it really easy to beat those deep blocks that City struggled to break down in his first season. When you also add the best distributor in his position in Ederson, it gives City an almost unlimited amount of ways to transition the ball. It’s thanks to having a manager, who has learnt and added more to his game as the years go on. He is the manager that every club wants and dreams of having.

 

Memorable Matches – FC Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United

After the international break becoming baron when discussing relevent football, let’s talk about matches from the past. Games that will never be forgotten in the minds of the fans who watched. Let’s start with a game that I even remember watching at a younger age. The second encounter in two years between Sir Alex’s United, and Pep’s treble winning Barcelona. Both sides previously played each other in the 2009 champions league final, also remembered as Ronaldo’s final game for the club. The game was quite close, but incredible games from both Xavi and Messi put Barcelona over the line. This game was the rematch, which would hopefully see Fergie finally land the victory over Pep. But we all know that is not what happened. So let’s get into it.

United’s great first 10 minutes

Let’s start with by far United’s best moment. Ferguson’s plan was to use both Park and Valencia to deal with the full backs and midfielders. Park would drop deep to stop Alves from making any as advancing runs. Valencia and Park are both incredibly good at tracking back and helping their full backs. It was a classic Ferguson move. He always liked to play players, like Park, in these big games to help nullify the opponent. United played a classic 4-4-2, with Giggs and Carrick in midfield. Their other approach to deal with their midfield disadvantage was to bring one of the wingers inside depending on which side Barcelona were playing. For example, if the ball was on the side of Pedro and Abidal, Valencia would put pressure on them, while Park would come into midfield to limit the effect of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Both Rooney and Hernandez had very important roles. Rooney had to keep on Busquets. The defensive midfielder is so important in how Barcelona build up play. He is one is able to receive the ball and pick out a further advanced player, to help with possession. Rooney at times helped with this (we’ll get to why it didn’t work later) and Hernandez kept pressure on the back two of Pique and Mascherano. This worked so well for the first 10-15 minutes, but we will now get to why this didn’t exactly work.

A Xavi Masterclass

I constantly love to compliment midfielders. Whether it has been my constant defense of Paul Pogba, my praise for Luka Modric, my love for Vidal’s all round excellence, or the many memories I have of Paul Scholes. Xavi is better than all of the above. I fondly remember watching him, and his Barcelona teammates majestically move around the pitch and win 3 international trophies back to back. I do not think there will ever be a better player than Xavi in the middle of the park. His incredible ability at transitioning play, finding space and retaining possession will never be beaten. He was at his mesmerising best in this game. When Busquets was having a limited effect in the first half, Xavi would drop incredibly deep to receive the ball. He would usually then recycle the ball back to the centre halves, until there was space available to advance play. When Xavi dropped this deep, it left Rooney and Hernandez with a difficult decision, either stick with their role, and leave Xavi to retain possession, or try and deal with Xavi, but not full commit to the game plan. It left United chasing the game, because they failed to deal with the change that one player made. Xavi is the one who won the game for Barcelona. His dismantling of United’s plan is the reason why they cruised the game. He was recieving the ball all over the field, and he was just so good at helping Barcelona get the ball in dangerous areas. It was easily one of the best midfield performances you will ever see.

Messi at his best

If Xavi was the captain of the destruction of United’s approach, Messi was the first mate. Messi as a player as evolved dramatically since his long haired teenaged days at the Camp Nou. He began as a right winger, using his pace and dribbling ability to assist Eto’o and Ronaldinho in their dazzling displays in the final third. However Pep saw something else in him, being his ability at finding space. Messi under Pep was easily one of the hardest players to deal with when defending. If the centre backs chose to track him, it would leave space wide open in the back for one of Villa or Pedro to exploit. But if a midfielder chose to track him, it would leave the midfield disjointed. United had this similar problem. It seemed Carrick was the one with the responsibility to deal with Messi. Like the rest of the side, it was fine for the first 10 minutes. Messi didn’t have much of an involvement near the start of the game. But then the Argentine just dropped deeper and deeper, until Carrick couldn’t follow. That was the point where Messi was at his most deadliest. While many will call Messi an excellent dribbler and goal scorer. His best attribute will always be his ability to find space to receive the ball, which would bring the rest of the team into play. There is a reason why Pep told Messi to never receive the ball in the 18 yard box, because he knew exactly how good of a false nine Messi was. Throughout the game you would see Messi drop near enough in his own half, receive the ball, and just run at United. It worked so often and he was untouchable throughout the game. What helped massively was United’s inability to keep up with Barcelona. Their tireless running, aggression and high energy game was really taking its effect as the game went on, by the hour mark, United had zero legs to stand. Barcelona had that much control of the game, that United would never be able to get back into it. Messi and Barcelona were excellent in just waiting for this moment, and really made them suffer.

To conclude, this game was a huge turning point. It was the first time Sir Alex would look at a game and even admit that there was nothing he could do. While their first encounter in Rome was closer in pure ability of the players on the pitch, the rematch was not. United didn’t have the furocious front line of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney anymore. Fergie’s magic still brought the best of the aging and average talent throughout the squad, but there was a limit to this. Pep’s team and squad was of such a high standard that any line up Fergie put out on the day, would not have won the game. It was the first time I ever saw Sir Alex get completely outclassed on a tactical level.

It was a high point for his opponent however. This victory ensured that this team of players would go down as one of the best teams to ever play the game (and the best in my opinion). Every player in that team was at their peak, and worked so well together to produce a team that few were ever able to beat. It’s still the team that Pep is trying to equal in achievement and style. A game where the old was beaten by the new, in such a dominant display, and that is why this is a memorable match.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group F

While Group B and C are seen as the groups of death, this group comes incredibly close. 3 teams in this group are similar, yet so different and it will be interesting

Hoffenheim

Hoffenheim are a side that have been getting weaker by the season. But because of an extremely talented coach, have somehow stayed competitive. Even after losing some great players, like Gnabry, Uth, Sule, Rudy and Wagner. Hoffenheim play a brand of football that works to their strengths. They tend to not dominate games and use the little possession they have to quickly counter. Just by the way they play, it means they will able to challenge any team. But one of their issues (as mentioned before when discussing their game against Bayern Munich) is the way they set up leaves them weak on the flanks. Their full backs, usually Schulz and Kaderabek, go very far forward to press. The problem, as seen against Bayern, was the wingers were able to exploit the space that was left, which pulled the centre halves away and left them weak. When their press works, it works so well, but against teams which great wide players, it is difficult. They will do fine against Shaktar, but will struggle against the other sides. They also are suffering from a severe injury crisis. Two of their creators, Demibray and Amiri, are currently on the sidelines, as well as three of their central defenders. It will be difficult to get through with their current injury crisis, so I think they will finish bottom of the group.

Manchester City

The Premier League champions are probably facing and even tougher challenge than last season. They have to try and retain the title, while also trying to compete in the Champions League. City have started the season very well, with only a draw against newly promoted Wolves (a game that the referees ruined) stopping their perfect run. They haven’t been as good as they were last season however. They are seriously missing Kevin De Bruyne in some moments this season. His ability to pick out that killer pass has been seriously missed. While Gundogan is a good footballer, he is just not at the same level as De Bruyne. While City will still cruise through some of the easier games, it’s the games against teams who are similar to their level, like Paris or Barcelona, they will struggle to break them down. But one area they will never struggle in is their wide talent. Both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are coming off good games against Fulham. They are excellent wingers for a Pep side. Both are incredibly fast, great at stretching the play and always put in good shot numbers. They will both cause the opposition so much problems. City just have a great squad of players, and players all over the pitch to challenge for places. Pep has built a great team, and will definitely get out of the group.

Lyon

As seen from my Top 5 Talking Points From the Top 5 Leagues, Lyon have been quite frustrating so far. They have shown moments of their best, but then go on to lose games they should probably be winning. They just haven’t been putting teams away. Depay, Fekir and Dembele just haven’t been clinical enough in front of goal. They’ve been averaging around 20 shots a game, yet are only managing 1.6 goals per game. They’re dominating games so comfortably, yet just fail to punish teams. This is team is just so talented and young as well. Their midfield of Tousart, Aouar and Ndombele are some of the most promising midfielders in Europe. Ferland Mendy has started the season in excellent form. He’s already got a goal and assist, and while his defensive numbers are low, he counters that with excellent attacking output. It could be argued that their manager, Bruno Génésio, isn’t exactly the best. While I do not think they set up their defense in a great way, they attack so fluently and quick that he almost makes up for it. I just do not think Lyon are getting out of this group. With their league form so inconsistent, they should be focusing on that, but they still have the quality to get out of it.

Shaktar Donetsk

A regular in this competition in the modern game, the Ukrainian side are back again. While they have lost two good players in Fred and Bernard, they have brought in replacements in the same way they always do. They signed Maycon from Corinthians and Fernando from Palmeiras. Both are under 21 and are currently getting bedded into the squad slowly. Shaktar’s knowledge of the Brazilian league is already known to be deep. They have brought so many Brazilians, like Willian, Fernandinho, Texeira and Fred into the European spotlight. Even with both of those young coming through, they still have their experience. Taison and Marlos both offer flair and cause full backs plenty of problems. Another one of their new signings, Moraes, has hit the ground running. The Brazilian was signed on a free from rivals Dynamo Kyiv, and has already scored 7 in 8. It would make more sense to predict Lyon or Hoffenheim to finish second, but Shaktar Donetsk are in this competition all the time. They have the experience and the talent to beat all teams in this group. They even got out of a group containing Napoli and Man City last season, and even beat the Premier League champions. They will get out of this group, but I could most definitely be wrong.

Final Table

1. Manchester City

2. Shaktar Donetsk

3. Lyon

4. Hoffenheim