My Thoughts On: Statistics in Football

Nothing seems to divide the footballing world more than the use and implementation of statistics; whether it’s from clubs, television pundits or anyone on Twitter. My opinion, on the whole, has leaned more on the positive side since learning about how much they can tell you about the beautiful game.

Firstly, stats have been something I’ve wanted to grasp since first learning about it entirely. On my original blog (which I deleted right before starting this one), I first used them in a post discussing Tiemoue Bakayoko and a potential move to Manchester United (yes, that long ago). From then on, I would try and include different statistics concerning the topic at hand. Looking back, however, I don’t think I did understand what I was saying, using them for nothing more than emphasising my point, instead of challenging that view. It’s something you see a lot on twitter. Many accounts with a famous player as their avatar do love to throw out random stats about their favourite player to push their agenda further. It’s something along the lines of x player has scored more goals against the big clubs than y player. The one thing you have to remember about stats and football is they aren’t wrong, people are.

The most significant benefit of using stats in football is its method of narrowing down your needs. We’ll get onto why the general stats can never tell the full story of a player, but you can use them to figure out what a player does. Looking at a player’s total aerial duels can tell you if said player can deal with the ball in the air, while total passes can say to you who in a team is the player responsible for keeping possession. It does sound rather simple, and there are some complexities to it. However, some of the more well-known stats are still some of the most useful. Seeing how many shots a striker puts up is still something I rely on when big money moves are involved. Stats can help narrow down your options if you’re looking at who you’d like your club to sign.

Context is the most important thing to consider when stats are involved. The numbers can tell you a lot about a particular player, but it’s essential to not only look at where he ranks in his club but to watch him with your own two eyes. Let’s take Jack Grealish, for example, and I’ll explain why later. Grealish’s return to the Premier League has been stunning, and the numbers even show this. The midfielder’s making 2.7 shot assists per game, more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, David Silva and Willian. It does show that Grealish, on the whole, does create more chances in a game than some big performances for top-six sides. However, you quickly realise that the reason Grealish is creating so much is because of the style of play that Dean Smith prefers. He wants his star player to be on the ball as much as possible, to ensure his side have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

You should always look at the numbers behind the numbers (if that makes sense). James Maddison has been a high-level creator since arriving in the Premier League. Maddison is second in the league for total shot-creating actions (154), one place ahead of Grealish (141). It’s arguably the main reason why the pair are put side to side, especially with potential big moves on the horizon. But when looking into their passing, there’s one area where they massively differ. From open play, Grealish has made 102 passes that lead to a shot attempt, while Maddison has created a much lower 70 passes. The other part of Maddison’s passing game is his set-piece delivery, something where he does excel over the Villa captain. Maddison has completed 51 dead-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt, 36 ahead of Grealish. While both players are great creators, it’s evident that in the area of passing, they can offer something completely different, depending on what your team needs. Manchester United might find Jack Grealish’s versatility and creativity from open play more tempting since Fernandes handles their set-pieces. At the same time, a team like Arsenal would prefer Maddison, who could replace Ozil as the team’s primary set-piece taker.

But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also begun to sympathise they the group who are entirely against the use of numbers in sports. We’ll start with the obvious point of making a sport built on enjoyment and insane highs and boiling it down to models and figures. People watch football for the thrill, and while there are a lot of players who back up their entertaining performances with good numbers, there are a lot who don’t. Adama Traore is an absolute delight to watch sprinting down the wing and trying to take on a whole team on his own, but the numbers label him quite inefficient. Even the idea of Manchester United keeping Pogba and signing Grealish to play alongside Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sounds like a defensive nightmare for any coach, but who cares. The potential interplay, magic and spectacular goals will make people run to their seats for the first time since prime Rooney. I’ll always say that clubs should follow the o-ring theory (to summarise, it encourages clubs to focus on improving their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths) but it’s hard to argue against the case of wanting to watch and enjoy football.

In all honesty, the only stat that I’ll always defend and encourage people to look at and use in expected goals. It’s one of the more complicated stats to understand at first, but once grasped, it can become beneficial when viewing matches and team performances. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the time to keep up with every team’s performances in Europe. It’s why my focus is now primarily Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League matches. Expected goals can give me a rough estimation of how teams are performing in their domestic league. I do generally keep up with who is topping leagues for shot assists, shots, aerial duels and other applicable numbers. Expected goals won’t give you the full picture, but it can give you an indication on what to look out for when next watching a team you haven’t seen for a large part of the season.

The last thing to mention regarding this subject is never to alienate people. Unless your career has an association with stats in football (data companies, writers, scouts .etc), there is simply no need to wave your superior knowledge to someone who either doesn’t understand the use of numbers or has no intention learning about it. There are still plenty of experts I follow on twitter who’s thoughts and opinions I value even if they don’t throw out xG numbers every match day. Be wary of how you’re using stats, and never include them unless you understand or have some relevance to the topic. Nothing can ever tell you more about a player than your own two eyes. If you’re ever interested in a player’s numbers, watch them in a game and see if they’re strengths remain. Never entirely rely on numbers for anything, because they will never tell you the full story.

Hasenhuttl’s Return to 4-4-2 has Saved Southampton’s Season

One team’s form that has slightly gone under the radar is Southampton. Ever since their 9-0 defeat to Leicester, there were massive question marks on whether manager Ralph Hasenhuttl would last the week. It was the biggest defeat a team had suffered since Manchester United’s 9-0 win over Ipswich back in 1995. This defeat was more significant, considering the finances in the league, you rarely see such high scores anymore. The red card does have a massive effect on any team, but not the extent of conceding nine goals.

Many folks, like me, on twitter, began to wonder if Hasenhuttl was as good as we all thought. Southampton are, at best, functional, which is a shame considering just how fun his Leipzig side was in their debut Bundesliga season. The 3-5-2 formation just looked so stale. I assumed it was only used last season to improve the team defensively, but instead, they persisted with it. Having the extra body in defence did help a pretty weak side stay up, but it took away any attacking threat, especially when Valery and Bertrand weren’t offering enough width. Southampton were already lacking numbers in attack, and taking away more players in the front line made them a lot less exciting.
To save his job, Hasenhuttl had to do something. After defeats to Leicester and Everton and a Carabao Cup exit to Manchester City, Hassenhuttl scraped the back three and moved to a 4-4-2, a formation he consistently used when in the Leipzig dugout.

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If we’re looking at the Premier League from the 23rd November, the first time Hasenhuttl used the 4-4-2, in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, then Southampton would be 4th in the table. Their impressive turn-around has coincided with victories over Chelsea and Tottenham, keeping clean sheets against both London clubs. While their attacking numbers have improved slightly, taking 13.8 shots per game instead of their usual 12.3, it’s in defence where the team has become a lot more interesting. Southampton have faced 199 shots this season, with 60% of those coming during the period where three at the back was favoured. They’ve stopped opponents from dominating games, which can be best shown through their pressing. Southampton’s pressing has intensified throughout the winter period, and the statistics show this. Southampton are allowing 7.55 passes per defensive action, the joint least in the league. It’s also a massive improvement compared to the 9.24 passes they were allowing per defensive action at the beginning of the season.

This change meant some significant tweaks to personnel. Due to Vestergaard’s lack of pace, there wasn’t a chance he could play in this more attacking system. Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek, two young and athletic defenders have formed a good partnership. Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares, while not near the level they were four years ago, are still solid enough at the back. But most importantly, they’ve enabled the wingers in front of them to focus primarily on ball progression.

The midfield is where the most significant improvements can be seen. In the last nine games where Southampton have played a 4-4-2, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg have played every minute. Other than his set-pieces, Ward-Prowse has failed to impress me. He’s never been a consistent creator from open-play and seemed to only play for his magic from a dead ball situation. Højbjerg has always been an exciting player. A great distributor who wasn’t afraid to put in a tough challenge, Højbjerg finally found his place in the team, after struggling under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes.

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The 4-4-2 has allowed Southampton to play with genuine wingers again. Nathan Redmond has remained an ever-present either on the right or as a second striker, while Moussa Djenepo or Stuart Armstrong fill in on the opposite side. Redmond has been the most improved player under Hassenhuttl. He has always been a great dribbler, but his end product is still quite not there. Last season, Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his current coach. He has only contributed to 3 goals so far this season, but his performances have improved.

Danny Ings has easily been Southampton’s best player this season. He has been the only player in this team who has consistently put his chances away. Many of Ings’ goals have come from inside the penalty area, and has never been better than during these nine games. Ings has scored 8 goals, the most in the league. While Ings hasn’t quite found his striking partner, (Long has primarily played, but Obafemi and Redmond have played there too) there is no doubting his importance to this side.

So let’s look at their 1-0 over Tottenham, and see what they’re doing so well. Let’s start defensively. During Tottenham’s buildup, Southampton were consistently defending in a 3-4-3, with Djenepo joining the front two and Bertrand taking the Belgian’s place. It allowed them to simultaneously cut off the passing options to Ndombele (later Lo Celso) and Sissoko. It forced the full-backs to either drop insanely deep to give their teammates an option, or move further forward and hope Alderweireld or Vertonghen could find them with a long ball. The forward three wouldn’t press the centre-backs during these situations, because their goal is for Spurs to lose possession through a misplaced pass. The long pass became a regular method for the Belgian defenders, but a failed one. Out of the combined 35 long balls attempted by Vertonghan and Alderweireld, only 6 were completed. Southampton forced two players, considered to be very comfortable on the ball, to resort to hopeful balls into the path of Harry Kane.

On the occasions where Spurs would either find their full-backs in space, or Sissoko would drop deep and attempt to dribble through the midfield, the players would quickly shift to a 4-4-2. This would give less space, especially in the wide areas, for spurs to transition play and create chances. Aurier and Sessegnon would be crowded by their opposing full-back, winger and midfield. The sheer amount of ground covered by Højbjerg and Ward-Prowse was impressive. The pair were always there to support their teammates in keeping the Tottenham wide players isolated, forcing them to play it back to their own half, or put in a poor cross for Bednarek and Stephens to efficiently deal with.

Both full-backs were playing different yet effective roles. Bertrand would regularly push up and support Djenepo either through a diagonal run inside, or giving him a short pass option behind him. Cedric, on the other hand, would have more of a reserved role, slotting into the backline, making the back three. This was common throughout the game:

 

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Cedric (number two) stays behind the halfway line, while Bertrand (number twenty-one) is alongside the forwards, and ahead of his winger. This was very effective in both attack and defence. It allowed Southampton to exploit the space left from Aurier’s forward runs and Alderweireld’s lack of pace while having the right numbers if Spurs managed to get out of their own half.

In attack, Southampton can be best described as direct. Some of their attacks that contained some excellent interplay between their forwards. But generally, the Saints were looking to get the ball in the opposition third as quickly as possible. Stephens and Bednarek would look to send balls straight into Ings and Redmond. While the probability of the pair beating Alderweireld and Vertonghen in the air is very low, they primarily did this to win the second ball. Over and over again, Ings would lose the aerial battle, but at least three players would be close to win the ball back. Southampton’s lack of creativity is something that hasn’t been addressed since the departure of Dusan Tadic. Avoiding the midfield and taking advance of the stamina and speed of the forward line is an effective method for the short term.

As seen from Bertrand average position, Southampton were frequently attacking down the left side. In fact, 44% of their attacks were coming down Djenepo and Bertrand’s side. As mentioned, this was down to Spurs’ weakness in that area, but to benefit the players on the pitch. With most of the attacks coming down the left, it allowed Armstrong to make runs into the box and cause plenty of problems for the Tottenham defenders. During the second minute of the game, Djenepo put in a pretty dangerous ball into the box, with Ings, Armstrong, Redmond and Ward-Prowse all available. While Djenepo did waste this chance, it was a sign of things to come, with Tottenham struggling with the number of players pushing forward.

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Ings was a vital cog in his team’s performance. The former Liverpool forward not only scored the winning goal but helped his teammates all over the pitch. Ings would drift to both flanks, aiding Djenepo and Armstrong, while also holding onto the ball well. Ings completed 4 dribbles in this game, failing to be dispossessed. Not only was his attacking play good, but defensively he did a lot to help his teammates. He was pressing well, tracking back when Spurs broke quickly and worked his socks off. Ings was substituted at the 75th minute, likely because of the shift he put in.

The midfielders also deserve plenty of credit for their performances. James Ward-Prowse fits seamlessly in a double-pivot, while Højbjerg continues to show why he is undroppable. The Danish international completed the most passes for his side, while also attempting 12 long balls to help push his team further up the pitch. Ward-Prowse played a more attacking role, joining the forwards in attack, at the same time always tracking back to help his midfield partner. The England international completed 9 tackles in this game, more than anyone else on the pitch.

At the start of the season, I put Southampton down as my team to watch. I like a lot of their players and have backed Hasenhuttl since his arrival in the South Coast. The change of formation was needed and is clearly getting more out of the talent at the club. There are still issues regarding creativity that need to be addressed in the summer. But for now, this change in approach could be enough to not only keep Southampton in the division but challenge Wolves for that seventh spot.

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: A Lot of Work for Two Former Players

Arsenal versus Manchester United was once one of the most anticipated fixtures of the season. But ever since their respective longest-serving managers have departed, the clubs aren’t nearly as relevant at the top of the table.

Unai Emery’s time at Arsenal won’t be remembered fondly by anyone. Since the start of last season, there has never been a moment where Arsenal looked like a capable side, relying heavily on the brilliance of Aubameyang and Lacazette. Their shot numbers were consistently average, and there were countless games where the team generally lacked an attacking structure, struggling to break down teams like Wolves and Crystal Palace. Emery’s man-management also did come under scrutiny. His treatment of the club’s highest earner, Mesut Ozil, was somewhat baffling and continued the narrative of Emery’s difficulties in dealing with prominent personalities.

Yet, what bothered me the most was how Emery was utilising his midfielders. Since summer 2018, Arsenal have brought in several midfield reinforcements. Lucas Torreira arrived as a defensive midfielder, having a massive defensive output while being a competent ball progressor. Matteo Guendouzi was arguably the highlight of Sven Mislintat’s time as head of recruitment. The Frenchman arrived for £5 million and has done a lot more than I expected from a player coming from Ligue 2. He’s proved to be a progressive passer, even if the defensive side of his game still needs a lot of work. 

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I never liked how Emery set up these players. He’d regularly play Granit Xhaka has a single defensive midfielder. While Xhaka’s passing can make him a valuable asset to every manager who he’s played under, his lack of mobility will always make him a target defensively. It was more frustrating to see Torreira playing as a box to box midfielders and Ceballos as an advanced playmaker. While they’re versatile enough to fill those roles, it makes it difficult for them to play to their strengths. A cohesive midfield can be built with these talented players, which makes the lack of protection offered by the midfield even more infuriating.

Mikel Arteta appointment as the new Arsenal manager is the most exciting Arsenal have been for over a decade. While Arteta is an unknown in terms of how I think his team will play, some factors hint towards a man who could become the long term successor to Wenger. Generally, central midfielders are seen as the smartest players on the pitch. The likes of Sergio Busquets, Fernandinho and Marco Verratti are all excellent readers of the game, able to spot their teammates in hard to reach positions, and sense danger before any attacks materialise. We’re seeing this now with some of the most prominent managers in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez, all previously midfielders, have shown to be intelligent tactically, whether through building a philosophy for their teams or showing a high level of adaptability. Arteta’s work with Pep Guardiola and experience playing under Arsene Wenger have given him a high level of knowledge from two of the games best thinkers from the century.

Arteta is clearly seen as a long-term option, but if he is to success for the next six months, he must fix the midfield and add some consistency in terms of approach and lineup. It would help evaluate the level of many of these players. Arsenal do have a lot of players I like, but thus far haven’t shown the level we know they can play at. If he can do that, as well as make them fun to watch, he will set himself up for an exciting second season.

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Since we last spoke about Manchester United, after their 1-1 with Arsenal, not much has really changed. While Rashford’s improvement in form and Martial’s return to the starting XI has helped them move up the table, the same issues persist. Big wins over Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea, did help push United into the conversation for Champions League football next season, especially with these same opponents dropping points at crucial stages of the season. United have been reliant on the pace in their forwards when playing one of the bigger teams, accepting that they are the underdog in these games. City and Tottenham struggled to deal with the speed in which United were transitioning. Martial would consistently drop deep to retrieve the ball, while Rashford and James would stretch the defence and use their pace to beat whoever they’re against. Manchester City consistently leaving themselves open was definitely a factor in their 2-1 defeat. However, United still deserve praise for taking advantage of the weaknesses City have gained since De Bruyne’s return.

In all fairness, their ability against the bigger sides was never in question. The problem was how they could break down teams who were willing to sacrifice possession in the same way United do. Defeats to Bournemouth and Watford and draws to Everton and Aston Villa highlighted how these issues have remained. Their 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth, in particular, was awful. A lack of chance creation and the forward line failing to get behind a rather weak Bournemouth defence. Their lack of consistency is easily the most significant issue. One week they’ll beat two of the best teams in the country, the next they fail to beat a relegation favourite.

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Yet even with questions regarding the players in this squad, having better players would fix a lot of their issues. However, I think it might be a while before United will ever be back in the conversation for a title. When hearing Ed Woodward speak on how difficult it is to sign more than three players in a summer window or the lack of value in the January transfer window, it makes you wonder if the club even want to get back to the top. A majority of the players linked to the club are usually players from Premier League clubs who would cost an insane amount of money. James Maddison, Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, John McGinn and Dominic Calvin-Lewin do fill the rather strange policy of going for British players, but there is better value out there. In the summer alone, we saw Thiago Mendes move for £20 million, Julian Brandt for £17 million and Marcus Thuram for £10 million. Even now, players like Dani Olmo and Marco Roca are available for less than £40 million. You can always find value in the market, but it entirely depends where you are looking. If Manchester United’s focus remains only in the Premier League, it’ll take years to build a cohesive squad. 

Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United was the first time I’ve managed to watch Arteta’s Arsenal, and they’re showing some promising signs. The lineup the former Arsenal captain chose was a massive departure to the defensive starting XI’s seen under Emery. Nicolas Pepe, Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all started this game. These elite talents were one of the reasons why Arsenal did look so good in the first half. Kolasinac and Aubameyang linked up well on the left side, with the Gabon forward consistently staying wide, allowing Kolasinac to run with the ball through the space opened from Wan-Bissaka staying with Aubameyang. This was how the first goal was made. Kolasinac had another free sprint right at the defence. He picks out Aubameyang, who notices Pepe free in the box, and delivers a perfect ball for the Ivorian. 

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What impressed me a lot about Arteta was just how quickly Arsenal were able to get into United’s half. While their opposition do deserve some blame for this, the ways they were able to quickly create chances in the first half. They could progress the ball through the full-backs, or use the excellent passing of Xhaka and David Luiz to send a long ball into the wingers. Arsenal were really exciting in that first half, and while they did slow down in the final 45 minutes, the game was in their hands. 

Defensively, Arsenal looked very good. The attacking lineup did cause some concern, mainly if United could produce similar counter-attacks as they have done against some of the top 6. However, all of their forwards, with some garnering a reputation of being lazy, were fantastic defensively. All four of Arsenal’s forwards kept United’s defenders short of options during buildup play. Even Mesut Ozil, who many pundits have consistently labelled as lazy, made 46 pressures, more than any other player on the pitch. United were slow in moving the ball, but Arsenal made it so difficult for them. 

Torreira returned to his more familiar role as a true defensive midfielder. Xhaka was given more licence to push forward, while Torreira would ensure the defence wouldn’t be facing much traffic. It was arguably the most significant crime Emery committed; not playing one of the best young midfielders in the right position. 

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While Arsenal were more focused on holding onto their lead in the second half than truly humiliating United, that first half was such an encouraging sign for any Arsenal fan. For the first time since Wenger, they were fun to watch in a game. They were attacking with speed, dynamism and skill. The question is if they can do this consistently, but we’ll have to wait and see. 

As for United, the lack of energy and pressing was disturbing. United aren’t the pressing side they probably wish to be, but Arsenal were given so much freedom in transition. David Luiz and Sokratis had so many opportunities to run straight into midfield without a United player to close them down. Martial and Rashford looked slow in this game, and you can’t really blame them. The pair have played so much football when they’ve been available. With top four looking like a possibility and the Europa League returning in a month, I doubt they’ll ever get a chance to sit out games. They are United’s only chance of getting into the top four. If they have to rely on James, Lingard and Pereira, they’ll plummet down the table. 

Both managers are in very different places. Arteta, replacing a pretty unequipped coach, has given Arsenal players and fans something to be excited about. Solsjkaer also went through this same period, so we’ll see if Arteta can reach the same level as the coaches he’s worked with. 

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Solskjaer will be under a lot of pressure until the summer arrives. You hear a lot of trusted journalists say the Manchester United board are happy with the Norwegian, but that sense of doubt will always be there. If Pochettino wants to join the club, will they just let Solsjkaer go, similar to what they did to Van Gaal once Mourinho was available? I can’t blame Solsjkaer for all the problems. There are so many holes throughout the squad that one window isn’t enough with the lack of urgency United currently operate with. Woodward can go on and on about how difficult it is to sign players, but with players needed in midfield and attack so clear, it’ll be an embarrassment if their targets aren’t brought in by the end of June. 

 

The Sacking of Pochettino: Where Did It Go Wrong and Where Do Tottenham Go From Here?

Before even discussing the whole Tottenham situation, let’s talk about Ajax, and more specifically, Rinus Michels. I consider him one of the greatest and most influential coaches in the history of the game. He was a primary factor in Ajax’s dominance in the early seventies, as well as Holland’s fantastic run to the 1974 World Cup final. There is no doubting his importance to how the game is even played today, with the Dutchman’s emphasis on players interchanging positions, ball-playing defenders and an extreme press. His first job on his arrival in 1965 was to avoid the drop, which he did through installing a robust training regime, which pushed his players to new levels. Ajax went on to win 4 league titles and reaching 2 European Cup finals, winning their first in 1971. However, as we now know about pressing teams, it’s very demanding on the players. They eventually reach a point where the constant work needed to put in can be too much, and they become sick of it. This drop off is exactly what happened with his Ajax team once Michels departed to Barcelona, and Stefan Kovacs was appointed. The players were at a stage where they didn’t need to work as hard as they were. They were European Champions at this point. All they needed was someone who would let them express themselves and continue to dominate. Two European Cups in two seasons later, the players became tired of Kovacs, with training and match preparations not at the same level as they were under Michels.

The point of that rather long story is because, on a somewhat smaller scale, it’s a replication of what happened at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino. He completely turned the club around, taking them from an inconsistent mess of a side to title challengers and then European finalists. No more struggling to challenge for the Champions League spots and relying on individual talents to carry them. Instead, they were a great team, defensively solid while still being a lot of fun to watch in-possession. Pochettino showed himself to be an excellent coach, turning the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela into great players through using a demanding, aggressive and enjoyable style of football. Between 2015 and 2018, Tottenham were arguably the second-best team in the league. Alongside Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pochettino side was one of the frontrunners in using pressing as a useful tool in defending and winning the ball high up the pitch.

Everything was going so well for Tottenham under Pochettino in those first three years, but the beginning of the end can actually be traced back to the summer of 2017, and the sale of Kyle Walker. The England right-back wasn’t precisely a world-class talent, so selling him for £50 million did make sense. Still, they failed to replace him adequately, with Aurier arriving to add competition to a defensively-weak Kieran Trippier. This might not have been a massive issue at the time, but looking back, it’s clear where a lot of problems would later arise.

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I think the problems became more apparent in the summer of 2018, a transfer window in which Tottenham failed to sign a single player. There was already a lot of questions regarding if that Tottenham side needed additions and if the squad was good enough as it is. It’s easy to look back now and criticise the club for not adding new players, especially with the gaping hole in midfield that was opening as Dembele was turning into a shadow of the player he was. One of the reasons why teams sign players is to freshen things up. That Tottenham squad had been together for four years. Rarely is there a team that can stay motivated for that long. Clubs need to continually add new faces in the dressing room. It keeps the senior players on their toes, knowing there will be a player ready to take their place in the starting eleven if their form begins to slip. The added competition has kept Manchester City, Juventus and PSG competitive on all fronts, with depth in all positions. Tottenham aren’t on the same level as one of these superclubs, but not signing a single player comes across as insanely arrogant, especially when the team was in desperate need for midfield additions. 

The 2018/19 season was by far Pochettino’s most impressive as a manager. He was stuck with an inferior squad to the one he had in the past, which included injuries to key players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli throughout crucial points of the season. Spurs were not good last season, but Pochettino somehow managed to get enough out of his team to get top four as well as reach a Champions League final. He did this through nearly sacrificing a lot of what made his Spurs side so good for 3 years, instead opting for a more adaptive and reactive approach to his team. Pochettino was more or less changing his tactics depending on the opponent, whether it was formation or personnel. Their surprise 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 2018 does showcase this rather perfectly. During this game, Pochettino changes his formation a lot, switching between alterations of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1. The message was becoming apparent. This team, especially after an exhausting World Cup year, were not at the level to be showing the same intensity as they did in the past.

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Spurs were not good last season, in fact in the second half of the season, they were awful. At the time it was easy to defend their terrible form in 2019 because of their run in the Champions League, which was a lot different to their domestic form. In Europe, Spurs managed to beat Dortmund home and away, somehow progress past Pep’s City and displayed so much fight and heart to edge past the neutral’s favourite, Ajax. Tottenham were not the second-best team in Europe last season, they weren’t even top five, but Pochettino managed to get everything out of the players he had. During buildup, he would regularly bypass the midfield of Sissoko and Winks, due to their lack of ability in ball progression. With Kane injured, it was the best way to utilise Fernando Llorente’s strengths, placing quick players around him like Son and Moura. Their performances in the Champions League were extraordinary compared to their league form, which was truly atrocious. Convincing defeats to Bournemouth, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham showed Tottenham at their worst; games where chance creation was lacking and Pochettino’s players just didn’t look nearly as solid and organised as they did back in 2017. They were facing 12.9 shots per game last season, a considerable increase from the 9.4 they were facing in 17/18. The Athletic even notes:

“Spurs’ pressed sequences increased in absolute and relative terms over the first four Pochettino seasons. From 11.6 per game in 2014-15, joint-eighth in the league, to 15.6 in 2017-18, the second-most in the league, at their pressing peak.

Then, last year, a dramatic drop down to 13.2, their lowest since Pochettino’s first season, and only the 10th highest in the league. That tells the story itself.”

The numbers, performances and results all paint this picture of a manager willing to do anything to take Spurs to win something. Their final defeat to Liverpool, a make or break game which could have defined Pochettino’s legacy at the club, instead highlighted the leap in quality between them and their opponents. That final season seemed to have taken every last ounce of energy out of Pochettino, which makes it more baffling to why he decided to stay. 

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Even with the much-needed additions of Tanguay Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, the sale of Kieran Trippier did leave a massive hole at right-back. Llorente also departed the club in the summer, meaning there was no one to cover for Kane, who has become half the player he was before his infamous ankle injury. I still thought Tottenham would quite easily get into the top four. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea still had clear holes in their team, and Spurs have been one of the most consistent sides in the past four years. It made sense to think they would finish there with the signings of two of the best young midfielders in Europe. 

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Tottenham were terrible last season, but have somehow been even worse in 19/20. So far, Tottenham have only managed 3 wins 12 games, a shambolic amount of wins considering the talent at their disposal. Those 12.7 shots faced last season has risen to 14.8. They’re 10th for shots taken per game and lacked any cohesion in the final third. Their defence has become noticeably bad, but in terms of chance creation and shot location, they’re just as useless. Tottenham are 17th for non-penalty xG with only 13.15, with only Palace, Newcastle and Norwich behind them. The players have looked out of ideas on numerous occasions. Their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle was one of the worst performance I’ve seen during Pochettino’s reign. They were narrow and failed to create anything of substance against one of the worst teams in the league. Their 3-0 defeat to Brighton was somehow even worse. Spurs were comfortably second best in every area, allowing Brighton to create plenty of quality chances, while Spurs failed to create anything of note. Vertonghen and Alderweireld were beaten far too easily for Connolly’s goals. Kane and Eriksen were poor, and they were simply beaten by a better team.

After failing to win since the end of September, Pochettino was given the boot. It’s divided the footballing world, especially with Mourinho arriving as his replacement. I do think Levy is to blame for some of the issues in the dressing and the lack of transfers during 2018, but it’s obvious the players were clearly tired of all the work, as seen by their pressing numbers dropping. But it’s not only the players, but Pochettino also seems to face exhaustion. He was considering leaving the club after the Champions League final if the result went in their favour. This is similar to what happened at Espanyol. During his final press conference in Spain, Pochettino said: “I have been in the world of football for many years and understand that a coach has a sell-by date.” Even with the outside factors, the relation between Pochettino’s Tottenham and Michels’ Ajax are clear. Players will only perform in these intense systems for 3-5 years before it starts to decline.

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So is Mourinho going to be the Kovacs of Tottenham? Well, I don’t think Mourinho will be as bad as many believe, but I don’t think it’s going to work as well as Levy and Mourinho want. The former Chelsea coach does have a considerable advantage compared to his start at United. The majority of Tottenham’s players are ready to go now. Kane, Moura and Son are at a perfect age while Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Rose offer much-needed experience that Mourinho craves. The constant fitness and training done under Pochettino means Mourinho can focus more on the tactical side of the game, something he has always favoured. He has a lot of players who I can see him liking already. I can see Sissoko playing in those big games because of that size, aggression and speed he can offer in midfield, and Son and Moura are both very flexible in where and how they can play. Mourinho has two things he has to do on the short term; fix the defence and fix Kane.

Even if United’s defence was awful in Jose’s final two seasons, he still earned a reputation for creating a solid base to start building from. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are better than the defenders he had in Manchester, so expect the same robust and resilient backline we saw at Chelsea and Inter. The right-back area is an obvious problem, but Mourinho has never attacked with two full-backs. He’ll likely use Rose as his primary attacking full-back, and choose Foyth, Sissoko or Aurier to fill in on the right-side.

Kane is the biggest problem. Many like to paint this image of Kane as this complete forward, bringing others into play as well as scoring bundles of goals. But this is simply not true. Kane was at his best between August 2017 and March 2018, before that ankle injury against Bournemouth. He was not only taking a high volume of shots but taking them in great areas. He scored 24 goals in 29 games, taking over 5 shots per game with an xG per 90 of 0.88, the highest of his career so far. The ankle injury isn’t even the most significant problem to why Kane has fallen out of that top three forwards bracket. He needs to stop dropping so deep, and actually focus on getting in the box. His shot numbers have dropped massively down to 2.7, and his xG per 90 is down to 0.44. Kane is literally half the striker he was in 2017/18. Mourinho has always gotten a lot out of his forwards. Whether it’s an old-school forward like Milito, a young hardworking striker like Benzema or an all-rounder in Zlatan. Mourinho could be the perfect guy to reinvigorate Kane and turn him into the player he used to be. 

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As for Pochettino, I’d recommend taking a year off. This whole Spurs’ situation seems to have drained him. Just like Pep after departing Barcelona, Pochettino could do with the time off, to rethink his approach and recuperate after a very long five years. He will have plenty of jobs when he decides to return to football. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and possibly Paris Saint-Germain could all be looking for a coach next summer. Pochettino has proven he can build a team, get the best out of his assets and improve his teams in defence while bringing an entertaining style and aggressive press with him. Tottenham needed a fresh face in the dugout, just like Pochettino needs a new environment. 

My Premier League Team of the Decade

With the 2010s coming to a close, everyone’s been discussing who’ve been the stand out players of the decade. Since this has been the first decade where I’ve been able to follow the Premier League from start to finish, let’s look at which players have stood out among the competition, players who will be remembered for years to come. There is a few names I’ve not included here which a majority of people will disagree with. This team is a combination of players who have left a lasting impression on me. Some of them might not be the best players we’ve seen during this decade, but these are the guys I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching during the last ten years.

David De Gea

Starting with by far the most obvious pick, David De Gea has not only been the best goalkeeper during the last decade but arguably in league history. It’s well-documented by now that the Spaniard had a tough first couple of years in England, struggling to adapt to a more physical league, but Ferguson knew he would need to adjust. De Gea did start a lot of games under United’s legendary manager, 29 in his first season and 28 in his second. But if De Gea did have a couple of bad to mediocre performances, Ferguson would take him out of the side to ensure his confidence wouldn’t plummet entirely. This was the best decision, with De Gea going on to start over 34 games in all of his campaigns since the Scotsman’s retirement from management.

During a time where United have been inconsistent or underwhelming to put it lightly, De Gea remained a constant, always making those game-changing saves and made a pretty weak defensive unit look like the best in the division. His best season was by far the 17/18 season, more specifically, away at the Emirates. De Gea had the best goalkeeping performance in Premier League history. He made 14 saves against the Gunners, and they weren’t just simple stops. Some of the saves he was making were groundbreaking. The best among his many saves in this game was his fantastic double save. Lacazette was gifted a chance in the penalty area, which De Gea magnificently stops, only for the ball to fall to his future teammate Alexis Sanchez. De Gea had seconds to react, and from 6-yards out, he managed to save the Chilean’s shot with his leg. It was a save that not only saved United’s defence, which was awful on the day, but perfectly summarised United in the past 6 years. De Gea has been the sole reason for the Red Devils having one of the best defences in the league.

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Some would see a couple of factors that hold De Gea back from being the best goalkeeper of the decade. His first couple of years in England weren’t great and his form has fallen from the best in the world to pretty average since 2018. He’s never been great on the ball compared to the likes of Ederson and Allison. Yet, there were four years of elite production that I’ve never seen a goalkeeper replicate. 

Kyle Walker

The full-back areas have been difficult to choose, not for a vast amount of choices, but the lack of them. With not many names to choose from, Kyle Walker is easily the most obvious choice to fill the right-back position. Walker was an up-and-coming player during his early years, but up until 2015, he failed to live up to his potential. He was still starting a lot of games for Spurs, but was somewhat inconsistent and defensively still had massive holes in his game. It was the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, like for many of the Tottenham players, changed the course of his career. During his three years under the Argentine, Walker turned into the best right-back in the league, giving his side plenty of width while having the speed to make those recovery tackles if possession was lost. He was never a massive goalscoring threat like Marcos Alonso nor a great creator like Alexander-Arnold, but Walker remained solid. He was a constant outlet for Tottenham and seemed to live up to that promise he showed early on. 

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Walker’s move to Manchester changed his game. Guardiola already had, at the time, Benjamin Mendy has a very attacking full-back, so Walker was to take to a more reserved role in the team. He stopped pushing forward as far as he did under Pochettino and AVB, yet still remained heavily involved in build-up play, completing over 70 passes per game last season. Even with more talented players around him, The England right-back has been a critical member for both Pochettino and now Pep Guardiola. Ricardo Pereira and Trent Alexander-Arnold might be more talented, but Walker is an excellent player to have for any manager and has stood out during the 2010s.

David Luiz

Maybe putting David Luiz in this team might be rather daft, but when I think of players who have defined the 2010’s, David Luiz is one of the first names to come to mind. The Brazilian has had moments of stupidity at times, with his brand of defending leaving his teammates rather exposed at times, but what David Luiz has always excelled at is distribution. People like to look at Rio Ferdinand as the first defender in England to honestly look comfortable and composed on the ball. Ferdinand did revolutionise the position here, but David Luiz took the next step and became the best defender in terms of ability on the ball. The issue that many managers have found with Luiz is if you don’t play him in a particular system, he might be your worst defender, but in the right one, he is your best defender.

Luiz has played under a lot of Chelsea managers, 7 in fact. He arrived in January 2011, going onto play 11 games under Ancelotti. David Luiz was loved at Chelsea. His aggression, positivity and the way he has always worn his heart on his sleeve has made him very easy to like. He was genuinely great under Villas-Boas and Di Matteo, but it was Mourinho’s arrival that almost forced Luiz into departing Chelsea. Luiz has many qualities, but defending in a deep block, similar to how Mourinho likes to deploy, isn’t playing him to his strengths. He broke the record for the most expensive defender, moving to Paris for £50 million. At PSG, David Luiz was fantastic and did his usual long balls and runs out the back to help progress the ball. Laurent Blanc usually played possession-based football, with a high-line. This was perfect for Luiz.

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After two successful seasons in Paris, David Luiz returned to Chelsea, coincidentally, the season after Mourinho departed. Many neutrals laughed at this deadline-day signing. Why bring back a player you sold two years ago, who is now 30 years old? It was a weird move at the time, but a lot had changed since that first stint. Antonio Conte was now Chelsea manager, a coach who plays a deep block similar to Mourinho. It usually included a libero, a defender who focuses on sweeping up after the other defenders and using their passing ability to help move the ball further up the field, think Beckenbauer or Leonardo Bonucci. Luiz fitted this mould perfectly and had his best season during his long club career. Luiz was genuinely fantastic under Conte, gaining a place in the team of the season and finally winning a title at Stamford Bridge. Luiz eventually earned the credit he had deserved for years, showing that when placed in the right system, no one in England was better than him. After falling out with Conte, Luiz returned to being a first-team regular under Sarri, another manager who saw Luiz as the great defender he is. His excellent reading of the ball and world-class distribution meant that he fitted seamlessly into Sarri’s possession-heavy system. 

The criticisms which have faced Luiz for years have always been the mistakes and lack of concentration, which are reasonable. He will occasionally give away needless penalties and make the wrong decision when facing teams with pacey forwards. Under a certain amount of pressure, Luiz can crumble, and still does. Now playing for Arsenal, Luiz needlessly pulled Mohamed Salah’s shirt in the box and gifted Liverpool a penalty. It was a moment that many have come to expect from Luiz. Whenever he makes mistakes, he tries his hardest to make up for them, only to make the situation worse. Luiz, at his worst, can be a problem, especially during substantial stints without possession, but at his best, is one of the best defenders the league has ever seen. Maybe putting him over Vincent Kompany might be slightly baffling, but no defender has defined the evolution of centre backs more than Sideshow Bob himself. 

Toby Alderweireld 

Since his arrival in England, Alderweireld has been apart of some the best defences of the past 5 years. Firstly on loan under Ronald Koeman at Southampton, where he helped form the second-best defence in the league. Many, including me, saw Jose Fonte as the stand out player out of the pair, but it was, in fact, Alderweireld, who was the key man. He then earned a move to Tottenham, which not only showed his qualities but turned Tottenham from a mess into arguably the best team in the league for two years. They went from having the worst defence out of the top six to having the best in Alderweireld’s first season. The former Ajax defender offered so much more than any defender Tottenham had in the past. He was the best ball-playing defender in the league, not only comfortable in possession but even helping move the ball into the final third, earning 2 assists in 15/16, both to Dele Alli with long balls right into the England international’s feet. The way he could receive the ball and send this calmness across the ground was something rare to see. In 17/18, he had an injury-plagued season, where he only managed 13 starts, but since then, has continued to be a mainstay in Spurs’ defence.

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Alderweireld might not be a physical monster like Virgil Van Dijk or have the goal threat of John Terry. Still, the Belgian was at one point comfortably the best defender in the league and was the reason for Tottenham’s consistently high performances between 2015 and 2018. It’s instead a shame he hasn’t been able to win a trophy in England, but on quality and consistency alone, no one deserves to be here more than Alderweireld. 

Cesar Azpilicueta

Another example of a position where choices are limited. However, even if there was a fantastic left-back to choose, Azpilicueta is fully deserving of a place as one of the best players of the decade. The Spaniard has been Mr Consistent since arriving in England, moving from right-back, to left-back under Mourinho, centre-back under Conte and now back to right-back. He’s never suffered from a single injury since playing in London and has been loved by every manager who he’s played under. In the summer of 2014, Mourinho brought in Brazilian left-back Felipe Luiz from Atletico Madrid, with Ashley Cole departing and Ivanovic covering at right-back, it was presumed that Azpilicueta would play as a back-up. But he kept his place in the side, and keeping arguably one of the best left-backs in the previous year, on the bench. 

Defensively, Azpilicueta is one of the best full-backs the league has ever seen. He has consistently put up massive tackle and interception numbers, has always been difficult for opposition wingers to beat and reads the game so well. It’s a testament to his defensive qualities that he fitted in rather flawlessly in Antonio Conte’s back three, alongside David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Azpilicueta was primarily winning the ball back and pushing up in build-up play. The Spaniard was putting in less than a foul per game during that title-winning campaign under Conte and played every game of that spectacular season. 

Azpilicueta’s speciality is defending, and he’s really good at it, but that isn’t to diminish his qualities on the ball. The former Marseille defender has racked up 29 assists during his Chelsea career, with his long balls over the top to Alvaro Morata during the 2017/18 season a highlight of his career, assisting the Spanish forward 6 times that season. He was making those difficult balls into the final third that you usually expect David Luiz to play, but Azpiliciueta once again showed just how good and versatile he is. 

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There isn’t a massive fault in his game or in his credentials to play in this team. No one has been more consistent and loved by multiple managers in the same way as Cesar Azpilicueta. An absolute shoo-in for everyone’s side of the decades. 

Fernandinho

Maybe not putting Ngolo Kante in this team might be baffling, but hear me out here. Fernandinho has not only played in this league longer than the Frenchman but has been even better. The Brazilian arrived in this league at the age of 28. Usually, this is seen as the age where players begin losing their physical edge and start to become easier to expose, think Steven Gerrard or Toni Kroos, who after the age of 28, began to show weaknesses defensively. Fernandinho was a short term fix in a sense. His arrival and the sheer amount of defensive work he did during City’s 13/14 title triumph (6 tackles and interceptions), which not only helped add some protection to the defence but covered for Yaya Toure, allowing him to have that great 20 goal season. Fernandinho had an arduous task ahead of him. Pellegrini teams are famously a lot of fun to watch and gets the best out of his attacking talents, but it can leave the defence extremely vulnerable if the personnel isn’t at the same level as the attack. Fernandinho was one of the reasons why City were actually good defensively that season. 

He continued his consistently high standards on the pitch in Pellegrini’s final couple of seasons, even if the team was weaker as each year passes. However, it was the arrival of Pep Guardiola that indeed showed Fernandinho as the best defensive midfielder of the decade. Even at the age of 31, Fernandinho was vital for City’s end of decade dominance. He was the sole midfielder in a three-man midfield containing David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. While Pep and De Bruyne are credited for creating the ‘free eight’ role on the pitch, it wouldn’t be possible without having Fernandinho behind him, allowing the Belgian to push forward and create. Fernandinho has been doing everything you can ask from a midfielder. He puts in a lot of defensive work, reads the game well, and can play those penetrating balls through midfield, can dribble, can score and knows when to partake in the dirtier side of the game.

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His quality can be best be shown with just how bad City were in the 18/19 season without him. While Gundogan isn’t a bad player, he doesn’t do nearly enough defensively to allow the other midfielders to push forward. Fernandinho missed most of the December fixtures, which resulted in defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace. Even finding a replacement for Fernandinho proved difficult. The Champions finally settled on Rodri, after being linked to Jorginho, Fred and Aouar. City’s midfield so far this season has looked weaker without Fernandinho. Rodri is excellent but doesn’t possess the same speed, intelligence and ability to stop attacks before they materialise. People will always look at Aguero, Kompany and Silva as the players who have been the driving force for City’s success. While that is true, most of it under Guardiola has been down to Fernandinho being so well-rounded, so perfect for the whole that his coach requires. 

Santi Cazorla

I love Santi Cazorla, a lot actually. It’s hard to really put in words how fantastic he was to watch during his peak years in England. Cazorla arrived at a very frustrating time for Arsenal fans. It was another summer where they sold their two best players from the previous season, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, to bigger clubs. It left Arsenal with a massive problem, goals and creativity. Giroud and Podolski arrived to fix the goal problem, while Cazorla arrived to supply their new forwards. The Spaniard arrived in a league where two Spanish playmakers dominated in style and production. David Silva and Juan Mata were their teams’ most important players, consistently linking midfield and attack so fluently. While they were at their best as a number 10, they could even play as a wide player, move freely into the centre and cause all sorts of problems for their opponents. Cazorla arrived into the league much later than his national teammates, being 27 while Mata and Silva were 23 and 24 respectively, but that added experience gave the additional quality. Cazorla was a two-footed, intelligent, exciting, while still possessing a burst of speed that let him play on the left.and could dribble through the smallest of gaps. His tight control of the ball was unmatched in the league. 

Cazorla’s first season for Arsenal is arguably the best creative season during this whole decade. I still believe that if Arsenal managed to sign Cazorla and keep Van Persie, they would have been league champions in 12/13. Arsenal were excellent that season, with Walcott, Arteta, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Sagna have their best seasons at the Emirates. If it weren’t for Manchester United desperate to commemorate their manager in the right way and Arsenal’s usual patchy results (I’d imagine they’d be different with Van Persie in the side), the Gunners would have ended their long trophy drought. Cazorla played in every Premier League game in 12/13, playing centrally or on the left, and dominated Arsenal’s stats. The former Malaga midfielder was second for most shots in Arsenal’s squad, first for chance creation, second for dribbles completed, second for passes completed and was even putting in over 4 tackles and interceptions. He ended the season with 12 goals and 11 assists. His best season for Arsenal was the season where he was at his most important. He was responsible for doing nearly everything in attack and ball progression while having to do his fair share of defensive work. The fact he did so and more, shows just the level of player Cazorla was at Arsenal.

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Cazorla’s versatility was arguably his biggest strength, but in the arrival of Mesut Ozil, a flaw. Wenger saw how Cazorla didn’t need to play centrally to be effective, so bringing in Real Madrid’s best creator and moving Cazorla over to the left did make sense. Ozil, and later Sanchez, did start to be looked at as Arsenal’s best players, from their vast reputations at previous clubs, but Santi Cazorla remained as crucial as ever. The reason why you play Cazorla and Ozil together is that it means you can’t stop the creativity. You couldn’t merely mark Ozil out of the game, because Cazorla would then take centre stage. It’s what made them so good for Cazorla’s first couple of years at the club, even with Giroud being very frustrating. It’s arguably what Arsenal’s most significant problem in recent years. The lack of creativity in the side means they are so easy to silence under Emery. Without having a variety of creators, it makes it so easy to stop you from dominating games and creating chances. 

Cazorla’s final couple of full seasons at the Emirates showed just how important he was for Wenger. Even with Ozil, Sanchez, Ox and Walcott preferred in the forward areas, Wenger had to have in the team somehow, so chose to play him in a double pivot alongside Francis Coquelin. Cazorla was once again fantastic, and it made so easy for him to receive the ball, evade pressure effortlessly and continue to play defence-breaking balls into the final third. 

However, his long-term ankle injury in October 2016 ruled him for nearly 2 years, leaving Arsenal and Cazorla with no choice but to part ways. His departure coincided with Arsenal losing their competitive edge, and they suddenly fell off a cliff. Ozil became easier to mark out of games since there wasn’t anyone else to carry that creative burden, and Arsenal generally went from a great team to a bad yet fun team under Wenger. Cazorla might not have the same longevity or titles as other players, but he has genuinely been one of the best players the league has ever seen.

David Silva

The next three players here have all been involved in the best team of the decade, but let’s start with David Silva. Like Walker, Silva has been in the league from the start and has been remarkably consistent. His first season in England was famously not great. While 11 goal contributions and toping the team for key passes with 2.1 is still substantial, it still showed that Silva, and Manchester City, weren’t yet ready to win their first title. The physical side of the league did seem to have an effect, but Silva did eventually got to his best. The former Valencia midfielder had an absolutely sensational campaign in City’s first title win. Silva went from 11 goal contributions in his first season to 21 in his second. This is where Silva established himself as the best creator in the league, linking up so well with the other forwards and always finding space in the final third to exploit. Like Cazorla, Silva was regularly played as a wide playmaker, with an emphasis on coming inside and looking for holes to exploit between the defence and the midfield. He could evade pressure so smoothly and was vital for creativity and ball progression.

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It was actually under Pep where he cemented himself as all time great. During Manchester City’s centurion season, Silva had his best season for the club. While De Bruyne did take the headlines for some of his fantastic assists and performances, Silva’s role had transformed. He was now alongside De Bruyne as a ‘free 8,’ and excelled in this fast, possession football that needed players like Silva, so technically gifted and intelligent to help drive the ball and create chances for the other forwards. During this super season, Pep’s wingers would stretch the defence, Cruyff-style, and give space for Silva and De Bruyne to exploit. Silva was so good when getting the ball in the 18-yard box, to quickly play a pass into one of his teammates in the box when their opponents had no time to adjust to the speed in City’s attacks. You couldn’t stop him from wiggling through defenders and play those simple, yet so effective balls into the feet of his teammates.

I’ve been in more depth with other players here, because in some cases, primarily Cazorla and Luiz, I’ve felt I have needed to justify their selections, but Silva will be in everyone’s team of the decades. He’s consistently performed every season and played a big part in all of City’s title winning seasons. From the leading creator, linking midfield to defence during his peak years, to using his invaluable experience and ability on the ball to find pockets in the opposition’s box, Silva has been a joy to watch during the last 9 years. 

Raheem Sterling 

Sterling might be a hard player to justify including, considering how he didn’t start playing regularly until 2012, in which he was very much a raw talent, being a great dribbler but still needing time to mature. Sterling was great alongside Suarez and Sturridge in one of the few seasons where Liverpool were close to winning the title. His follow-up season was a struggle, yet not as bad as many like to remember, considering he was only 20 and still getting into double figures for goal contributions. We look back and see that £44 million paid for Sterling and think it was a good deal, but at the time, people were not happy. The idea of spending so much money on a young player who was still unproven in a sense was crazy. What made it slightly worse was the arrival of Kevin De Bruyne, who at around £10 million more, Manchester City were getting arguably the best player in the Bundesliga in the previous season. He was at an age where he was ready to produce now. Sterling defined the money clubs were willing to spend on the next hot English talent.

Like 3 other players on this list, Pep Guardiola arrived and changed Sterling from a promising winger to one of the best wingers in Europe. Pep took out the weakest parts of his game, being his shot location and directness. One of Sterling’s problems was how wasteful he could be when in good positions. They improved during his first season in Manchester, but this was down to some dominant Manchester City performances, but what changed under Pep was where his shots were coming from. Sterling began looking for space in the penalty area, with all of his goals coming from inside the box. In the 17/18 season, down to improvements in his own game and a much better Manchester City team, Sterling looked unstoppable. He contributed to 29 goals in City’s first title win under Guardiola and stood out with some vital goals against Southampton, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Everton and Huddersfield. He was one of the reasons why City even managed to win the league and get to a historic amount of points. He was primarily played on the right, with his objective to stay wide in a very Dutch way, to stretch the opposition back four and allow his teammates to find space in behind. Sterling’s dribbling did help him stand out. The problem before Pep’s arrival was the way he was dribbling was slowing down attacks, choosing to take multiple touches on the ball. Pep made the slight yet significant change of telling him to take a single touch and move the ball. It keeps opponents in an uncomfortable position, with Sterling’s speed making it harder to predict his next move. 

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Sterling remained insanely consistent in City’s follow up campaign, scoring 17 and assisting 10. His goals were still being taken in very good areas, even with Kevin De Bruyne missing for most of the season. Pep also began playing him on the left, his preferred position due to the winger being right-footed. Pep clearly sees Sterling as a vital member of his team, with Sane dropping to the bench and the likes of Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez, two naturally right-sided players, playing to get the best out England’s exciting attacker. 

Maybe including a player who has only had 3 genuinely great seasons in the Premier League is a bit extreme, especially choosing him over Hazard. But Sterling is one of the best wingers on the planet, and his goalscoring, creativity, dribbling are all fantastic. His skill set is more varied than Hazard’s and has been sensational in the best team of the decade. 

Sergio Aguero 

Another Manchester City player who must be included in this team. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Sergio Aguero is the best South American to ever play in the Premier League. His level of consistency since 2011 is absolutely outstanding. Only once did he manage to score less than 15 goals in a season, scoring bundles of goals and winning games for every manager he has played under. 

Aguero arrived during Manchester City’s early spending spree, joining in the same summer as Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy and joining other big-money signings like Yaya Toure, David Silva and Joleon Lescott. Aguero had some fierce competition in terms of players in the pecking order. Edin Dzeko was another expensive arrival and offered a lot in terms of build-up play and in the air. Carlos Tevez didn’t reach the point of being virtually hated by all sets of fans in Manchester and was still considered one of the most lethal forwards in the league. Mario Balotelli was another player who, while controversial, was still useful, and at this point, promising. Aguero arrived to add that element of speed and coolness in front of goal, while still being very comfortable on the ball and could offer a lot in terms of build-up play, even with a weaker frame to Dzeko. The Argentine famously had one of the best debuts in Premier League history, coming off the bench in a 4-0 win over QPR. In only half an hour of football, Aguero managed to score his first goal, create two more for his teammates and score the final goal. He also scored THAT winning goal against QPR on the last game of the season, with his intuitive and powerful finish winning Manchester City their first Premier League title. 

His best season to me was the 14/15 season, where he won the golden boot with 26 goals (yet didn’t make the team of the year). Aguero was in absolutely monsterous form. He scored all 4 goals in a 4-1 win over Pochettino’s Tottenham, reaching the 10 goal mark by the beginning of November, and actually reached 100 goals for Man City in a 4-2 derby defeat to Manchester United. It took him only three and a half years to reach a goal tally for a club that some strikers never reach. Aguero’s numbers in that season were ridiculous, ending 14/15 with 0.93 non-penalty expected goals contributions per 90. There is only one season where he bettered that, in Pep’s centurion season, playing in a team with a much better supporting cast. I have fond memories of Aguero over the years, with the one that stands out is a particular goal he scored. I still can’t remember what side this goal was against, but all I can remember is when Aguero struck the ball, and you can see the net being close to breaking. 

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His time under Pep did initially start on bad terms. The Argentine marksman bafflingly didn’t seem to fit Guardiola’s blueprint for his ideal striker, with there being a huge question mark over his build-up play. Aguero has always been a consistent chance creator, but as he has gotten older, his primary focus has always been on goalscoring. There were even rumours in January 2017 than Pep would consider selling Aguero, with Jesus being preferred in terms of his ability to drop deep and drag defenders with him. However, Jesus picked up a severe knee injury not long after his arrival, meaning Pep had to turn back to Aguero, an opportunity the Argentine took and proved his manager wrong. From March onwards, he scored 13 goals in all competitions, including 2 huge goals in a spectacular Champions League tie against Monaco. Pep was wrong to doubt Aguero, but the striker proved himself to be the undroppable player he has proven to be for every manager. 

Aguero has been the perfect forward since arriving in England. A consistent, creative scorer who always turns up for big games. Newcastle are his favourite opponent to play, but Chelsea and Tottenham are right behind them, with Aguero in double figures against both London clubs. Like Silva, he has been heavily involved in all of Manchester City’s success in the past decade. Premier League fans still tend to place Henry and Shearer ahead of Aguero, but it is just so difficult to argue against Aguero being at their level. A Premier League legend for sure. 

Sadio Mane

Maybe including Sterling is reasonable, but Mane might be a stretch too far, but hear me out. Mane arrived during Southampton’s best time of the decade, helping them achieve back to back top half finishes. Coincidentally, as soon as he departed, Southampton went from a fun team into the tedious slog they are today. Mane has never failed to score less than 10 goals in every season he has played in English football. The former Salzburg winger had a solid start to the Premier League. In the 14/15 season, he broke the record for fastest hat-trick in Premier League history, scoring 3 goals in only 2 minutes 56 seconds. This hat-trick perfectly showcased what Mane was all about. He was quick, direct, strong and had a lethal strike on him. He was a defender’s worst nightmare.

His £35 million move to Liverpool did raise a lot of eyebrows. While he did show a lot of talent at Southampton, the problem was his consistency and attitude. Koeman publicly called him out during the 15/16 season because of Mane’s lack of focus and concentration. It was clear that with Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Liverpool all interested, Mane wanted to join a bigger club. His form in that final season was also a problem. While his numbers did always remain positive, he would go through long periods with the Saints without scoring. Famously before his brace in a 3-2 win over Liverpool, Mane went four months without scoring. His xG per 90 throughout his career has remained at around a goal every other 3 games, a good return for a winger. What a lot of people don’t realise is players usually stop acting out once they get their dream moves, and Mane’s case, that remains true. He was the first big signing made by Jurgen Klopp to add a pace and goals from the wide areas. Mane has arguably been Klopp’s best signing at Liverpool, for kicking everything into motion and being the starting point for their future success. Bringing Mane in first made a lot of sense. His versatility and ability to press made him an ideal player to have while the majority of players adjust to a demanding style of football. In Mane’s first game, he scored the 4th goal in a spectacular 4-3 away win against Arsenal, hitting the top corner of the net with his weaker foot. His first reaction was to run to his manager, showing how this was the perfect match, for a player who’s acted out before, and a manager with love for players in Mane’s mould.

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His second season saw Mane take a big leap forward. While his xG and his goal contributions did stay mostly the same, he was still consistently producing even with Mohamed Salah having an absolutely sensational season. Mane still had moments of pure magic, which included 10 goals in the Champions League and a goal in the final. In a final which saw Salah go off injured, they needed their other attackers to truly turn up, and Mane definitely brought his a-game. Mane was comfortably Liverpool’s best player, causing Carvahal all kinds of problems with his pace and trickery. 

Last season saw Mane score as many goals as his Egyptian teammate, finishing the season with a personal-high 22 goals. He did massively overperform, but with Salah being tightly marked through many of Liverpool’s matches, teams forgot about the threat that the Senegalese forward can bring. 

Salah could have easily appeared on this list, but it seems unfair to choose a player who has only been playing regularly in the league since 2017. Mane’s numbers have remained consistently high throughout his time in the Premier League, but it took a move to one of the best Premier League teams of all time to allow him to play at his level. 

Honourable mentions 

With the XI finally complete, there are plenty of other players who deserve praise. In goal, there were some other options to consider. Hugo Lloris would probably be my honourable mention, but De Gea has comfortably been the best goalkeeper, and Lloris has gotten noticeably worse in recent years. Lukasz Fabianski was fantastic at Swansea, and we saw Polish shot-stopper have a David De Gea season in 18/19, being the sole reason why West Ham didn’t have the worst defence in the league. Joe Hart even deserves mention for being an excellent goalkeeper during City’s early success but didn’t possess the same consistency for such a long period as David Silva and Aguero.

In defence, there were quite a few choices to select. John Terry was a player who, while past his best during the decade, was still an ever present in Chelsea’s team. However, I can’t include thanks in part to me not liking him as a human being and the former England captain only having 3-4 years where he didn’t look like the ageing player he was. Jan Vertonghen was another to consider, but Alderweireld was just better and transformed Tottenham’s defence on his arrival. Vincent Kompany is obviously the player that should be included, and for 3 years he was fantastic, but injuries began to impact him and lead to a player who struggled for consistent game time for 3 years. He did have an excellent final season at the Etihad. Still, David Luiz at his best was the best defender during the whole decade, and Alderweireld was partly responsible for Tottenham actually becoming good. The Arsenal pair of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker could easily start here, but both had massive injury problems, and Arsenal weren’t excellent defensively during this decade. Full-back, as mentioned, wasn’t stacked with option. Pablo Zabaleta is the only player who was genuinely in contention for a place, with the left-back position producing some weak options over the 2010s. 

There were plenty of midfielders to choose from. James Milner was so close to being put in midfield. He was an unsung hero during his five-year spell in Manchester. He went on to being a fantastic utility player for Klopp, filling in at left-back for a season, then moving back in midfield and being their best player in that position. Kante and Fabregas also could have easily been in this XI, but Fernandinho was simply better than Kante and Fabregas did have some fantastic seasons. Yet, Silva and Cazorla were must picks for Spanish midfielders. I’ve also heard people consider Kevin De Bruyne for this, but he’s missed as many games as he’s played while being in Manchester. He had two seasons of elite production, but two more that consisted of injuries. Yaya Toure is in a similar boat to De Bruyne, but the difference being that Toure arrived in this league a bit too late for his skillset. Ozil was close to being put in this team, but thanks to Emery wasting the two final years of the decade, it’s hard to put him here. 

Up front was arguably the area where a lot of good players had be cut thanks to Aguero being the clear choice. Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku were all considered, but it’s impossible to choose anyone over Aguero. Hazard was arguably the weirdest player to leave out, but his goal tallies have been massively swayed from penalties, and his 15/16 season was so bad, that it ruined his reputation for me

 

Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

A lot of people are enjoying just how much United are struggling at the moment, and I can’t blame them. From the start of the Premier League to the end of the Ferguson era, a majority of football fans in England despised the Red Devils. A lot of that hate came from fans who hated their success, which is pretty standard. Most of the big clubs in Europe are hated for being big. Fans love an underdog story and seeing a team dominate makes a generally unpredictable sport, a lot more predictable. The other element to why football supporters dislike them is United’s own fans, another view I can completely sympathise. The title of ‘glory hunters’ has been placed on all United fans since the Premier League’s conception. I’ve spoken to numerous United fans in the past 4 years, and many do not follow the club anymore. I hear it’s because of the lack of entertainment the recent managers have thrived towards, but it’s clear it’s about the lack of trophies. A lot of United fans have this sense of entitlement, which means they deserve a great brand of football, young stars breaking through and winning or at least challenging for the league every season. It’s an attitude that doesn’t matter anymore when their closest rivals are just so far ahead of them. Just like Liverpool after their dominance in the eighties, it’ll take a while before Manchester United are back to battling with the best. I have to bring up the fans because it’s partly their fault that the perspective of Manchester United this season is just so negative. They have a right to be frustrated, but I don’t think it’s been as bad as in the past.

So, do I think United have been terrible? Short answer, no, but long answer, kind of. The best way to explain how United have performed is to go through some of their games, and see where they’ve gone right, and most importantly, wrong.

Let’s start with the summer. United’s approach was a strange one, wanting to stock up on their homegrown quota with primarily targeting British players. They arguably overspent on all of their acquisitions. Daniel James arriving for £18 million was intriguing because it felt like the first time in years since United bought an attacker for relatively low risk. He at least offered versatility and is very young, meaning he could either improve or United could get their money back if it didn’t work out for the young Welshman.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka arrived after a fantastic debut season. He is arguably the best defensive full-back in Europe, but there were apparent issues with signing the former Crystal Palace defender. While the defensive part of his game was never in question, Wan-Bissaka simply wasn’t offering a similar output as the full-backs in the top six clubs. He’s a decent dribbler but wasn’t creating chances for Palace. With United spending so much money on the 21-year-old, you have to hope Wan-Bissaka simply develops into a great attacker, or Solsjkaer can turn him into an excellent full-back.

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Maguire was the final signing. No one can argue that United haven’t overspent on the former Hull City defender, but at the same time, he was a definite improvement. Maguire is a very progressive defender, being comfortable on the ball and a capable distributor on the ball. In transforming the Red Devils into Solsjkaer vision of a more exciting team, having a defender like Maguire would help United when facing those teams who set up in a deep block. He is also fantastic in the air. His size and jump make him not only a great defender when facing taller strikers, but giving any team a considerable advantage on set-pieces, a part of football that many teams are desperate to find more value from. He scored five goals for Leicester, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s when he scored those goals which is noteworthy. He scored winners or equalisers against Southampton, Liverpool and Manchester United, gaining Leicester some valuable points. Manchester United have been mediocre at set-pieces for years, so bringing in a threat like Maguire could help in their push for top four. Maguire still has an obvious flaw in his game, and it worries me that the most expensive defender could be exposed by certain opponents. Maguire is slow, noticeably slow. United were likely to field a high line, to bring the pressure onto their opposition and to take advantage of actually having ball-playing defenders. The problem they were going to face is the likeliness of a pacey forward getting the better of Maguire. It is a problem that was obvious at Leicester, but having a more defensive system did protect them from forwards with a burst of speed. A sensible signing, but far from value for money.

These three signings did bring a boost to the club; addressing their most significant issues. It’s something United have consistently never done. Whether bringing in Anthony Martial on deadline day back in 2015 because they forgot they only had a single striker or spending £60 million on Fred when midfield, at that point, wasn’t as clear of a priority as a centre-back. Like me, you can question the value United can get out of these players, but at least they were targetting the right players.

The biggest issue with United’s summer was the players they let go, combining well with the other personnel issues they failed to resolve. Letting Herrera go was by far the strangest decision they made in the summer. The Spaniard did add a lot of defensive output some bite in a team that lacked a bit of character. Not only was letting him go on a free a stupid idea but not replacing him with a player who could bring the same defensive work as Herrera did was by far the worst part of United summer. It meant they were going into the season with an ageing Matic, a disinterested Paul Pogba, an average Scott McTominay and an underwhelming Fred. It was so bad that Pogba would have to play a more restrained role, something he can do, but it isn’t what he should be doing. Solsjkaer would also be hoping that Fred could find some form for the first time since arriving in Manchester. It left United at such a disadvantage. When Manchester City bring in Rodri, Tottenham with Ndombele and Arsenal with Ceballos, it made United’s goal of reaching top four even harder.

Selling Lukaku on paper isn’t the worst decision. It was clear that Lukaku’s type of player wasn’t needed, so getting their money back was the right thing to do, but not replacing him was crazy. I love Rashford and Martial and asking for tremendous seasons out of the pair is realistic, but on the slight chance they didn’t or currently in Martial’s case, injuries, it was a lot of pressure on the rest of the team and especially young Mason Greenwood, who is seen as United’s next breakout star.

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So, after a very mixed summer to say the least, how have United been in the league? Well, unlucky would be the best way to describe it. There are many reasons for this, but let’s go through their league games so far, and see how they’ve performed. Starting with their 4-0 win over Chelsea, which lead to a lot of early excitement. Scoring 4 goals at home against one of their top 6 rivals was huge, but the performance did bring optimism and apparent issues. The first half was a bit of a mess. The players looked incredibly, struggling to break Chelsea down and getting dispossessed rather easily. However, Rashford’s penalty changed the whole game. It’s a simple observation to make, but it forced Chelsea to play on the front foot, which allowed United to play to their players’ strengths, on the break.

The signings of an aerial-dominant Maguire, a defensive machine in Wan-Bissaka and a blisteringly-quick winger in James, that it set up United as a fantastic counter-attacking side, and luckily they were playing against Chelsea, who we now know quite-regularly give away excellent goal-scoring chances. This wasn’t an incredible performance from Manchester United but was extremely sufficient. They had 5 shots on target in this game and put away four of them. This might be the only time United can be described as clinical so far this season

Their 1-1 draw to Wolves is the start of a recurrent theme to describe Solsjkaer’s side: unlucky. Manchester United dominated against a Wolves side who, for a majority of the game, were playing rather negatively, sitting back and allowing United to have their way throughout the game. Wolves could have easily beaten United if they weren’t so safe, but they did help expose some of United deficiencies in the final third. United did have a majority of the ball, but only managed 9 shots with 2 on target. For years, United have struggled to break down teams who set up in a deep block. They even showed this in both of their encounters against Wolves last season, drawing the first game at Old Trafford and losing the reverse fixture. Under Van Gaal, it was down to a tactical plan that simply didn’t work. Under Mourinho, it was down to absolutely no idea in the final third, and now under Solsjkaer, it is quite different.

It’s strange to see United struggle so much when during the start of Solsjkaer’s reign up until the Liverpool game, they looked really good. They were setting up in a 4-3-3, with Rashford, Lingard and Martial playing as interchanging forwards, with Pogba advancing really far up the field. In 10 appearances, Pogba contributed to 13 goals, Rashford with 7 and Lingard and Martial with 4 each. During that strong run, the main criticisms faced, from myself included, was the opposition they were facing. But these were the same type of opponents they just couldn’t beat in the previous 4 years. It was a breath of fresh air to see United not only beating opponents they should be beating but winning with a bit more style. It wasn’t like watching Manchester City or Liverpool; however, it was a vast improvement over the football Manchester United fans had to sit through since Ferguson’s departure. Their attackers were finally allowed to express themselves instead of being held back from the manager’s ineffective systems or personal feuds.

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This game (and most of the games so far this season) just highlight the hole Herrera has left upon his departure. Having a downright weak midfield like this means they have to be protected. Pogba has moved back into a double-pivot, a role that doesn’t play to his strengths because he is receiving the ball far deeper. His key passes are still at a high 2.6 and puts up over 1.5 dribblers per game. The problem is he’s taking fewer shots than before, going from 3 last season to 1.8, highlighting how his role for the side changed from attacker to a deep creator. McTominay has looked okay in midfield, but he seems to be only playing because the players behind him in the pecking order are that bad. Matic is arguably one of the worst signings post-Ferguson, and Fred has been a disaster. McTominay does deserve credit for performing well, but improving on him wouldn’t be that difficult.

Manchester United have been unfortunate to be where they are in the table. They conceded a wonder goal to Ruben Neves and had a penalty saved against Wolves. Their 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace can also be seen as unlucky, with Rashford hitting the post from the penalty spot and a well-taken goal from Van-Aanolt misleading De Gea. If this game were played 10 times, United would win nine of them. The Red Devils dominated this game and definitely deserved more than a draw.

The next game was an improvement in performance, but United failed to get the three points, getting another 1-1 result, this time against the Saints. Southampton are usually a pretty good defensive team, but United did create some good chances, with Rashford having three that could have easily been goals. However, the problem for United here comes back to the midfield once again, but this time it’s all Pogba. It’s pretty well known how much criticism he has faced since his return to Manchester, but that is primarily down to expectations. I think he has been fantastic and United’s best outfield player. He has obviously had games where he has had a minimal impact, but overall he has been great. He’s had to do everything for United, and even more pressure is placed upon him when Pogba clearly wants out. The problem for United is when Pogba is either not playing or pressed out of a game, they can struggle to create any sort of chances. Even against Southampton, where they did manage to reduce his impact, Pogba still made 4 key passes and completed 4 dribbles. Without Pogba, United are half the team they want to be and need him if they want any kind of success this season.

A deserved win against Leicester and an arguably unfortunate result against West Ham (the performance was still pretty bad, but West Ham weren’t entirely deserving of the 3 points) did correctly show just how inconsistent United have been this season. However, you kinda have to feel sorry for Solsjkaer, He is making mistakes himself, and we will get onto that very shortly, but the lack of players he has to choose from is painful. With Pogba and Martial, their best attackers, missing games this season, the players United have to select as their replacements is pitiful. They simply lack forwards. Rashford has been playing with some sort of injury for months, and the likes of Mata, James, Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough to be starting every week, but that’s all that Solsjkaer can really choose. His team will only be able to perform once Pogba, Rashford and Martial are fully fit. Without those three, there is not a single game where United should be considered favourites for a football match.

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So let’s actually get onto Solsjkaer. Like I said before, the first two months of his reign were very good. It wasn’t like watching United return to their treble-winning best, but their best players were playing at their level for the first time in months, which sometimes is enough to carry you on the short term. United’s 4-3-3 worked well with the players they had looked to finally be the right system to fit all of their players. However, Herrera’s departure and his lack of replacement meant Solsjkaer simply didn’t have a midfield good enough to dominate while also allowing Pogba to push forward. He had to go back to the relatively stale 4-2-3-1 because there aren’t many formations that can play to United’s strengths right now. They simply don’t have the full-backs to play a back three, the midfield to play a midfield three or the strikers to play an old-school two-striker system. It’s pretty dull to watch, but until the club actually buy good players, it’s hard to see United changing.

I watched their game against Arsenal a couple of times, to see just how they play, and find out what’s working and what isn’t. Let’s start with United in attack. Firstly, I need to mention that Arsenal were playing Callum Chambers at right-back. While not a bad player, no one is quite sure yet what his best position is. United look to attack down the flanks, starting with the left, taking advantage of Arsenal’s clear weak point. Pogba was being tightly marked by Torreira. The Frenchman would usually drop deep to leave space James to be picked out by one of the defenders, or make the pass himself. The problem with this approach was that James just isn’t good. If Martial or Rashford were playing in that position, United would have been more successful. United wanted to isolate him, but nothing was really coming from it, so they started going down the right side, with Kolasinac being pretty bad defensively. Pereira and Young are bad, with Pereira being so underwhelming when in possession and Young playing at a point where he should be retired. To help a pretty inadequate pair, Rashford was consistently making runs into the right channel, with Pereira dropping deeper to allow Young to pick Rashford out. 40% of their attacks came down the right side, and no one touched the ball more than Young for United. Solsjkaer did set up his team in the right way. They were trying to expose their opponent’s evident weaknesses and consistently attempted to create chances down the wide areas. The problem, as it has throughout this lengthy analysis, has been personnel. If United had better right-sided players, they might have had more success in creating good chances.

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Even on the defensive side, United did pretty well. They played a pretty high line and put a lot of pressure on Arsenal’s midfielders, especially Guendouzi. While the teenager is clearly talented, he still possesses immaturity that will eventually be faded out of his game, but right now it is a weakness. At times, United were putting him in a three-on-one situation, and it did work, disrupting Arsenal’s build-up play. United were genuinely good in the first half, but the second half started pretty bad. They were being a lot more direct in possession and lacking that same aggression in the first half. For 15 minutes, Arsenal not only scored but deserved to score a couple more goals, if Torreira managed to get a better connection with the ball. United’s defenders’ concentration dropped, and Arsenal were quick to take advantage of that.

The last 20 minutes of the game was scrappy, to say the least. Both teams were desperately searching for that winning goal, which never came. It was the first time this season where United actually lost on xG. The second half was not good and was the worst United performed all season defensively, especially for their goal, with the whole back four at fault for Aubameyang’s goal. Maguire played him onside, Lindelof was out of position, Tuanzebe lost possession and Young didn’t make much of an effort to stop Arsenal’s Gabon goal machine.

I have been somewhat defensive of United so far. Even including that goal conceded against Arsenal, Solsjkaer’s side has remained pretty solid defensively. They’ve only conceded 8 goals this season, with understat placing them top of the league in terms of xG against. Of course, the inferior opposition they’ve faced has made it easy to look that good, but they’ve still looked mostly good against Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all looking to sneak into the top 4. Maguire and Wan-Bissaka’s arrivals have made a massive difference in defence, and merely having defenders who are confident on the ball does make them a better team. The 4-2-3-1 Solsjkaer chooses to deploy could help too, giving the defence a lot of protection. Defence has been United’s problem for years, but finally looks resolved.

The problem with Solsjkaer’s Manchester United is just how bad they are in the final third. Again, Martial and Rashford not being fully fit is holding them back, but the lack of ideas when in the opposition half is hugely troubling. Their general shot quality is poor, and have struggled to create high quality chances for the forwards. Having Pogba roughly 10 yards further back than last season doesn’t help, but United’s general approach in games is reminiscent of the same problems witnessed under Mourinho, being a lack of a plan. The players seem to have no idea what to do. Again, United are good on the counter-attack and signing 3 players that benefit playing in that style does massively help. But United aren’t going to be playing on the counter-attack against every opponent. They will have to bring the game to their opponent, something they’ve failed to do in any game this season. United’s shot volume is high, but the problem is where they’ve taken them. While they rank 5th in the league for shots per game, they rank 12th for shots in the penalty area. They’re 17th for dribbles per game, and 2nd for most times fouled per game. The Red Devils have heavily relied on penalties and set pieces for goals. They are awful at set-pieces. When the only decent chance they created against Newcastle was a corner, that Maguire missed, there are apparent problems. United have been unlucky and are massively underachieving xG for, but that isn’t defending the lack of chances created.

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So if I was Solsjkaer, what would I attempt to do to fix these obvious problems. The midfield is holding them back, so I’d try and put Wan-Bissaka in there. A lot of fans have seen his massive defensive output and decent dribble numbers and think he at least should be tried out there, and I agree. Full-back is a position you don’t tend to want to play when going through the academy. When you look at some of the most prominent full-backs right now, Kimmich came through as a midfielder, Marcelo a winger and Pavard a centre-back. It’s a position you can fill pretty easily, with players who have significant engines and are at least competent defensively. United would look a lot worse in the full-back areas on the short term, but midfield is such a problem that it needs to be fixed immediately. Moving Wan-Bissaka into a more central position would allow United to go back and play a 4-3-3 with good players. The 21-year-old could fill that huge Herrera shaped hole and let Pogba play further up the pitch. McTominay has performed as the more defensively minded midfielder this season, and while he has been decent, I think I’d still look for an improvement. He’s a fine recycler of possession but just doesn’t have the same ambition and confidence in possession Pogba shows. Moving Wan-Bissaka is personally the best method to get United properly playing a 4-3-3, without including Matic and Fred in the starting XI. This change in formation pushes Pogba further forward, and if Martial and Rashford and stay fully fit for most of the season, it would at least make them okay in chance creation and remain solid.

They should definitely get kicked out of every cup competition. They simply do not have the squad to compete in more than one competition. Their league form is becoming embarrassing, and if Solsjkaer does want to push his ideas onto this team, the painful schedule is the last thing this group of players need.

This has been very long, but there was a lot to say here. United haven’t been good, but they haven’t been nearly as bad as under Mourinho. The players being targeted are still a step in the right direction. They’re a lot younger, and Solsjkaer has gotten rid of a lot of players who didn’t fit what he wanted to do, as well as players who shouldn’t have been there. If the United legend did get sacked in the coming weeks, he would probably be remembered in a slightly negative fashion, for the lack of points they’ve gathered since that PSG game. He further shows how stupid the United board are in terms of managerial appointments. I still don’t know what style of play Solsjkaer wants to play, but I’m at least curious to see where this goes. I’d like to see him stay because he could continue to make a more coherent squad since Ferguson, and give future managers a better chance to succeed at the club. Sometimes these lows can lead to massive highs, so let’s hope that’s what will happen with England’s biggest club.

Arsenal’s Early Form and Why It Isn’t a Surprise

In my Premier League predictions, I predicted Arsenal to overperform, based on their overreliance on Aubameyang, who covered their cracks quite effectively. Even with the new additions of Kieran Tierney, David Luiz, Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos, the side still lacked that solidarity at the back and in midfield to prevent them from challenging Liverpool and Man City at the top of the table. When you add that alongside a manager who I doubt can take Arsenal into the Champions League spots, this season could get a lot worse for the Gunners.

Let’s start with the attack, where the numbers read similarly to last season. It was an area that needed desperate improvement. Last season, Arsenal were taking 12.3 shots per game, the 11th best in the division, behind Southampton, Wolves and Crystal Palace. Arsenal were dominating games, averaging 56% possession per game last season, but failed to make that control count. The ‘Top 6′ are perceived to be miles ahead of the teams below them in the table, but the truth is countless times Arsenal looked so passive in the final third, especially against weaker opposition. Take their 1-1 draw against Wolves in November 2018 as one of many examples. They dominated the game 72% possession to Wolves’ 28%, yet were outshot by their opponents, with Jota, Traore and Costa having chances to win the game for the away side. Arsenal just couldn’t deal with their counter attacks and speedy wingers and allowed them to look the better team in possession.

Even with a lot of bad performances, Arsenal still remained in the conversation for Champions League football. However, that all changed after a 3 game spell, which saw them showcase their frailties for the country to see. Defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester allowed Chelsea to get into the top 4. Their 3-2 loss to Palace was bad based on individual errors. It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Mustafi’s future in North London, with the German defender allowing Zaha to ease past him for the second goal. Their 3-1 defeat to Wolves did flatter in the sense of Wolves were putting the ball away from difficult areas, but this game showed just how useless Arsenal were at chance creation. From open play, Arsenal created next to nothing, and while they were unfortunate to concede three, they didn’t deserve to win by any stretch. Yet, this wasn’t even the worst performance out of the three defeats. Their 3-0 battering by the hands of Leicester City was a sign of just how bad Emery’s team was. While Maitland-Niles’ red card in the first half did obviously make it more challenging to get the win, allowing Leicester to have so many shots from inside the box was still extremely concerning, considering Koscielny came on for Iwobi soon after the sending off. xG had this game 3.68 to 0.60, showing how Leicester deserved such a comfortable victory.

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These 3 games perfectly provided proof of the problems with Arsenal. The Palace game showed the poor individuals who needed replacing, The Wolves game showed a side unable to create chances and Leicester just how easily Arsenal could be opened up. The North London club attempted to resolve a lot of these problems in the transfer market, and to their credit, they had a great summer in terms of recruitment. William Saliba began the spending with the defender signing for £27 million. The 18-year-old, however, was sent back to his former club St Etienne on loan, to gain more first-team experience in a league which excels in the development in young players. Dani Ceballos was next, arriving on loan from Real Madrid. The Spaniard was seen as one of Spain’s next excellent midfield talent, able to bring quality on the ball while putting in a lot of defensive actions. He could add much-needed ball progression to a very slow and sluggish midfield. Nicolas Pepe was the marquee signing, with the former Lille winger arriving for over £70 million. There is no denying Arsenal have overspent on Pepe, but he was absolutely fantastic last season. I was intrigued to see how he would play in a team where he wasn’t the main threat and prove that he is one of the best wide players in Europe. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney signed on deadline day for £8 million and £25 million respectively. Luiz is on the older side but is a fine-enough stop-gap until Saliba is ready to become a regular in that defence. There is definitely question marks over Tierney being good enough for a big club, with Scotland having a pretty bad domestic league. However, there is no denying he is an improvement over an ageing Monreal and a defensively-weak Kolasinac.

There is no doubting that Arsenal have improved in terms of personnel, and are arguably the 3rd best team in the country. Manchester United still have weaknesses in attack and midfield, Chelsea lost their best attacker and Spurs didn’t bring in a back-up for a Harry Kane who isn’t one of the top 5 strikers in the world anymore. Arsenal already had a decent goalkeeper and the best striking partnership in the league, and have added improvements throughout the team. You could argue Arsenal did need to look at a back up for Bellerin until his return, but Maitland-Niles can cover pretty well for him.

After 6 games, Arsenal sit in 4th with 11 points, 7 behind Liverpool and 2 behind Man City. On that fact, it would seem like Arsenal have started well, but in reality, they haven’t improved as of yet. A scrappy nevertheless, deserved win over Newcastle wasn’t the worst way to start the season, considering their away form has always been questionable. Their 2-1 home win over Burnley didn’t exhale confidence. Sean Dyche’s side had a few good chances to win the game and were slightly ahead of Arsenal on xG (1.16 to Burnley’s 1.39). Excellent performances from both David Luiz and Dani Ceballos did give Arsenal fans a big positive out of the game. It wasn’t a great start, but getting maximum points with players still missing was at least acceptable. Then the Liverpool game happened.

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I haven’t touched on Emery yet, but I have not been the Spaniard’s biggest fan since his arrival in North London. He showed at Sevilla how good his sides were in knockout competitions, winning the Europa League three consecutive times. Both him and Monchi were getting the best out of undervalued talent like Rakitic, Gameiro, Bacca and N’Zonzi, who were brought in for low prices and left bringing Sevilla a significant profit. PSG looked at Emery and in their desperation to win the Champions League, chose him to finally begin their desired domination in Europe. However, all didn’t go to plan in his debut season in France. It’s hard to criticise him in Ligue 1 when Monaco won the league with an extremely talented squad. It was a year where everything seemed to click for Jardim’s side, and with PSG losing Ibrahimovic and David Luiz, it left them relatively vulnerable. Their recruitment that summer was especially weak, with Ben Arfa, Krychowiak, Jese Rodriguez and Gonzalo Guedes all failing to make an impression. Unfortunately, Emery’s time at PSG is best remembered by that round of 16 encounter with Barcelona. After tearing them apart in the first leg, with Verrati especially having one of the best games for the club, it gave them a 4 goal lead over the Catalan club. However, as we all know, they absolutely capitulated in the second leg. The pressure seemed to get to the players and thanks to some extremely questionable refereeing decisions, a weak Barcelona side advanced.

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His second season did bring the league title back to Paris, but a defeat to Real Madrid in the round of 16 cemented Emery’s time in France as an overall failure. When brought in with the sole intention of winning one competition and failing even to get close to the final, it’s easy to see why PSG didn’t renew his contract. After Wenger finally departed the club, Arsenal chose Emery as his successor, giving him a two-year contract, making it a very sensible appointment and allowing the club to resolve some of their off-field problems.

So why don’t I like him? Well because he hasn’t been great for years now, especially at Arsenal, where the attack has gotten a lot worse, and the defence has marginally improved. During Wenger’s final years at the club, Arsenal were extremely weak defensively but remained one of the best-attacking sides in the league. Emery sacrificed that attack to help resolve the defensive issues, but haven’t shown much of an improvement, even after the summer signings. However, during their 3-1 defeat to Liverpool, Emery was entirely to blame for their awful performance. When you play the European champions, the one thing you do not allow them is space in the wide areas, and what did Arsenal do? Give Alexander-Arnold and Robertson all the room in the world on their respective flanks. Arsenal simply didn’t deal with their biggest threat, with the Alexander-Arnold saying after the game that he expected them to play a different system, and they were “really narrow.”

Allowing Liverpool to play to their strengths is something you wouldn’t expect a manager of Emery’s experience to do. I’ve always seen him as a defensively-minded, adaptable and pragmatic coach. It baffles me why many of the mainstream media treat him like a philosophy manager, similar to Guardiola and Klopp. Emery has always been pretty effective in those big games, which is why he was able to guide Sevilla to three Europa Leagues. He doesn’t mind bringing in players to fill specific roles, something you see Mourinho or Allegri attempt to do. It’s some of Arsenal’s performances in the big games that have left me scratching my head, to why he consistently makes terrible decisions.

The Liverpool performance was abysmal, but their 2-2 draw against Watford was arguably the worst performance I’ve seen from Emery’s Arsenal as of yet. Allowing arguably the worst side in the league, right after they sacked their manager and brought in former Watford coach Quique Sanchez Flores. The Gunners allowed Watford to have 31 shots on target. That is a number you see Manchester City have against relegation sides, which helps illustrate just how bad Arsenal are at the back. The lack of midfield protection was staggering, with Guendouzi and Xhaka just allowing Deulofeu, Doucoure and Capoue to waltz right into the box and if it weren’t for Aubameyang scoring a first-half brace, it would have been an embarrassing day for Emery and his players.

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Do I think Arsenal can improve? Absolutely. Bellerin and Tierney haven’t played in the Premier League as of yet and will offer a lot in attack while not being so weak defensively. The best thing Arsenal can do until the pair are fully fit is drop Xhaka. There is no reason to play Xhaka when you have an excellent passer in David Luiz and an elite ball progressor in Dani Ceballos. Xhaka is one of the best passers in the league but is such a liability in every other area that it’s hard to justify him starting every weak, especially when the new signings can do what he can and offer more. Playing a midfield three of Torreira, Guendouzi and Ceballos will give them more mobility and keep them defensively solid. I just worry that Emery won’t do this, and persist with starting Xhaka every week, keeping Torreira on the bench and using him incorrectly and only playing Ceballos when he feels like it.

If I were Arsenal’s head of football operations, I wouldn’t give Emery a contract extension. Giving him 2-years was sensible, not wanting to make the same consistent mistakes that Manchester United have made in terms of managers’ contract. Arsenal have let go of many of their fringe players and brought young talent to keep the team fresh and giving them a chance to grow. Arsenal were a mess under Wenger, but at least they were fun. Under Emery, it’s been a frustrating journey to see how bad their performances have become.

My Premier League Fantasy Football 19/20 – September

As promised, let’s look at just how well my fantasy team performed over August, and looking at how my team is shaping up after the international break. I’ll be going through each game week, and bringing up any time I’ve added new players and why.

Game Week 1 – Big Clubs Performing 

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My team didn’t change from before the season into game week 1. It can best be described by Liverpool and Man City players doing what they do best and scoring goals. I earned 112 points that week, with a majority going to the big players. I smartly, yet predictably, put Sterling as captain in their 5-0 win over West Ham, a game where he scored a hat-trick. My strategy of prioritising defence over midfield worked wonders, with 4 of my players keeping clean sheets. It would have been a better start, had West Ham not been playing Manchester City. Having 3 West Ham players in my team wasn’t my smartest move, especially with Diop, but teams always get demolished by the champions. The points they drop could be ignored in the grand scheme of things. It was a strong week, with a lot of my players just getting those goals and clean sheets I’m desperately searching for.

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My stupidity in putting 3 West Ham players came back to bite me, when Felipe Anderson and Haller both didn’t play against Brighton. I only got 52 points that week, and while putting Sterling as captain worked out once again, a lot of the players I was relying on just didn’t perform. Liverpool won, but Salah didn’t score and Van Dijk failed to keep a clean sheet. That was the story of a lot of my defenders, bar Digne, who was excellent once again in Everton’s 1-0 victory over Watford.

With Haller not playing, I put in Pukki after his hat-trick against Newcastle. He was cheaper and Norwich were looking great in the final third. I would inevitably regret this decision in the future, but for now a change was needed, just to give my team slightly more variety.

Game Week 3 – A Slight Improvement

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I decided to make an obvious change and bring in Lewis Dunk, with West Ham being quite bad defensively, something I just seemed to forget. While my defence did nothing and midfield contributed slightly, it was in the forward department where everything just seemed to click. Pukki scored twice and assisted for Norwich in their game against Chelsea, which I slightly predicted and put him as captain for it. Salah and Sterling returned to scoring, which mostly contributed to much improved total of 77 points.

Game Week 4 – Everything Against Me

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If Game Week 2 was bad, Game Week 4 was even worse. This can basically be summed up as nothing going my way. Salah did score, but Pukki and Sterling didn’t. The midfield failed do anything, while the defence did better, with 2 clean sheets and a great performance from Digne. The problem was Lampard decided to drop Christensen the week I decided to bring him in, making the whole transfer rather pointless. A low total of 46 meant changes were needed, even if the low amount can be blamed on bad luck more than poor selection.

September

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Thankfully for me, the international break allowed all Fantasy Football players to have an overhaul, meaning they could make up to five tranfers that aren’t counted towards the 40 limit of transfers you can make in a season. I took full advantage of this and decided to change some of the weaker parts of the team and aim for short term success, adding players who have been in good form.

Starting in defence, I, like many other players, brought in Leicester defender Soyuncu. he costed a measily £6.2 million and seemed to be the first choice alongside Jonny Evans. Leicester have been great so far this season and adding a defender makes sense, especiallty for the price. Vestergaard was brought in for Coady. Southampton have looked good defensively so far this season and the Danish defender is one of the first names on Hassenhuttl’s teamsheet. While I am fully expecting a couple zero-pointers from him, he is decent value for money, considering he costed just over £7 million.

Midfield was another area in desperate need for surgery. I still think Maddison will chip in with a decent amount of points, but it was Anderson and Gros who needed to be changed. James was brought in just to have a player from Manchester United. I do not expect him to remain in my team for the whole month, but he is in good form and hopefully will continue scoring goals. Buendia was added just to accomodate the forward line, and Norwich are likely to remain a decent attacking side.

Last but not least, is the inclusion of Aubameyang. The only reason I didn’t include him sooner was because I thought it wouldn’t be possible. Through adding some cheap, in-form players, I managed to do it, and I can’t see those three forwards changing, unless one of them picks up an injury. I would say my team is an improvement over the one primarily used in August. However, I’ve already made mistakes and that is likely to continue as the weeks go by, whilst I frantically and foolishly try and change any player I can in an attempt to gain an upper hand. Let’s hope the international break has changed my fortunes.

Predictions for the Premier League – 19/20

Let’s finally discuss arguably the only league much care about, and for understandable reasons. While the Bundesliga is the league I cannot keep away from, England’s top division has the competitiveness and star quality that many more casual fans want to see. England’s top-flight currently possesses the best team in Europe and the best team the Premier League has ever seen. There is always plenty to talk about, so let’s get into who will succeed, and who will fail. 

Outside Shout – Southampton

Since I’m bored of talking about Leicester, let’s look at another team, one that might finally be on the up. Between 2013 and 2016, Southampton were one of the most likeable clubs in the league. They were getting quality from a host of domestic talent in Shaw, Lallana, Bertrand, Clyne, Rodriguez and Ward-Prowse. They combined this well by picking up players from more inferior leagues, like Tadic, Van Dijk and Sadio Mane. They were consistently finishing in the top half of the table and brought two talented coaches to the league, with Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino both moving on to better things. They weren’t following the trend of other mid-table teams, in making generally bad decisions in terms of appointing the old guard of managers. They were more forward-thinking than most clubs, which enabled them to stand out in a league where the quality of football below 7th was questionable at best.

There were apparent issues off the pitch, but the moment the club’s problems became apparent was during the 2016/17 season. In the previous season, Koeman managed to push his side to finish 6th, ensuring they had European football the following season. After the Dutchman departed to join Everton, Southampton replaced him with the experienced French coach Claude Puel. I saw this appointment as a smart one from Southampton. While he was never fantastic at either Nice or Lyon, he still did a very respectable job. During his time at Lyon, they reached the Champions League semi-finals, the first time in their history. The club attempted to give Puel the players to help him succeed in arguably their biggest season, with the signings of Nathan Redmond, Sofianne Boufal and Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg. Redmond showed at Norwich that he was good enough for the Premier League, while Boufal came off the back of a stand out season in Ligue 1, contributing to 15 goals for Lille. All were under the age of 23, which helped continue their habit of signing younger players and aiding in their development.

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The problem for Puel during his reign was the high bar which was set by the previous managers. An 8th place finish alongside a cup final is an acceptable finish for a side which lost their best attacker in Sadio Mane. Southampton were ineffective in the final third and Puel does deserve some criticism for that, but what did they expect? Puel had a reputation for being a defensive coach, and with his lack of attacking talent, it isn’t a surprise his team were quite dull to watch. He was let go at the end of the season, and replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino.

This is where things went from decent to very bad. The club failed to bring in any forwards during the 17/18 summer window and left Pellegrino with very little in attack. There was no rhythm or inventiveness in the final third, which made the Saints one of the most boring sides in recent memory. After being ambitious with their managerial choices, it wasn’t a surprise it finally came crashing down. Poor recruitment throughout the team resulted in a side where goals were a rarity, which resulted in Pellegrino’s sacking. Mark Hughes arrived to steady the ship, and while they were slightly improved, he did not deserve a three-year deal. The idiocy on giving him a long term contract came back to bite them, after Southampton only managed to win a single game in the 18/19 season, before his sacking after a 2-2 draw with Manchester United in December. 

After 2 years of ruining the good reputation they built for themselves, they finally made an appointment to match the ambition they once shown. Ralph Hassenhuttl arrived after departing RB Leipzig after a disappointing follow-up season to their second-place finish in 16/17 season, where they crashed out of a relatively easy champions league group. Hassenhuttl is an excellent coach, who built an aggressive, pressing side in Germany that enabled them to compete with the very best. For the first time since Koeman, it felt like Southampton were finally going somewhere.

While his half-season with Southampton wasn’t spectacular, Hassenhuttl did lead them to survival in a comfortable fashion. Redmond went from 0 goal contributions under Hughes to 10 under his new coach, a definite improvement for one of their most important players. There were slight improvements all over the field. A back 3 with an aggressive midfield partnership of Höjbjerg and Romeu and focus on the wing-backs pushing forward saw an increase in results and general entertainment. 

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Many do not predict Southampton to challenge the other top 6 chasers, but I do believe that once everything clicks, they could be one of the best sides outside of the top 6. They’ve started the season in mixed form, losing 2 of their opening 3 games. However, they have been so unfortunate not to have an unbeaten start. Liverpool were fortunate to win as well as Brighton. Djenepo is an excellent addition and could add that much-needed creativity and dribbling that the team is desperate for. Che Adams is a slight risk at £15 million but has the potential to contribute. This could be another disappointing season, but there is a possibility that everything goes right. 

Overachievers – Arsenal

Arsenal are really bad, and at this point, it is getting worrying. Emery’s debut season was dreadful. They had a chance to sneak into that top 4, but three consecutive defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester ensured they would be forced to play Europa League football once again. It wasn’t just the league table where things were looking bad, but especially on the pitch. Arsenal went from a fun but extremely vulnerable side under Wenger to a dull yet weak team at the back. The overreliance on Aubameyang and Lacazette to convert every chance that came to them, which they basically did, is not a practical way to build an attack. Aubameyang ran hot throughout the season and carried Arsenal to at least challenging for top 4. 

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Arsenal did have a good summer, with record signing Pepe adding an elite player to the right-side. David Luiz and Kieran Tierney added better defensive personnel, and Ceballos finally filled that Santi Cazorla-shaped hole. However, if early season form is anything to go by, I do worry if Arsenal can actually become a champions league-level side. Their shot numbers are still deficient, and if their Gabon forward suddenly hits a dry patch, I have no idea how they will cope. It’s unlikely they will drop out of the top 6, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if Chelsea with a transfer ban or an extremely poor Manchester United finishes above them. 

Underachievers – Chelsea

Speaking of Chelsea, I genuinely have no idea what to expect from Lampard’s side. They have a very talented team and still waiting for Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi to return from long-term injuries. This transfer ban, while having apparent issues, does have its positives. Lampard has said multiple times that everyone was going to be given a chance, something we have seen already. Tammy Abraham has started 2 of the first 3 games of the season, showing how faith has finally been put in him. Mason Mount is another to start a majority of the season. Even though I’m not his biggest fan, there is a clearly a decent player in there. The midfield and central defensive options are still elite. Having Ngolo Kante in your team will always keep your midfield functional, and the added addition of Kovacic’s permanent signing is a massive boost in ensuring the middle of the park is secure. 

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My worry with Chelsea is the strain that European football and potential injuries could have on the side. Emerson is Chelsea’s only real left-back, and Azpilicueta isn’t the most forward-thinking. There is also a very likely chance the attack simply doesn’t click. Pulisic has never put in a lot of goals and assists, We still do not know if Tammy can play at the top level and I’m not sold on Mount. I hope their younger talents live up to the potential they have shown for years and guide Chelsea to a successful season. However, the chances of everything falling apart if these players do not flourish under Frank Lampard.

Best Transfer – Dani Ceballos

As mentioned, Ceballos is truly a great addition. While Ndombele, Wan-Bissaka, Rodri and Iwobi are fantastic signings, Ceballos’ added quality to a lacklustre Arsenal side was what they needed. The former Real Betis midfielder is a perfect allrounder, being able to play as both the teams’ creator, the anchor and the transitioner. It makes Ceballos so useful to have for a manager, being able to change his role based on the opposition or to accommodate specific players on his own team. This versatility in midfield is something Arsenal lack; a problem that intensified after the sale of Aaron Ramsey. Torreira can do a bit of everything, but you’d never play him as the most attacking in a two-man midfield, and Granit Xhaka is a player you have to facilitate due to his lack of speed and defensive awareness. Ceballos will give Arsenal an elite midfielder who could easily find a place in all the other top 6 sides. A masterstroke from the Gunners. 

Potential Flop – Jean-Philippe Gbamin

Everton have this habit of making good signings, then suddenly ruining all that in some foolish decisions. This time it was the sale of Idrissa Gueye. I’m fully aware there was no stopping him leaving. The defensive midfielder wanting to go in January but had to wait until the summer to earn his deserved move to PSG. He was Everton’s most valuable player and losing him would mean a lot of money would need to be spent on replacing him. Even from someone who has a love for midfielders in Gueye’s ilk, I had no idea who they could realistically sign. Sangare was linked, but he doesn’t possess the same speed as Gueye. Ander Herrera would have been a decent choice, but, like Gueye, his heart was set on joining PSG. This signing needed to be perfect if Everton want to meet their aspirations of reaching the top 6. 

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Their choice of Mainz midfielder Jean-Philippe Gbamin was a very odd one. While I haven’t seen much of Gbamin play, I expected his tackle and interception numbers to match that of the player he was replacing, yet they do not seem alike. In fact, it is a massive drop off compared to Gueye. The Ivory Coast midfielder only averaged 3.5 tackles and interceptions last season, an enormous difference to Gueye’s 6.8. Everton cannot afford Gbamin to fail. If he does, that could mean the end of Andre Gomes. As mentioned before, Gomes only had a successful season due to Gueye covering for him defensively, allowing the Portuguese midfielder focus on ball progression. Gomes now has to contribute more defensively, which he has never been able to do. Gbamin could fail to replicate Gueye, which would result in Everton having an unstable midfield. 

Have Aston Villa Done Enough to Stay Up? Assessing Their Summer Signings

Aston Villa have earned praise and criticism for their continuous recruitment this summer. They seem to be going down the same route as Fulham; recruitment players from weaker leagues that could either be great or bad. However, I’d argue that their business, in general, is a lot worse than the Cottages last season.

Fulham brought in a lot of players who had a positive reputation beforehand. Andre Schurrle was a Premier League proven winger, Mitrovic had that bite and dominance to the success in the league and Seri was linked to Barcelona only in the previous year. A lot of experts thought these players could have been snapped up by bigger clubs, myself included. Last summer, I wanted to see Zambo Anguissa join one of either Arsenal or Chelsea. What happened to Fulham is challenging to explain because so many players had a down year all at once. It’s an anomaly for many players on that side, and it’s how history will view that team.

One area of context is vital when discussing the comparisons between both of these sides. The main criticism against Fulham signing so many players was because they managed to keep their promotion team together. Their goal was to add as much quality as possible to ensure their chances of survival had increased. Villa were in a very different situation. Their most used eleven during their promotion campaign featured ageing forwards and defenders who were on loan. It meant there was a lot of surgery required to turn this squad into an average Premier League side. It makes the insane amount of signings more necessary than Fulham’s in the previous year.

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Villa, while spending £20 million more than Fulham, have brought in more players on permanent deals from leagues where the quality can be questioned. We’ll go through all of their signings so far in this window and judge whether they are good or bad, giving them a final verdict of either a hit or miss.

Wesley (Club Brugge) – £22.50m

Replacing Tammy Abraham is a difficult task for a promoted club. The Chelsea forward was absolutely sensational during his second spell in the Championship, scoring 26 goals for Villa. He proved once again that he is just too good for England’s second tier and should be starting in the Premier League. However, due to Chelsea’s transfer ban, the chances of signing Abraham were next to impossible. The signing of a striker of a vital, and unsurprisingly, I don’t like this movie.

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I’m not going to act like I’ve watched a lot of Wesley, but judging from the numbers I’ve seen, it doesn’t look so good. When signing players from a bad league, they need to be players who have truly stood out and are clearly better than their competition, and Wesley hasn’t done that. The Brazilian scored 12 non-penalty goals in the Jupiler Pro League. The arguments made against this is he is a target man who’s technical strengths allow him to bring others into play, think Sebastien Haller. However, the forward only wins 1.5 aerial duels per 90, not nearly enough to justify that opinion. I could be very wrong about him, but based on initial impressions, this could be one of the worst signings of the summer come May.

Verdict – Miss

Tyrone Mings (Bournemouth) – £20.07m

Signing players who succeeded on loan is usually pretty safe business, depending on how much-said player will cost. Mings was excellent last season, but paying over £20 million for a player with an injury-struck career, it does seem like a lot of money for him. Mings has missed two full seasons due to long term injuries. Usually, when spending a lot of money on players with very little resell value, you want guarantees that these players will be able to play as many games as possible. Mings is a risk, and while you want to keep some of the key players of that promotion campaign together, Villa have definitely overpaid for him. Mings could perform very well on his return back to the Premier League, but there was definitely better investments out there.

Verdict – Miss

Douglas Luiz (Manchester City) – £15.12m 

The first transfer I seemingly like, Douglas Luiz arrives to compete for those key midfield positions, offering versatility, solid defensive numbers and a very, very good dribbler. Luiz comes after impressing on loan at Girona, Manchester City’s sister club that has housed the Champions younger players in the past. Luiz didn’t necessarily have a breakout season, but he has shown enough to justify a side taking a risk on him. He’s still only 21, and for £15 million, it seems like a pretty good deal for him.

Verdict – Hit

Matt Targett (Southampton) – £13.95m

Targett has played a lot of Premier League games for a player who is still pretty young. He has also done very well in the Championship with Fulham during their previous promotion campaign. For a reasonable fee, Villa have brought in a decent full-back who is good enough defensively, however, the main reason for his signing is his crossing. Targett has consistently averaged over an accurate cross per game over the past 3 seasons, one of the highest in the league. He could function as a good creator for Dean Smith’s side, who were one of the most prominent crossing sides during the Championship. His inclusion makes, and wouldn’t depart if the team do suffer relegation. This is another arrival I’m okay with.

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Verdict – Hit 

Ezri Konsa (Brentford) – 11.97m

When discussing Tyrone Mings, I mentioned finding value in the market, and the possibility of better deals than Mings and Konsa is a better deal. The England under-21 only arrived at the Bees last summer and is already on the move once again. Brentford have earned a reputation of finding value in players domestically and across the continent; Konsa is another example of that. For a 21-year-old, the defender has shown a lot of promise and enough reason for a Premier League to consider him. He started 42 games for Brentford last season, completing 80% of his tackles, making over 50 passes and 3.6 clearances per game. What his most impressive about Konsa is how clean he is, only committing 18 fouls last season. There is a potential England international here and was picked up for a perfect fee.

Verdict – Villa’s best signing

Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge) – £10.80m

Initially, it seemed that Villa were going to spend up to £30 million for Leeds defensive midfielder, Kalvin Philipps, but opted to bring in Luiz and Nakamba for less. It was a very sensible move from the promoted side. With Luiz a good signing and Nakamba another good bit of business, I’d say yes. While Luiz is fine defensively and a good ball progressor, Nakamba is definitely on the defensive side. While his numbers in Belgium are unattainable for me, his time at Vitesse is. He showed himself to be a prominent ball winner, consistently putting over 5 tackles and interceptions per 90. While I’m not the biggest fan of Wesley’s signing due to his numbers not standing out in Belgium, Nakamba is a different case. No matter which league you are in, players like Nakamba, Ndidi or Gueye will succeed. Their skillset means they can succeed due to their game being primarily on defensive actions. While Nakamba won’t be an attacking threat, he will adequately cover for McGinn and Grealish as they focus on ball progression and scoring goals. Nakamba is still only 25, meaning it is another good bit of business for Villa.

Verdict – Hit 

Trezeguet (Kasimpasa) – £9.00m 

The Turkish Super League is a real mix bag in terms of recruiting talent. While many bigger clubs like to offload their highest earners to Turkey, signing players from there is quite a rarity. Trezeguet is an excellent dribbler, and while scoring 9 goals from the left-wing does sound promising for a 24-year-old, 5 of those goals did come from outside of the box. The likeliness of the Egyptian scoring that many again is very unlikely and I do not expect him to be this threatening against Premier League opposition. Trezeguet is expected to be a better bench option, which makes sense. He can be unpredictable, and his high dribbling could be great against tiring defences.

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Verdict – A hit if used sparingly 

Anwar El Ghazi (Lille) – £8.10m

Not much to say here. El Ghazi was used often during Villa’s promotion and keeping him is a safe thing to do, considering the lack of wide players Villa have. He doesn’t cost nearly as much as Mings will cost, and is unlikely to leave if Villa to succumb to relegation.

Verdict – No issues

Tom Heaton (Burnley) – £7.92m

While I do think they have slightly overspent on the 33-year-old, all three promoted sides have proven that a good shot-stopper is vital. Norwich managed to sign Ralph Fahrmann on loan and Sheffield brought back Dean Henderson for another season. While the other two sides were justified in their signings, Villa were in desperate need of a goalkeeper. There was constant rotation in that position throughout last season. Jed Steer did manage to earn a place as the number one near the end of the season, but he isn’t good enough for the Premier League. Heaton is a massive improvement over the three goalkeepers they have at the club, with his performances for Burnley earning him a lot of praise since his arrival in the Premier League. It’s a safe signing that has no drawbacks in terms of performances.

Verdict – Hit

Bjorn Engels (Reims) – £7.20m

Engels is third centre back arrival of the summer and is by far the most interesting. While I’m very excited to see how Konsa adapts to the Premier League, Engels is still an excellent addition. The Belgian defender played in a Reims side that defended very well, having the 6th best defensive record in Ligue 1. Engels was a considerable part of that, winning 66% of his aerial duels and making 5.4 clearances per game. My only issue is that while he could perform well against sides who prefer a more target-man approach, he might struggle against better teams in general. Engels only completed around half of his tackles last season, winning only 11. This is primarily down to style of play but could become a problem against the top-level teams. I think he is an okay addition, but I worry he won’t get the playing time he might want.

Verdict – No issue

Jota (Birmingham City) – £4.05m

This was a strange one. This was marketed as Dean Smith bringing back a player he was fond of during his time at Brentford. Villa were in desperate need for wide talent and bringing in the Spaniard for next to nothing does make sense. Jota is a decent creator, but he does lack any sort of ability to beat a man. He might struggle against Premier League full-backs, but for the price, he is bound to offer something for Villa, even if it is minimal.

Verdict – Hit for the price

Kortney Hause (Wolves) – £3.06m

The final transfer is another centre-back, this time from Wolves. Hause is another signing I don’t have an issue with. Hause, while not a mainstay in the Villa side last season, did start over 10 games for the team and performed well when given the opportunity. This signing did feel slightly unnecessary, considering it means Villa now have 5 centre backs at the club. However, the fee is so small I don’t think it is much of an issue

Verdict – Hit

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One might think if my opinion on a majority of the signings is positive, then why have not liked Aston Villa’s business as a whole. It’s because they spent over £40 million on two players who I do not think are a good value for money. It mainly points to Wesley being their only attacking signing of the summer, meaning there is a lot of pressure on him to perform well. I don’t think he will score many goals, but that isn’t what he is there for. He is there to be a focal point and allow Grealish, McGinn, Hourihane and Luiz to push forward and find space around the Brazilian. Last season, Aston Villa’s starting midfielders contributed to 43 goals. It is highly unlikely that they will add to that many, but it seems Smith is hoping that McGinn and Grealish can similarly replicate their success. That still isn’t enough to save Villa from relegation. They’ve lost a lot of goals through Tammy returning to Chelsea, and that could be the difference. Missing out on Maupay has a massive part in this. Villa were chasing the Brentford forward for a majority for the summer but failed to get his signature. His arrival could have brought the goals they need. I predict Villa, alongside Sheffield United, to go straight back down. I do like a lof these signings, but the lack of goals is what I worry about.