Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

This is actually the first time I’ve closely paid attention to the Bundesliga from the start to the end. While I plan to pay more attention to teams outside of the title race in the future, let’s focus on that for now. From comparing today’s table to the ones of previous seasons, this was easily the most thrilling title race in years. Just going back to the start of February, only three points were separating first and fourth. The season did eventually end with Bayern Munich winning comfortably. But it gives me hope that this league can remain competitive in the future, and if it can remain entertaining with multiple teams fighting for the Meisterschale, it could attract even more fans to German football. But instead of looking at the future, let’s look back on the season that’s just finished, and grade each team that finished in the top four.

Bayern Munich — A

I mean the winners can’t get anything less than the highest mark right? Bayern did have a shaky start under Nico Kovac, with the champions struggling to find their feet for the first few months of the season. Kovac was never going to last in charge. The Croatian never really fit the profile for a Bayern Munich manager, with his style of play leaning more on the defensive side. This was never going to work with a group of players still accustomed to the style of Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. 

Kovac isn’t the only culprit to Bayern’s poor start. The club spent the whole summer looking for replacements for Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben; two players who defined Bayern Munich in the 2010s. After looking at Timo Werner, Ousmane Dembele and Leroy Sane, they ended up settling with Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Perisic on loan for the season. Both were talented players, and alongside Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and youngster Alphonso Davies still left Bayern with a formidable selection of wide talent. The problem is the board knew this moment was coming. Robben and Ribery had been struggling with injuries for years and needed long term successors ready for the day they left. I like both Coman and Gnabry, but with Coman’s injuries and Gnabry unlikely to reach that world-class level, it instantly left Bayern lighter on the attacking end. 

Bayern’s Hinrunde is defined by Kovac’s sacking and the appointment of former national team assistant coach; Hansi Flick. As soon as Flick was appointed, the Bayern team looked transformed. Flick’s first game saw his team deliver their usual humiliation to arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, with a comfortable 4–0 win at home. From here on, Bayern was playing their best football since Heynckes and only went on to lose two games. Those defeats were definitely anomalies. Bayer Leverkusen managed to beat the champions through some fantastic counter-attacking and resolute defending. While Borussia Monchengladbach did so through some massive luck. Both losses came in November, and from then on, Bayern only dropped points on one occasion. Super Bayern returned with a bang and managed to make the most exciting Bundesliga title race end with their usual comfortable lead at the top. 

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When excluding Lewandowski (we’ll get to him in the future), no other player looked better for Bayern than Thomas Muller. The World Cup winner fell out of favour with Kovac last season, struggling for consistent minutes. This wasn’t only due to their toxic relationship, but down to the form of Coutinho, who looked absolutely fantastic under Kovac. However, when Flick was appointed and seemed to get Bayern playing as they did under Heynckes, it meant Muller had to start. Coutinho definitely has that x-factor that Muller has never possessed in his career. However, Muller is still one of the best for chance creation and finding space, as well as maintaining the superior defensive work-rate. This is the happiest Muller has looked playing for his club in years, and his relationship with Lewandowski is still telepathic. In the 23 games Muller played under Flick, the German forward contributed to 24 goals. Muller has proved once again why he is indispensable to Bayern Munich. 

If we were just looking at Bayern under Flick, they’d get an A++, but we can’t ignore those first 10 games under Kovac. Bayern could indeed continue their stranglehold over the rest of the league if they adequately rebuild this team. Lewandowski, Muller, Neuer, Boateng and Martinez are all over 30, and there’s a chance Thiago could leave in the summer. They still need to sign additional wide players and hope Hernandez and Sule come back from their injuries without a drop-off. Bayern has to ensure they have a plan in place to continue their dominance in the league; otherwise, their competition could overtake them. 

RB Leipzig — B

Julian Nagelsmann couldn’t have had a better first season for his new club. RB Leipzig has taken a step forward in terms of their play on the pitch. Before Nagelsmann’s arrival, the East German club was known as a counter-pressing side, able to hurt teams quickly with their youthful and athletic attackers. While Leipzig still excels in this area, they’ve changed their style to be a lot more effective in possession. They averaged 54.1% possession, a 4.6% increase to 18/19’s average. Their shots per game have slightly increased, as well as their pass accuracy. This change in approach did make Leipzig easily the second best-attacking team in the league. They still remained as direct and vertical as seen by previous Leipzig teams but are now taking advantage of the great ball players the team possesses. Leipzig has one of the most promising groups of defenders in Europe, with players who’ve been with the team since their promotion and some up and coming talent that has the potential to become the best in their position. Nagelsmann has enabled his centre-backs to have more of an involvement in possession. Take Dayot Upamecano has a prime example. In 18/19, the young Frenchman was averaging 41.8 passes per 90. Last season that went up to 67.4. When you discount Bayern Munich players, no one has made more passes into the final third than Upamecano. Nagelsmann is taking advantage of the talent at his disposal. We already knew all of Leipzig’s defenders were comfortable on the ball, but now we know they can aid in transition, as well as in defence. 

Until Flick arrived and changed Bayern for the better, it was becoming difficult to argue against Leipzig being the best-attacking team in the league. Nagelsmann has always enhanced every attacker he’s worked with. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann deployed such an attacking system to help the rather average forwards he had to work with at times. In 18/19, his Hoffenheim team were second in the league for shots per game with 18 but were quite unlucky when it came to putting the ball in the back of the net. The 32-year-old is now working with some of the best-attacking talents in Europe, which included Timo Werner. Werner’s final season in Germany turned out to be his best. His coolness in front of goal and creativity made him one of the deadliest forwards in the world. Christopher Nkunku had a real breakout season, assisting the most goals in the team and excels at finding space between the lines. Even Patrick Schick, a player who’s struggled for form since leaving Sampdoria, had his most productive season to date and became Werner’s preferred strike partner. 

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Nagelsmann having the number of talented defenders to choose from alongside one of the best holding midfielders in the league in Konrad Laimer, allowed him to play an extra attacker in midfield. Marcel Sabitzer has been outstanding in midfield. His physicality, drive on the ball and creativity gave the team an extra boost when playing against those deep blocks, while also having the work-rate to help his team when needed. Sabitzer has gone back to being a real goal threat too, scoring 9 and assisting 7. He might not make the headlines like some of his teammates, but his importance cannot be underestimated.

I’ve talked highly of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, so why are they only getting a B? I guess it goes down to my own expectations. I wasn’t expecting them to win the Bundesliga, but I was at least hoping for Leipzig to stay on Bayern’s tail for a lot longer than they did. The problem seems to be how vulnerable they can leave themselves at times. There have been multiple occasions where Leipzig deservedly drop points. A four-game stretch which included defeats to Freiburg and Schalke, where Leipzig was beaten in the quality of chances created by two teams who don’t possess the same elite attackers. The way Leipzig overload the opposition with players pushing forward can leave them vulnerable to teams who can counter them through fast, vertical balls ahead. Their young crop of defenders doesn’t yet possess the in-game intelligence as some older defenders, which will come as they develop.

Next season will be huge for Leipzig. It’ll be their first season in the Bundesliga without Werner leading the line, and it puts a lot more pressure on the other players to deliver the goals. I fully expect Leipzig to spend that money as wisely as ever, but an apparent drop-off is expected when you lose a player of Werner’s ability. Nagelsmann is used to losing his best players, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Leipzig does remain as competitive as they were last season. 

Borussia Dortmund — D

Borussia Dortmund’s window for winning a title is becoming even smaller. BVB have spent a lot of money on players who will help right now as well as the future. Mats Hummels returned to the club, adding some needed experience to a backline which collapsed when facing an immense amount of pressure. Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt arrived for decent fees to give Reus and Sancho even more support in the final third. There were of course questions in how you fit all of these players together, but the number of options Dortmund had at their disposal instantly made them title challengers again. Sancho was only going to get better, Hakimi was still there for another year, and Reus just came off his most productive season in years. Bayern was at their weakest, and no other team possessed the same level of talent as Dortmund. 

It made my expectations of Dortmund a lot higher. They’re getting desperate, and it’s showing. Anything below a title challenge or a cup final should automatically mean the season is a failure. Still, their performances in the second half of the season do offer some encouragement, especially with how inconsistent they were during the hinrunde. Dortmund stuck with their 4–2–3–1, but looked so slow and were lacking that speed which made them surprise challengers in 18/19. Brandt wasn’t starting enough, and the number nine position still seemed so uncertain, with Paco Alcacer looking better off the bench. Dortmund wasn’t winning against teams they usually steamroll. Paderborn, Werder Bremen, Freiburg and Union Berlin all managed to stop Dortmund picking up three points. 

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January was the big turning point for Dortmund, and not all of it is down to Erling Halaand’s arrival. Lucien Favre opted to change from the shaky 4–2–3–1 to 3–4–3. The system benefitted a lot of players in the team. The full-backs, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi turned into deadly attacking options. Hakimi was back playing on the right, and became a driving force with his incredible speed and dribbling to breeze past opposition defenders. Guerreiro became an excellent goal threat, ending the season with an impressive 8 goals and 2 assists. The centre-backs also benefitted from this change in formation. Dortmund usually uses their centre-backs to play line-breaking passes through midfield. Issues began arising when these passes were being intercepted, leaving Dortmund very vulnerable. Having someone of Piszczek’s experience in the backline really helped, especially when Akanji was as bad as he was at times. The attack, of course, benefitted from with an extra man in defence. It allowed Sancho and Hazard to play more like second strikers than typical wingers, and Brandt was given the freedom to move all over the pitch to find pockets of space to exploit. 

Halaand was a massive difference-maker in the number nine position. Not only due to his age, but how good he is right now. Halaand, similar to Zion Williamson in the NBA, looks as if he was born in a laboratory. The former Salzburg forward is fast, strong, incredible in the air and can score all types of goals. It makes him the perfect number nine right now, with the only major drawback being his lack of defensive work rate and chance creation. But the system seems to be built for their new superstar. Dortmund isn’t a team that defends through pressing from the front (they’re 9th in the league for passes allowed per defensive action with 11.70). BVB primarily win the ball back through counter-pressing in midfield and quickly playing it to their talented attackers. Halaand is also surrounded by some of the best creators in Europe. Sancho, Hazard and Hakimi all reached double figures for assists, allowing Halaand to play more as a poacher. 

If you just look at their results from the new year onwards, Dortmund would be second, but the season still resulted in zero silverware and more question marks on where Dortmund are actually going. Dortmund has spent a lot of money on players to help the team win now. Axel Witzel, Matts Hummels, Thomas Delaney, Thorgan Hazard and Emre Can alongside some of the veterans already in the side, meaning they have to make the most of the talent they currently have. I’m more optimistic about Leipzig’s future than I am Dortmund’s. Leipzig has a young and innovative manager with a group of young players who still have room for improvement. Dortmund’s team right now doesn’t look like it’ll be together for much longer. Hakimi’s loan has expired, Sancho is likely to move on, and I have no idea if Hummels can remain a starter for another season, with his physical abilities declining. Massive question marks loom over the manager. Lucien Favre has done a lot better than I ever expected of him, but next season could be his last. This is their last chance to win the title again before the team completely collapsed either through sales or age. 

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

When Marco Rose was announced as Gladbach’s new coach after the departure of Dieter Hecking, it was hard for me to contain my excitement. Gladbach had come off another season where they failed to show consistency from beginning to end, looking certain for top four in December but dropping down the table as the season progressed. Rose’s arrival felt like a real sign of intent, even when last summer included the sales of Thorgan Hazard and Michael Cuisance. The former being the team’s best scorer and creator while the latter a potential star in the making, leaving the club to join arch-rivals Bayern Munich. 

Gladbach spent the money from these sales wisely, while taking some risks in young attacking players. Ramy Bensebaini and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose at Salzburg) added some much-needed creativity and drive from full-back. Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo arrived to effectively replace Thorgan Hazard’s output. Both were gambles in different ways. Thuram had only played for one of the worst sides in Ligue 1, so transitioning to a bigger and better team could have been a challenge. Embolo had already played in the Bundesliga since 2016 for Schalke. However, the Swiss attacker has struggled for form and injuries. A change of scenery could have helped Embolo, but he’s a player you don’t want to rely on throughout the season. Both have had great seasons. Thuram contributed to 18 goals in his debut season in Germany while Embolo contributed to 13 and played over 1500 minutes, the first time he’s done that in his career. 

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Last season was the most consistent Gladbach have looked for a long time, and a lot of that goes down to how Marco Rose has improved the players and the style. What made Rose at Gladbach so enticing was the number of talented players he was working with. You have some of the younger talents in Denis Zakaria, Florian Neuhaus, Laszlo Benes and the previously mentioned Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo. All have either been highly touted for years or have shown glimpses of brilliance. The squad also contains some older talents. Patrick Herrmann, Lars Stindl, Yann Sommer and Christoph Kramer were there to help give the side some needed experience and leadership. Rose managed to get incredible output out of many of these players. Denis Zakaria finally started to look like the elite talent we all knew he could be. Patrick Herrmann contributed to 12 goals, the most he’s provided since the 14/15 season. What was most impressive was the way the team still managed to remain consistent even when missing key players. For the last few games of the season, Zakaria, Thuram and Plea were all unavailable, meaning Rose had to deploy a front line including Jonas Hoffman, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl and Patrick Herrmann. A lineup which would’ve been scrutinised had it been under any other manager. 

Rose’s Gladbach is actually pretty similar to Nagelsmann’s teams in a sense. Both focus on transitioning the ball as quickly as possible. The Foals do it through the full-backs, especially Lainer. The Austrian defender plays more akin to a winger than a defender, topping the team for shot assists, passes into the penalty area, successful crosses and progressive passes. Lainer has been a creative hub for the team, and while I have my issues with him regarding speed and defensive effort, it’s hard to deny he has been a success. Thuram is the other significant addition who gave Gladbach another dimension. The team went from averaging 13.2 aerial duels per game in 18/19 to 16.7 last season. Thuram is a very unique winger. He has the acceleration to flourish against full-backs while having the size and strength to cause matchup problems. The team loved sending those long diagonal balls straight to Thuram. The Frenchman is a very efficient attacker and formed a deadly partnership with Alassane Plea. Gladbach didn’t score the same crazy amount of goals as Leipzig, Bayern and Dortmund. Still, considering the difference in talent, credit has to be given the coach and players for being able to keep up with such fierce competition. 

The only area where I worry for Rose’s team is defence. Monchengladbach faced 13.7 shots per game, putting them at about league average. They had the 3rd best defensive record in the league, conceding 40 and only bettered by Leipzig and Bayern. However, when you look at the post-shot xG, Gladbach starts to come off as very fortunate. They should have conceded around 47 goals based on the chances they were giving away, which is extremely rare. This miraculous record can all be credited to Yann Sommer being the best keeper in Europe. When ranking goalkeeper seasons in the last decade, David De Gea (17/18), Lucasz Fabianski (18/19) and Alisson Becker (17/18) all spring to mind as some of the best goalkeeper seasons in recent history. Yann Sommer is another to add to that list. If it weren’t for some of his heroic performances, I doubt Gladbach would be playing in Europe’s elite competition next season. 

Gladbach is the team I’m the most optimistic for next season. The team was gradually improving throughout the season, so I expect Rose and his players to match the big three throughout the rest of next season. The younger players are only going to improve, and the more experienced guys are still at an age where they aren’t on the decline. There’s the possibility of Zakaria or Thuram being moved on for massive profits, which wouldn’t be the worst idea if a suitable replacement is already brought in. 

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Konrad Laimer and Midfielders in Pressing Systems

A lot of the talk surrounding RB Leipzig has mostly been around the tactics of Julian Nagelsmann, the goals of Timo Werner and the talent in their defence; primarily Nordi Mukiele and Dayot Upamecano. But the player that has gone under the radar, while also showing the most prominent signs of improvement is Austrian midfielder Konrad Laimer.

Before properly watching Leipzig this season, the impression Laimer left was of a player liked by his managers for his intensity and versatility but didn’t have the same high ceiling as his teammates. Rangnick was especially a huge fan of Laimer. The former RB Salzburg midfielder played every minute in the Europa League group stages in 18/19, while also playing around 1800 minutes in the league, a massive spike from the 1300 minutes he played in 17/18.

The main area in which Laimer has stood out from day one in Germany has always been defensive actions. In the league, Laimer was winning 2.18 tackles per 90 last season, only placing him behind the captain and well-known tough tackler, Diego Demme. However, the real takeaway from this is where he was attempting these tackles. Laimer was attempting 0.91 tackles in the opposition third, far and away the most in the Leipzig squad (if you’re curious, Tyler Adams was second with 0.50). I presumed, before looking at his numbers this season, that he was attempting so many tackles in the final third because he was playing as a makeshift right-back. However, this isn’t the case. This season, Laimer has played entirely as a defensive midfielder but has still managed to attempt the same high amount of tackles as under Rangnick. Laimer is attempting 0.79 tackles in the opposition third, the most for any regular in the squad.

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Captain Diego Demme’s sale in January only went to further prove the importance Nagelsmann had placed upon Laimer as his primary defensive midfielder. RB Leipzig usually switches between alternative versions of 4-4-2 or 3-4-3, and Laimer is generally placed alongside a more attack-minded midfielder in Marcel Sabitzer or Emile Forsberg. I do think the pair do deserve credit for being able to adapt to a less attacking role and into a more supportive one, but it does further show just how good Laimer has been for Nagelsmann. Leipzig is fundamentally a pressing team, meaning during opposition build-up play. They will usually attempt to win the ball through pushing their attackers far up the pitch and cutting their opponent’s passing lanes; winning the ball back with a well-timed interception. Laimer is usually left on his own in the middle of the park, with Sabitzer regularly doing the more ball-dominant work. Yet, it makes Laimer’s role in the team that more vital. Laimer’s role in this team is to get the ball back as quick as possible, and play the football to the attackers; usually through vertical passes. It makes Laimer sound like your typical, old-school ball winner, but he is a lot more than that.

Firstly, having a job like this in such a press-heavy team is one a majority of midfielders in Europe would struggle with. You have to possess high energy levels to cover a lot of ground; as well as having the intelligence to position yourself in the right place. The amount of work Laimer does is actually incredible. He attempts a ridiculous 37 pressures per 90 (Important context; 22 is an impressive amount of pressures, so anything higher is worth heaps of praise). Laimer, as expected, is right at the top of the squad for tackles and interceptions, with the 22-year-old completing 4.2 tackles and interceptions per 90 for his side.

Talking about Laimer purely from a defensive point of view does to him a level of a disservice. I doubt Laimer would even be a regular in the team if he wasn’t at least adequate on the ball. Earlier, I did make Laimer’s role on the ball sound rather simplistic, but he can do a lot more than merely playing the ball long to the attackers. Laimer doesn’t look threatened when opponents attempt to dispossess him. Laimer is in the top twenty in the league for passes made while under pressure. One thing Laimer consistently does is make darting runs into the opposition third. It’s a very effective method to cause havoc since it’s unlikely your opponent is picking up the single defensive midfielder. Laimer is a very capable dribbler and takes advantage of the overloads he creates. This is perfectly showcased during RB Leipzig’s 1-0 win over Tottenham, where Laimer managed to win his side the decisive penalty through receiving the ball in Tottenham’s box.

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Defensive midfielders for top clubs are rare, especially those in the mould of Laimer. Tottenham and Manchester United are two clubs who look desperate for a real defensive midfielder. Tottenham may have Ndombele and Lo Celso, two genuinely elite midfield talents, but both would rather be doing the more glamorous midfield work. Manchester United are in the same boat. McTominay and Fred might be able to a bit of defensive work, but their best qualities are in the final third, whether it’s passing or making darting runs into the opposition box. If one of these clubs could sign Laimer, they could close that gap to the top a lot faster.

Why Bundesliga Clubs Have Looked So Good in the Champions League

The Champions League has returned with a bang, but not for the same reasons as usual. We regularly see Spain’s top two teams and the English teams stroll through the first round of the knockout stage, but this year is different. Barcelona looked poor against Napoli; Juventus failed to have a shot on target against Lyon, and data lovers’ favourite team, Atalanta, absolutely walked over Valencia. The holders Liverpool managed to lose their first leg against Atletico Madrid; while Pep Guardiola managed to completely out-smart Zidane to take his Manchester City side into the second leg with a 2-1 advantage.

Manchester City’s victory was unbelievable, considering the XI that was selected. But for now, we’ll stick to the most interesting talking point which came out of the first group of games, being the impressive performances by the German teams. RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all won their matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, with a combination of the right tactics and player quality.

We’ll start with Bayern Munich, who disposed of Chelsea in such a comfortable fashion. When comparing the line-ups and the players available, it’s hard to even call this a challenge for the Bundesliga champions. Chelsea was missing their best midfielder in Kante, their best winger in Pulisic and Tammy Abraham wasn’t fully fit. Even though Bayern was still playing Alaba at centre-half, since Sule is out with a long term injury and Hernandez isn’t at 100%, the rest of Bayern’s team were first-choice.

Bayern took a straightforward route in this game, with the forward four very close together and was waiting from quick, long balls from the midfield. Thiago and Kimmich would consistently drop between the defenders and send a long ball straight to Lewandowski or Muller, with Coman and Gnabry close by to support them. This worked so well because Chelsea looked so disorganised, and Bayern playing quickly forced them to consistently make the wrong decisions. Coman’s early chance manifested thanks to Barkley losing the ball in midfield, and as soon as Coman receives the ball, Rudiger and Christiansen quickly run towards him, opening a one-two between the Frenchman and Muller.

Muller was by far the best player on the night. Repeatedly, he would look to receive the ball around the 18-yard box, to drag players towards him and open up space for Gnabry or Coman. The German ended the game with the most shot assists (5) and had some of Bayern’s best chances to increase that lead.

The other reason for Bayern’s dominant performance was their quick counter-attacks. Whenever Thiago or Kimmich would retrieve the ball in midfield, their first thought would be to look up for one of their teammates in space or making a forward run. If not, they’d play it back to the defenders and wait for the opportunity to arise. Bayern’s first two goals came from these same scenarios. Thiago recovers the ball and quickly plays the ball to a running Gnabry, who spots Lewandowski making a run into the channel. Gnabry passes the ball, but instead of shooting, Lewandowski smartly plays the ball back into Gnabry path, ultimately catching the Chelsea defence off-guard.

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As mentioned, Chelsea did play a weak line-up, and Bayern benefitted from that. Mount, Barkey and Giroud were occupying the same spaces throughout the game and made life so easy for Bayern’s defenders. Giroud did have some moments that did trouble an old Boateng and Alaba. But Chelsea’s lack of width enabled them to stay very tight and force Chelsea to create low-quality chances. It was reminiscent of the number of times Bayern played Arsenal and effortlessly beat them. Bayern loves playing London-based teams.

Let’s move onto Rasenballsport Leipzig and their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. This was Germany’s most infamous club’s first game in the round of sixteen and demonstrated why they should be playing at this level every year.

Going into the game, some of the pundits made comments on the nickname Nagelsmann received when he broke onto the managerial scene; ‘Mini Mourinho.’ I still don’t know how he got this nickname, but I’m not too fond of it. Nagelsmann is the complete opposite of Mourinho in how football is played. Mourinho is completely reactive; aiming to neutralise the opposition and relying on his attacking players to figure it out for themselves. Nagelsmann looks to win the ball higher up the pitch, catching his opponent at their most vulnerable. There’s a lot of consistent patterns you’ll see in his teams. His Leipzig team is direct and able to attack with speed. The German tactician prefers the use of diagonal long balls since they can cause dysfunction with their unpredictability. Nagelsmann ensures his players know their roles in the team.

Leipzig was outstanding against Tottenham, but they shouldn’t have been allowed to be that good. The first half was a story of Tottenham giving Leipzig the time to transition at their own pace, with Ampadu having the time and space to send long balls into the wingers and full-backs to quickly move the ball into the final third. The only time I even noticed Tottenham try to press was when you’d see one of the wide central-midfielders run to quickly close down Angelino or Mukiele, which cause problems too. It left one of the forward players open to receive a through ball or a quick pass to their feet. It was a very classic Mourinho performance in a knockout game; begging that opposition wouldn’t punish them for their passive defending, and hope their forwards could do something to win the game.

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I can sympathise with Mourinho with the number of players he was missing with injuries, but Nagelsmann faced issues as well. Granted, they weren’t as high-profile as missing the likes of Kane or Son; however, any team missing Upamecano, Konate and Orban, Leipzig’s starting centre-halves, was going to be weaker. Nagelsmann had to play Klostermann and Halstenburg, two full-backs, in a back-three alongside Welsh youngster Ethan Ampadu, who’s barely kicked a ball on loan at Leipzig.

What was most problematic for Tottenham was the speed in which Leipzig was transitioning. Nagelsmann’s players were hitting the ball quickly into the front three, or using Sabitzer and Angelino’s excellent dribbling ability to take advantage of the space a defensive Tottenham team were giving. It was the most dominant 1-0 victories in recent memory, with Leipzig arguably deserve more than the single goal they bring back to Germany. Werner had an excellent chance in the first half, while Schick had a couple of fantastic opportunities to sink any hope Tottenham had of advancing to the next stage.

Part of me did expect Leipzig to struggle in this game. They’ve been second best in most of their top of the table clashes on the domestic scene. They did face a lot more shots in this game than expected, but that was because they had their away goal. They weakened their press in the final half-hour of the game, with stakes in the league remaining. My worry for Leipzig in the second leg is how they’ll approach it. Mourinho has nothing to lose in this game, meaning Tottenham have to attack away from home. Does Leipzig allow them to and hit them on the break once space appears, or bring the game to them again? It’ll be fascinating to see.

And last but certainly not least; Borussia Dortmund managed an imposing 2-1 victory over one of the favourites, Paris Saint-Germain. Lucien Favre nailed his game plan for this season-defining fixture. He attempted to thwart Tuchel’s ambitions for the season through attacking down their flanks, which are covered by the defensively poor Larvin Kurzawa on the left, and Thomas Meunier on the right. Dortmund was pressing high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball and counter-attack exceptionally quickly, putting PSG in uncomfortable positions. Dortmund was helped by the sheer quality of their forward line, with Sancho finding space all around the opposition third and Haland’s speed and power being too much for the PSG defenders to handle at times.

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You could easily write off Bayern and Leipzig’s wins to inferior opposition; teams who were missing key personnel and were always going to struggle. But Dortmund’s win was different and helped prove a point to why the German clubs have been the most impressive. One area that PSG will always get criticised for is their mentality. Why do they always look so good in Ligue 1 and in the group stage, but ultimately falter when facing teams in the knockout rounds? This same point was brought up yet again after this game. Dortmund was prepared and stuck to their game plan, while PSG looked overreliant on their attacking stars to bail them out of trouble again. A lot of this goes down to the newly found competitive nature of the Bundesliga this season. Last season, Dortmund did manage to take Bayern pretty far into the season, but that was because Bayern’s misfortune, instead of Dortmund deserving it. Dortmund responded to their second-place finish through adding experienced guys like Hummels, Brandt and Hazard; and extra additions in Haland and Can arriving in the winter. Not only have Dortmund had to go up against Bayern in the league, as per usual. But RB Leipzig took steps forward in challenging for a title; Borussia Monchengladbach had a solid start to the season, and Bayer Leverkusen have even stayed pretty close to the top of the table. Dortmund had struggled in December, which forced a change to the 3-4-2-1, to help keep the team less vulnerable at the back, while getting the best out of Hakimi, Hummels and Sancho.

The more significant point is Dortmund had to make critical acquisitions and changes to their system to improve the team, and they wouldn’t have noticed those issues had their domestic opponents not exposed them. PSG do not have that kind of luxury. They are so far ahead of their domestic opponents in every regard that it can be challenging to have systems and new ideas adequately tested, to know if they would work against better opponents.

This is the main reason to why the three Bundesliga clubs have looked so good in this year’s competition. The overall improvement in the opposition they face has forced German teams to improve in every regard on the pitch. There are more games where the big teams have to extensively prepare for, to certify their credentials for the title. Dortmund’s expensive pursuit for the title; Leipzig and Gladbach picking up the most promising coaching talents in Europe, and Bayern going back to what made them so good is not only good for themselves, but it keeps their opponents on their toes.

Can Tottenham Compete Without Kane? Tottenham Hotspur vs Rasenballsport Leipzig – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

Next to Paris vs Dortmund and Real Madrid vs Manchester City, this tie is right up there with the games I’m most anticipating. Tottenham under new manager and Champions League winner Jose Mourinho, facing managerial prodigy Julian Nagelsmann and his young RB Leipzig side. This could be one of the closest ties in the competition.

I’ve already gone in-depth on Pochettino’s sacking, so let’s actually discuss whether they’ve actually improved under Mourinho. To simply put it, yes. This isn’t exactly a surprise. The players clearly didn’t want to play for Pochettino anymore. So a fresh face, eager to prove his doubters wrong was always going to improve the team. For the first few games, the players looked reinvigorated, ready to remind the league why they reached a Champions League final.

Since Mourinho and Pochettino have both managed the same amount of league games this season, now is the perfect time to compare their records. Mourinho has managed to earn 23 points, six more than the man he replaced. The defence has conceded fewer goals (15: four fewer goals), and the attack has been just as productive (22: one more goal). Looking in more depth, Tottenham’s xPTS under Mourinho is at 19.14 (overachieving by 3.86) while Pochettino’s was at 17.10. This highlights one of the apparent issues Tottenham were facing at the beginning of the season. It wasn’t just the fact that the results weren’t coming in, but the performances showed they didn’t even deserve to be higher in the table. There have been some games under Mourinho where they’ve been lucky (their 2-0 win over Manchester City instantly comes to mind), but at the same time, they’ve drawn a few where they deserved 3 points.

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On the pitch, Tottenham has already shown some of Mourinho’s apparent traits. He’s already ensured only one full-back pushes forward, while the other sits alongside the centre-backs; to stop potential counter-attacks. In past Mourinho teams, it’d be Marcelo, Maicon, Ashley Cole or Ashley Young. Now, it’s Serge Aurier. The former PSG defender has put up pretty good numbers. Over 5 tackles and interceptions, 1.3 key passes and 1.7 successful dribbles. But that’s mostly down to Aurier being given the freedom to push as far forward as he is. He could easily be improved upon, and actually think Trippier would’ve performed excellent in this system. The right side is a massive weakness for Tottenham, and it’ll be an area in which Leipzig will want to exploit, with Werner and Nkunku preferring to drift to that side.

Left-back has been a position they’ve struggled with since Mourinho’s arrival. Ben Davies was the best option to play there. The Welshman has always been a solid, if unspectacular player, who became more useful as Danny Rose began to pick up regular injuries back in 2016. What made Davies such a suitable option for this more defensive role was his experience there, playing as a third centre-back for his national team. Davies’ only game under Mourinho was in his first, a 3-2 win over West Ham. It was arguably Tottenham’s best performance under their new manager. Davies has the needed recovery pace that Vertonghen lacks whenever he’s played there, while still being a good defender with the necessary experience; qualities Sessegnon is yet to have. Tangana has actually performed pretty well as a left-back, but it’s not his favoured position, and I doubt Mourinho would trust him now Davies is back.

Kane’s injury is a massive loss for Tottenham, leaving them without a first-team number nine to play. The obvious answer is to play Son up-front, but this left another issue. Without Son, a lot of pressure was placed upon Lucas Moura to provide that same pace and danger in the box; something he’s failed to do all season regularly. This is why the signing of Steven Bergwijn was so important. It allowed them to play Son as a striker, without the drawbacks.

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Moving onto Leipzig, who have been very good in Nagelsmann’s debut season. I’ve spoken about Germany’s most hated club numerous times, for how impressive they’ve remained throughout the season. Nagelsmann kept what made Leipzig so enjoyable before, their speed in transition and counter-attacks, and built upon that by adding a possession game. The centre-backs, all at the top level in possession, could push forward and help in build-up play. Upamecano perfectly shows this. The Frenchman has completed the most paces into the final third in the squad with 120, 40 more than second-placed Sabitzer. Nagelsmann has been playing full-backs Klostermann and Halstenburg in defence, because of their speed and ability on the ball. Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim sides were always fun to watch but lacked the defensive personnel needed to play such an attacking style. Leipzig has three of France’s most promising defensive talents in Europe; Nordi Mukiele, Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano. They all possess an extreme level of athleticism for their age, which makes it less likely for them to be caught out through the numerous counter-attacking sides present in Germany.

There is a massive issue with Leipzig’s defence; inexperience. There is no denying that all of their young defenders are great now and potentially world-class later on, but their lack of experience is present. This is why they’ve struggled to get results against the teams besides them. In their first half against Bayern Munich at the beginning of the season, Leipzig was easily the weaker side. Bayern strolled through their press and scored thanks to Muller noticing the amount of space Lewandowski had, ending with the Pole scoring. This isn’t even the only example; Union Berlin, Borussia Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund all outperformed Leipzig in the first half, taking advantage of how slow they can be at the beginning of games. This will be the area Tottenham will be desperate to exploit.

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The main reason everyone was excited to see Nagelsmann manage RB Leipzig was to see what he could do with the forwards at his disposal, primarily Werner. We saw Belfodil, Gnabry and Uth all perform well above their talent level during their spells at Hoffenheim. Nagelsmann has taken Werner to another level. Not only has Werner been scoring more than usual, but his creativity is leaps and bounds ahead of any forward in Germany. This is down to Werner playing more as a second striker. It’s what many fans who don’t consistently watch the Bundesliga don’t realise. Werner either plays in a front two, alongside a more physical striker like Poulsen or Schick, or on the left side of a front three. Werner’s pace and intelligent decision making in and around the box make it sensible to have him less centrally. We saw at the World Cup how Werner struggles on his own, and it limits what he can do off the ball. Under Nagelsmann, Werner is given licence to drop deep, make runs into the channels or play as a natural winger. It makes him so difficult to stop.

Nagelsmann using his magic to turn Patrick Schick back into a goalscorer again does deserve a lot of credit But how Nkunku has become one of the best creators in Germany at only 22 is one of the stories of the season. Nkunku reminds me of the many playmakers Arsene Wenger signed during his last decade at Arsenal. The former PSG midfielder is mature in his decision making and space awareness, making him effective wherever you play him. Nagelsmann has played him in a midfield three, on the left side of midfield and as a number ten, but his performances have remained consistently high. No player in the Leipzig squad has completed more passes into the penalty area and through balls. He isn’t only creating chances, but he’s the best in a team full of talented players at doing it.

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This attack is Leipzig’s biggest strength. Even if they start slow, you can rely on Werner and co to drag the team over the finish line. It’s why I think RB Leipzig will be progressing to their first quarter-final appearance. Tottenham might have the edge in terms of knockout round experience and a winning manager to back it up, but Leipzig has the superior team in terms of style and personnel. There is no doubting this game will be a close one, but Tottenham are at a disadvantage in terms of players, but this could be a real classic.

The Bundesliga is More Competitive Than Ever, But Can These Teams Challenge for the Title?

The Bundesliga has been a mess but in a complimentary way. There have been a lot teams either over-performing, under-performing, playing well or straight-up bad. Let’s go through the top teams in the Bundesliga, and see who is capable of challenging Bayern at the top of the table.

Borussia Monchengladbach

I’ve covered Gladbach enough that my opinion on them has been made very clear. Still, their incredibly impressive form is quite surprising. Marco Rose took a sensible yet exciting move to Gladbach. Die Fohlen (a nickname given for their swashbuckling style of football during their heyday) have been one of the most inconsistent teams during the 2010s. During 18/19 under Dieter Hecking, Gladbach had a fantastic start to the season. They ended Hinrunde in third, three points behind Bayern Munich. The problem, like most seasons for Monchengladbach, was the drop of form during the second half of the season. They had the tenth-best record and saw a lot of their best players drop off in form. Thorgan Hazard’s goal contributions were at their worst, with the Belgian going from scoring and assisting 15 goals in the first 17 games, to only contributing to 5 in the final 17 games. Plea, Neuhaus, Hoffman and Herrmann were others who fell off a cliff. It was clear these players are talented, but either down to system or the manager himself, they weren’t at their best. Hecking never did a bad job, but he left this impression of another coach could have done better.

Gladbach have been transformed under Rose. The improved attacking structure and balance throughout the team has made Gladbach not only a better team but a lot more enjoyable to watch. They’ve primarily switched between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-1-2, but have looked a lot better in the former. They mainly create through two outlets: midfield and full-backs. You’ll usually see the centre-backs look to find Lainer on the right and Bensebaini/Wendt on the left. Lainer especially is a great creator from wide positions, currently topping the team with 1.7 open play key passes per game. The midfield is also responsible for a majority of the ball progression, with Zakaria and Neuhaus completing the most dribbles with 2.2 and 1.9 respectively. The pair are high-quality technical players, extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet, with the confidence and ability to take on other players.

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Rose seems to have finally found the best way to utilise his best assets. Benes has moved to playing as a creative 10, finding space in between the lines and trying to get the ball to the forwards. Zakaria has actually been blossoming as the more advanced midfielder in the pivot. While Christoph Kramer isn’t nearly as good as he used to be, it has allowed his Swiss teammate to focus more on ball progression. Zakaria has this habit of being able to dribble through the most narrow of spaces. He keeps the ball close to his feet and has the size, speed and technical ability to be a real nuisance. Thuram is another who has excelled. The Frenchman, signing for the low fee of £10 million, was a massive risk considering he only had one full season of first-team football under his belt. But so far, Thuram has been a glaring success. As the weeks have passed, Thuram just seems to keep getting better. The son of Lillian Thuram is one of scariest players to face in a one-v-one, being so quick, so strong and having high-level close control. The 21-year-old has been a constant aerial threat, using his superior frame to give Gladbach a more direct option, compared to Plea or Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, he has been great whenever he’s played. Per 90, he’s taking 2.7 shots, with 2.4 coming from inside the box. It does help that Lainer has been a sensational signing, giving so much creativity from the right-flank, and has enabled Herrmann to go and find more space inside the box. He consistently makes himself available for his teammates in good positions.

I think Gladbach are likely to finish in the top four, but there have still been some worrying signs. They are facing 15.7 shots per game, the third-lowest in the division. While the chances they’re giving up aren’t of incredibly high quality, it’s still a worrying sign to see a team competing for the title right now giving up so many. There have been a few games so far this season where they’ve won, but gifted a lot of opportunities in the process. Werder Bremen had 16 shots against, and Frankfurt outshot them 15 to 11. Their 2-1 victory over Leverkusen, while a massive three points, was a game where they were outshined by their opponents. However, Gladbach managed to create two fantastic opportunities and won the game. 

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Gladbach have been great this season. Still, there has been a reliance on Plea and Thuram to continually produce in the final third, which they have been doing. I’m still quite unsure if they can go all the way. They deserve their place at the top of the table right now, but they have been lucky throughout many games this season. If that luck dries out, Rose and his players could lose their place to one of the teams so close behind them.

RB Leipzig 

I’ve spent some time talking about just how great Nagelsmann and Leipzig are. While some obstacles have come their way, they are still far ahead of their competition in terms of finishing in the Champions League spots. The Bundesliga’s most controversial club had a fantastic start to the season, with huge wins over Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach and a draw against Bayern in their first five games, putting them at the top of the table. It wasn’t just results, but their numbers were absolutely frightening. They were creating numerous high-quality chances, with the forwards looking fantastic during the early stages, especially Werner and Sabizter, who were both having elite starts to the season. I wrote a piece about this blistering start, but as soon I posted it, Leipzig suddenly went winless in four, losing to Schalke and Freiburg. You can argue that they deserved to win both games, but that shouldn’t make up for how bad they were in both fixtures, especially against Freiburg. The Bundesliga’s current overachievers, while conceding 24 shots to Leipzig, only faced a handful of good chances. Werner had a decent shot saved, Cunha missed an excellent opportunity as well as Willi Orban. Yet, some of these chances only came at the end of the game, so for 80 minutes, Freiburg kept them very quiet.

Now after 13 games, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig, while not yet reaching their massive ceiling, have built a team with a clear idea in how they want to play. No matter what formation they play, they primarily defend in a 4-4-2 and press very high. Werner, Poulsen, Sabitzer and Nkunku/Forsberg attempt to close down and isolate the opposition defenders. This has worked against a lot of teams, especially the weaker teams. The problem has been how it’s been pretty ineffective against technical opponents. Bayern, for a majority of their 1-1 with Nagelsmann’s side, just played right through it, with Kimmich and Alcantara being well known for their intelligence in possession.

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Defensively, Leipzig have been one of the best in the league, only conceding 9 goals from open play and face 10.8 shots per game, only behind Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen. While they have looked somewhat vulnerable at times, whether through set-pieces or counter-attacks, that is down to the rather gung ho approach they take in games. Nagelsmann has tried to protect his defenders through deploying a very solid, if unspectacular, pivot of Diego Demme and Konrad Laimer. Two midfielders who specialise in ball recovery and not much else. It does allow Klostermann and Halstenburg to push forward, while Nkunku and Sabitzer have the freedom to create for the strikers, either through linking up with Werner or with the full-backs. Nkunku and Sabitzer have been absolutely sensational, Nkunku in particular, contributing to 8 goals and only being behind Werner in Expected Assists per 90. It makes his decision to leave PSG and choose Leipzig over the Arsenal even better.

Speaking of Timo Werner, let’s talk about the second-best striker in Germany right now. When Nagelsmann arrived, almost everyone was excited to see what he would do to Werner. At Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann was left with mediocre forwards but still managed to get over 10 goals out of players like Mark Uth and Ishak Belfodil. Werner has been one of Germany’s best prospects for years, and since his first season in the Bundesliga with Leipzig, has established himself as one of the best forwards in Germany. Werner has always been a lethal finisher, while also possessing the pace and creativity to be just as effective on the wing. Werner is already on 14 goals, which includes two hat-tricks: the first against Gladbach and the other in an 8-0 victory over Mainz. It’s not only in the goals where Werner has shined but in chance creation. Werner is creating 2 chances per game, more than Nkunku and only behind Sabitzer. His expected assists per 90 is at a freakishly high 0.43; the highest in the team. His non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 is the highest in the Bundesliga (out of players to play over 500 minutes) with 1.29, higher than Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho. Werner has looked better than ever. His runs are timed to perfection, he is always finding good areas in the box and is making his teammates better as a result of his creativity. When Werner eventually leaves, it will create such a hole in that team, that I ponder how Leipzig will find a player to fill his boots.

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I think the prospect of seeing Nagelsmann win the Bundesliga in his first season is still likely. But give this team another year to grow, and they could be clear favourites, but it hugely depends on keeping Werner. If their German marksman does decide to stay, then it could finally be their year.

Schalke

Moving onto Schalke, who have been a massive surprise in how quickly they’ve improved this season. After nearly suffering relegation and succumbing to an embarrassing defeat to Manchester City in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, it led to the sacking of Domenico Tedesco. With the club having their worst season in recent memory, a big statement needed to be made. Die Knappen decided on David Wagner. A manager who miraculously got Huddersfield promoted into the Premier League and kept them in the division; a massive achievement for one of the worst teams the league has ever seen. It was clear that given a better group of players, Wagner could do an even better job.

Schalke have truly impressed me in just how competitive they’ve managed to remain even with better competition around them. A lot of it should go down to how Wagner has made Schalke solid in defence and flexible in attack. Wagner has his side playing a high press, a familiar sight for those who watched Huddersfield in the Championship. Whether Schalke are playing 4-3-2-1, 4-1-3-2 or 4-4-2, you’ll usually see his players pushing very far forward. They consistently put pressure on the opposition, rushing them into playing the ball forward, which regularly results in a loss of possession. This press is Schalke’s best defence and offence. When their opponents lose the ball, Wagner’s side are quick to recover it, consistently attacking opposition teams when their opponents are vulnerable. Take their game against Dortmund for example. Weigl was highlighted as a weakness in that Dortmund team, with the German playing in an unfamiliar centre-back position. Burgstaller and Matondo were quick to press him, which he struggled to deal with. The numbers also show Schalke to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Understat have them as the third-best defensive team in Germany for expected goals against, with their 15.17 only bettered by Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg. They’re seventh for shots faced, and while their young captain Alexander Nubel has saved them in a few games, they’ve stood out in keeping their opponents quiet.

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While they’ve remained German in how they’ve used a press, their attack is a lot more varied. When Schalke attack, they’ll primarily play through their full-backs: Everton loanee Jonjoe Kenny and Bastian Oczipka. Both players give Schalke something different on each side. Kenny is very direct, boasting bags of pace and the desire to run at opposition defenders, while Oczipka is a fantastic crosser, completing 1.8 crosses per game, the most in the side. His creativity is, by far his biggest strength. You’ll regularly see the defenders and Nubel in goal look to find Kenny and Oczipka far up the pitch. If they’re struggling, former Frankfurt defender Omar Mascarell will drop between the centre-backs, to give another option and free up space in midfield.

However, if the full-backs are struggling to get involved in the game, as seen in their 0-0 draw against Borussia Dortmund, Schalke aren’t afraid to play more directly. Schalke usually play Mark Uth or Rabbi Matondo. Both players offer something different. Matondo uses his pace to try and isolate opposition defenders, while Uth is a more direct option, using his physicality to match defenders. They play well with the hardworking Guido Burgstaller, who is a willing runner and ready to harass defenders. All three forwards are willing to run into the channels, to give their teammates an option for when the full-backs are taken out of the game. Wagner has turned into a real pragmatic coach but in a good way. Wagner isn’t interested in how pretty his side are to watch and priorities efficiency.

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The biggest problem regarding Schalke’s start to the season is easily their worrying lack of goals. While I did credit their attack for being versatile and their forwards for offering different qualities up front, they have all struggled in front of goal. Burgstaller actually tops the team for xG per 90 with 0.35 but is yet to score a single goal. Amine Harit is their top scorer with 6, but many of those strikes have come from outside the box. It’s unlikely that Harit will turn into a consistent goalscorer, even with his fantastic start. Matondo has very much looked like the raw talent he currently is, lacking key decision making during decisive moments. Mark Uth has failed to recover from the Nagelsmann effect and remains allergic to goals in Gelsenkirchen. A lot of Schalke fans are desperate to see 19-year-old forward Ahmed Kutucu play. During his limited minutes last season, Kutucu showed a lot of promise and could be the solution Wagner is desperately searching for. This lack of goals in the side will hold them back. Whether it’s through the transfer market or from within, it’s hard to picture Schalke in the Champions League next season without a clinical forward in their ranks, never mind a title push.

Borussia Dortmund 

Coming into the season, one would expect Borussia Dortmund to be Bayern’s biggest threat. Lucien Favre’s side, for most of 18/19, were keeping the Bundesliga open and competitive. As mentioned in another post, Bayern were very unfortunate throughout the first half of last season, while Dortmund were very lucky. They overperformed their expected goals by a massive 16.01, with Leipzig and Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim having better attacks than last’s year’s runners up. Favre did what he does best; set his team up in a low block and rely heavily on individual talents to carry the attack. Dortmund garnered a reputation under Klopp and Tuchel for being one of the most aggressive, intelligent pressing sides in Europe, but Favre has seemingly scraped that. Passes allowed per defensive action is a metric that helps measure how aggressively a team presses. The less passes a team allows their opponent, the more aggressively they press. Last season, Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim were, on paper, the best pressing teams, allowing 8.16 and 8.72 respectively, while Dortmund allowed 13.42, placing them fourteenth. With experienced midfielders and inexperienced defenders arriving, Favre chose the more practical option, which worked, even if Dortmund weren’t excellent for most of the season.

The other area in which Favre was quite fortunate was Marco Reus. The German forward has been one of the best players in the 2010’s, is one of the best creators, dribblers and goal scorers in the Bundesliga. The problem with Reus has been his injuries. From 14/15 to 17/18, he only managed over 20 starts once, and his lowest being in 11 in the season before Favre’s arrival. He’s always performed, but it’s clear how much Reus is missed when he is unavailable. Luckily for Favre, Reus managed to stay fit for most of the season, only missing 7 games. However, due to the numerous injuries, Reus has had to make adjustments in the way he plays, changing from the elite playmaker to more of a second striker. He makes late runs into the box and using his incredible close control to move around defenders and find space for a shot.

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Favre was also lucky to have Jadon Sancho during his breakout season. Everyone knew that the young England winger had bags of potential, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact Sancho would have on that team. Sancho quickly went from a prospect to one of the most sought after players on the market. Favre could rely on Sancho for a lot of ball progression, as well as Real Madrid loanee Hakimi. He ended the 18/19 season with 12 goals and 14 assists, a fantastic, yet slightly unexpected return from a young player only in his second season of top-flight football. 

To beat Bayern to the title, aswell as keep off fierce competition from Leipzig, huge additions were needed. Mats Hummels added vital experience to a backline that looked so vulnerable from set-pieces (Dortmund conceded 13 from set-pieces last season, the worst record right behind Augsburg). Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt added exciting attackers, ready to produce now. Dortmund seem tired of being second best to Bayern every season. So when Bayern are at their weakest, it makes sense to take advantage, to bring in some of the leagues best players to help take them over the line. 

The team is arguably better than last season, but the performances do beg a differ. Even excluding their annual humiliation at the Allianz, there have been plenty of games where Dortmund have been awful. Dortmund have generally looked so slow and sluggish in the first half of games, with shocking performances in the opening 45 minutes against Cologne, Paderborn, Schalke, Union Berlin and Monchengladbach. A lack of concentration at the back and weak chance creation from the front (no clear cut chances against Schalke) have been ever-present throughout the season. 

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Dortmund have played a higher line compared to last season. They’ve gone from allowing their opponents 13.42 passes per defensive actions down to 10.05, a considerable change for a team consistently playing an ageing defender in Hummels. Hummels has never been a mobile defender. When you pair that with Weigl having to fill in at centre back and Piszczek remaining a key player at right-back, it’s a dream for any player with an extra yard of pace. Many of these players have struggled when facing opponents who can hit them hard on the break.

Dortmund’s have not only collapsed against counter-attacks but have struggled against teams who press aggressively. In the first half against Cologne, Anthony Modeste and Jhon Cordoba wouldn’t give Akanji a second to breathe. The Swiss defender has been below average throughout the season, still looking weak in the air with questionable decision making. They eventually managed to overcome Cologne, thanks to Brandt making a massive difference. 

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The problem with Favre’s Dortmund is they’re so reactive. While their dramatic comebacks have been great to watch, there will be some games where that fight will not materialise. I can’t see Favre’s side finishing in the top four, never mind challenging for the title. Without a clear style of play and fragility at the back, It’s challenging to defend Favre even remaining in the job. Dortmund used to be one of the best teams in Europe, with geganpressing at the forefront of their identity. Not only are they back to being their underwhelming self, but they also aren’t even fun to watch anymore. 

 

 

Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

It’s a question that many have asked since Nagelsmann was announced as head coach back in 2018. The 32-year-old managed to turn Hoffenheim from relegation candidates into regular top 4 challengers. The number of goals he got out of the likes of Belfodil, Szalai and Uth made me wonder what he could do with genuine elite talent. We’ll be looking at Leipzig’s start to the season, to see why they are currently at the top of the table.

Leipzig’s history is short, yet full of controversy. Before the Red Bull takeover, RB Leipzig were formally known as SSV Markranstadt and playing in the 5th division of German football. The exact reasons for choosing Markranstadt isn’t certain, but I can guess it’s down to a few things. The club were stuck in the 5th division of German football, and right next to them was the city of Leipzig, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. It was an untapped market and gave them the chance to invest in a club which could become a global brand, providing a city with a football club to match its size. I can imagine RB Salzburg was in the owners’ thoughts, making, socially, a clear path from Austria into the Bundesliga. From their formation in 2009, it took them only 6 seasons to reach the Bundesliga, climbing the football pyramid with ease, thanks to a clear plan and massive investment.

It’s difficult to talk about RB Leipzig without even mentioning why nearly every fan in Germany despise them. It all begins with the name. The ‘RB’ stands for RasenBallsport, which translates to lawn ball sports. It ensured they didn’t break the league’s strict laws of no branding in club names, but through abbreviation, could keep their brand recognition. It’s things like this that really infuriate German fans, putting the importance of corporate needs over the fans, a part of the game that Germany empathise. While Red Bull’s lack of subtlety is frustrating, it’s the way they managed to work around the 50+1 rule. It was first inforced in 1998, to ensure football fans wouldn’t be treated as customers, remaining the majority voice at their respective clubs. Bundesliga clubs do possess a lot of members, with Dortmund having over 140,000 fans who pay an annual fee of €62. Once again, Red Bull found a way around this. RB Leipzig only have 17 members, all Red Bull employees, paying over €800 annually. It ensured they could legally play in the Bundesliga through bypassing all of their rules, without having the same routes as other clubs in Germany.

Football is a working-class sport, originating from hard-working men attempting to take a break from their lives through sport. It had the easy viewing for everyone to get into but had that extra level of sophistication, which made it extremely popular Germany, Austria and Hungary. Red Bull made it look so easy to abolish real fan ownership and build a club in their own image.

I sympathise with these views, but part of me finds it really hard to hate a club when they are just so good at finding talented players and managers. Their first season in the Bundesliga included some of the brightest talents in Europe. Naby Keita broke onto the season and dominated the midfield through high defensive actions and showing himself to be one of the best prospects for any Champions League club. Marcel Sabitzer was always seen as one of Austria and Red Bull’s brightest prospects, and moving to a more competitive league helped his development. Their crown jewel was young German forward Timo Werner. At only 20, he was alongside more experienced forwards like Aubameyang and Lewandowski in the race for the Golden Boot. While full of future prospects, they had players who were there during their stint outside of the Bundesliga. Emil Forsberg arrived as a promising 21-year-old and proved to be a fantastic creator. Yussuf Poulsen and Diego Demme both came in 2013. I’ve expressed my love for Poulsen, having a skill set that combines well with any goalscoring forward. Being coached by Ralph Hassenhuttl, RB Leipzig were aggressive, energetic, young and plenty of fun to watch during the 16/17 season.

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They’ve remained relatively consistent since their first season in the Bundesliga, finishing 6th in 17/18 and 3rd last season. Finishing 3rd and returning to the Champions League is a positive season, but it did feel like a transition into a new era, spearheaded by Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim manager is one of my favourite coaches in Europe, being able to turn a weak Hoffenheim side into a fun yet effective side in Germany. However, what was holding him back was the personnel. Last season, he was stuck with Ishak Belfodil, who was basically moving clubs every season and only managed 4 goals for Werder Bremen in 17/18. Nagelsmann’s teams create a vast amount of chances that it’s difficult for any forward who starts over 20 games not to get at least 10 goals. Mark Uth might be the perfect example of Nagelsmann supercharging strikers. The German contributed to 22 goals in 17/18, earning him a move to Schalke once his contract expired. However, he only scored 2 goals in 15 games in his first season for Schalke. If Nagelsmann could get a lot of goals out poor to average players, it makes you wonder what he could do with Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, who just had the best seasons of their careers.

The defence was the other area which did hold Nagelsmann back. His sides have usually played a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 with a very high line. To perform a system like that, you need to have genuinely elite defensive talent, something the 32-year-old just didn’t have at Hoffenheim. Last season, Hoffenheim gave away more penalties than any other side with 7 and gave away the most fouls per game with 13.9. In teams that play high-lines, you expect a lot of fouls to be made, in an attempt to recover the ball when the line is beaten, but the frequency in which they were taking down their opponents is concerning. Now at Leipzig, he has four extremely talented centre-backs. Willi Orban has been at the club before their promotion in 2016. While the club captain is an essential figure for the team, he backs that up with being a terrific defender, comfortable in possession and commanding his backline. The French trio of Dayot Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele and Ibrahima Konate are all extremely promising defenders. It’s a testament to how good Red Bull are at spotting talent. They arrived for a combined fee of £23 million, with Konate arriving on a free transfer. The club could manage to sell these players for over £70 million each, showing how they’ve remained to find value in the market, even with such a well-known brand like Red Bull behind them. All are comfortable on the ball and possess extreme athleticism to help them cover the distance needed to play in a Nagelsmann side.

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So how have Leipzig played in the first few games of the Bundesliga? While I don’t think they’ve been the best team in the league, they’ve been the most impressive. The main reason for this is because of the opposition they’ve had to face, with the Red Bull-owned club already playing Frankfurt, Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayern Munich in their opening 6 games. I’ve watched three of these games and so far have been impressed with what I’ve seen. Nagelsmann has been extremely flexible in terms of formation and personnel. Against Frankfurt, Nagelsmann lined his side up in a 3-4-3, to match Adi Hutter’s team in terms of formation. Thanks to Leipzig having extremely athletic defenders, it allowed them to double-up on Frankfurt’s wing-backs Filip Kostic and Erik Durm, their opponent’s most prominent attacking threats. In breaking them down, Leipzig used Christopher Nkunku and, after an hour, Emil Forsberg, to run into the space that was left from Frankfurt’s marauding wing-backs. The pair completed 5 dribbles, showing how effective they were in moving the ball into the opposition half.

Their game against Borussia Monchengladbach saw some changes, with Nagelsmann switching to a 4-4-2 and bringing in Kampl and Forsberg for Mukiele and Nkunku respectively. These changes allowed them to deal with Gladbach’s weaknesses, being their lack of width and the full-backs. Rose usually lines his side up in a 4-3-1-2, with Thuram often drifting to the left. Leipzig countered this through their compact shape. It made it difficult for Rose’s players to break them down, and with the press from Leipzig’s front men giving them no time on the ball, it showed just how much work Rose has to do in turning this side into a Champions League regular. Their defenders lacked mobility and Leipzig used that to their advantage. Poulsen and Werner were consistently making diagonal runs into the box, making it very difficult to defend against Nagelsmann’s side. Werner’s hat trick was a combination of superb chance creation and elite finishing. Leipzig haven’t been topping the table in terms of shots and chance creation, but their forwards are consistently getting chances in fantastic areas. Even if Werner’s shots are of weak locations, his finishing is unrivalled in Germany, meaning he will be able to put all sorts of chances away.

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The two games so far have shown Leipzig to be flexible, aggressive and clinical. Like every team in the Bundesliga, the games against Bayern Munich were going to show just how good Leipzig were when facing better opposition, and for 45 minutes, it did not look good. I haven’t spoken about it yet, but in all their games so far, Leipzig’s press is consistent. Whatever formation was deployed, they would always press in a 4-2-4, with Forsberg moving over to the left, Poulsen and Werner in the middle and Sabitzer on the right. They plan to force their opponent into the flanks. He’s tried this against Bayern before, to some success. In their 3-1 defeat to the champions in August 2018, Nagelsmann used Joelinton and Szalai to keep pressure on the central defenders and force them to play the ball to the full-back. Hoffenheim’s wing-backs and wide midfielders would then aggressively press Bayern, and for a lot of the game, it was effective. The problem was Bayern were just too much for Hoffenheim, but trying a similar tactic against them once again might work considering the players Nagelsmann now has to work with. But that game was Kovac’s first game in charge of Bayern in the league. The team have since grown in quality and showed this at the Red Bull Arena. When Leipzig did try and press Bayern from the front, Bayern’s midfield duo of Kimmich and Thiago, the best midfielders in the league, found space and exploited the room that was left from Leipzig’s pressing. Both were at their usual best in this game, Kimmich especially, who created 6 chances from midfield. It wasn’t just in midfield where Leipzig were exposed, but in attack, where Lewandowski’s goal perfectly showcased this. Whenever one of their forwards were in possession, Bayern were quick to outnumber them, usually making it a three against one, to recover possession. This is what happened for Bayern’s goal. Sabitzer had three men around him, and when dispossessed, Klostermann attempted to recover the ball, but Muller was quick to get it back. A fantastic pass from Muller and a great run from Lewandowski to show some naivety from Nagelsmann, and Bayern continued to dominate the first half. Leipzig did get back in the game through a Forsberg penalty, but the half didn’t scream optimism.

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The second half is where Nagelsmann shined in his tactical adjustments. His players were being completely outclassed in the centre of the park and needed to fix it. He did so by taking off Klostermann and bringing on Diego Demme, to add numbers and ensure they could compete with Bayern. They switched to a 4-3-3, with Mukiele moving over to right-back. This was when Leipzig started creating chances, while remained stable at the back. Yet, they still weren’t exceptional. A lot of the opportunities they created just weren’t of high quality. Mukiele had a decent chance with a shot from the right side of the 18-yard box, but it was a routine save for Neuer. Sabitzer attempted to a shot from long distance, and while it did have some spin on it, it wasn’t going to trouble Germany’s number one. While this approach might have worked against a weaker team, Bayern are more than that. Thiago and Kimmich are so difficult to simply bypass. This game felt like a lesson for Nagelsmann.

So, can RB Leipzig win the Bundesliga this year? They definitely have a chance, but Bayern look too good to beat at the moment. Leipzig still have room to improve. Amadou Haidara hasn’t played much this season, and Tyler Adams is still yet to return, a player who could seriously make a difference in the middle of the park. Nagelsmann will have to be more open to rotation his key players if he wishes to compete on all fronts. This team is very aggressive, and I worry how often they might be caught on an off day, similar to how easily Schalke beat them at the Red Bull Arena. Nagelsmann should either change the approach for specific games or use the vast number of players in the team. Ademola Lookman and Matheus Cunha have rarely featured, and definitely have a part to play this season. If Leipzig wish to win the league this season, they’ll have to hope Bayern’s form begins to plummet and Dortmund remain unlucky. On the bright side, I do expect Leipzig to improve over the next couple of years, and the team is still young enough to stay competitive. Bayern still have a massive rebuilding job on their hands, so even if Leipzig do falter, their chance will come.

Predictions for the Bundesliga – 19/20

With all leagues, excluding Serie A, underway, it’s time to make some predictions. As a majority of previews have shown, I’m bad at predicting football, but that’s a good thing. 50% of football results are decided by luck. It’d be worrying if I was getting these right. We’ll be making predictions for the outside shout, over-achievers, under-achievers, best transfer and potential flop.

Bundesliga 

Outside Shout – RB Leipzig 

While not exactly the most surprising choice, I’m still expecting this side to take a massive step forward under Julien Nagelsmann. The former Hoffenheim coach is already one of the best in Europe, showing a willingness to adapt depending on his personnel. He has demonstrated this throughout his career in the Bundesliga. His sides have primarily been possession-based, focusing on creating an insane amount of chances for their forwards. However, the German has consistently made adjustments to suit the constant changes in his squad. In his first full season, he used the direct route of Sandro Wagner to his advantage, focusing on quick transitions to the forwards. This Nagelsmann side was incredibly reliable defensively, only conceding 37 goals. However, with the losses of both Wagner and Rudy, the team needed to be tweaked. The 17/18 season saw Hoffenheim qualify for the Champions League for the first time. While they did concede 11 more goals than in Nagelsmann’s first season, there were improving in the final third. Thanks to the arrival of Serge Gnabry on loan and the form of Mark Uth, They scored more goals in open play than in the previous season with a far weaker side. It showed that Nagelsmann was more than the defensive coach he seemed to be when he broke through. In actuality, he is one of the best coaches at building an attack out of spare parts.

In the summer of 2018, it was agreed that Julien Nagelsmann would be joining RB Leipzig at the beginning of the 19/20 season. It was the best managerial appointing since Pep’s arrival in Manchester and showed the power and ambition of Red Bull. They managed to convince the best young coach in Europe to join their project when Bayern was showing interest.

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What makes this appointment so exciting for Leipzig is the players that Nagelsmann has to work with. This is arguably the first time in his managerial career where he has some genuinely fantastic talent to work with. A young midfield pairing of Tyler Adams and Amadou Haidara is one of the most promising in Europe. Both are solid defensively and have the technical ability to offer a vast amount of ball progression. Nagelsmann has worked with talented midfielders before, but it’s in attack and defence where the talent is so noticeable. Timo Werner is one of the best strikers in the league, and when paired alongside Yussuf Poulsen, who finally reached the goal total we knew he could reach. This is a remarkable improvement over who he worked with at Hoffenheim, where Mark Uth and Issak Belfodil were relied upon for the goal output.

One of the biggest cliches in football has always been a manager’s ability. “Let’s see how Pep does with Burnley” is something you might have heard at least once. However, Nagelsmann has done this. He took a relegation side into the Champions League places. He has a club and a group of players to match his talents, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Leipzig win the Bundesliga during his reign.

Over-achievers – Borussia Dortmund 

This isn’t to say they will be bad throughout the season. In fact, I believe Dortmund will keep the title race exciting for a majority of the season. The main reason why I think they will overachieve is because of Lucien Favre. The former Nice coach has a history of defying the numbers. He usually builds a relatively solid defence and relies upon the talent of the attackers to carry the side. The lack of planning on the attack has made them rather poor against better opposition if his players are in a bad patch. Luckily at Dortmund, Favre has been given the most talented teenager in Europe and an injury-free Marco Reus. Both were fantastic last season, and their sheer talent carried Dortmund over the line on numerous occasions, with their 3-2 victory over Bayern being the game that stands out. It’s what made their quite impressive second-place finish somewhat misleading. Dortmund were very fortunate that Bayern started the season very poorly and Leipzig had gone through a bad patch near the end of the season. If Bayern weren’t so unfortunate up until December, there wouldn’t have been a title challenge.

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I’m expecting more of the same this season. Bringing in both Hazard and Brandt to replace Philipp and Pulisic was a stroke of genius. Both are at the right age to contribute effectively for the next few seasons, while still being able to improve. I didn’t like the signing of Hummels, and the sale of Diallo made it a lot worse, but the German’s experience could be that extra edge they need. There were countless occasions where Dortmund lost against weaker opposition, primarily down to set pieces. If Dortmund had someone of Hummels’ leadership, it could have made the difference.

Will Dortmund have a good season? Most likely, but I can guarantee if they finish runners-up once again, they will not have been the 2nd best team in the league.

Under-achievers – Bayern Munich 

Oh, Bayern. This summer window was predicted to be the most significant window for Bayern in the past decade. With Robben and Ribery departing, Lewandowski now 31 and James Rodriguez returning to Madrid, there was a lot of work to be done. Leroy Sane was the player consistently linked to the Champions, but they failed to agree on a fee with Manchester City and were forced to look elsewhere. Nicolas Pepe seemed to be an option at some point, but they waited too long in pursuing him. While missing out on those two is a huge loss, their decision not to sign Ousmane Dembele was arguably the most baffling. Barcelona are clearly open to offers, and with their desire to see Neymar return to the Camp Nou, it was a chance for Bayern to get the young Frenchman. However, Bayern are refusing to pay the massive fee for a player who Barca are willing to sell.

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Bayern’s transfer policy this summer has to come into question once again. For years, the champions were making such safe signings in the market, knowing full well the Bundesliga was always going to be theirs. However, Dortmund showed that wasn’t the case, and proved Bayern aren’t the invincible juggernauts as they perceive themselves. This was the summer where they would genuinely show ambition in the market and actually challenge the likes of Barcelona, Man City and Liverpool for the Champions League. But they got it all wrong.

Bayern’s business this summer has instantly made them susceptible to losing their dominance. Dortmund and Leverkusen have added even more attacking talent, and Leipzig looks to be the real deal this season. Bayern might win the Bundesliga once again, but it will not be as comfortable as they wish.

Best Transfer – Kerem Demirbay

Speaking of Leverkusen, they’ve had a surprisingly good window. The additions of Moussa Diaby and Nadiem Amiri are more exciting additions to arguably the best attack in the league. However, the icing on top of the cake has to be Kerem Demirbay’s arrival from Hoffenheim. The German playmaker has arrived for a hefty £28.80 million, but the fee is reasonable considering Leverkusen did sell Brandt for a £22.50m. Demirbay is a couple of years older than Brandt but does possess that extra bit of quality. The former Dusseldorf midfielder has consistently been putting up outrageous numbers since his arrival in the Bundesliga, with his shots and key passes being some of the highest in the league. He is, in reality, quite similar to Brandt in some ways. Both like to be heavily involved in the play, looking to receive the ball just outside of the box. The difference between the pair is for me is Demirbay possesses that extra bite. He is a tough tackler who has an excellent eye for a pass. Last season for players to play over 1000 minutes, his expected assist was at a fantastic 0.40 per game, the same as Muller and more than Brandt and Forsberg. There is no doubting Demirbay’s talent, so it’ll be interesting to see what Bosz does with his skillset.

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Potential Flop – Ivan Perisic

I cannot stand this signing, and it just shows Bayern’s desperation in search of wingers. This is what happens when your wide options are an injury-prone Kinglsey Coman and a rather average Serge Gnabry. With Bayern missing out on their top targets, they had to settle for quick fixes, even if they might not fix anything. Perisic is a player who all top clubs should have avoided. Inter were asking for an obscene amount of money for the Croatian. He has been slowly declining since 2017 and only contributed to 11 goals last season, the lowest during his time in Italy. Perisic is a decent creator who can help defensively, but Bayern do not need defensive players. They’ve spent over £100 million on defensive reinforcements when they already had the best defence in the league. Perisic is here for his work in the final third, and he won’t offer enough. It baffles why Bayern weren’t even looking at Ziyech, Neres or Bailey. It’s hard to place blame on Kovac at this point. He is working for a club that isn’t willing to give him the same talent other managers have been able to work with.

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #1 – Lampard to Change Chelsea?

With the season returning in a month (it cannot come any quicker), there are already so many players, teams or managers who could do something special next season in taking their team to another level. These are twenty things you should be keeping your eye on next season. There isn’t a particular order, but it does include some teams I have discussed in the past. I thought I’d split them up into four parts so it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.

Atletico Madrid’s rebuild

After a hugely disappointing season in both La Liga and in the Champions League, this might be one of Atletico Madrid’s most important seasons to date. With the futures of Griezmann, Rodri, Partey, Oblak and Morata all in a cloud, and Hernandez already departing the club, this is arguably their most significant rebuild since the summer of 2015. An ageing defence, their best attacker leaving a potentially losing their whole midfield paints a picture of a team that needs a lot of reinforcements this summer.

It isn’t just signings, but the manager. I have a lot of respect for what Simeone has done with Atletico Madrid over the last 5 years, but his tactics seem to be showing their age. Their defence will always be reliable, but it is in attack where the problems have consistently been. Players have been brought in for a lot of money, talented ones that have shown a lot of promise at their previous clubs, but as soon as they arrived in Madrid, that form went out of the window. We’ve seen Lemar, Costa, Carrasco, Gaitan, Gameiro, Mandzukic all fail after succeeding at their previous clubs. Since their title win, they have continually sacrificed attacking output to ensure they have remained stable at the back. This isn’t a way to win a league title. Simeone seemingly forgot what won him the league back in 2014, which was a huge goal output from Diego Costa, who scored 27 goals. Griezmann managed 15 with Morata managing 6.

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The massive rebuild is a chance for Simeone to return to a more attacking style. With the arrival of Europe’s next big superstar in Joao Felix, this could be the perfect chance for Atleti to start looking like the title challengers we all want them to be. Madrid and Barcelona are both looking miles ahead of their competition in terms of talent, so this could be Simeone’s chance to surprise them once again.

Julien Nagelsmann’s Leipzig 

Without a doubt, the Bundesliga looks to be the most exciting league to watch next season. All of the top 6 in Germany have an exciting coach. Favre’s Dortmund defying xG as usual, and Adi Hutter getting the best out of a Frankfurt side with impressive attackers are 2 teams I haven’t put on this list, solely for not wanting to crowd this list with the Bundesliga.

We’ll start with by far the most talked about young manager in Europe and his arrival to arguably one of the best-run clubs in Europe. Nagelsmann did miracles at his former club, turning Hoffenheim from relegation candidates to Top 4 challengers with a squad full of mediocrity. His teams were fantastic at creating chances for the forwards and were so adaptable. It begged the question of what could he do with a talented team which has the best scouting network around. Leipzig have a fantastic young group of players and could see the best form out of the likes of Werner and Poulsen. If Nagelsmann managed to get over 10 goals out of average forwards like Mark Uth and Belfodil, it’s crazy to think what he could with some genuinely elite attackers.

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What I’m looking forward to seeing from Leipzig is the output from the midfield. While Nagelsmann did do wonders with his former club, he never indeed possessed any top-level midfielders. Florian Grillitsch is very good, but he had to rely on players like Sebastian Rudy because he lacked any elite defensive midfielders. He now has Amadou Haidara and Tyler Adams, the most promising midfielders in the Bundesliga, and both developing through the Red Bull machine, with the pair coming from RB Salzburg and NY Red Bulls respectively. Both are great box to box midfielders with massive defensive numbers. It’ll be interesting to see if Nagelsmann can form one of the best midfielders partnerships in Europe, and push Leipzig to be the Bundesliga title challengers they could so easily be.

Marco Rose in the Bundesliga 

Austria has become one of the leading innovators in Europe, as it was a century ago. They have had managers like Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl coach in their first division, with systems focussing on pressing, attacking football. The next in this line of up and coming managers is Marco Rose. While Nagelsmann is an exciting appointment, Borussia Monchengladbach bringing in Rose is arguably the most impressive managerial signing of the summer.

The Austrian built a fantastic team in Salzburg that focused on full backs pressing extraordinarily high and crowding the centre. On paper, they set up in a 4-3-1-2, but when watching them play, their midfield can adapt to match their opponents and the current circumstances. This is slightly dependent on having midfielders who are physically spectacular, with the likes of Haidara, Schlager and Samassekou putting in an insane amount of defensive work. It’s a system that requires players who are tactically flexible and can cover a lot of ground. It’s similar to pressing systems deployed by the likes of Pep and Klopp, but there is much more intensity, that it suffocates their opponents.

Most of my viewings of Rose’s Salzburg side all came in Europe, where they were excellent. They managed to win every game in their Europa League group containing Celtic and RB Leipzig. Rose’s side managed to beat talented opponents using a superior, more effective approach that stopped the opposition from playing their favoured way. They could outnumber you in the wide areas, press your centre back and block of the passing lanes. They were one of the best sides in the competition two seasons on the bounce.

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It’ll be fascinating to see what Rose will bring to the top flight in Germany. Monchengladbach have been underachieving for some time now and have needed an elite coach like Rose to push them closer to those Champions League spots finally. I think he will like a few of the players he will be working with, guys like Plea, Zakaria and Elvedi could be significant in what Rose will want to implement. Monchengladbach were quick in giving their manager the players to fit his system, with Breel Embolo coming in as a very athletic and versatile forward, and Stefan Lainer joining from Rose’s former club as a much-needed improvement over Lang. Monchengladbach are easily the team to watch next season.

Lille’s Young Side in Europe 

PSG have been the expected champions of Ligue 1 for years now, with Lyon or Monaco coming in second. This changed this year, with Lille finishing as the runners up in France. This came as a surprise considering they were close to relegation under Bielsa on numerous occasions. The arrival of French manager Christophe Galtier seems to have changed the way the club plays and operates. They are a defensively solid side with players who are so dangerous on the counter-attack and are very difficult to deal with. Only PSG managed more goals on the break than Lille’s 10. Galtier managed to get the best out of a messy situation and got them performing. Lille continued to sign young talent but weren’t spending nearly as much, with Bamba, arguably their best signing, arriving for nothing. Combine that with the free acquisitions of Jose Fonte and Rafael Leao, and you have a team taking astute, low-risk signings.

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It’s given them the platform to allow them to sign players for nothing and sell them when their stock increases. We’ve already seen this with the recent sales of Thiago Mendes, El Ghazi and Kone how they can turn a profit on their players. They’ve picked up a sensible model of how to operate in the transfer market, and with a rather pragmatic style of football, leaves it more comfortable for players to adapt to the system. Not only are they smart in selling players, but bringing in talent. The signing of Timothy Weah is a stroke of genius and another export from PSG’s academy, one that cannot stop producing talent. He could potentially be the striker I’ve previously mentioned they’ve poorly needed. They’re returning to Europe after a 5-year hiatus, and this could be the chance for Lille to show Europe how good they are when it comes to player recruitment.

Chelsea Under Lampard

This might be the most significant power move Abrahamovich has played since bringing Jose Mourinho back to the club. The arrival of Frank Lampard might seem premature, and its primary purpose seems to be to give Chelsea fans something to smile about since their transfer ban. From a non-football perspective, it makes sense. It is insanely unlikely the Chelsea fans will turn on their manager like they usually do when the manager is one of their greatest ever players. Lampard will not put up with some of the poorer attitudes witnessed in the Chelsea dressing room in recent years. The Blues are going to have a tough season, suffering from the same problems they have had for a long time. A squad full of talent in some areas but incredibly weak in others. The departure of Eden Hazard has left this team, and the Premier League, without their most talented player and the man who has dragged Chelsea in an attacking sense since his arrival, that it’ll be fascinating in what Lampard will do to get this attack working without the Belgian superstar.

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By far the most enticing prospect of having Lampard in charge is what he will do with the younger players. It’s been a desire from everyone to see this trophy winning youth side produce players who actually play for the Chelsea youth team. I’m not expecting 30 players to be handed debuts, but the most promising players to at least are given a chance. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Ethan Ampadu to be given an opportunity in the Premier League, to see if they can add something to a team that I criticised under Sarri for not having players who were willing to change the system. This could be Lampard’s chance to show everyone at Chelsea that the club can produce Champions League level talent who can start for Chelsea, instead of resorting to the transfer market for every issue.

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Yussuf Poulsen and The Joy of Partnerships

With football being an ever-evolving sport, there are trends that will come in and out of style. Whether it’s the back three, natural wingers or target men, new systems and ideas will introduce weaknesses used in the past. One element of football that hasn’t faded from obscurity yet is the two strikers. In a world full of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3’s, it can be nice to see a side deploy a relatively old fashioned style of attacking. This isn’t as much of an anomaly as many like to perceive, myself included. There are still a host of sides that deploy two strikers with true success. Jardim’s Monaco broke PSG’s monopoly at the top of the table thanks to a combination of experience and raw, youthful power in Falcao and Mbappe. Atletico Madrid found a lot of success in using a 4-4-2, reaching 2 Champions League finals in 3 years. Leicester is by far the most famous example, playing a very old fashioned way of playing. Full backs not leaving the halfway line, midfielders entirely focused on winning the ball back, and huge centre backs who used their strength to dominate opposition forwards. There’s something nostalgic about seeing sides play like that.

One side that has become famous for playing two strikers would be RB Leipzig. The Redbull club has been a success story based on smart investment and an endless scouting network that has enabled them to find talent across the world. All of their clubs are run very well and do not make the same risky signings as you see the big clubs take. While they did finish 3rd, they were arguably the second best side in the Bundesliga. They had a solid defence, making the most tackles and only Bayern facing fewer shots. Add that with strikers who scored a combined 31 goals this season and you have a side that deserved a top 3 finish. While Timo Werner has been a massive success since joining Leipzig, with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid both heavily interested in the German forward. However one of my more controversial opinions would be that Timo Werner does not work as a single striker. While he has been relatively good for Germany, he hasn’t been nearly as impressive as he has been at club level. Germany usually play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, leaving Werner quite isolated. He looked lost at the 2018 World Cup and was arguably one of their worst performers at the competition. I do think one of the reasons why Werner has been so good is because the player next to him has allowed him to be.

This brings us nicely onto Yussuf Poulsen. While I am not nearly as romantic with football as others are, there can be some stories that do bring out the softer side in me. Poulsen has been with Leipzig since the club was in the 3rd division. He has made the most appearances for the side and is their third top scorer. While he has never been hugely prolific in front of goal, he has stayed by the club and contributed important goals in their race to reach the top. Since RB Leipzig earned promotion to the top flight back in 2016, Poulsen hasn’t reached the same heights as his German teammate, scoring 5 in his first season and 4 in his second. His role in the side has always seemed to be to give a more direct option for his side and help create space for Werner, and he excels in that. In an interview earlier in the season, Werner said “It’s great for me with him up front. We complement each other really well. He likes going for aerial challenges, which I don’t. He’s got an amazing set of lungs.” It perfectly sums up their relationship as forwards. His numbers even show this. He attempts 9.5 aerial duels per game with a 48% success rate, a solid number for a striker. While shot numbers aren’t high, taking 2.1 a game, it’s because Werner takes a majority of the side’s shots. He also creates 1.1 chances a game, showing the strong relationship he has with the forwards. When you watch the Dane play, you certainly understand why Werner loves playing with him. Poulsen constantly drifts out wide, effectively adverting pressure from his teammates. He is a player who uses his physical gifts to his advantage. His size and strength to push defenders away. His height to win balls in the air for his side. His speed to race down the wing. It’s why Poulsen is so highly regarded by his teammates. He does a lot of work off the ball to allow them to flourish.

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One of my favourite parts of Poulsen’s game is his fouling. While a strange thing to love, it does continue to highlight just how good he is off the ball. One area of strikers that becoming to be noticed is how often they foul opposition players. It can show how good the player is when it comes to recovering the ball or pressing. Poulsen commits more fouls a game than any other Leipzig player with 1.8. It’s actually more fouls than Diego Costa was committing during his best season at Atletico (he was committing 1.5 per game in the 2013/14 season). Managers are beginning to want a lot more from their strikers other than goals. Poulsen does all the off the ball work required. Rangnick has gotten the best out of the forward and got him playing to his strengths, while also scoring goals.

Poulsen is that aggressive, strong, hardworking forward that other teams would dream of having. While his goals have always been a question mark clouding his reputation, he has enabled Werner to be one of the most wanted strikers around. With very few teams possessing a player like Poulsen, it has left Leipzig with a valuable player, not in price, but in importance.

The striking partnership, while being old fashioned, can be so effective when given the right players. Watching Werner and Poulsen play alongside each other is a joy. It’s reminiscent of watching Heskey and Owen, Cole and Yorke, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Rooney and Tevez, Shearer and Sutton and Costa and Falcao. Players who worked so well together, creating some of football’s fondest memories. Let’s hope Werner does decide to stay and let us witness such a strong relationship, and keep the striking partnership as alive as ever.

PLAYER ANALYSIS – Bernardo and the Forgotten Fullback Role

Fullbacks have been an everchanging role, that has evolved from it’s role in the 90s as more wide centre halves, growing into players that are able to contribute in the final third. In one of the most famous clips in Monday Night Football’s history, Jamie Carragher said that fullbacks are either “failed wingers or failed centre halves.” While an element of that is true, with Manchester United finishing second in the Premier League last season with their first choice fullbacks being Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, two players who were used during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign in his latter years. Even current prospect Aaron Wan-Bissaka came through Crystal Palace’s academy as a winger, but was moved further back. It can paint this image of a fullback being a position that isn’t of grave importance, compared to the demand for well rounded forwards or centre halves with a vast range of passing. This is of course far from the truth. It’s a position that offers great flexibility and seperates a mid table team to a truly elite one. There have been huge innovations in this field, with like many of the changes in the modern game, go back to Pep Guardiola. The Catalan coach deployed Alves and Abidal more as wingers, with their need to defend absent thanks to Pep’s emphasis on possession. After his sabbatical, he became Bayern Munich’s and went to further innovate, using the incredible versatility and intelligence of defenders David Alaba and Philip Lahm, to use them more as inverted full backs. They would come inside and overload the midfield, to make the simple job of tracking them nearly impossible. Antonio Conte was another who changed how fullbacks could be seen, using two failed wingers in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as wingbacks in his famous 3-4-3 system at Chelsea. Both were athletic and could contribute effectively in the final third, giving the side plenty of numbers defensively and offensively.

One would wonder what does any of this have to do with Bernardo? It’s more for context, and how the original purpose of a fullback has changed so much since the turn of the millenium. It seems their role as defenders has been forgotten, but Bernardo is different. The Brazilian was part of the Red Bull machine, starting his career at Red Bull Brazil, and going on to play for RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig respectively. After having a very good season with Leipzig, he earned a £9m move to Brighton. It was a very good signing, like many of their signings last summer. It made a lot of sense for Bernardo as well. While playing 1350 minutes last season is fine for a player who still hasn’t hit his peak. Moving to a club that was willing to make the same step up was the perfect solution for both parties. Bernardo is apart of a strange new breed of defender, strangely being defensive first. As mentioned, the role of the fullback has changed over the years. Bigger sides realised that having as many players have attacking ability gives them such an advantage. It’s different at the other end of the table. Players like Bernardo, Wan-Bissaka and Chilwell are all really good defensively, but do not offer much on the attacking end. There is an assumption that all fullbacks now bomb forward and help the other wide players. They might help give an option for their teammates, but defending is their priority. Bernardo is the best example of this. In their most recent game against Tottenham, The Brazilian showed all of his best qualities. He is very good in the air, winning more than half of his aerial duels. His tactical versatility has been very impressive. He helps keep the defensive line and is so good in a one on one. Lucas Moura struggled in the first 30 minutes because Bernardo kept forcing him wide, making him so much less effective and persuading Pochettino to switch him and Son. He caused Tottenham a lot of problems when they were attacking. His tackling is by far one of his best attributes. He attempts 4.1 tackles per 90, and wins 80% of them. That’s better than Chilwell’s 65% and not far off Wan-Bissaka’s insane 92%. The 3 players mentioned rarely get dribbled past. Bernardo has only been beaten 0.7 times per game, showing just how solid he is. He definitely lacks attacking qualities, but that isn’t his role or his strength. Brighton are a side that will fear relegation for the next couple of years. They don’t want a full back who will make Marcelo eat his heart out, but someone who won’t get beaten and help make sure their side aren’t conceding preventable goals, and Bernardo is filling that void.

The next sensible question would be if Bernardo could handle a step up into a side that demanded more from their full backs offensively, and I wouldn’t think he could. It’s not to say that he couldn’t join a club with more prestige than Brighton, but he couldn’t join a side, like Tottenham or Napoli, who demand a lot from their fullbacks. He would have to join a side with a more pragmatic approach, where he could still focus on the defensive side of his game. One key area he would have to improve in however is his distribution, Bernardo has averaged a pass accuracy of 73% throughout his career, that would have to peak in the eighty’s if he could be relied on in possession. He turns 24 soon, which gives him less time to improve as other younger full backs, but some teams could truly use a player like Bernardo, where his offensive inability can be brushed aside when seeing just how good he is for his side defensively.