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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Club Brugge

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Galatasaray

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Paris Saint Germain

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Real Madrid

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

My Football Opinions: Teams Recruiting Poorly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Los Blancos’ Return 

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Barca’s Ageing Squad

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

 

5 Real Madrid Players Your Club Should Sign

With Los Blancos’ huge summer spending already amassing over £250 million before July, it begs the question of what are they going to do with some of their less valued players. This is what we are going to discuss, looking at the less utilised players in the Real Madrid squad and trying to find suitable destinations for them. The only player we will not be talking about is James Rodriguez because in my post discussing Napoli as potential title challengers, I spoke in depth on his likely move to Naples.

1. Mariano Diaz

The summer of 2018 for Real Madrid was arguably the worst in their history. Their sale of Cristiano Ronaldo made sense from their perspective, cashing in highly on an ageing striker. This backfired on an unimaginable basis thanks to their unwillingness to bring in an attacker on the same level as Ronaldo. Their defence of putting faith in the players in the squad is admirable, but they cannot replace nearly 40 goals, it’s that simple. Madrid ended the summer with Mariano Diaz, among others.

This was his second spell with the club after his first coming to an end due to zero starts in the league during the 2016/17 season. It gave Lyon a chance to pick him up for less than £10 million, a bargain for a such a young striker, even with the risk regarding his lack of game at the top level. It proved to be a massive success, with the Spaniard scoring 18 and assisting 4 in 30 starts for an excellent Lyon side. He is athletic and put up solid shot numbers, taking 3.4 per game in Ligue 1. I was so impressed by him last season, that I considered him to be one of the top 3 bargain transfers in the 17/18 season, alongside Pascal Gros and Andy Robertson. He is such an all-rounder, being able to score all types of goals. He’s a good distance shooter, with 6 of his 18 goals coming from outside the box. Most of those 6 goals he scored all were low drives from outside the box. It seems to be misleading for some keepers, with the opposition possibly not expecting a strike so low. He also scored 3 goals with his head, which is by far his best attribute as a striker. His leap his reminiscent of Ronaldo, with the sheer height he can reach being quite freakish. He seems to be able to jump twice his size, to reach balls that many taller strikers might not be able to reach. His small size makes him very difficult to mark compared to the more prominent players. He can find gaps that many taller strikers might not be able to.

Embed from Getty Images 

Mariano is a player who possesses many skills that make him a versatile forward, being able to do different roles on the pitch. It’s what makes his former club’s repurchase of the striker for £20 million more than they sold him for understandable, but was still a bad choice. It seemed they brought him back because he was the best player they could get for the price, which is arguably true (in a market where Napoli are demanding £130 million for a 27-year-old centre back). This transfer has not worked out in the slightest. It isn’t the fault of the player, but the managers who didn’t want to play him. Whenever he did play, he was imposing. Out of his 3 starts in La Liga, he scored 2 and put high shot numbers and performed as well as he could when given a chance. With Jovic’s arrival and Benzema seemingly staying, it leaves Mariano in the same position he was in back in 2017, a lack of game time with more favoured players in front of him in the eyes of the coach.

So where should the Spaniard go? There have been some clubs linked to Mariano, with Milan and Valencia the prime candidates to get his signature. I would not recommend any striker to join AC Milan at the moment. They have a couple of excellent strikers, with Piatek only arriving back in January. Valencia makes much more sense. I have discussed previously how their strikers overperformed massively in the 2017/18 season. It meant their drop-off the following season was slightly expected but highlighted the issue for firepower up front. Their top scorer last season was midfielder Dani Parejo, with Rodrigo, Mina and Gameiro all contributing to 21 goals between them. It isn’t necessarily a bad return, but with Gameiro and Rodrigo ageing, adding a younger forward wouldn’t be the worst idea.

My recommendation would be Lille. The French side finished in the Champions League spots for the first time since 2014 with Nicolas Pepe guiding them to second in Ligue 1. While Ikone and Bamba contributed in attack, Lille have seemed slightly overreliant on Pepe doing everything in attack. The issue in attack has been the strikers. Loic Remy is not good enough to be playing in the Champions League, and while Leao seems like an exciting prospect, it’s still an area that needs addressing. Mariano is so multifunctional, comfortably able to fill multiple roles in attack. He has the speed to get balls in behind, the jump to challenge top defenders and is able to hold the ball up comfortably. He would be a great addition to a defensively solid side but need a bit more inventiveness in the final third. I doubt Madrid would sell for less than £30 million at the moment, so a loan move with an option to buy would be a sensible idea. Mariano is proven in the league and seeing him perform as he did for Lyon would be fantastic to see.

2. Jesus Vallejo

It’s crazy how Vallejo just doesn’t seem to be involved in Real Madrid’s plans. He is another Spaniard to struggle thanks to a lack of opportunities. Vallejo came to prominence after a standout loan spell at Frankfurt back in the 2016/17 season. He showed all of his best qualities in Germany, starting with his passing. Vallejo is a fantastic distributor of the ball and has consistently demonstrated that throughout his career. Since that break out season for Frankfurt, his pass accuracy hasn’t dropped below 85%. While he is comfortable at recycling possession, he has a vast range. He was averaging 3 long balls a game in the Bundesliga, a respectable amount in a team full of players taking those riskier passes. While his defensive partner David Abraham was great that season, Vallejo, for the first time, showed how he was capable of playing at the top level. He was completing over 75% of his tackles and was second in the side for pass accuracy with 85%.

Embed from Getty Images

One area of his game that needs improvement is his ability in the air. This became apparent in arguably his most significant appearance for Real Madrid, a Champions League Quarter Final second leg match against Juventus. This was Vallejo’s big chance to fight for a place in the side, with Ramos missing the game due to suspension. He really struggled in the game, being consistently exposed through Juventus’s direct route of Mandzukic. He even showed these weaknesses at Frankfurt, winning less than half of his attempted aerial duels. It means joining a club that has more of an emphasis on defending aerial dominance is off the table.

So where should an intelligent, young and composed passer move to this summer? I would recommend Vallejo go back to the Bundesliga, a league full of teams wanting to play from the back, and join Bayer Leverkusen. Peter Bosz plays an insanely attacking style of football, in a system where Julien Brandt, predominantly a wide player, was pushed into midfield just so more attackers could be on the pitch. With Sven Bender now 30-years-old, looking for a replacement who can replicate his excellent distribution and intelligent reading of the game is essential. Vallejo would fit this profile well. He’s always produced high interception numbers and is an elite distributor of the ball. While I recommended Mariano for a loan move, it might be time for Vallejo to commit permanently to another club. He does seem to want to stay at Madrid, but with Eder arriving and Varane, Nacho and Ramos most likely keeping their place Zidane, it might be time for Vallejo to return to the league where he flourished.

3. Lucas Vazquez

The first two players are much younger than Vazquez but remain in similar positions. Vasquez has been a valued squad player at Madrid since Zidane’s arrival back in 2016, making over 25 appearances in La Liga since the 2015/16 season. He is by no means a starter for Real Madrid in their biggest games but was vital to what Zidane implemented during that double-winning campaign. He didn’t have that same speed, power and eye for goal has Bale, but offered a great cross and a substantial defensive contribution. Per 90 in La Liga, he was putting in 2.6 tackles and was often used late in games to help Madrid keep hold of their leads. He is very much the old school wingers the game began moving beyond years ago, but he offers a parallel to the stars of Real. You can’t successfully compete in every competition without having players like Vasquez in your side.

It what makes the possible sale of Vasquez somewhat baffling to me. On the one hand, I see Real’s thinking. The winger is now 28, and it could be their last chance to cash in on him when he isn’t as crucial as other players in the squad, but on the other side of that, I think what the harm in keeping him is. The amount you could earn for Vazquez cannot be that enticing as selling the other 4 players on this list. He is still a valuable member of the team, and I don’t see a reason to sell him.

Embed from Getty Images

However, if Madrid do decide to sell him, where should he go? He’s been linked to Arsenal, but his profile does not fit what they are looking for. The only side in La Liga that I could see him joining is Sevilla, but Lopatequi might want a winger who can offer more inventiveness. The only clubs I could see being a suitable destination would be the Milan clubs. Inter Milan still want to play a more traditional style in the attack, with Icardi and Lukaku fitting that poacher mould. Vazquez can become a reliable creator when starting often and offers that defensive work rate that Conte will want. The Italian is a coach who can get the most out of ageing players, as seen with how much output he was able to pull out of the likes of Barzagli, Cahill, Graziano Pelle and Pedro. It could be the move which would give Vazquez more game time while also allowing him to receive a considerable payday before he enters his twilight years as a player.

4. Sergio Reguilon

Onto our final Castilla graduate, Sergio Reguilon was one of the very few players at Real Madrid to perform well in arguably their worst season in the past decade. Marcelo had arguably his worst season in a Madrid shirt. The Brazilian was being consistently caught out and especially poor in their 3-0 defeat to Sevilla earlier in the season. It gave a chance for another player to take his position and with Theo Hernandez on loan, Reguilon was the only option. Madrid weren’t precisely stand out during their time under Solari, but Requilon was a bright spark. Even in their humiliating defeat to Ajax at the Bernabeu, getting the only assist for Los Blancos. He put up some solid defensive numbers, putting 3.2 tackles and interceptions per game. He offered something different to Marcelo, who has been the only wide player on the left side since his time playing with Ronaldo. The Brazilian had to do so much, and while many have criticised him defensively for years, his offensive output could never be ignored. As he’s aged, Marcelo has gotten worse in his awareness and contribution defensively, so having a more defensively capable player on that left side did have a positive effect. Reguilon also presented himself well in attack. He was creating 1.2 chances per game and is a very adequate passer, fitting that Spanish mould of confidence on the ball in defence.  He has a lot to offer a club who are in search of full backs.

Embed from Getty Images

My first choice for which team he should join is Liverpool. This might be a rather daft suggestion considering they have the best full back in the league, but it would fix one of their most significant issues in defence, being defensive cover. With Moreno gone and Milner reaching the end of his career, the Reds need to start recruiting players who will able to challenge the first team players in the team and keep them competitive, but primarily to give them depth in case of injuries. Liverpool were fantastic last season but were also very lucky that none of their stars suffered major injuries. Liverpool cannot hope for luck again and will need to assure they are prepared for those moments. Reguilon is well rounded and is solid defensively and would deputise well for Robertson. He wouldn’t cost as much as other full backs, simply due to his lack of game time and will learn under one of the best coaches in the game.

5. Dani Ceballos

Last but certainly not least, we have Dani Ceballos. After his arrival back in 2017, I was hoping for Ceballos to have an effect on a side featuring an ageing midfield but was barely given a chance. This was down to Real Madrid struggling massively in the league and couldn’t rest their first team players to the same extent as they could before Ceballos’s arrival. It was sad to see him struggle as much as he has in the capital, and while his game time has improved, he could definitely offer more than he currently is. Ceballos gained attention from being a very versatile and talented midfielder. He was a fantastic dribbler at Real Betis and put in substantial defensive numbers while being very good physically. This earned him a move to Madrid where it seemed he would be given similar game time to Kovacic and Rodriguez were in the previous season, but this didn’t materialise. Ceballos is an extremely talented player and could play for a majority of top sides. He, like Kovacic, is one of the players that Madrid are willing to let go in an attempt to thin out of the squad of the less used talent, and also in a bid to sign one of Eriksen or Pogba. It would be ridiculous to let him go, but Ceballos is too good to be playing a bit part role.

Embed from Getty Images

There are an endless amount of clubs that should get Ceballos’s signature, with Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Napoli (if Allan leaves), Lyon and Manchester City all needing a player in the Spaniard’s profile. He should join whichever club guarantees him the most minutes. It would be fun to watch him in the Premier League, no matter who he joins.

 

Why Madrid Deserved to Lose! Ajax vs Real Madrid – UEFA Champions League Review

I wanted to wait for both legs to finish, to gather thoughts and to reassure that I had the time to get these out. Since doing the previews, I thought it would make sense to discuss the games, starting with by far the most interesting game so far, a battle between underdogs Ajax and holders Real Madrid. We’ll go through each leg and finally discuss the situation of each team.

Let’s start with the first leg, played in the Dutch capital. This was a game many were looking forward for, because of how well Ajax represented themselves in the group stages, where they drew twice to Bayern Munich. Ajax showed this quality against Madrid. They put out a line up similar to their line up against the Bundesliga champions. They played Tadic as a false nine, with Ziyech and Neres adding support from the flanks. While they were the much better side, they struggled to deal with the players in the wide areas of the pitch. Bale, Vinicius, Benzema and Carvahal all cause Ajax a lot of problems. But it didn’t stop Ajax from playing their game. While their forward line deserves a lot of praise just for the amount of chances they were creating, with Neres, Tadic and Ziyech creating a combined 8 chances, Donny Van de Beek deserves a lot of credit. He has been playing as a very hard working number 10, putting in a lot of pressure on the opposition defence, and works to ensure that Madrid were unable to reach Kroos and Modric as easily. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions, with only Mazraoui putting in more defensive actions, and created 4 chances. His workrate and ability to add a bit of grit to a side full of talented players. While they did play well, they just couldn’t get in behind Madrid, and Ziyech was quite wasteful in some areas.

Madrid weren’t great. For a majority of the game, they were without the ball and were mainly focusing on attacking the wide areas. It’s understandable because this is Mazraoui’s breakout season, and while Tagliafico is a very good full back, does focus more on attacking. Mazraoui was excellent in this game, but there were occasions where Vinicius did get the better of him. Speaking of the Brazilian, he was great in this game. He is just so unpredictable, and adds this raw energy to Madrid. He is probably the first player to do so since Di Maria. I do think he is getting way too much praise, but there are signs he could be a player who has a future at Madrid, but doesn’t have the same maturity as a Sancho or an Mbappe. It was such a Madrid performance. They famously never play well in these knock out games, but use their elite players to drag them through these tougher games. Zidane understood this, and while Solari seems to have attempted this, with giving Ceballos and Llorente some chances in the XI. The difference is he doesn’t have the same attackers as Zidane had, making him force to use Benzema way too often. Even though Benzema was okay in this game, he just isn’t good enough to carry this attack, and has never shown the ability to be able to. Their best performer was by far Sergio Ramos. For the past 5 years, they main defensive strategy is to hope that Ramos drags them out of being an awful defensive side. He did this against Ajax, putting in 7 tackles and interceptions and 5 clearances. Ramos has such a presence on the pitch, that it makes him excel when being relied on like this. It left Madrid with an advantage going into the second leg, with the chances of Ajax progressing seemingly very low, so low in fact, that Ramos decided to get himself book delibaretely just because he trusted his side to progress with ease.

Oh how wrong Ramos was. Madrid were outclassed by every sense of the word in this game. Let’s begin with the now former champions, who were just awful in this leg. I mentioned how poor Madrid are without Ramos, and they just showed once again how disfunctional they are without their captain. It’s very reminiscent of their defeat to Juventus last season. If it wasn’t for Benatia losing his head near the end of the game, Ramos would have been at fault for Madrid exiting the competition. It amazes me how he even thinks this was a good idea. I’m not going to blame Solari for Madrid being awful defensively. They’ve been bad in that department since Mourinho left the club. Relying on Sergio Ramos magic is not a way to build a defensive structure. The problem they suffered from was a huge lack of midfield protection. It’s something that has became more apparent as the years are going by. Casemiro was hugely disappointing in this game. He has been one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe since his sudden emergence into the Real Madrid side back in 2015. This was by far one of the worst performances I’ve seen the Brazilian put in. When Kroos and Modric are putting in more defensive actions than him, there is a clear problem. Van De Beek and Tadic were also given so much freedom to move around in the final third, and Casemiro wasn’t being his usual aggressive self. Kroos and Modric weren’t exactly good either. Kroos’s mobility has always been non existent, and when he is making defensive errors, it’s not helping his case. No matter how good he is at transitioning the ball in the final third, it’s getting to a point where his defensive vunerability is starting to get a lot worse. While Modric is an excellent footballer, he is now 33. It’s been shown before with players like Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville and Mikel Arteta, that when you age, your basic football ability just kind of vanishes. Frenkie De Jong was sensational in this game, and was everything Modric wasn’t. Modric didn’t have his usual drive and that bit of everything he offers. It looked as if the batton was passed to the next generation of players.

To move on to Ajax, they put in one of the best performances in the Champions League I’ve ever seen. They approached Madrid without fear and weren’t willing to allow them to get into the game. With Ziyech. Van De Beek and De Jong all made it difficult for Madrid to even transition the ball. By far their best player on the day was Dusan Tadic. The Serbian is having the season of his life after leaving Southampton, and has arguably been the best player in the Champions League, and this performance showed it. The balls he put through for Neres and Ziyech were simply outstanding, and his goal was one of the goals of the season, for the build up and the finish. In this game, Tadic was at his best, creating 5 chances, having 2 shots on target and completing 3 dribbles, numbers of a player who doesn’t know how to slow down.

Madrid massively underestimated Ajax, and it’s hard to even understand why. They showed against Bayern Munich that they can go toe to toe with any side around, but this is Real Madrd we’re talking about. A side full of arrogance, that they have constantly lost games in the Champions League, but thanks to Ronaldo always firing them ahead, it jusified it. Now with him gone, they don’t have that cutting edge anymore, and will now hopefully learn from this mistake. Ajax meanwhile are flying. While their rivals PSV seem to have won their fingers on the Eredivise title, Ajax have done themselves proud in Europe, and it’s good to see the teachers of football give one more lesson.

 

Will Madrid Hold On to Their Title? Ajax vs Real Madrid – UEFA Champions League Preview

While I’ve already previewed 3 very exciting games, with 4 other games which haven’t even been mentioned yet, this game does catch my interest. A game including the current Champions League holders, against former champions Ajax, who are currently having a new lease of life.

Let’s start with Ajax, who after having a disappointing 2017/18 season. They finished runners up to PSV Eindhoven, and failed to even qualify for any European compeition. They saw to quickly fix the problems they had last summer, by bringing in Dusan Tadic and Daily Blind for a combined £24m. They needed to improve their league form, while replacing Justin Kluivert in the process. Both have been very good this season, and when you add that with 2 of the best young talents in world football in Frenkie De Jong and Mattijs De Ligt. It gave them this balance of experience and youth, and showed that they had finally learnt from their past mistakes. Ajax have been simply incredible in the league. While their defeat to Feyenoord wasn’t their lowest point of the season, it has still been a very good domestic campaign. It’s just a shame that PSV have been even better. Nevertheless, they have still managed to score 72 goals, 1 more than PSV and 25 more than Feyenoord. Both top sides are in a league of their own at the moment. The difference between the two this season has so far been the Champions League. While PSV were stuck in a group of death, Ajax were given a group that gave them a chance of getting out. The group included Bayern, Benfica and AEK Athens. They came out of the group as one of the few teams to go unbeaten. Their biggest achievement of their campaign so far was their showings against Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions were shown up twice by Ajax, thanks to a tactical masterclass by manager Erik ten Hag. He used Tadic as a false nine, and Bayern has absolutely no idea how to handle him. They have shown enough evidence this season to prove that they can pull off anything, and could truly surprise everyone.

Speaking of Tadic, the Serbian must be recognised as one of his sides biggest threats. He has been magnificient since arriving in the capital, and showed this in the Champions League too. He played every minute of Ajax’s Champions League campaign, scoring 5 and assisting 1, while stats dropped from his numbers in the Eredivise, they were still very impressive. He was creating 2 chances a game, completing 1.7 dribbles and making 1.3 tackles a game. While his shot numbers weren’t great, but as a false nine, his role was more to bring others into play, which worked. He is a very talented player, is finally given the chance to show it in an attacking side. While Tadic, De Jong and Huntelaar have all been stand out this season, there is only one player who stands out, Hakim Ziyech. The phrase “too good for their league” has been used many times over the years. Whether it’s Celtic going unbeaten, Neymar getting a goal a game or Giovinco getting a goal contribution a game in MLS, there are different examples, but the one that cannot be argued is that Hakim Ziyech is way too good for the Eredivise. To briefly go over his numbers, he’s been awarded the man of the match 9 times this season, he’s taking 6 shots a game, making 4 key passes a game, completing 2.7 dribbles and even putting 1.8 tackles a game. These numbers are Messi like. He obviously isn’t nearly as good as Messi, but my point is that he is taking this league for a joke. He’s only 25 and it’s amazed how not a single club is looking at him. He should be starting for an elite side, not playing in a sub-par league. He has still shown his incredible ability in the Champions League too. He’s still taking 5 shots a game, and creating 1.8 chances a game and completing 3 dribbles. He is a superb talent and could cause Madrid massive problems.

Now onto the holders Real Madrid. This season has gone as badly as one could have expected. I’ve discussed previously where everything went wrong with Lopetegui, so how is Santiago Solari doing? Well he’s doing okay. They have risen to 2nd in the table and haven’t lost in the league since the 6th of January. They have gained massive ground on Barcelona, and while that is impressive, context is very important. La Liga has arguably been at its worst for a very long time. Villarreal, Valencia and Bilbao have been rather underperforming or just been plain bad all season. Everything bad with Real Madrid this season jut always goes back to last summer. Their failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo might be the dumbest decisions of the past decade. The argument was made that the goals would spread out more evenly, thanks to Ronaldo being such a vocal point, that players like Benzema and Asensio eneded up sacrificing their game to help him. The problem with this argument at the time and especially now is the goals they were replacing. They weren’t replacing 20-25 goals, they were replacing 50. Madrid needed to bring in a guy with a huge reputation, like Icardi, Kane, Dybala or even Griezmann. A guy who will take that responsibility and embrace it. They didn’t do this however, and now look like so much less of a threat than they were. With Bale failing to have the impact we all thought he would, it has left Los Blancos with the requirement of bringing in a forward this summer. Let’s quickly touch in Solari. Not much blame can be placed on him, because a lot of the problems all go back to Florentino Perez. Solari has done some good things. Thanks to some of the senior players in the squad rather struggling for form or with injuries, it has left Solari with choosing to bring in the fringe players, to see what they can offer. Llorente, Ceballos and Requilon have all played a decent amount of minutes, and some of them have shown they can have a say in this side. He’s got Madrid winning again, but they just don’t look good doing it. This is a huge game and this could define their season.

Let’s look at 2 of Madrid’s biggest threats, starting with Luka Modric. The debate still continues on whether the Croatian deserved the Balon d’or. The quick answer is always Messi and always will be Messi. If Messi is still playing he should win it every single year. Since there have been 6 occasions of the Argentine not winning it then the award shouldn’t be taken seriously. I am happy he has won it. It was about time that Modric got the credit he deserved for being one of the best midfielders of the decade. He is one of the most complete midfielders the game has ever seen, and while Xavi and Pogba will always be my personal favourites, Modric is right up there. Modric did have a slow start to the season, but he cannot be blamed much for that. He wasn’t given much of a break after his Croatia side’s impressive run to the final of the World Cup. At the age of 33, he needs to be used more sparingly, but it shows just how good he is. Without him, their midfield just doesn’t function as well as with him there. Only captain Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema have started more games in La Liga than Modric. Even after his slow start, he has still been very impressive. He never stands out in any statistic, but he is solid in most departments. Out of the Real Madrid squad, only the full backs complete more dribbles than him. Only a handful of players create more chances than him and take more shots. He adds so much to your midfield that he can just fit into any team comfortably. Even with Ajax’s impressive midfield talent, they will find it difficult to deal with him. Vinicious Jr is a player who does need to be highlighted here, with Isco, Bale and Asensio all having arguably their least productive seasons, and it’s given the young Brazilian his chance to shine. he has been good in his 12 appearances in the league, and shown moments of real talent. While he isn’t as exciting as Mbappe, Jovic or even Sancho, there is definitely a talent here. We can go into the crazy decision to spend £40m on a player who has never started a game of football, but it’s had an effect on him. Imagine having your future planned out, without barely having to kick a ball. His game for me needs so much improving, mostly to do with his movement and his decision making. But he has been getting plaudits for his recent performances, and they are justified. His chance creation and shooting have have made him a useful player for Solari. He’s still so raw and adds this aura of unpredictably. It’s something they havent’t had for a long time, since Ronaldo’s winger days. He could be a real problem for Ajax in the wide areas.

If Ajax want to beat the current holders? They must attack them in the wide areas. If Marcelo starts, it will leave Madrid exposed on his side. While his attacking contribution is still solid, he has been caught out defensively a few times this season, and is finally starting his age. If Neres or Ziyech can just commit to staying wide, it will make their chances of getting through. They also have to play their game. They proved against Bayern that they are able to play against the best around, if they just be confident and believe in themselves, they have a huge chance of advancing. This Madrid side isn’t the same possession side as it was. Ajax can beat them. Get De Jong on the ball and he will drive through that aging Madrid side

But if Madrid want to keep their title, they must play the ball in the air. With Ajax having a small side, it makes them easier to push off the pitch. They are also inexperienced, so make sure to use the dark arts of football at their worst. Ramos does this all the time, so hope, like Liverpool, and will be key if Madrid want to get through. Madrid have never been a side that win pretty, but know how to win. Even on an off year, they have the players to get through these huge games. It’s what they do best. I think they will advance to the next round, but Ajax will really give them a tough game.

Are Liverpool Overrated? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes Game Week 4

Hero – Atletico Madrid

For redeeming themselves after their horrific defeat at the hands of their opponents in their last meeting. They beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0, thanks to goals from Saul and Griezmann. Before complimenting how good Simeone’s men were in this half, let’s discuss just how bad Dortmund were. They didn’t manage a single shot on target. They have been pretty good in attack, while overachieving in some sorts. So seeing them not even test the keeper is disappointing. Anyways, on to Atletico Madrid. They were back to their best in the Champions League after their biggest defeat in the competition. They only managed 32% possession, yet dominated the game. They blocked Dortmund out completely, and reminded Europe why they are so difficult to beat. Their stand out player in the game was comfortably Saúl Ñíguez. The Spaniard played on the left side of midfield, and not contributed in attack, with him scoring the first, but also had 2 shots and created 2 chances. While his form in the league can vary, no one can question he has been one of the best players in the Champions League. Felipe Luis is another who stood out on the night. Simeone is an expert at getting the best out of his players. 2-3 years ago you could say that the Brazilian was the best left back around. Now 33, his ability is dropping but he is still a solid defender in this system. He put in 4 tackles and 5 interceptions. He also created 2 chances and got an assist. After all their summer spending, it’s good to see Atletico looking like the prospect I thought they would be.

Zero – Liverpool

Who else to talk about her. The reds suffered a humiliating defeat to the hands of Red Star Belgrade. This was actually the Serbian side’s first ever win in the competition, which was just mind boggling to find out. Liverpool were truly terrible. While they had 23 shots, they only managed 4 on target. Salah and Van Dijk were the only ones who managed to test the keeper, meaning 8 other out field players didn’t even manage to get a shot on target. It’s crazy to think that a team with such an apparent good attack, failed to have many stand out chances against a side that they walked over at Anfield. Two players were pretty disappointed, being Sturridge and Wijnaldum. Sturridge had the chance early on to put his side ahead, but missed a simple chance to give his side the lead at that point. It was a chance for him to challenge Firmino for a place in the side, and failed. I really dislike Wijnaldum as a player. I just do not think he offers enough to justify the amount of games he starts. This game perfectly shows this. In a game where you want your most advanced midfield to help the attack, he offered nothing. That isn’t necessary true. He had 2 shots and made an interceptions. You just want so much more in a game where attacking is all you’ll be doing. It serves another example of when Wijnaldum vanishes in away games. A poor day all round for the Reds, and will need to finally step up this season.

Hero – Harry Kane

Spurs were in a bad place before this game. After consecutive loses in their first two, and a draw against PSV, it left them in a difficult place. They had to win against PSV and Inter if they wished to have any chance of progressing. After falling behind thanks to a great header from De Jong, they had a mountain to climb. But as usual, it was their captain who dragged them through it. Kane was the reason why Spurs were even able to win the game. He was absolutely sensational and seemed to be be back at his best pre ankle injury. He had a monsterous 8 shots in this game, which means he had a shot roughly every 6 touches. That is just incredible. He also completed 3 dribbles as well, which is impressive for a guy who seriously lacks pace. Kane hasn’t been at his best this season. Thanks to a world cup hangover and spurs suffering an injury crisis, he has had to sacrifice a lot of his game. He has still managed 6 goals in the league and is now on 4 in 4 in Europe’s competition. He has brought his A-game when he needed to and credit needs to be given to him for that.

Zero – Thierry Henry

Oh Monaco. They went quickly from Europe’s new hipster club, to a side in serious trouble. After Jardim decided he couldn’t do anything else with this side, Henry was brought in to try and salvage something out of this season while there was still plenty of it. To say he’s had a bad start is an understatement. He’s been in charge for 5 games and has now only managed 2 points out of a possible 15. Of course it’s hard to judge a guy who has only been charge for a month, and I do sympathise with him. He’s under an immense amount of pressure, and is probably quite unsure what to do with these players. Monaco signed a lot of players in the summer, using their model of recruiting prospects and hoping they work. After underwhelming France last season and losing Fabinho, Lemar and Moutinho, all key players, they are really struggling. Their game against Club Brugge might be their worst. They lost 0-4 to Brugge, which is their biggest defeat in the Champions League. There nearly had as many chances as Brugge, having 6 efforts on target to Brugge’s 7. But conceding the goals they did must have drained them of confidence. Antonio Barreca blatantly handballed it and allowed Brugge to sit back and defend the goals they already scored. It’s such a shame to see a team once seen as one of the most exciting in Europe, to now struggling to stay in their own league.

Hero – Real Madrid

For the first time in Champions League Heroes and Zeroes, we welcome Real Madrid. The European champions looked to finally show why they even have that title, with a comfortable 0-5 victory against Viktoria Plzen. After the sacking of Julien Lopategui, Santiago Solari was brought in temporarily, until a replacement was found. He has definitely got Madrid playing much better, and due to this, results have definitely picked up. They have won every game under Solari, and are creating much better chances. Speaking of creating, Toni Kroos was outstanding. He was one of many players who completely dropped off near the end of Lopategui’s reign, and is back to his majestic best. At point, he was the best midfielder around. But thanks to his legs beginning to go and Kroos generally doing less defensive work, he has lost that title. He was magnificent against Plzen. He created 6 chances, had 3 shots and completed every long ball he attempted. He also capped his performance off with a delightful finish to chip the keeper. Another player who performed well is Benzema. The Frenchman has been on the decline for years now. He was criticised heavily last season for lacking in goals, but that was because he was making space for Ronaldo. This season however, the pressure is on him. He wasn’t actually great in this game, scoring with every shot on target he had. I have credited other players in the past for being that clinical, but for a Madrid player, they need be taking so much more shots when they are dominating games. Kroos, Bale and Ramos all had more shots than Benzema. He seems to be getting in less goal scoring positions, and it just shows how much he is decreasing by the season. He has been a good servant, but he will need serious replacing. A good performance from Madrid, and it’s good to see the champions showing why they have won it 3 times in a row.

Zero – Juventus

While Manchester United do deserve credit for somehow getting 3 points, when they didn’t deserve it at all. Juventus deserve plenty of criticism for not putting this game to bed, and failing to deal with United’s changes. Juventus had 23 shots compared to United’s 9. Dybala, Khedira and Cuadrado all had chances to seal the win, yet failed to take it. The worst of all was actually Allegri. He has been incredible in recent years, for getting the most out of aging players, and being smart when on the pitch. However his decision to bring on Barzagli, and switch to a 3 in the back was what spurred United on to win the game. It gave so much more space for United to get near the box. They won the game from set pieces. They are areas you expect an Italian side to be able to defend. They truly struggled to deal with the aerial threat of Fellaini. If they wish to win the Champions League, they cannot allow a weaker side to take advantage of them like this.

Hero – Gabriel Jesus

Because of the monsterous form of Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus’s minutes have been limited. He’s only started 2 games in the league, but has started 3 games in the Champions League. Pep seems to trust Aguero more in the Premier League (where he is performing at an incredible level) and is using Jesus in competitions where Aguero can be rested. This could be the last season where this can be used. Jesus will want more minutes as he gets older. Pep probably does have a solution in how to use him, but I’m unsure how long Jesus will remain happy with this role. He was truly amazing for City, scoring his first hat trick in the Champions League, and being only the third Manchester City player to score a hat trick, joining Negredo and Aguero who also have scored hat tricks. He must have reminded Pep why he was brought in to begin with. His movement and off the ball work is still top level, and is a great box predator. He is reminiscent of Icardi some ways. He doesn’t need too much of the ball to have an effect. He managed 28 touches in the game, the least out of any player who started for the Champions. However he still managed 6 shots, 4 on target and made 2 key passes. He’s just so effective whenever he plays. It’s the game he needed. Pep now has a dilemma. He has two strikers in red hot form. Pep only had this dilemma because of Jesus’s incredible game, so credit to the Brazilian.

Zero – Lyon

Last time Lyon and Hoffenheim met, I said it was by far one of the best games in the Champions League so far. Their second battle was still a spectacle, with the game ending 2-2. While last time I gave credit to anyone who was able to watch the game, it is time to look at it with more of a critical eye. Lyon are zeroes here, because they squandered a 2 goal advantage. What makes it even more disastrous is Hoffenheim were down to ten men. Lyon could have won this game rather comfortably. They comfortably had more shots, 28 to Hoffenheim’s 16. The goals they conceded were soft. Kramaric was given room to shoot freely, and they drew due to a set piece, an area where they had an advantage. Both teams have been impressive in this Champions League so far, but this game was Lyon’s for the taking.

Who Is To Blame For Real Madrid’s Poor Start? Top 5 League Talking Points

What a week of football. Big sides falling behind and the usual superstars scoring for fun. Let’s get into the Top 5 League Talking Points for the weekend that has just passed.

Bundesliga – Monchengladbach lose on the road. Leverkusen’s huge win

Let’s take focus away from Dortmund and Bayern this week, and focus on two teams underneath them. Let’s start with Mönchengladbach, who have started the season in amazing form, lost 3-1 to Freiburg. It was only their second defeat of the season, but still leaves them in a position where a Champions League finish could still be possible. However if they wish to finish in the top four, they must make sure not to perform in this manner again. Freiburg were simply better than them on the day, with the home side registering more shots on target than their opponent. Mönchengladbach have started the season so well because of their attacking players, mainly due to Hazard and Alassane Pléa performing very well. However it wasn’t the best of days for Frenchman, who only managed a single shot, had a 66% pass accuracy and only managed 24 touches. He only played the first half because how little he effected the game. Freiburg aren’t exactly going to be fighting for a high finish, with the club currently sitting in 11th. This win was only their third of the season. It was a surprise victory and it will be interesting if they can perform any more upsets in the Bundesliga. One of their star performers against Mönchengladbach was Janik Haberer. He did a lot to help his side get the three points, with the German making 5 key passes in the game, which was the same as the entire Mönchengladbach side put together. He also wasn’t afraid to help defend their lead, with Haberer making 4 tackles in the game, the most for his side. It was an excellent performance and he was key in their surprise victory. Both of these sides have very contrasting games this weekend, with Freiburg visiting Bayern Munich, and Mönchengladbach playing Dusseldorf (arguably the worst side in the league) at home. Let’s see how both respond to this game.

After losing their first 3 games, Leverkusen seem to be back on track. It was a difficult start for them, with Bayern, Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach all beating them. Now Leverkusen haven’t lost since the end of September, and their 6-2 win over high flying Werder Bremen was by far their best performance. This was actually a huge upset. Bremen haven’t lost at home for almost a year before this game, and with the home side currently sitting in 4th, it should have been a simple win for Bremen on paper. While Leverkusen have underperformed this season, they still have excellent attacking players. Thanks to Kevin Volland’s early strike, it gave Leverkusen the ease of sitting back and playing on the counter attack. It is what won them the game, with Bellarabi, Volland, Brandt and Havertz all playing great on the counter. It gave Leverkusen a 3-0 lead going into half time. While Bremen did get two back, thanks to Pizarro and Osako, Leverkusen did make sure there was no comeback, and scoring 3 more to ensure they had the 3 points. Arguably the man of the match of this game goes to Bellarabi or Volland. Bellarabi was a key reason why his side got the victory. 44% of their attacks came down the German’s side. He was given the freedom of the pitch to exploit, and did so with ease. Kevin Volland was another who performed very well on the day. The forward scored and assisted 2. Volland managed 2 shots on target, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. Leverkusen have so many talented players, and should be much higher on the table based on the quality they have. They’ve played most of the tougher sides, so it’s now their chance to gain some momentum and to climb the table.

La Liga – El Classico. Alaves in second

The big fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid was of course the most anticipated fixture of the weekend, and to say it lived it up to it could be very subjective but it was what I was expecting. Barca were without Messi for this game, but it didn’t change the fact that Madrid have been so bad, and it was going to be a simple win for them. While I did expect Barcelona to win it, I didn’t expect to see it in the fashion as it happened. It ended 5-1 to the Blaugrana, thanks to a hat trick from Luiz Suarez and goals from Coutinho and Arturo Vidal. It was the definition of a comfortable victory for the Champions, and it just highlighted how poor Madrid are at the moment. However credit does have to be given to Barcelona, and especially Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan really turned up against their rivals, on the day they needed him the most. He scored a hat trick, being the first Barcelona player to do it since Romario. He truly had a field day against Madrid’s awful defense, having 4 shots on target, making 2 key passes and completing a dribble. Sergi Roberto was another who was excellent on the day, making 4 key passes and getting 2 assists. Now onto Madrid, with possibly their worst performance of the season. They lost the game because of how poorly they defended the first 3 goals. After that, they tried to get back in the game, and because of how far they were advancing, it left them wide open for the last 2 goals. For Coutinho’s goal, Nacho left too much space outwide for Alba to receive the ball. Coutinho was able to make a late run into the box because neither Casemiro nor Kroos decided to track him. Coutinho was left with arguably the easiest goal to score in his career. The second goal was given thanks to a very stupid error from Varane. The Frenchman has looked a shadow of himself this season, with this not even being his first error this season. While many have pointed the finger at Bale, Modric and Isco for performing poorly this season, Varane has comfortably been their worst player. Not long after this poor performance, Lopategui was confirmed to have been sacked by Perez. While he does deserve a lot of criticism for how he has set up side, with an incredibly high line that has left them open in many games (Sevilla and most recently Barcelona), he was given an incredibly hard job. They lost a player who scored 50 goals for them, and didn’t bring in a suitable replacement. It was even revealed that Lopategui wasn’t Perez’s first choice, with Pochettino, Conte and Sarri all being linked. They were all unavailable and he decided to go with the Spaniard. It just puzzles me why Perez didn’t at least try and sign Hazard, Dybala or a player in that superstar mold. They needed an instant success. He was only given Mariano, a player who simply isn’t good enough to start for Madrid. I have to feel for Lopategui, and Perez deserves a majority of the criticism here.

Now onto a more positive note, Alaves are now surprisingly sitting in 2nd. After their 3-0 defeat to Barcelona, they haven’t lost a game since, with their best performances being a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, and a 5-1 victory over Real Vallecano. There are certain departments where they have excelled, and one of them is set pieces. Aberlardo Fernandez has made sure his side take advantage of those previous goal giving opportunities, and they take them well. They have scored 7 goals from set pieces, the most in the league. However that is only half of their entire goals scored this season. They manage the 5th least amount of shots in La Liga, the least amount of dribbles in the whole division. To say they have been lucky is an understatement. Most of their wins have been thanks to a single goal margin, when they have usually had less shots and possession. They rely heavily on their set piece prowess. While it will do them well on the short term, eventually their luck will catch up to them. Let’s look at their latest win against Villarreal, and see what they are doing right. Villarreal have been a consistently solid side for the past few seasons. After quite a few easy games, it was a test to see if they are able to keep up their great start to the season. The game ended 2-1, and it was a deserved victory for Alaves. After conceding an early goal to Gerard Moreno, they eventually equalised from a set piece (what else). They then won the game thanks to a late winner from Swansea flip Borja Baston. Alaves were very good in the game. They created many chances for their forwards, and while their forwards didn’t take them very well, with Sobrino and Calleri taking 9 shots and only getting 2 on target. Their best player however was Jony. The winger had a very productive game, managing 2 shots on target, a key pass and completing 2 dribbles. He also got the assist for the equaliser. They only allowed the Yellow Submarine to have 2 shots on target out of 10. They need nullified their opposition completely. While I really don’t think Alaves can keep this up, it’s good to see another name in the Top 4.

Ligue 1 – PSG equal record. Depay looking ready.

Another predictable week in Ligue 1. Let’s start with the league leaders Paris, who just equalled a nearly 60 year record of most consecutive wins at the start of the season. The record is currently 11 (held by Spurs out of all people) and if Paris win just one more game, their dominance in Ligue 1 will not be more easily presentable than this record. To equal the record, they beat fierce rivals Marseille 2-0 away from home. The game was relatively close, with Paris getting 13 shots, one more than Marseille’s 12. Possession was cut relatively in the middle. However PSG’s quality was showcased when looking at shots on target, where they had triple of what Marseille managed, with 6. It does help that one side can bring on Kylian Mbappe, the most inform player in Europe, while the other has two strikers who have failed to impress me all season. Mbappe has proven to be arguably his team’s most important player. He now has 13 goals in 11 games, and is Europe’s top goal scorer at the moment. It’s crazy to think he isn’t even 21 yet. Tuchel has kept the Champions as superhuman as ever, but it’s in the Champions League he will be tested. He is already left with a hurdle, thanks the board not giving him the targets he requested. The German wanted new full backs, with Alves, Meunier and Kurzawa all deemed not good enough. While I do agree with him to an extent, there are limit amount of top quality full backs in Europe. Tuchel will have to be smart if he wishes to fix his problem areas, and look maybe more outside the box. PSG are the only top level club in Paris, meaning they have their pick of young players from one of the most prestigious cities when finding football talent. Tuchel will improve this side, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can show it in Europe.

Onto Lyon, who beat Angers 2-1, thanks to goals from Aouar and Depay. Lyon haven’t lost to Angers since 2015, meaning they are a side they have enjoyed facing over the last couple of years. However it wasn’t exactly a comfortable victory for the away side. While they did dominate possession, with 69% going in Lyon’s favour, Angers still managed more shots and only one less on target than Lyon. Chiek Ndoye was great on the day. The 32 year old put in a real all round solid performance in midfield. He had 3 shots, made 3 key passes, 2 tackles and 1 interception. He also got the assist for the consolation goal. It was the heroics of Memphis Depay that won the game for Lyon. He was only on the pitch for roughly 35 minutes, and set up Aouar for the first goal, and was gifted an open net by Dembele for the second. He has really turned into a key player for Lyon. His ability to create, score and play across the front three has came in handy for Bruno Génésio. After his poor spell in England, Depay might be ready for another elite level club. With his former club United, Chelsea, Madrid all looking for younger talent outwide, Depay could be the perfect solution.

Premier League – Man City favourites. United scrape by Everton

The Premier League title race is at its best for a long, long time. With Liverpool at the top of the table on Monday, it left a lot of pressure on Man City to continue their winning ways against one of their top 5 opponents, Tottenham. They overcome the pressure and beat Spurs at a very unprofessional Wembley, thanks to a single goal from Riyad Mahrez. It was a game where City definitely should have won by more, with Aguero and Silva having great chances to put the game to bed. However while their attacking side wasn’t perfect, they were mostly defensively sound. While Mendy does leave a lot to be desired on a defensive side, their centre back pairing of Laporte and Stones looks perfect. Laporte is your perfect modern centre back. His defensive numbers aren’t important because of the side he plays for. Possession sides usually keep hold of the ball so much, that their defenders don’t actually need to defend per say. Laporte is an excellent reader of the game, and senses danger at such a young age for a defender. He’s showing qualities of a 30 year old Leo Bonucci at only 24. The Frenchman’s ability on the ball is nearly unrivalled in Europe, with him completing 4.8 long balls in the Premier League, and having a crazy 92.3% pass accuracy. Both him and Stones can form arguably the most promising centre half partnership in Europe. Laporte was excellent in the game against Spurs, making 3 interceptions, 7 clearances and winning 2 aerial duels. The fact that spurs only had 4 touches in City’s box, just shows how good they were defensively. Spurs are in a strange place right now. While this is still their best ever start to a Premier League season, there is an unnerving air in North London. After failing to sign a player in the summer, it left them at a disadvantage. Now with some of their key players suffering injuries, it left them starting a very makeshift midfield of Sissoko, Dembele and Dier. While Sissoko actually had a pretty effective game, constantly running through the middle of the park, Dier and Dembele were poor on the day. Dembele didn’t make a single key pass, or a single defensive action. The Belgian’s numbers have been dropping for the last couple of years. He was the player they desperately needed to replace, yet they failed to do that. I still think City will cruise this season. They have a better squad than anyone in Europe, and still look so good even without KDB in midfield. It won’t be long until they’ll be clear of all their opponents.

Onto City’s red rivals, United scraped by Everton thanks to goals from Paul Pogba and a lovely finish from Anthony Martial. United did not look great on the day. Matic showed his usual lack of quality, with the Serbian shown to be out muscled by Gylfi Sigurddsson out of all people. Even Pogba had a very typical performance. At one moment he shows his world class quality on the ball, and another he gives the ball away to Gueye thanks to his showboating. Martial was easily the best player on the pitch. Every good attack went through him, and whenever United looked threatening, it was thanks to Martial. One of the big talking points of the game was Mourinho’s decision to bench Lukaku, and start Rashford. While it was the right call, bringing him on at all was wrong one. Fergie famously used to give his key players, like Ronaldo and Rooney, a couple weeks off to keep them fresh for the important games. Lukaku never had a pre season, and even came back from his vacation early thanks to Mourinho whining. Lukaku needs more than an hour off, he needs weeks if United want to see the best from their big Belgian.

How Important is Messi? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes – Game week 2

Hero – Paulo Dybala

Because of the signing of Ronaldo, it has put Dybala in a very strange place. He seems to no longer be the centre piece of the side because of the arrival of the Portuguese and all the fame and arrogance that comes with it. He has so far become a bit part player this season, with Allegri still unsure one where he fits in. However after Ronaldo’s suspension, it was Dybala’s chance to show Allegri that he needs to find a place for him, and boy did he take it. Dybala scored a fabulous hat trick against Young Boys, to put Juventus at the top of their group. That first goal was excellent ball from Bonucci, and an even better finish from Dybala. It’s his fourth hat trick for his side. It now pressure on both Ronaldo and Dybala, to see who is truly fit to lead the line for the side.

Zero – Bayern Munich

For not being able to bounce back after their first league defeat of the season. They played a very good Ajax side, but you still expect the champions to put aside any team. Ajax truly took the game to them and arguably should have won the game. The away side completely outdid their opponent, using Tadic as a false nine to confuse the Bayern defenders, and use Van Der Beek to exploit the space that Tadic was making. Bayern don’t usually deal with a false nine, which it made it so difficult to deal with. Both Lewandowski and Ribery had strangely ineffective games, which saw both of them fail to register a shot on target. It was very out of the ordinary for the forwards. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the German side to progress to the next round, but Ajax did show how vulnerable they are during Kovac’s early days.

Hero – Sergio Aguero

For helping Manchester City end their 4 game losing streak in the Champions League, and to drag his side over the line, against a very resilient Hoffenheim side. Hoffenheim caught the champions out very early on (in fact the fastest goal since El Shaararwy’s goal against Chelsea last season) and it left city with a mountain to climb. However thanks to Aguero scoring not long later, it made it much easier for them. David Silva was also at his silky best in this game, but Aguero’s performance, included taking a crazy 7 shots, is what got the win for his side

Zero – The Real Madrid Fringe Players

This was a chance for players like Ceballos, Vasquez, Nacho and Reguilon to make a statement to Lopategui, that they all deserve a chance in this star studded eleven, however it wasn’t a day to remember. Thanks to an early error from Toni Kroos of all people, Real just didn’t turn up at all in Russia. While they did amass a crazy 26 shots, only 4 were on target. Because they conceded a goal so early, it left Real desperate to get back into the game, resulting in many half chances that were wasted. While the players I previously mentioned didn’t impress, it was actually Karim Benzema who stood out in the worst way. The Frenchman struggled without his Welsh superstar beside him. He had 5 shots, yet didn’t manage to get one on target, or make a key pass or complete a dribble. It just wasn’t his night. Madrid will get out of their group, but hopefully Lopategui has learnt not to rest players in Europe’s elite competition.

Hero – Lionel Messi

For just showing why he is the best player to ever play the game. On paper, Spurs away is a tough fixture, but Barcelona made it look easy. It is a huge part thanks to their little magician. Messi was at his unearthly best. The Spurs backline just couldn’t get near him. The amount of times he would receive the ball and drive at the spurs defense and make it look like they weren’t even there was outstanding. His stats even show this, with the Argentine scoring 2, having 4 shots on target, and making 3 key passes. He was just excellent as ever.

Zero – Romelu Lukaku

I had to sit and suffer through a very flat and slow Manchester United performance. Mourinho chose the same static midfield again, and it was ineffective, again. However by the far the worst performer was Romelu Lukaku. I do not know what happened to him after the world cup, but he just doesn’t look his usual lively self. His movement wasn’t there. He was giving his teammates no forward option, because of his lack of willingness to find space and keep United moving forward. Throughout the game you could see Pogba screaming at him to make a run, because he just wasn’t giving anything to the side. I think what shows his lack of involvement in the game was his lack of touches. The Belgian only managed 33 touches, which is 31 fewer than Sanchez and Rashford’s 64. Both of them were trying to get the ball forward and create opportunities. If I was Jose, I would be considering leaving Lukaku on the bench for the next game against Newcastle.

Hero – Antoine Griezmann

For helping his side secure their first home win of the campaign. After a slow start, Atletico Madrid are finally showing what we all expected from them. Lemar looks to have finally settled, and Arias seems to be playing a big part for the side. However the best element of their side remains Griezmann. The Frenchman has been a key reason for why they are back on track, and he showed this against Club Brugge, who after scoring an absolute wonder strike, just couldn’t contain him or Costa. Costa’s game has been sacrificed massively for Griezmann, but it is definitely working. They might have just formed the most deadly partnership in Europe. The second goal highlights this, with Costa making the run, and instead of shooting, decides to play it to Griezmann, who puts it away comfortably. The world cup winner had a hand in all the goals, and seems to be one of the most in form players in the tournament.

Zero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool have now not won a game in 3. The reds have been tipped to be team to dethrone Manchester City at the top, but their performance against Napoli did show some real vulnerability. They didn’t manage a single shot on target throughout the game. In games against possession based sides, Liverpool can usually use their workman ethic and ball winners in midfield to attack the side quickly. But Napoli completely outperformed their opponents. They won more tackles and aerial duels. The reason why this is impressive (and why Liverpool were pretty poor) is because these are stats where Liverpool usually excel. It was a bad day for Klopp, and with Manchester City next on the calendar, it could be a change to make a statement in England.