Bayern Munich’s Defensive Rebuild
I’ve reiterated this multiple times in the past but Bayern have needed to rebuild a majority of their team. They remain, and continue to be, the best side in the Bundesliga and while they have consistently won the competition, their weaknesses have finally been exposed after the Champions appointed a manager who didn’t have the same experience in winning league titles. It meant that Bayern had an awful start to the season and by December, only gained 36 points, 6 behind Dortmund and left them struggling. However, in typical Bayern fashion, they managed to get back to their usual routine and finished the season only losing one game after Christmas.
It seemed after years of safe signings, Bayern finally decided to make a statement, by bringing in the World Cup winning full back partnership of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard for a combined £100m. While they primarily play as centre backs, these players have been much needed additions to the side. Jerome Boateng and Matts Hummels were a fantastic partnership for both club and country, but as they began ageing and Boateng’s injury problems were only getting worse, it meant they could not persist with the former international defenders in their starting back line. Bringing in Pavard and Hernandez gives Bayern versatility and athleticism, two qualities that were slowly deminishing in defence.
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While it will be exciting to see the young pair starting for the Bundesliga Champions, what makes it more exciting is the effect it could have on the table. They are a promising pair of defenders, but lack that same title winning experience that has remained in that defence for years. On the short term, it could leave Bayern rather vunerable in those rather tight games, where vital blocks or last ditch tackles could ensure the 3 points. This is by far the most exciting Bundesliga season for a long time.
Seagull’s Step Forward
Chris Hughton’s sacking at the end of the season was seen as controversial at the time, with many neutrals baffled at why Hughton was let go, but I thought it was the right decision. Brighton were awful last season, only surviving thanks to their opponents lacking the same quality as they possessed in some areas of the pitch. They were in the bottom five for shots, dribbles, possession and pass accuracy. They were lacking any sort of attacking quality all season and suffered because of it.
What made this so much more frustrating is that Brighton’s head of recruiment, Paul Winstanley, helped the Seagulls sign some very interesting players and show the rest of the league that they are not going to sit back and be happy with survival. Bernardo, Bissouma, Andone, Gros and Montoya have all been picked up for very reasonable fees, yet were never given real opportunities under Hughton. While Bernardo eventually established himself as the first choice left back, the rest were taken out of the team for players who were favoured by the manager. While Jahanbakhsh faced a lot of criticism for failing to score all season, the sight of seeing Anthony Knockhaert still starting for Brighton is painful to say the least.
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Brighton’s appointment of Graham Potter highlights just how ambitious they are. He is a coach who gets his sides playing a good brand of football, focusing on tactical flexibility and build up play through the wide areas. This could givea new lease of life to so many of the players bought while Hughton was in charge. Bissouma and Andone could truly stand out for their new manager and hopefully living up to their potential. Brighton have combined an ambitious manager with ambitious signings and I cannot wait.
Chasing the Top 6
With United continuely looking underwhelming, Arsenal lacking funds and Chelsea with a transfer ban, it has left an opening for one of the chasing pack to overtake their competition, so let’s quickly look at the three teams that could clinch a European spot.
Let’s start with Everton, who after a rocky debut season under Silva, look like they could be ready to return to the European finishes they were getting under Moyes. They have a solid full back pairing in Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman, the former is everything for Everton in attack while the latter has done pretty okay after suffering a terrible leg break back in 2017. The midfield is another area in which they excel. Idrissa Gueye has been one of the best destroyers in the Premier League since his arrival back in 2015. His defensive numbers elite and enables Everton to quickly win the ball further up the pitch. One of the issues with Everton’s midfield in the past was the lack of ball progression and now with addition of Andre Gomes, it seems to be resolved. I have had my fair share of criticism towards Gomes in the past, but when given a midfield partner who can do a majority of ball recovery, it allows the former Barcelona midfielder to focus on transitioning the ball through dribbling. he’s been completing 1.5 dribbles from deep, the highest for his team. The improvement he has given to the side has never been more clear than in the big games. Gomes gives that confidence and style to the midfield in those tough games against better opposition, and has allowed Everton to remain competitive and actually bring the game to their opponent. Gomes should never join a super club again, but he will excel if he remains at these mid table clubs, where his quality is arguably better than his teammates.
Richarlison is another who has given Everton the goals they desperately needed. He ended the season with 13 goals, the joint highest for his side. He isn’t as technically gifted as other Brazilians, but offers something completely different. He is physically strong, which is what made his time adapting to the speed of the English game so easy. Richarlison is excellent at finding space in the box. It’s why his best position is easily on the left wing, because it allows him to make those late runs into the box, with 60% of his shots coming inside the penalty area. For a player still so young, he is very different to other players at a similar age, able to find better shooting positions.
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The biggest issue regarding Everton challenging for European football is the easily the centre forward position. Calvert-Lewin is a very good player, but will not give you that 15+ goal tally you’re looking for and Cenk Tosun is just not a good player. Gylfi Sigurðsson is also a massive problem. While he did score 13 and assist a further 6, it’s his lack of involvement in build play that make him a liability. If Everton do one to return to being considered a threat to the top 6, these are issues they have to resolve.
Let’s move on to Leicester, who are by far the most likely to break into that top 6. The foxes have been making intelligent moves in the market in recent years, and some of those signings have been vital in taking Leicester from defensive underdogs, into a team to be taken seriously. They have arguably the second best full back pairing in the league with the incredible Ricardo Pereira and defensively solid Ben Chillwell. They epitomise the perfect balance teams are looking for in their full backs and are one reason why Leicester are so good at creating chances. Pereira and Chillwell, combined, complete 3.2 dribbles and create 2.2 chances a game. The width they offer is such an improvement over their previous full back pairing of Simpson and Fuchs and has been their big step in evolving their side beyond their title winners.
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While Everton’s midfield does keep them competitive in big games, Leicester arguably has one of the best midfield trios in the league. Wilfred Ndidi is one of the best ball winners in Europe, with the Nigerian making a ridiculous 6 tackles and interceptions per game. He played every game for his side and while isn’t the most technically gifted player, he has been the sole reason why that midfield has functioned since his arrival in 2016. The recent arrival of Youri Tielemans has given them a fantastic ball progressor for a very reasonable price of £40 million. Thanks to Ndidi doing all of the defensive work in that midfield, it has allowed Tielemans to show off his incredible range of passing and find space on the edge of the box to take those long range shots he favoures. He’s been creating an impressive 1.2 chances from deep and only Maguire and Ndidi have completed more passes per game than the Belgian. His arrival has given Leicester the added bonus of being able to quickly switch the play, and having a composed and talented passer in the middle of the park. While Ndidi and Tielemans are fantastic for Leicester, James Maddison is by far their most important midfielder. He made 100 key passes last season, the highest in the league. He formed an excellent relationship with Jamie Vardy, and was consistently providing chances for the rest of his teammates. He is great at finding space in between the lines and causes opposition defenders a lot of problems. Maddison has taken that step up into the Premier League like he has belonged there from the beginning.
The biggest issue with Leicester is their wide talent. While Albrighton is a useful player to have in the squad, Demarai Gray has consistently shown how he isn’t good enough to be starting for Leicester and shows a wastefullness that shouldn’t be in this side. Rodgers has opted to playing Harvey Barnes in the wide areas and while he is a good dribbler, he doesn’t have the pace to give that unpredictability that many good wingers have. It would be interesting to see how much Southampton would ask for Nathan Redmond, a great dribbler who possesses a lot of pace to cause defenders problems. He has recently been deployed as an attacking midfielder, but could still offer the same production in a wide area. It’ll be exciting to see if Rodgers can take an attacking side like Leicester to the next level.
Last, but definitely not least, is West Ham United. The East London side were by far the most fun side in the top half of the table. Everton were truly bad at times and Leicester weren’t exactly entertaining during the first half of the season. West Ham, while inconsistent at times, have a blend of aggressive characters and technically gifted players that has allowed them to take points away from Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. While some impressive showings, especially both of their games against the Red Devils, showed them to be a force for the top sides, they also showed just how bad they can be at times, with defeats to some of the worst sides in the division. West Ham are the only side who could concede 3 goals against Huddersfield, yet are the only side who can win that same game.
After Declan Rice’s breakout season, it begged the question who will partner him in midfield. Mark Noble has not been good enough for years now and Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez should not be relied on in the slightest. Rice is a very good passer and reads the game pretty well for his age. He will usually drop deep to give an option to his defenders and has been instrumental in helping West Ham keep possession. However he has been relied on heavily in midfield. No other play in the Hammers have put in more tackles and interceptions than Rice and has the highest pass accuracy out of any player to start over 10 games. It’s clear how important he is for his side, but needs a midfield partner who could contribute more than what Noble is at the moment. This is what made the arrival of Pablo Fornals so exciting, because he is exactly what West Ham needed. Fornals has been on the radar of many clubs since his days at Malaga, where he showed himself to be a versatile midfielder, comfortably playing as a 6 or a 10. Last season, he was putting in 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, as well as 1.6 key passes completing 1.4 dribbles. Rice now has a player beside him who can do a bit of everything. He can offer more in defence than Noble, while also offering so much in ball progression.
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Fornals arrival is key, but if West Ham wish to achieve anything this season, it is all down to the form of Felipe Anderson. His arrival last summer came out of nowhere, and for a club record fee, meant there was a lot of pressure on the Brazilian to perform. He is easily the best player from outside of the top 6. While there are many fantastic players in and around the mid table clubs, Felipe Anderson is a step above in the way he is able to do so much on an off the ball. Every team in the top 10 (excluding Wolves) has a player that carries his team in an attacking sense. Arsenal have Aubamayeng, Liverpool have Salah, United have Pogba and West Ham have Anderson. He tops the West Ham side for dribbles and key passes, displaying the reliance on him in the final third. In so many games this season, we’ve seen Anderson run with the ball through numerous players, make that pass that cuts through a defensive line or shown a moment of superior quality that you have to admire. What makes his overall game even more impressive his how much he does off the ball. Last season, Anderson made 3.6 tackles and interceptions per game. He has never failed to put in the defensive work that his side have needed, especially with their frailties in midfield.
West Ham are another side that are lacking a goalscorer. With Arnautovic departing the club after controverial circumstances, it has made a striker a number one priority for the Hammers this summer. It seemed Maxi Gomez was going to be that man, but after the Uruguayan pulled out of the move in favour of joining Valencia, it means West Ham need to look elsewhere. They have been rumoured to be interested in Sebastien Haller. The Frenchman is a fantastic target man, but I feel it could be a step below for him. He should be playing in the Champions League, with his creativity and dominance in the air making him a vital player for Frankfurt. If West Ham managed to pull this off, it would be one of the signings of the summer.
If I had to place a bet on who would finish in the top 6, it would be Leicester. West Ham will be a lot of fun, Everton could cause some problems but Leicester have a more complete squad. Their midfield is good enough to win a league title and they have players around them that are good enough to push them ahead of Arsenal or Manchester United.
Spurs’s Title Push
Onto another Premier League side, let’s talk about Tottenham. I have high expectations for the North London side in the upcoming season. They reached a Champions League final and finished inside the top four without signing a player while some of their key players suffered from injuries. Some of the players deserved a lot of praise for stepping up, with Sissoko, Son and Rose helping Spurs in some of the more difficult games of the season, but Mauricio Pochettino was by far the reason why Tottenham are playing in Europe next season. His intelligent in-game adjustments and getting the most out of players who should not be near the starting eleven is fantastic. He managed to get output out of both Lamela and Llorente during the season, two players who I thought were finished. While Pep and Klopp amassing the highest points totals in the history of the league, Pochettino was easily my manager of the year.
While they did reach a Champions League final for the first time in their history, there was an element of luck involved in their run to the final. They only scrapped past Manchester City after a saved penalty, a controversial goal from Llorente and a disallowed goal. They went against the neutral’s favourite Ajax and won, primarily down to Ajax showing some awful finishing. It was impressive that they managed to get to the final, but the aim should be to deserve to get there, to be one of the two best teams in the competition.
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After 18 months of no signings, Tottenham decided to break that deadlock with a real statement of intent. After links to Lo Celso and Ceballos, Tottenham’s first signing was French midfield powerhouse Tanguay Ndombele. A player I have spoken on plenty in the past, but in case anyone doesn’t know much about the player, he is arguably one of the best young midfielders in Europe. He is versatile, comfortable in possession, a good dribbler and is a very good creator from deep. He can either allow his teammates to attack, or join the attack himself. He is the perfect player to replace Mousa Dembele, and for £55 million, is a very reasonable price in today’s market. He could be one of the players to help push Spurs closer towards Man City and Liverpool and ensure they are not in the same league as Arsenal, Chelsea and United, fighting for Top 4. They do need more than Ndombele however. Kane’s injury worries are only getting worse, Vertonghen cannot play as many minutes as he did last season and the right back area needs looking into. There is still plenty of work to do for Pochettino.
Lyon Fulfilling Their Potential
Lyon have been one of the many nearly sides for years now. They have been one of the best sides in France in developing young, French talent with Lacazette, Benzema, Tolisso and most recently Ndombele all gaining acolades playing for the club. It’s one reason why they have remained such an attractive prospect for countless young players. They have produced many players through their youth system, but most recently they have focused on signing players from other clubs and increasing their value. It can be seen most recently with Ferland Mendy. The young French full back was signed from Le Havre for £4.50 million was sold for ten-times that amount. It isn’t only young players they target. They’ve also began giving second chances to players who have failed at clubs in the past. Jason Denayer arrived for less than £5 million and ended up having a very good 18/19 season, quite surprising to see from a player who was on loan at Sunderland not so long ago. Their squad is built similar to what you see from Ajax, a side full of sellable assets and experienced players looking to get substancial minutes and allow that younger talent to blossom.
One issue I’ve had with Lyon over the last couple of years was how inconsistent they have been. Their performance in the Champions League group stages last season perfectly displays how they could be fantastic in one game, yet look poor in others. They were one of five sides to go unbeaten, however they only managed a single win, the first game in the competition against Manchester City, where Lyon were fantastic. They were poor against Hoffenheim in both legs, with Lyon struggling away and squandering a two goal lead at home with their opposition down to ten men. It’s clear they have a team full of talented individuals, so what was the problem? It was arguably Bruno Genesio. I always saw him as a fine enough coach, but it can be very frustrating when a manager is gifted with such talented players, yet doesn’t seem what to do with them. His Lyon side were relatively defensive, relying heavily on their talented attackers to carry them. It explains how Marcelo, Denayer and Mendy have flourished in a defensive system, while Traore, Cornet and Depay have all struggled at times.
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The appointment of Sylvinho could be very interesting. With the sale of Ndombele and Mendy, it gives Lyon a lot of money to spend. They’ve already brought in Thiago Mendes from Lille for £18 million. The Brazilian, while on the older side, puts in a solid amount of defensive work and is a fantastic passer, making 1.8 key passes per game last season. While not as versatile as Ndombele, he will perform well at the base of midfield and give the side a player just as comfortable on the ball as the Frenchman. Not much is known about Sylvinho as a manager. He could continue the same defensive style that Genesio played or push for a more attacking system, we’ll just have to wait and see.