2020 Ballon D’or Winner? My Bundesliga Team of the Season 19/20

The Bundesliga was the first league to finish. German football looked its best for the first time since the fierce rivalries of Klopp’s Dortmund and Heynckes Bayern. Not only were Bayern and Dortmund facing each other neck and neck for the title, but RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach also remained on their tails for large parts of the season. The season did end with Bayern comfortably winning the title as expected, but for the first six months of the season, it felt like it was anyone’s for the taking. With that said, let’s look at some of the players who have stood out throughout the season. It’s very top five heavy team, but that’s expected considering the gulf in quality between them and the rest of the league.

GK — Yann Sommer

Not even a debate for who finds themselves in goal. Sommer once again proved why he is one of the best. Not only was the Swiss international fantastic in terms of shot-stopping (he stopped 7.3 post xG last season, by far the biggest overperformance in the league), but his ability on the ball really showed. Sommer never looked out of place when receiving a pass from a teammate, and gave Gladbach a massive aid in build-up play. Gladbach’s defence was league average on the whole, but Sommer singlehandedly made Gladbach look like one of the best defences in the league. 

My honourable mention goes to Manuel Neuer, who recovered from his awful 18/19 season by looking a lot more like himself. Nubel might find very hard to displace in the World Cup winner from the starting eleven. 

RB — Achraf Hakimi

It’s hard to call Hakimi’s two years in Dortmund anything more than a success. The Moroccan might play as a full-back, but his incredible attacking output makes him a perfect wing-back, which explains why Inter Milan spent over £30 million on the defender. Hakimi was a real driving force on the right side. While he had a habit of making the occasional poor decision in the penalty area, his speed alone made those famous diagonal runs into the box so dangerous. Full-backs and centre-backs just couldn’t contain him and became one of Dortmund’s best attacking threats. Hakimi was everywhere on the pitch. At one moment he’d be playing a vital pass to one of his attackers, and at the next sprinting back to help his defence. He ended the season with double figures in assists, and was a key contributor in final third passes, pressures, passes into the penalty area and ball carries. I have no idea how Dortmund will replace Hakimi’s incredible output. Meunier is a decent attacking contributor but doesn’t have the bags of energy and speed as the now Inter Milan defender. 

Honourable mention here goes to Nordi Mukiele, who for a player playing out of position, looked very comfortable at right-back. The Frenchman keeps getting better each year.

RCB — Mats Hummels

I made it clear I was never a fan of Dortmund selling young French defender Abdou Diallo and buying ex-captain Mats Hummels for £30 million. I did understand their thinking. Dortmund’s big issue in 18/19 was their collapse in the second half of the season, so having a player of Hummels’ experience to help guide the younger players through the challenges of a title race was a good idea. I still like Hummels, but it was the price that troubled me the most, considering they won’t get their money back unless a title comes their way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny Hummels has been excellent in his first season back playing in the Westfalenstadion. Dortmund seemed to improve massively on set pieces since Hummels was again commanding the team’s shape (an xG per shot against in 18/19 of 0.13 from set-pieces went to 0.08 last season). He topped the team for passes into the final third, showing how his ability on the ball is yet to diminish. My worry for Hummels is how long he’ll be at his best. Last season, Hummels’ tackle success rate against dribbles was at a pretty poor 43%; the worst out of the players to play at centre-back for Dortmund. Teams are really taking advantage of his lack of speed, and I worry for that as he approaches his twilight years.

Honourable mention goes to Dayot Upamecano. He would have easily started here had he played more. Upamecano has all the attributes to play at the highest level. He just needs to have a full season without suffering any serious injuries before making that huge step up.

LCB — David Alaba

Bayern’s mister reliable once again showed why he’s great to have in the squad. Due to injuries to Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez, Alaba was forced to play at centre-back for a majority of the season. This isn’t the first time Alaba has had to move positions. Under Pep, Alaba was regularly deployed at centre-back due to injuries to Boateng and Benatia. While I do like Alaba as a left-back, he looks so good in the centre of defence. Having played so far up the pitch for most of his career, he’s used to receiving the ball under pressure. Bayern plays an incredibly high-line to help dominate games and press effectively. Alaba looks so reassured when receiving the ball in dangerous areas and is one of Bayern’s best players for progressing the ball. The Austrian international topped not only his team and league for passes into the final third, but the whole of Europe. Any team would love to have a player of Alaba’s versatility, experience, intelligence and passing ability in their side. 

Honourable mention goes to Nico Elvedi, who fitted in seamlessly into Marco Rose’s defence. Credit has to be given to a young defender for not looking out of place in a very difficult defensive system to play in. 

LB — Alphonso Davies

The Bundesliga’s breakout star had a fantastic debut season in Bavaria. Davies hasn’t looked out of place since starting at left-back to facilitate David Alaba at centre-back. Davies has looked confident on the ball and isn’t too reckless in possession. He tops the team for successful dribbles per 90 with 3.63 and tackles with 3.00. Davies has struggled during defensive transitions, but that’s expected from a young player who isn’t playing in his favoured position. He’s been an absolute joy to watch whenever he’s on the pitch and goes down as one of Bayern’s smartest acquisitions in recent memory. 

Honourable mention goes to Raphael Guerreiro. The Portuguese international was by far the biggest beneficiary from the change in formation, allowing him to push forward and contribute a lot more in goals and assists. 

RDM — Joshua Kimmich

One of Thiago or Kimmich was going to be here. Kimmich beats out his teammate due to game time and output. I love Thiago and feel he’s been one of the most underappreciated Bundesliga players since his arrival, but Kimmich has just had a better season. The German international’s success in midfield this season goes down to Bayern signing Benjamin Pavard to play at right-back. The Frenchman isn’t a superstar or anything, but his arrival has allowed Kimmich to play in his favoured position and has had his best season for Bayern. Kimmich is an excellent option alongside Thiago. Both are great progressors of the ball, but Kimmich offers that grit, work-rate and energy that Thiago simply can’t provide. Kimmich playing centrally has allowed him to take up more positions outside the opposition penalty area without sacrificing the team’s width. After years of struggling to find the right midfield balance, it seems Bayern have finally found one that works. 

Honourable mention goes to Thiago Alcantara, who’s progressive passing, intelligence and silky movements with the ball are one of the highlights of watching Bayern under Flick. 

LDM — Konrad Laimer

I’ve already gone into great detail and why Laimer was so great last season. But to summarise, Laimer somehow managed to help facilitate the immense attacking talent of RB Leipzig, while being a good progressor and attacking contributor himself. It took a while, but Laimer has finally cemented himself as a starter instead of a role-player to help cover for other guys in the squad.

Honourable mention goes to Denis Zakaria. The Swiss international has had his best season to date, becoming a dominating figure on the ball and hardworking without it. 

RM — Jadon Sancho 

There just seems to be no ceiling for Sancho. The former Manchester City youth player took a step up from his incredible 18/19 season, contributing to 17 goals and 16 assists for his side. Sancho continues to show astonishing maturity and decision making in the final third, while also being an excellent finisher in himself. Sancho is one big reason to why Dortmund have been such a threat on the counter-attack. He’s able to break through defences on his own, with so many opponents yet to figure out how to silence the England winger. Sancho is the best young talent Dortmund have had since Mario Gotze was in his prime. Sancho’s future is still up in the air, but what’s been made clear is that he doesn’t mind staying at Dortmund for another year. It’s a win-win scenario. If they sell, they have plenty of money to find an adequate replacement. But if he stays, it gives them another chance to challenge Bayern at the top. 

Honourable mention goes to Filip Kostic. The Serbian attacker took on a lot of responsibility after the departures of Haller, Jovic and Rebic. Kostic brings that quality to a side that struggled in attack for a large part of the season. 

AM — Thomas Muller

It seems no one is talking about the incredible season Muller has had. After Kovac’s sacking, Flick put Muller straight back into the starting XI, and Muller repaid that faith with his best season to date. Muller’s 21 assists now mean he holds the record for the most in a single season. It’s more in a season than anyone in the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A. I’m not saying that Muller is a better player than Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, but this is a crazy achievement for the World Cup winner. I’m not Muller’s biggest fan as a personality, but it’s hard to deny how good he is for Bayern.

Honourable mention goes to Kai Havertz. The 20-year-old was exceptional yet again for Leverkusen and continues to be their driving force in attack. Let’s hope for the rest of the league that he stays and continues to be a joy to watch.

LM — Timo Werner

Werner’s decision to stay another year in Leipzig turned out to be the best for both parties. Leipzig managed to get a massive fee for the German international, while Werner went on to further prove himself as one of Europe’s finest attackers. While he is seen as a striker, I’ve placed him on the left because he flourishes as a second striker, with someone beside him to help open up space. Werner 28 goals and 8 assists gave him his best tally in his career so far. Not only was his finishing excellent as ever, but managed to create a lot for the players around him. Werner was awarded the man of the match 10 times, more than any other player in the league. It helps solidify Werner’s importance to the club that helped push him to the next level. 

Honourable mention goes to Marcus Thuram. Borussia Monchengladbach’s player of the season arrived in Germany with a bang. Not only is he improving with the enormous minutes he’s getting but is helping Gladbach get back to the top of the Bundesliga

ST — Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski seems to just get better with age. Poland’s top goal scorer had his best season to date, scoring a ridiculous 34 goals. The way he manages to not only find space for himself but opens the game up for others is a sign of a real world-class striker. No striker in the past five years comes close to matching Lewandowski’s goals, creativity and link-up play. He should be the front runner for the Balon d’Or this year. While Messi, De Bruyne and Benzema are others who’ve had incredible seasons, Lewandowski has played a substantial part in winning his side games and trophies and doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. 

Honourable mention goes to Erling Haaland. While the Norwegian did arrive halfway through the season, his immediate impact on Dortmund cannot be underestimated. Just like Lewandowski, Dortmund has another superstar leading the line, and are likely to sell him on for a considerable profit.

Grading the Top Four Bundesliga Team’s Seasons

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

Bayern Munich — A

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

RB Leipzig — B

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Borussia Dortmund — D

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Borussia Monchengladbach — A

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Why Bundesliga Clubs Have Looked So Good in the Champions League

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Every Champions League Club’s Most Important Player

The round of 16 is where the Champions League truly begins. With the predictable group stages finally over, let’s look ahead to all the teams left in the competition. The previews will be coming, but for now, let’s look at every team’s most outstanding player. These are the players who are irreplaceable in their sides, who will be relied upon to win these close ties. I will not be speaking about these players in the previews, to avoid repeating myself. 

Atletico Madrid: Alvaro Morata 

While this season, with all of the departures in the summer, can be argued as a transitional one, it’s still been very frustrating for Atletico. Their city rivals have been above average, but they’ve had chances to stay closer in the title race. While they’ve remained solid at the back, it’s in attack where, as usual, they’ve misfired. Yet, it’s hard to include any defender as their most important player, when Simeone is so reliant on his attackers to produce some magic. Saul Niguez does deserve mention for remaining as consistent as ever, but Morata is easily the player to be relied upon.

The former Chelsea striker has garnered a reputation for being a poor finisher, which is still valid. Morata has again missed a few big chances this season. Possible game-winners against Sevilla and Real Valladolid and a header against Granada would put him in double figures for goals. Morata has always missed the occasional sitter, but it shouldn’t deflect from his all-round game. He’s still taking the most shots per 90 for Atletico Madrid with 3.5, with 2.3 coming from inside the penalty area. He’s winning over 5 aerial duels per 90, reminding everyone how much of an aerial threat he still is, as well as creating 1.4 chances. Even in a very defensive team, these are great numbers. It becomes more significant when Joao Felix hasn’t hit the ground running, and Thomas Lemar still looks like the same shadow as last season.

Morata will need to be at his very best to beat the best team in Europe. Liverpool have been sensational over the last couple of years, especially in the knockout games. I can’t see Atletico creating many chances during both legs. Morata’s ability to do a bit of everything could help his team get the much-needed goals to advance, even if he won’t be putting the chances away.

Liverpool: Virgil Van Dijk

Embed from Getty Images

There were surprisingly a lot of candidates for Liverpool. Any of their superstar forwards, Alexander-Arnold’s elite chance creation and Allison ridiculous ability to make that defence even better than it already is. But the runner-up for the Balon d’Or is my choice. Philippe Coutinho’s sale and the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk must be considered one of the best deals in the history of the modern game. The Dutchman is fantastic in the air, an elite distributor and a constant goal threat. Not only has Van Dijk been individually unbelievable, but he simultaneously improved everyone around him. Joe Gomez looks like a future England starter alongside him, and Matip began earning heaps of praise for the first time in years. Not much needs to be said. While a lot of money has been spent on Van Dijk, he has definitely paid it back. Two European finals, one Champions League, the third-highest points tally in the history of the league and most likely a first title. His influence and ability will keep his side fighting until the very end. 

Borussia Dortmund: Jadon Sancho

Marco Reus is obviously a contender here, but Sancho has taken another leap in his rapid development. The England international has become Dortmund’s biggest threat in the final third and has been the driving for some of their most significant results this season. Sancho made the difference in their massive comeback against Paderborn and scored and assisted in their 3-3 draw to RB Leipzig. He’s contributed to a goal in all of his past 7 games. Sancho finished the Hinrunde with 9 goals and 9 assists, more goal involvements than Reus and Thorgan Hazard. Sancho has overperformed his xG, but that’s been Dortmund’s story under Favre. The former Manchester City attacker has stood out among other elite attackers. Julian Brandt has been fantastic whenever he’s played, and Thorgan Hazard has, creatively, been one of the best players in Germany. Sancho’s speed, dribbling and chance creation will cause a lot of problems for PSG, especially considering their defensively poor full-backs. I can’t see Sancho remaining in Germany past the summer, meaning this could be his last chance to drag Dortmund over the line.

PSG: Marco Verratti

In a team containing talented players like Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, why have I chosen Verratti? I’ve already expressed my love for the Italian, and even with midfield reinforcements arriving in the summer, he has remained a vital piece in Tuchel’s team. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in the world at pretty much everything that matters. Similar to Thiago Alcantara, Verratti is a fantastic progressor of the ball, either through his incredible ability to pick out one of his teammates in difficult positions or his tireless work rate. Here’s statsbomb’s player radar of Verratti’s 18/19 season, and it’s insane:

Verratti radar.png

Verratti might go down as one of the most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. The popular opinion of Ligue 1 being the weakest league out of the top five, as well as PSG’s dominance, has made it difficult for people to take many of their stars seriously. But it’s not only in France where Verratti has shown his excellence. Time and time again, Verratti has demonstrated the best teams in Europe just how good he is. In their famous 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona back in 2017, Verratti was instrumental in nullifying Rakitic, Gomes and Busquets. Even against (at the time) Solsjkaer’s high-flying Manchester United, Verratti dominated the game at Old Trafford, unbeatable on the ball while being a huge reason why PSG were able to transition so quickly against the Red Devils. I’ll most likely discuss Paris’ attackers during the preview. Still, there’s no debating that Verratti will be instrumental if PSG wishes to dominate the game against a tough and robust Dortmund midfield. 

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic

Papau Gomez is usually the choice for Atalanta’s most important player. And while their captain will need to bring his usual brilliance, it’s hard to argue with just how good Ilicic has been for Italy’s best attacking side. Alongside Zapata or Muriel, Ilicic has involvement in everything Atalanta do in the final third. The Slovenian’s dominates Atalanta’s shots, dribble and shot-assist numbers. In fact, it’s only in shot-assists where Ilicic isn’t top (Gomez averages 3 while Ilicic averages 2.8). The former Fiorentina forward is averaging 4.9 shots per 90, putting him on the Messi and Ronaldo level we wish every forward could reach. His xGChain (the total xG of every possession a player is involved in) is the highest in Serie A, with 14.05 (this is only counting players who’ve played over 700 minutes).

Do I think Atalanta will progress beyond Valencia? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. Atalanta under Gasperini have been so much fun in creating an elite attack, and Ilicic is arguably the crown jewel. His incredible offensive ability, as well as his creativity, could be a massive factor in taken Atalanta to the next stage in their first campaign in the Champions League.

Valencia: Dani Parejo

Not even a competition for this. Dani Parejo is another who’s massively underrated. In a league that’s been dominated by the likes of Modric, Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic and Kroos throughout the decade, Parejo should definitely be considered among those fantastic players. The Spaniard has been so consistent for a team that has continuously changed personnel, whether players or coach. Parejo has been a consistent goal scorer and supplier. Since 15/16, Valencia’s skipper has contributed to at least 10 goals. A lot of goals either come from the penalty spot or free-kicks, but that’s a skill by itself. He’s actually scored 13 free kicks for Valencia, a frankly ridiculous amount for any player. 

Parejo’s biggest strength in assisting his side is by far his leadership. After their poor start to the 18/19 season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Parejo had a massive say in waking his teammates up from their misfortune and pushing them on to finish in the Champions League spots. Even if Atalanta manage to get a first-leg lead, Parejo will do all in his power to turn the tie to Valencia’s favour. 

Tottenham Hotspur: Heung-Min Son

Throughout Tottenham’s run to the final last season, Son was their key man, since Kane (as usual) missed key matches in their memorable campaign. While Lucas Moura did score that incredible hat-trick to sink a young Ajax team, they wouldn’t have reached that point without Son’s goals in the round of sixteen and the quarter-finals. During their first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored the second goal at Wembley, giving them a massive advantage over the Bundesliga side. His performances during their two-legged affair against champions Manchester City were by far the highlight of his season. The South Korean international scored the only goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring that Manchester City were left fighting during their second leg. Son went on to leave his opponents in an awkward position, scoring two goals at the Etihad. 

Embed from Getty Images

With Harry Kane out until April and Ndombele struggling to put together a consistent run of games, it’s tough to argue with Heung-Min Son’s importance to the Tottenham team. Son offers something that none of his teammates can currently offer a consistent goal threat. I much prefer him starting as a winger, because Kane regularly drops deep, Son feels like the only focal point for the team. His pace and ability on the counter-attack make him a threat to every team in Europe.

RB Leipzig: Timo Werner

Julien Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the next level, adding that needed improvement in possession. This allows them to stay competitive against all kinds of opposition, whether big or small. While players like Sabitzer, Nkunku and Mukiele deserve credit for the leaps, they’ve taken in their development. It’s hard to argue with just how good Timo Werner has been this season. The German international is easily the most inform striker in the league. His massive goal tally of 20 is difficult to match across Europe. Not only has his goals gone up, but his creativity is frankly ridiculous. Werner is fifth in the Bundesliga for assists with 6. Not only that, but his xA per 90 is currently at 0.37. Werner has a higher expected assists per 90 than the likes of Filip Kostic, Marcus Thuram and Jadon Sancho. Werner is flourishing in every way under his new coach, and easily the player Tottenham will be looking at stopping.

Chelsea: Matteo Kovacic 

Chelsea were easily the hardest choice here. Abraham, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Kante were all considered, but Matteo Kovacic had to be here. The former Real Madrid midfielder has always been an enormous talent but struggled at his former club. Since signing for Chelsea however, he seems to be finally turning into that world-beater. When playing alongside Jorginho and Kante in a midfield three, it allows Kovacic to focus primarily on his best quality: ball progression. Kovacic has consistently averaged over 10 deep progressions per 90. There aren’t many better players in England who can transition the ball through each zone. It’s arguably been the most significant improvement under Lampard. While they have been somewhat naive defensively, they’ve been better to watch, and the midfield isn’t so static. Kovacic is completing over 3 dribbles per 90 in the Champions League. His defensive work has fallen off a cliff when in Europe, but that’s primarily down to having Kante, as well as Jorginho to do the defensive work. Kovacic will be a player that Bayern Munich have to limit. His ability to quickly move the ball into the opponent’s third is difficult to stop and could be a deciding factor in this huge tie. 

Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski

Whether Bayern are good or bad, there is one player you can always count on, and that’s their superstar striker Robert Lewandowski. Poland’s all-time top goalscorer has been running insanely hot all season. He went on a run of scoring in 15 consecutive games. He ended the Hinrunde with 29 goals in all competitions, more than many talented players manage in a whole season. Not only is his form in the Bundesliga fantastic, but he has brought it into Europe. Lewandowski is currently the top goal scorer in the competition, scoring 10 in 5. His finishes against Tottenham in their 7-2 demolition were outstanding. His first goal saw the former Dortmund star quickly turn his body and hit the ball right between the defenders, making it impossible for Lloris to stop the shot.

Embed from Getty Images

Not only does Lewandowski continually put the ball in the back of the net, but he does so much for his team. I highly doubt Serge Gnabry would have reached 10 goals if it wasn’t for Lewandowski either intelligently dragging defenders away from him, or creating the goals himself. He is a perfect modern number nine but will need to bring his group stage form in the games where it truly matters. 

Napoli: Fabian Ruiz

While Milan and Sampdoria falling down the table is the story of Serie A, it’s Napoli’s drop off which has been the most astounding. Last season’s runners up have looked a shadow of the team they were under Sarri. It was difficult to choose a player here. Not because of a wealth of options, but a lack of them. Key and reliable players like Allan, Callejon, Koulibaly and Insigne have all dropped off massively. The only player that has stood out is former Betis midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has still remained at a high level, even with all of the issues on and off the field. 

The Spaniard is a midfielder who can do a bit of everything. He arrived last season as a number ten or an advanced eight but primarily played in a double pivot under Ancelotti. Ruiz wasn’t necessarily bad there; however, he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Ruiz is an excellent progressor of the ball, continually getting involved during buildup through his passing. The 23-year-old’s xGChain sits at 11.51, higher than anyone else for Napoli. His best strength is comfortably his dribbling, consistently averaging over a 65% dribble success rate. He’s technically excellent and could have a massive say in their tie against Barcelona, who themselves have plenty of midfielders who can dominate a game. 

Barcelona: Lionel Messi 

Nothing needs to be said. The best player to ever grace the game is going to be his team’s most important player.

Lyon: Moussa Dembele

Lyon are having an awful season, on and off the pitch. Sylvinho arrived as the new head coach, with Juninho has the new sporting director, in an attempt to push Lyon to the next level. Unfortunately, this has not worked out so far. Juninho was sacked after only winning three games in eleven. Rudi Garcia was shockingly appointing, which didn’t go down well with the fans, considering he was managing Marseille as recently as last season. When you pair that with Marcelo’s feud with some of the Lyon ultras, this season was over before it even started. 

With Depay tearing his ACL, meaning the Dutchman will miss the Euros, Moussa Dembele seems like the apparent player who could turn the tie for Lyon. Dembele has dropped off slightly from last season but remains a considerable threat. He’s Lyon’s top scorer in Ligue 1 with 11 goals. He’s excellent physically, able to beat players in the air or with his speed. His finishing has always impressed, consistently putting away more difficult chances. The only worry for Dembele is whether he can actually score in the Champions League, something he’s yet to do. Lyon’s sudden nose dive from the top of Ligue 1 has been staggering, and it puts their chances of progressing rather unlikely. They’ll have to hope Dembele can start putting in the performances that made him stand out last season.

Juventus: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions have been slightly worse under Sarri, including Ronaldo. While his form has improved in recent weeks, he’s finally started to look like a 34-year-old. His shot numbers are still on that elite level they’ve been since the start of the decade, but he has begun to look slow, with his start to the season, yet again, underwhelming. Still, Ronaldo is one of the best forwards around, with his knack for the big stage a massive factor when discussing Juventus. His hat trick against Atletico Madrid in last year’s round of sixteen perfectly showcased how Ronaldo can carry a team through the toughest of circumstances. The competition’s all-time top scorer is still the best headerer of the ball in the world and loves a score a spectacular goal. The success of Ronaldo’s transfer to the old lady rests on these big moments. He was brought in for a lot of money (too much), and if he doesn’t win the Champions League, this move will be seen as a failure.

Real Madrid: Karim Benzema

Embed from Getty Images

Moving onto Ronaldo’s former club, who are finally starting to look just as good as they were when the Portuguese superstar was playing in the famous Los Blancos shirt. Even with Madrid looking solid in defence and their young players starting to flourish, it’s Karim Benzema who has remained at the same high level as he has throughout the last decade. Casemiro does deserve a lot of credit for keeping that midfield together, but Benzema has helped keep Madrid in the title race. He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season with 12 and assisting the most with 5. What’s impressed me the most about Benzema is how he’s returned to being more of a goalscorer. His insanely impressive 2 key passes per 90 do show how he is still a great all-rounder in terms of goals and creativity, but his involvement in buildup play has started to decline. This is actually a good thing. Benzema is now 32 and in a team full of future superstars. He is giving these players that reliable, experienced player up front, who will put the ball away when given a chance. Luka Jovic struggling for games is a testament to Benzema’s importance. It wouldn’t surprise to see him play a vital role against the Premier League Champions. 

Manchester City: Aymeric Laporte 

Kevin De Bruyne might be the obvious answer considering how unbeatable he has been this season. However, if Manchester City can reach 98 points with their Belgian playmaker missing most of the season, then he can’t be as vital as Aymeric Laporte. The former Athletic Bilbao defender has seen his importance grow over the last few months. After picking up a severe knee injury in September. It left Pep with a stagnant John Stones and an ageing Nicolas Otamendi as his only recognised centre-backs. While City have been really bad at the back throughout the season, losing a composed, intelligent and dominant defender in Laporte, did make things a lot harder. I have no idea if Laporte will be ready for their colossal tie with Real Madrid. Pep, as well 

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

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

Borussia Monchengladbach

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

RB Leipzig 

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Schalke

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Borussia Dortmund 

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

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

Embed from Getty Images 

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

 

 

Are Leipzig Good Enough to Win the Bundesliga?

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Yussuf Poulsen and The Joy of Partnerships

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

How Good is Emery’s Arsenal? Top 5 League Talking Points

While illness did restrict me from talking about last week’s talking points, let’s look at this week. I’ll start to lessen the amount I discuss, just to make sure they are out at a reasonable date. Let’s start straight into it.

Bundesliga

Werner wins game for Leipzig

With Dortmund and Bayern winning rather uneventfully, let’s look at Leipzig. When they arrived in the Bundesliga a couple of seasons ago, they started off like a rocket, actually ahead of Bayern by Christmas. While hated by the Bundesliga fans, they are ran so well and with Nagelsmann coming next summer, this season seem to only be a transition, to make sure they have a satisfactory season and stay in the Top 6, however they’ve actually been incredible. They currently sit in 3rd and have been an absolute wall at the back. While they didn’t start off well, conceding 4 against Dortmund in the first game and conceding 2 against Hoffenheim, they haven’t actually conceded since their game against Hoffenheim. That was at the end of September. They have been incredible defensively and have surprised everyone.

Let’s move on to the game in question. RB Leipzig beat in form a good Borussia Mönchengladbach side 2-0, with Timo Werner scoring a brace. On paper, this would have been a very difficult game for RB Leipzig. Their opponents put 3 past Bayern Munich and only Dortmund have scored more than their 30 goals. They’ve been in incredible form and were going to be tough to hold back. However Leipzig got the 3 points, scoring two and making Mönchengladbach look like an average side. The victors created twice as many chances, and were very effective on the counter attack. They used the likes of Werner, Poulsen and Bruma to use their pace to break Mönchengladbach quickly. While Bruma was underwhelming, Poulsen and Werner were at their very best. They are probably one of my favourite striking partnerships in Europe right now. Werner is a goalscoring machine, being one of the best players in a one on one. While Poulsen does lack that killer instinct, he is brilliant in the air and a solid creator for his German partner. Both goals just showed how well they work together. Poulsen won the ball in air and gifted it Werner in a good position to carry the ball, which he eventually scored. The second was an excellent showing, with Poulsen getting on the end of a long ball and gifting Werner with an open goal. In this game, Poulsen created more chances than anyone else, and won 3 aerial duels, with only Konate winning more for his side. I always wanted to see a better goalscoring rate from Poulsen, but I finally see why Leipzig love him so much. He helps the team around him in such an effective way. It could actually explain why Werner was so poor in the world cup. He didn’t have his partner in crime to give defenders a difficult job, to give Werner more space to get in behind.

This season was not supposed to be this important. Ralph Rangnick however has kept them so competitive, and arguably better than they’ve ever been. It makes the arrival of Nagelsmann even more exciting.

La Liga

Madrid dispatch Valencia

With Barcelona just failing to show consistency, it’s left La Liga in a weird place. Sevilla drew to in form Alaves, and the Blaugrana were able to win 2-0 against strugglers Villarreal. However focus this week will be on Madrid, who cruised past a frustrating Valencia with a 2-0 victory. Solari’s arrival stunk of panic and hope of a Zidane scenario, where he will hit the ground running and motivate the squad. But after a humiliating defeat to Eibar, and an underwhelming victory over Roma, it hasn’t started out as well as everyone hoped. This win was an impressive one.

Madrid started the game with a very different starting XI. Vasquez was brought in on the right side, with Bale shifting to the left. On paper, Vazquez seemed to be playing to keep Guedes and Gaya, two very attacking players, quiet. This turned out to be true, with Vazquez putting in 6 tackles and interceptions in this game. He truly put a shift in for his side, and helped them get the win. He also scored late in the game to seal the win, showing how he helped Madrid in both departments. While the chances to their attack were interesting, their midfield was very different. With an injury to Casemiro, it forced Modric to play alongside Ceballos and Llorente. All three were fine on the day, with Ceballos standing out with the Spaniard making 7 tackles. It does seem as if Solari wants to use these younger players. There are plenty of reasons why. The first being both Llorente and Ceballos will add some sort of defensive stability in the absence of Casemiro, and the other, more believable one, is egos. A problem a lot of top clubs have is the amount of egos in those dressing rooms. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Madrid all famously have teams full of players with high demands. Whether it’s Sergio Ramos being Perez’s mouth piece, or James Rodriguez criticising his own manager after a couple of months, it seems Madrid players love to have their way. Playing young players who are desperate to play pleases not only those players, but the fans. Madrid fans, like their players, are very irritating. Their showings of white flags and booing of players like Ronaldo, who did so much for them, paints such a bad picture. They prefer when they see guys like Asensio and Ceballos play. It’s because most Madrid and Barcelona fans are also huge national team fans. They want not only their country to succeed, but to succeed with their players.

Let’s quickly touch on Valencia, who were not good on the day, or all season. Their drop off has been staggering to say the least. With Champions League football returning, and signings like Wass, Gameiro and Batshuayi all looking exciting, everything seemed to be on the up, but it’s been far from that. Last season they were extremely lucky. They started off with Simone Zaza in hot form until the New Year. After his drop off, Santi Mina came in and carried on from his teammates great start. They are struggling in front of goal and that cannot be understated. While they have been defensively solid, with only Atletico Madrid conceding less, they cannot stop drawing games. They’ve drawn a total of 8 games in La Liga, which at this point of the season is crazy. To show I crazy it is, only Bilbao have drawn as many games as Valencia, in all the top 5 leagues. They just cannot kill games off and it’s easy to see. None of their forwards have scored more than 2 goals, and they’ve all looked poor. Santi Mina just cannot hit the back of the net at the moment. Rodrigo’s numbers have stayed the same, but is having a similar problem. However the biggest drop off has to be Gonzalo Guedes. The former Benfica forward has been a shadow of the player he was last season. His dribbling and key pass numbers have dropped off a cliff, and just seems to not have the same confidence and fearlessness as last season. When I said that Valencia were lucky last season, it mainly stemmed from how they over performed xG last season. It’s the complete opposite this time. They are arguably the unluckiest team in Europe at the moment, with xPTS saying they should have roughly 23 points, which would put them in 3rd. It’s honestly incredible how they’ve changed. Marcelino is a good coach however, and there is a high chance he will turn it around.

Ligue 1 –

Lyon play entertaining draw with Lille

While PSG finally dropping points might be interesting, my distain for that club and most of their players leaves me not wanting to give them attention, so let’s look at Lyon and Lille. Both sides have been good this season, with Lille looking back to their best and Lyon finally getting some form after a relatively slow start. On paper, this was going to be a must watch, and I’d say it was.

Let’s start with Lille, who started the season off so well, have finally started to slow down. They haven’t won a game since the end of October, and have since lost to PSG and lost in the Coupe de la Ligue to Strasbourg. The most worrying signs have been the form of Bamba and Pepe. I said both have been arguably the most inform players in Europe, but have since slowed down. Pepe hadn’t scored since their defeat to PSG, and looked so poor against Nice. Bamba has also really slowed down, with the Frenchman not scoring since the 6th of October. While not being at their best in recent weeks, they started his game off like a rocket. Thanks to goals from Loic Remy and Nicolas Pepe, it gave them a deserved 2 goal advantage. While both were good on the day, with Pepe finally putting in those shot numbers expected by now, Thiago Mendes stood out. The Brazilian has been a consistent name on the team sheet this season. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions in this game, and created 5 chances. Lille were very much playing on the counter attack, and Mendes played his role brilliantly. The home side only had 28% possession, and Mendes only completed 21 passes, meaning he created roughly a chance every 4 passes. What a very effective performance from the midfielder.

Let’s move onto Lyon, who clawed back after conceding two. They didn’t create many chances, but that can be explained by their desperation to win the game in the second half, meaning the chances you make aren’t usually the best ones. One player who stood out in different ways was Memphis Depay. After releasing releasing his strange yet brilliant 5 million Instagram followers rap, he followed that by missing a penalty. It’s just so poetic. He was still good on the day however, creating 4 chances and had 5 shots. He just seems to be unable to slow down at the moment. After a start which I vividly remember calling underwhelming, they seem to finally be back on track. This squad has some very talented players, and it won’t be long until their talent is taken from them. They have to make this season a memorable one, because it could be the end of this promising team

Premier League

The North London Derby

By far the biggest game in Europe on the weekend, Spurs went to the Emirates to play their biggest rivals, Arsenal, and to see where both are at this stage of the season. It was Arsenal who came out as the victors, with the Gunners cruising past a nervy Spurs side 4-2. The first half was interesting to say the least. After Vertonghen giving away a very unnecessary hand ball, Aubamayeng slotted home the following penalty. After a fightback from Tottenham, Arsenal eventually ran out winners.

Let’s start with Arsenal, who arguably put in their best performance of the season. While they will always seem to be defensively suspect, they played the game well and especially their midfield. Both Xhaka and Torreira were very dominant in this game. Over the years, the biggest criticism of Arsenal has been their lack of bite in midfield. Players like Coquelin, Elneny, Flamini and Arteta have all been criticised for just not being good enough. But since Torreira’s arrival, they’ve seriously stepped up. While Torreira isn’t a great creator, his aggression, fight and speed make him such an effective partner to Xhaka. Let’s quickly touch the Swiss international. Since he’s been starting with Torreira, he has been given less responsibility in a defensive sense, and allowed him to carry the ball and help transition. The problem Xhaka has had is he has been playing with Ramsey in the last couple of years, a player with nearly zero defensive responsibility. It left Xhaka with a lot to do and he just isn’t mobile enough to do it. Torreira has transformed him and made them arguably the best partnership in the league. I said before the season even started that Torreira is an excellent player and even called him Arsenal’s best signing, and it’s good to see my predictions coming true.

Arsenal are finally looking like evolving. They became passive and were always written off before the season even began. Now with Emery, they have added some bite and resilience to a side in need of it. He seems to have actually turned Arsenal into how they were in the 90s, where they didn’t win by much, but were solid and had big players all over the park. They were threatening from the word go, and scares oppositions in the tunnel. There is still so much work to do however. Emery still needs to figure out how to get Aubamayeng and Lacazette in the same side. He also needs to add some width into his team. Iwobi seems to be the only player in this side who you’d count as a winger. They’ve been linked to Nicolas Pepe, a player I have covered extensively, and would definitely be a needed addition in January. While those are important matters, it’s their defense which needs the most improvement. While they have improved slightly, they are still arguably the worst side in the top 6 in a defensive sense. They face much more shots than the top 3, and don’t even put in as much tackles and interceptions as expected. xPTS says they are actually the luckiest team in the league. The Gunners are on 31 points, when they are only expected to get 22, which would place them 9th in the league. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are signs that the future could be bright.

Let’s quickly touch on Spurs, who just didn’t turn up in this game. The Emirates has always been a real unlucky ground for them, with their last win there coming in 2010. There was always doubts if Pochettino’s side could hold their nerves and get a victory against a side which has been incredibly lucky. If the Premier League was ranked based on half time results, Arsenal would be bottom. It meant that Spurs needed to start the game off with a bang and try and shut up shop. They failed to do so, and it cost them. It’s as simple as they didn’t turn up. It’s been a consistent criticism under Pochettino, how one game they can go to Old Trafford and walk all over Manchester United, and then suddenly lose to Watford the next. Spurs are a great side, but they have these occasions when the pressure gets to them. This game sums it up. Even when Spurs were better than their rivals, Arsenal still were able to put up a performance when Spurs came to town. Something needs to be fixed in the way they approach these games.

Serie A

Serie A is really starting to liven up with some incredible fixtures. This week, Inter Milan visited struggling Roma, to play the most played fixture in Serie A history (117 times).

Let’s start with the home side, who have not been great this season. Their defense seems to have gotten worse since last season, which only conceded 28 goals last season. They have already conceded 18, which isn’t a good sign from a team that relied heavily on their defensive resilience. While their 24 goals scored is a respectable amount, it’s arguably their most positive aspect this season. Only Juventus take more shots on target than Roma. They have been slightly unlucky. If they sort their defense out, they should be back to their best.

Let’s move on to their game against Inter, where they were able to salvage a draw, thanks to an amazing goal from Under and a penalty from Kolorov. The game was slightly in Inter’s favour, with the away side having more shots and having a majority of the possession. Roma definitely had chances however, with Florenzi hitting the post early on being a game changing moment. The Giallorossi as a team were very good. It’s a performance they needed, after losing to both Udinese and Real Madrid, Di Francesco needs to keep up with Milan and Lazio for that 4th spot. Patrick Schick definitely helped his side on the day. I haven’t been impressed with him since his arrival from Sampdoria back in 2017. While his game time has been minimal, he just hasn’t given enough reason for Dzeko to not start. He won 6 aerial duels in this game and created 2 chances, including the Florenzi miss previously mentioned. While he didn’t take a shot, he was still effective for his side.

Inter were the side that probably deserved the 3 points. Both Icardi and Keita Balde have continued their great form into this game, with both scoring. However their best player was arguably Marcelo Brozovic. Croatia has had a golden age of midfield talent, with Modric, Rakitic and Kovacic all establishing themselves at the top level. While all are excellent players, Brozovic has been absolutely sensational this season. He has solid defensive work, with an incredible range of passing. The Croatian has actually been averaging 7.8 long balls per 90. He is a key component in Spaletti’s side. He keeps them moving and helps dominate in the midfield. In this game, he created 4 chances, had more touches than any Inter player and completed the most passes. He is truly an elite midfielder, and I’d be surprised if clubs like Paris and United aren’t keeping their eye on him.

Worst Players at The 2018 World Cup XI – Kroos, De Gea, Mascherano

With the tournament reaching its final stages, let’s look at the players who have disappointed the most. I will not be selecting players from teams that were expected to not perform. These are players who play for nations full of talent, but failed to show their own.

David De Gea

I really wanted to put Manuel Neuer here, for looking so unfocused and was clearly not ready. But I am giving him plenty of sympathy, because he should have never been playing. David De Gea however had one of the best seasons a goalkeeper has ever had. He was the main reason why United had a good defense. However at this world cup he just didn’t look like himself. He only managed to make one whole save in this entire tournament. His tournament can be summed up by that mistake against Portugal, a mistake he would usually never make.

Yannick Carrasco

I can’t blame him too much for being here. He is an attacking left winger, playing as a wing back. It might be a bit harsh, but he still was not great at all. His weakness as a player playing out of position was highlighted throughout the tournament. His positional awareness was very poor, resulting with him being one of their worst performance in their comeback against Japan. He was then dropped for the Brazil game, just showing how he didn’t impress.

Federico Fazio

It might definitely be harsh putting a player who only played one half of football all tournament, but out of all of the terrible defenders who played for Argentina, he was by far the worst. He didn’t make a single defensive contribution against France, a team who scored 4 past them. A player who was just shown up by much better players.

Jerome Boateng

Germany were very poor in this tournament, and their lack of organisation was one of their downfalls. While his partner, Matts Hummels, was actually pretty good, considering how bad the defense was. Boateng was very poor. While his defensive work looks very good (racking up 4.5 tackles and interceptions per 90), it’s important to remember how small of a pool it is to judge. He only played two games. But out of the stats seen, he made 2.5 fouls per 90, which was his downfall. He seems to not have that steady head he usually has and was so much more reckless. It was a very out of character tournament for him.

Javier Mascherano

Why is Javier Mascherano still playing at a world cup? The man is way past it and should have never been selected in the first place. Why wasn’t Lo Celso starting instead, or why wasn’t Parades even taken? It just makes zero sense why Mascherano was even taken. His age is definitely showing, especially in that Croatia game. Modric and Rakitic ran circles around him and it just highlighted his vulnerabilies. He also completed a very high 86 passes per game, however only 0.7 key passes, showing how ineffective he was creativity. He is a player who didn’t perform when he was never expected to.

Toni Kroos

While it might be controversial, I think Kroos was Germany’s worst performer in the world cup. Low consisted with his 4-2-3-1. The problem with that Kroos only works in a 3 man midfield. Just looking at him at Real Madrid, Casemiro does most of his defensive work, and Modric and can do everything else. It gives Kroos the opportunity to go forward and assist the team, but in a 2 with Sami Khedira (we’ll get to him), it doesn’t give him this licence. The problem however, was this team had zero organisation. He never played as a defensive midfielder throughout the tournament, and continued to play like an 8. It was so frustrating and I have to have some sympathy for his teammates. A poor showing from a player I expect so much more game management from.

Sami Khedira

By far the worst performer. The Juventus midfielder looked a shadow of himself against Mexico. He was completely outran by Herrera, Lozano and Guadrado, and had zero control over the game. A pairing of Kroos and Khedira would have worked 4 years ago, but Kroos needs more men around him, and Khedira is just completely past it. He doesn’t offer anything creativity or defensively, so it is a real question why he was playing. Just another example of Low showing too much loyality.

Maximiliano Meza

Why was he even taken? Again I have to question Sampoali’s squad here. Why was a player who is average at best, going over Angel Correa, Mauro Icardi or Parades. It’s a mystery to me why he was not only going, but he was actually playing. Meza was playing over Dybala. Sampoali even said he was never going to start Dybala, so why even take him. Dybala is one of the best forwards on the planet. Why play an average player over him is beyond me. Meza was also very poor himself. He failed to impress in any of the games he played, especially against France.

Bernardo Silva

A player who is actually like, Silva did struggle for starts last season for City, but looked like he could help this Portugal side earn more glory after their 2016 Euro triumph. However it just wasn’t the tournament for him. In an attack where Ronaldo seemed to be the only one who brought his A game, Silva was one who was very underwhelming. He failed to score or assist in his 3 games, which led to him being dropped for the round of 16 game. He was very ineffective in the final third, failing to really give that bit of quality that the forwards needed. A poor showing from a player who is far from that.

Marcus Berg

Marcus Berg took the most shots without scoring. If that doesn’t give him a reason to be here I don’t know what will. Berg was part of a Sweden team that really failed in the attacking third. They won their first game through a penalty, and only beat Switzerland thanks to a lucky deflection. Luck is the best word to describe Sweden in this tournament. Berg was very poor in front of goal. One chance sticks in my head, being an easy finish for him against Korea, but he instead hit it right at the keeper, or his volley from less than 6 yards out. Filling Zlatan’s shoes is tough, but Berg failed spectacularly in his attempt.

Timo Werner

I love Werner, and seeing have a poor world cup is difficult. His poor performances weren’t all his fault. The team seemed to be playing as if he was Klose or Gomez, instead of giving through balls to take advantage of his incredible speed. Werner, however, was still poor. He failed to contribute to a single goal. He also was quite poor in an attacking sense, losing the ball 2.3 times per game. Which is much higher than his usual 0.7. Werner his a player with very high potential, so let’s hope this tournament isn’t a stumbling block for him.