Are Manchester United Really THAT Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Premier League Fantasy Football 19/20 – September

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

Game Week 1 – Big Clubs Performing 

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

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

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

Game Week 3 – A Slight Improvement

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

Game Week 4 – Everything Against Me

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

September

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

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

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

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

20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Season #2 – Tottenham Title Challengers?

Bayern Munich’s Defensive Rebuild

I’ve reiterated this multiple times in the past but Bayern have needed to rebuild a majority of their team. They remain, and continue to be, the best side in the Bundesliga and while they have consistently won the competition, their weaknesses have finally been exposed after the Champions appointed a manager who didn’t have the same experience in winning league titles. It meant that Bayern had an awful start to the season and by December, only gained 36 points, 6 behind Dortmund and left them struggling. However, in typical Bayern fashion, they managed to get back to their usual routine and finished the season only losing one game after Christmas.

It seemed after years of safe signings, Bayern finally decided to make a statement, by bringing in the World Cup winning full back partnership of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard for a combined £100m. While they primarily play as centre backs, these players have been much needed additions to the side. Jerome Boateng and Matts Hummels were a fantastic partnership for both club and country, but as they began ageing and Boateng’s injury problems were only getting worse, it meant they could not persist with the former international defenders in their starting back line. Bringing in Pavard and Hernandez gives Bayern versatility and athleticism, two qualities that were slowly deminishing in defence.

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While it will be exciting to see the young pair starting for the Bundesliga Champions, what makes it more exciting is the effect it could have on the table. They are a promising pair of defenders, but lack that same title winning experience that has remained in that defence for years. On the short term, it could leave Bayern rather vunerable in those rather tight games, where vital blocks or last ditch tackles could ensure the 3 points. This is by far the most exciting Bundesliga season for a long time.

Seagull’s Step Forward

Chris Hughton’s sacking at the end of the season was seen as controversial at the time, with many neutrals baffled at why Hughton was let go, but I thought it was the right decision. Brighton were awful last season, only surviving thanks to their opponents lacking the same quality as they possessed in some areas of the pitch. They were in the bottom five for shots, dribbles, possession and pass accuracy. They were lacking any sort of attacking quality all season and suffered because of it.

What made this so much more frustrating is that Brighton’s head of recruiment, Paul Winstanley, helped the Seagulls sign some very interesting players and show the rest of the league that they are not going to sit back and be happy with survival. Bernardo, Bissouma, Andone, Gros and Montoya have all been picked up for very reasonable fees, yet were never given real opportunities under Hughton. While Bernardo eventually established himself as the first choice left back, the rest were taken out of the team for players who were favoured by the manager. While Jahanbakhsh faced a lot of criticism for failing to score all season, the sight of seeing Anthony Knockhaert still starting for Brighton is painful to say the least.

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Brighton’s appointment of Graham Potter highlights just how ambitious they are. He is a coach who gets his sides playing a good brand of football, focusing on tactical flexibility and build up play through the wide areas. This could givea new lease of life to so many of the players bought while Hughton was in charge. Bissouma and Andone could truly stand out for their new manager and hopefully living up to their potential. Brighton have combined an ambitious manager with ambitious signings and I cannot wait.

Chasing the Top 6

With United continuely looking underwhelming, Arsenal lacking funds and Chelsea with a transfer ban, it has left an opening for one of the chasing pack to overtake their competition, so let’s quickly look at the three teams that could clinch a European spot.

Let’s start with Everton, who after a rocky debut season under Silva, look like they could be ready to return to the European finishes they were getting under Moyes. They have a solid full back pairing in Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman, the former is everything for Everton in attack while the latter has done pretty okay after suffering a terrible leg break back in 2017. The midfield is another area in which they excel. Idrissa Gueye has been one of the best destroyers in the Premier League since his arrival back in 2015. His defensive numbers elite and enables Everton to quickly win the ball further up the pitch. One of the issues with Everton’s midfield in the past was the lack of ball progression and now with addition of Andre Gomes, it seems to be resolved. I have had my fair share of criticism towards Gomes in the past, but when given a midfield partner who can do a majority of ball recovery, it allows the former Barcelona midfielder to focus on transitioning the ball through dribbling. he’s been completing 1.5 dribbles from deep, the highest for his team. The improvement he has given to the side has never been more clear than in the big games. Gomes gives that confidence and style to the midfield in those tough games against better opposition, and has allowed Everton to remain competitive and actually bring the game to their opponent. Gomes should never join a super club again, but he will excel if he remains at these mid table clubs, where his quality is arguably better than his teammates.

Richarlison is another who has given Everton the goals they desperately needed. He ended the season with 13 goals, the joint highest for his side. He isn’t as technically gifted as other Brazilians, but offers something completely different. He is physically strong, which is what made his time adapting to the speed of the English game so easy. Richarlison is excellent at finding space in the box. It’s why his best position is easily on the left wing, because it allows him to make those late runs into the box, with 60% of his shots coming inside the penalty area. For a player still so young, he is very different to other players at a similar age, able to find better shooting positions. 

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The biggest issue regarding Everton challenging for European football is the easily the centre forward position. Calvert-Lewin is a very good player, but will not give you that 15+ goal tally you’re looking for and Cenk Tosun is just not a good player. Gylfi Sigurðsson is also a massive problem. While he did score 13 and assist a further 6, it’s his lack of involvement in build play that make him a liability. If Everton do one to return to being considered a threat to the top 6, these are issues they have to resolve.

Let’s move on to Leicester, who are by far the most likely to break into that top 6. The foxes have been making intelligent moves in the market in recent years, and some of those signings have been vital in taking Leicester from defensive underdogs, into a team to be taken seriously. They have arguably the second best full back pairing in the league with the incredible Ricardo Pereira and defensively solid Ben Chillwell. They epitomise the perfect balance teams are looking for in their full backs and are one reason why Leicester are so good at creating chances. Pereira and Chillwell, combined, complete 3.2 dribbles and create 2.2 chances a game. The width they offer is such an improvement over their previous full back pairing of Simpson and Fuchs and has been their big step in evolving their side beyond their title winners.

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While Everton’s midfield does keep them competitive in big games, Leicester arguably has one of the best midfield trios in the league. Wilfred Ndidi is one of the best ball winners in Europe, with the Nigerian making a ridiculous 6 tackles and interceptions per game. He played every game for his side and while isn’t the most technically gifted player, he has been the sole reason why that midfield has functioned since his arrival in 2016. The recent arrival of Youri Tielemans has given them a fantastic ball progressor for a very reasonable price of £40 million. Thanks to Ndidi doing all of the defensive work in that midfield, it has allowed Tielemans to show off his incredible range of passing and find space on the edge of the box to take those long range shots he favoures. He’s been creating an impressive 1.2 chances from deep and only Maguire and Ndidi have completed more passes per game than the Belgian. His arrival has given Leicester the added bonus of being able to quickly switch the play, and having a composed and talented passer in the middle of the park. While Ndidi and Tielemans are fantastic for Leicester, James Maddison is by far their most important midfielder. He made 100 key passes last season, the highest in the league. He formed an excellent relationship with Jamie Vardy, and was consistently providing chances for the rest of his teammates. He is great at finding space in between the lines and causes opposition defenders a lot of problems. Maddison has taken that step up into the Premier League like he has belonged there from the beginning.

The biggest issue with Leicester is their wide talent. While Albrighton is a useful player to have in the squad, Demarai Gray has consistently shown how he isn’t good enough to be starting for Leicester and shows a wastefullness that shouldn’t be in this side. Rodgers has opted to playing Harvey Barnes in the wide areas and while he is a good dribbler, he doesn’t have the pace to give that unpredictability that many good wingers have. It would be interesting to see how much Southampton would ask for Nathan Redmond, a great dribbler who possesses a lot of pace to cause defenders problems. He has recently been deployed as an attacking midfielder, but could still offer the same production in a wide area. It’ll be exciting to see if Rodgers can take an attacking side like Leicester to the next level.

Last, but definitely not least, is West Ham United. The East London side were by far the most fun side in the top half of the table. Everton were truly bad at times and Leicester weren’t exactly entertaining during the first half of the season. West Ham, while inconsistent at times, have a blend of aggressive characters and technically gifted players that has allowed them to take points away from Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. While some impressive showings, especially both of their games against the Red Devils, showed them to be a force for the top sides, they also showed just how bad they can be at times, with defeats to some of the worst sides in the division. West Ham are the only side who could concede 3 goals against Huddersfield, yet are the only side who can win that same game.

After Declan Rice’s breakout season, it begged the question who will partner him in midfield. Mark Noble has not been good enough for years now and Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez should not be relied on in the slightest. Rice is a very good passer and reads the game pretty well for his age. He will usually drop deep to give an option to his defenders and has been instrumental in helping West Ham keep possession. However he has been relied on heavily in midfield. No other play in the Hammers have put in more tackles and interceptions than Rice and has the highest pass accuracy out of any player to start over 10 games. It’s clear how important he is for his side, but needs a midfield partner who could contribute more than what Noble is at the moment. This is what made the arrival of Pablo Fornals so exciting, because he is exactly what West Ham needed. Fornals has been on the radar of many clubs since his days at Malaga, where he showed himself to be a versatile midfielder, comfortably playing as a 6 or a 10. Last season, he was putting in 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, as well as 1.6 key passes completing 1.4 dribbles. Rice now has a player beside him who can do a bit of everything. He can offer more in defence than Noble, while also offering so much in ball progression.

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Fornals arrival is key, but if West Ham wish to achieve anything this season, it is all down to the form of Felipe Anderson. His arrival last summer came out of nowhere, and for a club record fee, meant there was a lot of pressure on the Brazilian to perform. He is easily the best player from outside of the top 6. While there are many fantastic players in and around the mid table clubs, Felipe Anderson is a step above in the way he is able to do so much on an off the ball. Every team in the top 10 (excluding Wolves) has a player that carries his team in an attacking sense. Arsenal have Aubamayeng, Liverpool have Salah, United have Pogba and West Ham have Anderson. He tops the West Ham side for dribbles and key passes, displaying the reliance on him in the final third. In so many games this season, we’ve seen Anderson run with the ball through numerous players, make that pass that cuts through a defensive line or shown a moment of superior quality that you have to admire. What makes his overall game even more impressive his how much he does off the ball. Last season, Anderson made 3.6 tackles and interceptions per game. He has never failed to put in the defensive work that his side have needed, especially with their frailties in midfield.

West Ham are another side that are lacking a goalscorer. With Arnautovic departing the club after controverial circumstances, it has made a striker a number one priority for the Hammers this summer. It seemed Maxi Gomez was going to be that man, but after the Uruguayan pulled out of the move in favour of joining Valencia, it means West Ham need to look elsewhere. They have been rumoured to be interested in Sebastien Haller. The Frenchman is a fantastic target man, but I feel it could be a step below for him. He should be playing in the Champions League, with his creativity and dominance in the air making him a vital player for Frankfurt. If West Ham managed to pull this off, it would be one of the signings of the summer.

If I had to place a bet on who would finish in the top 6, it would be Leicester. West Ham will be a lot of fun, Everton could cause some problems but Leicester have a more complete squad. Their midfield is good enough to win a league title and they have players around them that are good enough to push them ahead of Arsenal or Manchester United.

Spurs’s Title Push

Onto another Premier League side, let’s talk about Tottenham. I have high expectations for the North London side in the upcoming season. They reached a Champions League final and finished inside the top four without signing a player while some of their key players suffered from injuries. Some of the players deserved a lot of praise for stepping up, with Sissoko, Son and Rose helping Spurs in some of the more difficult games of the season, but Mauricio Pochettino was by far the reason why Tottenham are playing in Europe next season. His intelligent in-game adjustments and getting the most out of players who should not be near the starting eleven is fantastic. He managed to get output out of both Lamela and Llorente during the season, two players who I thought were finished. While Pep and Klopp amassing the highest points totals in the history of the league, Pochettino was easily my manager of the year.

While they did reach a Champions League final for the first time in their history, there was an element of luck involved in their run to the final. They only scrapped past Manchester City after a saved penalty, a controversial goal from Llorente and a disallowed goal. They went against the neutral’s favourite Ajax and won, primarily down to Ajax showing some awful finishing. It was impressive that they managed to get to the final, but the aim should be to deserve to get there, to be one of the two best teams in the competition.

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After 18 months of no signings, Tottenham decided to break that deadlock with a real statement of intent. After links to Lo Celso and Ceballos, Tottenham’s first signing was French midfield powerhouse Tanguay Ndombele. A player I have spoken on plenty in the past, but in case anyone doesn’t know much about the player, he is arguably one of the best young midfielders in Europe. He is versatile, comfortable in possession, a good dribbler and is a very good creator from deep. He can either allow his teammates to attack, or join the attack himself. He is the perfect player to replace Mousa Dembele, and for £55 million, is a very reasonable price in today’s market. He could be one of the players to help push Spurs closer towards Man City and Liverpool and ensure they are not in the same league as Arsenal, Chelsea and United, fighting for Top 4. They do need more than Ndombele however. Kane’s injury worries are only getting worse, Vertonghen cannot play as many minutes as he did last season and the right back area needs looking into. There is still plenty of work to do for Pochettino.

Lyon Fulfilling Their Potential

Lyon have been one of the many nearly sides for years now. They have been one of the best sides in France in developing young, French talent with Lacazette, Benzema, Tolisso and most recently Ndombele all gaining acolades playing for the club. It’s one reason why they have remained such an attractive prospect for countless young players. They have produced many players through their youth system, but most recently they have focused on signing players from other clubs and increasing their value. It can be seen most recently with Ferland Mendy. The young French full back was signed from Le Havre for £4.50 million was sold for ten-times that amount. It isn’t only young players they target. They’ve also began giving second chances to players who have failed at clubs in the past. Jason Denayer arrived for less than £5 million and ended up having a very good 18/19 season, quite surprising to see from a player who was on loan at Sunderland not so long ago. Their squad is built similar to what you see from Ajax, a side full of sellable assets and experienced players looking to get substancial minutes and allow that younger talent to blossom.

One issue I’ve had with Lyon over the last couple of years was how inconsistent they have been. Their performance in the Champions League group stages last season perfectly displays how they could be fantastic in one game, yet look poor in others. They were one of five sides to go unbeaten, however they only managed a single win, the first game in the competition against Manchester City, where Lyon were fantastic. They were poor against Hoffenheim in both legs, with Lyon struggling away and squandering a two goal lead at home with their opposition down to ten men. It’s clear they have a team full of talented individuals, so what was the problem? It was arguably Bruno Genesio. I always saw him as a fine enough coach, but it can be very frustrating when a manager is gifted with such talented players, yet doesn’t seem what to do with them. His Lyon side were relatively defensive, relying heavily on their talented attackers to carry them. It explains how Marcelo, Denayer and Mendy have flourished in a defensive system, while Traore, Cornet and Depay have all struggled at times.

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The appointment of Sylvinho could be very interesting. With the sale of Ndombele and Mendy, it gives Lyon a lot of money to spend. They’ve already brought in Thiago Mendes from Lille for £18 million. The Brazilian, while on the older side, puts in a solid amount of defensive work and is a fantastic passer, making 1.8 key passes per game last season. While not as versatile as Ndombele, he will perform well at the base of midfield and give the side a player just as comfortable on the ball as the Frenchman. Not much is known about Sylvinho as a manager. He could continue the same defensive style that Genesio played or push for a more attacking system, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

5 Premier League Teams to Watch Next Season

With the season arriving in less than a month, let’s look at 5 teams that you should just keep your eye on next season.

Chelsea

For the first time since Ancelotti, Chelsea have an attacking manager. This isn’t to take away from Mourinho and Conte, who both had good spells in charge. But they were always so pragmatic with how they set up their teams. Efficient is easily the best compliment that can be given to both of their title winning teams. But now they finally have brought in a manager who is famed for his attacking style. Sarri is one of my favourite managers in Europe. The team he built in Napoli was just so fun to watch. He was able to bring the best out of the players at his disposal. He turns Dries Mertens into a very good false 9, Insigne into one of the best wingers in Europe, and turned Reina from not good enough for Liverpool, to a very solid goalkeeper. He reminds me of Pep, in his ability to bring the best out of what he has. Speaking of Napoli, the signing of Jorginho was just what they needed. The Italian is a very good game controller, which is an area they have been missing since Fabregas began his decline. Sarri teams like to keep hold of the ball, so bringing in a guy who completes nearly 100 passes per game, is just ideal. However there still many issues for the Blues. The futures of Eden Hazard of Thibaut Courtois are all in doubt, with both heavily linked to a move to the Spanish capital. Both are key players and need to be tied down for the future. Hazard is a player who could finally shine, now with a manager who will not limit him. Courtois has also just came back from a golden glove winning world cup, meaning keeping him should be key. Chelsea are also heavily linked to Russian midfielder Oleksandr Golovin, and if they pull that move off, Chelsea’s midfield should be fixed. While they are not currently in the best place, Chelsea are finally in a place of unknown, which makes it so exciting to see where they go from here.

Arsenal

I think the end of Wenger’s reign couldn’t have ended more horribly. Missing out on champions league football for a second time and having an absolutely terrible away record. There were also huge issues with the team, lacking a good centre half, a defensively minded central midfielder, a competent goalkeeper, and a wide player. The appointment of Unai Emery, while not as high profile as everyone wanted, is still a safe and solid choice. He is known to be a great motivator and trains his players very hard. In fact after their last pre season game, his players went straight back to training, showing how much work needs to be done to have them ready for the new season (or maybe the lack of work Wenger was doing). The signings made have also been mostly fine. While both Leno and Papadopoulos aren’t great players, bringing both in for less than £20m is good business, and are improvements on what they already have. While Lichsteiner is the definition of a short term solution, he will give competition to a very inconsistent Bellerin, and offers good delivery in the final third. The best signing however is easily Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira. He had a breakout season for Sampdoria, giving them a real Kante role. He was a player who was excellent at recovering the ball, and also a fine distributer. He will give some real steel to a midfield that lacks a defensive workhorse. It is the first time in so long that Arsenal will finally be different, which is why it’ll be interesting to see how they perform next season.

Liverpool

While it does hurt to admit, Liverpool have easily made the best business of the window. They have fixed all of their key issues and look ready to challenge Manchester City for the title. While their defense was never a huge issue for them in my opinion (mainly because the way they play result in them looking very leaky), they have improved that with the signing of Allison. While they might have overpaid for him, he was easily the best available option for them in this current market. The Brazilian was brilliant for Roma last season, with only De Gea beating him in stopping expected goals. Allison is a great signing, but it’s their improvement in midfield that is most impressive. My issue with Liverpool’s midfield has always been the lack of flexibility. When playing against teams, like Manchester City, they excel because all of their players are great at pressing and do not need the ball. When they play against teams who would rather sit back, they do not have a central midfielder who is able to carry the ball out effectively and dribble through a midfield. They have brought in one of the best box to box midfielders in Naby Keita, and one of the most well rounded defensive midfielders in Fabinho. Keita is just great at everything. He is able to do the defensive work, is an incredible dribbler and is able to score and create. He will add a player who is able to fill in plenty of roles and who will help the reds keep possession more effectively. Fabinho gives them a real defensive midfielder. While Henderson has performed relatively well, he was never a true DM. Fabinho is one of the best defensive midfielders around, putting in over 4 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also helping in moving the ball, with a very solid 1.1 key passes per 90. He also wins 2.9 aerial rules. Which could mean the centre backs do not have to go towards the ball as much as they do, now with a player who is able to win it further up the pitch. This is a huge season for Jürgen Klopp’s side. Progress will need to be seen, and so far it is definitely there.

West Ham

I have always been so critical in how West Ham have signed players over the last year. They were signing the wrong players and their owners were always making these ridiculous promises. However this window has actually seen some real improvement. Gold and Sullivan decided to bring in Manuel Pellegrini to replace David Moyes. The obvious step up aside, it is a real coup for the hammers. They have finally found a manager who will be able to match the owner’s crazy ambition. What has been even better is the signings. Some smart signings were made very early on, like bringing in Ryan Fredericks on a free, and Fabinaski for less than £10m. They have matched these safe signings with some real ambitious ones, like highly rated youngster Issa Diop from Toulouse, finally giving them another option besides the usual James Collins and Winston Reid. While other signings like Yarmolenko and Wilshere are also pretty good, it’s their signing of Lazio winger Felipe Anderson that has really blown me away. The Brazilian was excellent in Serie A last season. In only 9 starts, he scored 4 and assisted 7. His stats also make for a great read, averaging 1.8 key passes and making 3.7 successful dribbles per 90. One thing that has been great to see in the Premier League is every club having a player good enough for the top 6, now West Ham have their man. They still have some key areas to strengthen, mainly in midfield. While Wilshere is a fine enough addition, that midfield is still missing quality. 3 managers have now fielded a Koyate and Noble midfield, and everytime have shown why it doesn’t work. They will hope that Wilshere can stay fit, and that Obiang has a real breakout season, otherwise they could well struggle to protect the defense. It is still a much improved summer for the Irons.

Fulham

As mentioned, I like seeing all teams have a top 6 quality player. It can be debated on whether Sessegnon is at that level. He isn’t at the moment, but he definitely will if he continues on this path. He just needs to improve in the box, mainly with the amount of shots he takes. Fulham did pull off one of the signings of the season in bringing in Jean Michael Seri from Nice for £27m. This is the same player who has been constantly linked with moves to Arsenal and Chelsea, and has ended up in Fulham. I do actually think this is the best for the player. Seri didn’t have a place in one of those sides because they already had good creators. Both of those teams needed something else (which they did get with in Torreira and Jorginho respectively). But Seri does fit right in for Fulham. One huge issue that some teams have when making that step from the Championship to the Premier League is making the right improvements in the side, while also keeping to what worked. Fulham prefer a possession style, favouring short passes. Seri fits that bill, being a player who’s speciality is his ability on the ball. He averages 86 passes with a 90% accuracy, which shows how he is able to help keep possession effectively. He also averages a very good 2.1 key passes, better than captain Tom Cairney’s 1.9. It is clear they have found that extra bit of quality in their team, to help them stay up. At the time of writing, they are also close to signing Andre Schurrle from Dortmund. If they pull that off, then the rest of the league should keep an eye on them.