With the round of 16 only drawn today, it’s now time to look at 3 teams to watch in this year’s competition. While the Champions League is far more popular, and for good reason, the Europa League does deserve some recognition. I wanted to wait for the round of 32 to finish, because the group stages contain a lot of poor opposition, so waiting for good teams to appear seemed like the right thing to do.
Let’s begin with a team that have been very good this season. Frankfurt currently sit 7th in the Bundesliga, only 7 points behind the Champions League places. After their DFB Pokal win over Bayern Munich, they lost their manager and replaced him with Adi Hutter. The Austrian had earned plenty of attention thanks to his success with Salzburg and then beating FC Basel to the League with Young Boys. It was seen as an incredible feet, and meant he was given the chance to manage at a club with promise. He has done an excellent job so far. Frankfurt play a 3-5-2, a formation that gives good width while still given the side plenty of numbers if possession is lost. Thanks to his attackers being so good, it has allowed Frankfurt to build their entire team around creating chances for them. Thanks to having a good distributor in Hasebe, it means they can counter attack very quickly, and it has made them so good to watch in that regard. Only Dortmund have scored more goals on the counter attack than Frankfurt’s 5. They also take 64% of their shots in the 18 yard box, the highest in the league. It’s proof that this is a team that knows how to create good chances, and are very difficult to stop. They’ve carried this form into this year’s Europa League compeition, scoring 13 goals in open play, the joint second in the competition. They’ve also scored the most goals from set pieces, just showing they take advantage of any chance to score a goal. It’s a reason why they are such a threat this year. This side are full of goals and not many defences could deal with them.
To look at their most important players starts and finishes with their attackers. Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Let’s begin with by far their most notable player, Serbian forward Luka Jovic. The Benfica forward has been one of the breakout stars of the season, with Jovic already being linked a big move to Barcelona. There are justified reasons why. He has been a monster in front of of goal this season, scoring 14 goals in 15 starts in the Bundesliga this season. What is most impressive is where he’s shooting this season. Per 90, he’s been taking 3.6 shots a game, with 3.1 inside the box. They are numbers similar to Mauro Icardi, a man who lives in the 18 yard box. What is so great about him is just how good he is at scoring. A simple observation yes, but still very true, thanks to his strike partner being so good, it always leaves him with the chance at goal, and he just hits it with so much power. He’s fast, strong and good in the air, and it makes him one of the most wanted players around.
His strike partner, Sebastien Haller, has arguably been better in the Europa League this season than Jovic. The French man has been very good this season, but thanks to Jovic earning all the praise, it has let fly under the radar. Haller has scored 11 and assisted 8, putting him in the top 10 scorers and the top 5 assisters in the League. I mentioned that having him has made Jovic better, and it’s true. It’s similar to the relationship built between Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen. One who is the goal scorer, and the other helps said goal scorer get the opportunities. It’s arguably the reason why Werner hasn’t succeeded at international level. He doesn’t have someone like Poulsen next to him, to allow him to find space as easily, and doesn’t allow him to play as more of a poacher. Haller has done exactly that. He is winning a crazy 7.7 aerial duels in the Bundesliga, the most in the league. His shot numbers aren’t exactly great, but that isn’t the point. His purpose is to allow Frankfurt to transition as quickly as possible, and for a side that isn’t exactly Champions League level, it works really well. He is an incredibly important player, and hopefully gets the credit he deserves.
Finally, let’s touch on Ante Rebic. The most experienced forward out of the trio (he’s only 25) has also been very good this season. While he has played as a winger for Croatia and has a forward for Frankfurt, he has been playing as a number 10 primarily this season, and has been a great addition to the strike force. Rebic is by far the best dribbler out of the trio, completing 2.6 dribbles per 90, comfortably the most for his side He is very importantly in driving the ball and adding an element of unpredictability to his side. It’s what makes him useful to have. Jovic is a great goalscorer and Haller is a great vocal point, and Rebic is great at driving at defences, with power and speed making him a handful for many defences.
This attack is what makes Frankfurt in my opinion, one of the favourites for the tournament. Their attack has the versatility to be able to deal with nearly any defence that comes their way. Their game against Inter Milan is a must watch, because it could truly be an upset and a showing from a side that has performed so well in the Bunesliga this season.
While I have definitely gone on way too much on Frankfurt, let’s look at the team that have scored more than one of the best attacks in the compeition, RB Salzburg. Salzburg were a team they I never used to think much of. I just presumed they were a feeder club for many clubs across Europe. They had an eye for talent, which saw players like Sadio Mane and Naby Keita go through their ranks, before moving on to bigger clubs in Europe. But that all changes last season. They were so good in the Europa League last season. They managed to finish above runners up Marseille in the group stages, going unbeaten. Their run in the competition was a difficult one, yet they still managed to reach the semi finals, where they couldn’t pull one over Marseille one last time. They beat Real Sociedad, Lazio and Borussia Dortmund in the competition. They have a talented squad, and most importantly, an amazing coach. Marco Rose has been seen as one of the most exciting young coaches in Europe. The German is another young German coach with a style and philosophy that is seen as the future of the game. After beating Man City, PSG, Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to win the UEFA Youth League with Salzburg’s youth side, he was given the job for the senior side. He has a win percentage of 70% for Salzburg, and is looking to win another Austrian Bundesliga . To describe him as a coach, his insperations seems to be Tuchel and Klopp. It’s understandable since he played under Klopp and has worked with Tuchel. If Klopp’s football is heavy metal, then Rose’s should be heavier metal. It takes pressing to another level. They primarily play a 4-3-1-2, but Rose is still very flexible depending on who he plays. Salzburg play directly to their forward Dabbur, thanks to Ramalho a very good passer, averaging 8.7 long balls in the Europa League. They attempt to then play the ball quickly in and around the final third, with Hannes Wolf and Minamino/Gulbrandsen trying to exploit the space that is made. Their full backs are the ones who give the side their width, with Laimer and Ulmer mostly playing as wingers. The first thought when seeing and describing this is usually the risk it involves, with so many players advancing forward. It is risky, but when your side counter presses as well as Rose’s does, it isn’t so bad. The main reason why they play such a narrow formation is for this reason. When they lose the ball, they will have so many numbers, that it makes retrieving the ball much easier. It makes them such a threat, that no wonder they reached the semi finals last season. They have been outstanding in the competition so far. They were in a relatively tough group, with Celtic and RB Leipzig. Yet they managed to win every game. Only previously mentioned Frankfurt and Salzburg managed to do this. It’s why I’ve mentioned first here, because they have been the best sides so far in the Europa League. Salzburg did carry this on into the round of 32, with a comfortable 5-2 aggregate final score against Brugge just showing why they are so high regarded.
The first player that has to be discussed is Munas Dabbur. The Israeli forward has been the stand out player of the tournament so far, scoring 7 and assisting 1 in all 8 games they’ve played. His importance to the side cannot be underestimated. While the striker playing beside him has been changed around, he has stayed an ever present. He takes a team high 3.8 shots per 90, and has created 1.7 chances. He is an all round forward who is able to not only score, but able to bring others into play very effectively. Salzburg will hope that he is able to bring this form into their game against Napoli, if they are to get anything out of that tough tie.
When bringing up the counter press in this side, Diade Samassekou has to be given plenty of praise. While he offers nearly nothing in attack, his defensive work is just out of this world. The Mali midfielder has been putting in 7 tackles and interceptions per game. I don’t think I have ever seen numbers like this on a player, when you realise that no other player in the competition has reached that number, it tells you just how good this guy is at recovering the ball. In a system where doing that is vital to not only keeping the ball, but helping with attacking the opposition.
Salzburg are such a threat because of the way they approach games. These players know the system and have the intelligence and energy to pull it off. Their aggressive and fast style of play makes them a difficult opposition for anyone.
Sevilla, who after having a relatively poor 2017/18 season, bounced back with a bang. While their form has dropped off since the new year, the fact they were top of the league as recent as November. We’ll start with the summer, which saw the arrival of their new coach, Pablo Machin. He did an excellent job at Girona. He ensured that a newly promoted side finished 10th in the league. While they didn’t score many goals from open play, they managed 19 goals from set pieces, with only Madrid scoring more from those situations. For a promoted side, taking advantage of opportunites like that is vital. You will not have much of the ball and need goals. It’s also easier to teach set pieces than it is to teach a different system. Machin did well and was given the chance at a team with more resourses and better players. He turned Sevilla into a counter attacking machine, a side that moved the ball quickly and created great chances for a group of forwards who have shown plenty of talent in their career. They’re also midfielders with an eye for a pass, with Banega and Sarabria both helping transition the ball further up the pitch, and Navas and Escudero giving good width for the side. They are so forward thinking in an attacking sense, that it makes them very vunerable defensively. While they have scored an impressive 40 goals, they have conceded 32, the most out of the top 10 in La Liga. Their approach is very much of Wenger’s Arsenal in its later years, if the opposition scores 2, we’ll score 3. They are a great side to watch, and while the form of some players have dropped (especially Andre Silva), they have had their best season since Sampoali’s top 4 finish.
They have been very good in the Europa League so far this season. They reached the round of 16 by winning 4 games and losing 2 in the group stages. They weren’t at their best in this period, but considering the group stages took place when Sevilla were doing well in La Liga, it makes sense why they didn’t do better. Their tie against Lazio in the round of 32 were Sevilla back at their best. Thanks to heroic performances from Banega and Kjaer, it gave Sevilla an away goal and a clean sheet, giving Sevilla the upper hand. They then went and beat the Italian side 2-0 in Spain to advance to the next round. Now that any hope of a title is out of the water, it leaves them with more focus on this compeition, making it a very important goal for the season.
To look at key players, one must begin with Ben Yedder. The frenchman is a very good forward and now under Machin, is getting the chances to show. He finds great positions in the box and is able get in between defenders, thanks to his small figure, makes him a stiker you have to keep your eye on . He has scored 6 goals in the competition, the most for his side, and is by far their most threatening forward. Another player who will shine in this competition, as he has done in the past, is Ever Banega. The Argentine had already won the competition during his last spell for Sevilla, and hopefully and help his side do the same. He’s been putting in 3 tackles and interceptions, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. He is so important for Sevilla when it comes to transition, with his calmness and experience key in helping move the ball higher up the pitch. He, like Sarabia, is also an excellent creator. It’s what makes their counter attacks so threatening. They are able to find their dynamic forward precise passes, and is why they are so dangerous in the break.
While question marks can be made on how they are defensively (mainly due to personel), they are still a side who are very dangerous. If you do not attack them enough, they will punish you for it.