Is the League More Important? Liverpool vs Bayern Munich – UEFA Champions League Preview

With the first week of fixtures over, let’s start looking at next week’s games, starting with by the most interesting, Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and title challengers and last year’s finalists Liverpool. It’s a game between 2 European heavyweights, but do they both even want to win this tournament?

We’ll start with Liverpool, who are arguably having their best season in the league since Suarez’s time in Anfield. A combination of a forward line whoj just get each other and defensive improvements have truly made them worthy challengers, but not deserving of a title. If their closest opponents were not this one in a million Manchester City side, I’d say they would definitely earn they praise. When talking about Liverpool, their summer window was one of their highlights. They fixed a majority of the issues I had with their squad. They fixed their hard working midfield by bringing an excellent defensive midfielder in Fabinho and a one in a million in Naby Keita (even if he hasn’t been at his best so far). The best part about bringing in these players is the added competition they’ve given. Wijnaldum and Milner have both improved this season, and have became regulars in the side. While I don’t like Wijnaldum in the slightest (his inconsistency and underwhelming numbers just make him not very useful player to me), it’s hard to deny he has had his best season at Merseyside. Milner is another who is in the form of his career. He is been the best creator in that midfield and balls to the full back have been intrusmental. I do say they haven’t deserved to be how close to city as they have, but they deserve credit for that. Klopp has weakened his press and put Salah as the point man in the team, and it’s been so successful. Firmino still leads the press, but it gives Salah the freedom to lead the line, and he might be in the best form of his career. He leads his team in every category, shots, chance creation and dribbles, and keeps that attack ticking with his pace and movement. The most important element of this side is the new found flexibility. When you move Firmino in a deeper position, it really helps give that midfield an option and doesn’t leave such a gap between the forward line and the midfield. It’s been a success, and now Klopp has even more options on how to set up his side. While their league form has been sensational, their performances in the Champions League have been worrying. Their defeats away to Paris, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade were very worrying, because it highlighted their weaknesses and their occasion to just forget the basics of football. Away games in the Champions League are tough, and Liverpool just dropped off. They were taking less shots and giving away way more big chances than they usually do. Their usual aggression and general effort just seemed to drop off, especially against Napoli. It’s left them with clear weaknesses, that if you deal with the midfield, it makes them so much easier to handle. They are still one of the best sides in the competition, and will be very hard to stop.

With Salah already highlighted. let’s look at 2 other players that will have an influence in this game, starting with Virgil Van Dijk. The Dutchman has single handedly fixed that defence and given them a monsterous aerial prescene and a great distributor. Liverpool were chasing Van Dijk for months, and finally landed their man for £75 million last January. He has arguably been one of Liverpool’s best ever signings in the Premier League era. He is just so reliable and leads that back line and has improved every defender who plays next to him. The best thing to say about Van Dijk is he is yet be dribbled past in the Premier League. That is absolutely incredible. He will be needed in a game against an opponents with true European pedigree, and Liverpool need a leader, especially at the Allianz. While I do like Van Dijk and mostly like Salah (the diving hasn’t helped him recently), I love Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is the reason why that front 3 click so well. His pressing, creativity and work ethic make him the perfect partner for Mane and Salah. He has been so consistent during his time in Liverpool, He has contibuted to more than 15 goals in every domestic season for the Reds, and is a favourite for Jurgen Klopp. While Salah and Mane were great in the Champions League last season. He played every game and arguably gave his best performances. He contributed to 17 goals in 13 starts. He gave out the highest shot numbers and creative figures, and was the stand out performer for a majority of Liverpool’s games. Whether he is on the ball or off it, Bayern should be worried for what he can do to them.

Moving on to Bayern, who haven’t had as bad of a season as many have attempted to point out. The best way to describe it is unfortunate.  Just looking at thier xPTS, it shows that Bayern should be 8 points clear ahead of Dortmund, but thanks to a few unfortunate results and Favre breaking xG as usual, Bayern are 5 behind Dortmund and just in front of Gladbach. I’ve covered the negatives multiple times in the past so why not look at the more positive side? Well they still top the Bundesliga for shots, possession, pass accuracy and face the least amount of shots. They are still a very good side, but a lack of recruitment has made this squad weak in some areas. Niko Kovac is doing a good job, but has had the problem of relatively poor backing from the board have given Kovac criticism that isn’t entirely his fault. Bayern have an average age of 27,3, the highest in the Bundesliga. It’s worrying when their closest competitors, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, have average age’s of 23,9 and 24,9 respectively. While signings like Goretzka, Gnabry and Tolisso show that they have thought ahead in some areas, there are still players in this side that should be looking at moving on. Robben and Ribery are leaving in the summer, which is long overdue. Both have been some of the best wingers of the century, but they shouldn’t be relying on these players when they are both in their mid 30s. Some of their defenders also need to be looking at replacing. While I think Boateng and Hummels are still great defenders, one of them should move on, most definitely Boateng. The World Cup winner has struggled with injuries, and has relied on his physicality for years now. Hummels does not, which makes him more useful as he ages. Even with Pavard coming in the summer, they need to start truly future proofing the side, and now with Koman and Gnabry being the only attackers in the side that can be seen as young, their next few summers could possibly be the most important in the club’s recent history. I do think Bayern have been hugely unlucky to not be top of the Bundesliga, but their problems are all their own.

While Lewandowski is by far their biggest threat, with the forward scoring the joint most goals in the group stages, and his shot numbers being very good with 4 per game, it’s too obvious. We’ll instead look at two other players that will cause Liverpool plenty of problems. The first being, as previously mentioned, Kinglsey Coman. The Frenchman has had his difficulties while playing for the champions, with his game time limited thanks to Robben and Ribery’s continued persistence to remain as key players, it has meant he isn’t given as much game time as he so rightly deserves. Why does he deserve it? Well he has confortably been their best wide player. With Robben, Ribery and Gnabry all not being at their best, it has made Coman vital to this side. Even with the winger missing a majority of the season due to an injury he sustained in the first game of the season, Kovac as seen Coman as a player that must remain part of his first team plans. He put in a man of the match display against Augsburg, which saw him score 2 and assist another, which have been his only goal involvments this season, but his numbers have still been very positive. His xG90 and xA90 combined this season is a good 0.64, the highest in his career. He has only made 11 appearances this season, but it shows just how well he has played under Kovac. He has been unbeatable at times, with his pace, dribbling and chance creation all incredible this season. He has to play every game, but it’s a shame his injury record is still a worry. He’s now 22, which means it is about time for him to truly show the potential he’s promised for so long. Finally, let’s discuss Thiago Alcantara. The Spaniard has been one of the best midfielders in Europe for the past 3 years, but like Coman, he has also had his injury problems in the past. This hasn’t stopped the Spaniard in being almost a complete midfielder. He averages 4.2 tackles and interceptions per game, completes 2.2 dribbles and averages 82 passes a game. Without Thiago in the side, they lack a player who isn’t afraid to get on the ball and help transition to attack, while relieving pressure off the defence. He is one of their most important players, and Bayern will need to get him on the ball as much as possible.

If Liverpool want to win this tie, they must attack down the flanks. If Bayern’s 3-1 loss against Leverkusen has taught us anything, it’s that they struggle when dealing with fast wingers, and Liverpool definitely have some of them. Bailey and Bellarabi cause Alaba and Rafinha plenty of problems, with the wingers completing 5 dribbles between them. Even with Kimmich coming back, it doesn’t change the fact that because Bayern advance their full backs so far forward, it leaves so much space for wingers to exploit. When Bayern struggle against teams, it’s against those who have more energy and hit them in the wide areas. Liverpool should deploy their 4-3-3. This kind of game is made for Firmino. His pressing will be key in dealing with an aging back line and a goalkeeper who is having his worst season in the his esteemed career in Neuer. Liverpool have been good this season, but it is time for them to turn on the spark of their incredible run last season, where their forwards that their best performances, and show this Bayern side that they aren’t top dogs anymore in European football.

However if Bayern want to advance to the next round, they must get Thiago on the ball as much as possible. I mentioned this before, but he is an excellent midfielder and if they are to get anything out of this game, Thiago needs to put his mark on this game. Modric and Kroos proved that if you play midfielders with game intelligence and great transitional play, it truly makes it hard for Liverpool. They cannot play anyone who isn’t afraid to run the length of the pitch. Coman. Gnabry, Rodriguez and even Goretzka have to play. Kovac might have to sacrifice everything that Pep has built and established, if they want to advance.

I’m going for Liverpool to advance here, and quite comfortably. This is still a good Bayern side, but this Liverpool side are still favourites. On their day, they can beat anyone, and they have the players and energy to break this Bayern side. The game at Anfield could be a battering, and it could be a massive statement for the Reds. Both want to win their domestic campaigns arguably more than this trophy, so it will be interesting to see how both will set up.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

Will Solskjaer Get the Job FULL TIME? Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain – UEFA Champions League Preview

By far one of the clashes of the tournament. The french champions go against a high flying Man United side. It’s a tie that could go either way and it’s very difficult to even predict this, but I’ll try my best.

Let’s start with Manchester United, who three months ago, would have made this fixture so easy to predict. Under Mourinho, this side were absolutely awful.There was no clear future and seemed to change how the team set up in every game. In the end, why even blame the players when the manager was doing so much wrong. Now under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they look like a completely different team. They attack much faster and take advantage of the incredibly talented attackers they have. Who knew that playing Martial and Pogba, two of the most talented players in the team, would help win games? Since the Norwegian has taken over, United have closed an 11 point gap, to overtaking Arsenal and only a win away from top 4. They are unbeaten and even beat Asenal and Tottenham in the process. Even looking at xG, only the Tottenham game can be seen as a game where United rode their luck, but you can do that when you have one of the best keepers the game has ever seen. I think what’s most impressive about Solskjaer so far is just how quickly he identified the problems. He brought Herrera back into the team and made Martial and Rashford key players in what he was trying to do. This is the best United have been playing since Sir Alex retired, and is arguably the most likeable United have ever been.

Their key player for this fixture is not even a debate, and that is Paul Pogba. The Frenchman’s form has been next level in recent months. He has more goal contributions than any other Manchester United player, and is performing at the level we all knew he could reach. Pogba has always been incredible for United, but now he’s adding those goals and assists that all of his critics have been craving. His numbers have been absolutely sensational this season. He’s taking 3.5 shots a game, making 1.6 key passes and completing 1.9 dribbles. No other United player ranks higher in these departments. He is essentially carrying the attack and he seems to be loving it. He is especially good when it comes to counter attacks. It’s an approach that the team have been using in the tougher games, and thanks to Pogba’s strength and vision, it’s working. While Pogba as been the best player, Marcus Rashford isn’t far behind. The forward was one of few players who showed a lot of fight even when Mourinho was at the helm. He has been the first choice number 9, since Lukaku just doesn’t look up to it in this system. Rashford’s speed and ability to interchange with the other forwards making an unpredictable threat. His shot numbers since Solskjaer took over have gone to Harry Kane numbers. He’s averaging 5 shots a game, and is really looking like a player I never thought he would be. It’s great to finally see the 21 year old look like a player who truly is deserving of starting for the club.

Let’s look at Paris, who while having a record breaking start to the season, amassing 14 wins in a row, seems to be surrounded by off the pitch problems. The first seems to be Thomas Tuchel’s transfer demands. The former Borussia Dortmund coach seems to have this reputation of having high demands. He fell out with the Borussia Dortmund board because of the issues he was having regarding transfers, and it seems to have continued him into the French capital. Before the season started, Tuchel made it very clear that full backs he had were in his view, not good enough. With Thiago Motta retiring, it left Paris without their best defensive midfielder. What made things even worse was Rabiot’s contract situation. He was refusing to sign a new deal, because he wanted to play for Barcelona. The board did not like this, so Tuchel is now not allowed to play him at all. The problem is none of these issues have been resolved, and it has left Tuchel very frustrated. Juan Bernat was the only full back that was signed in the summer, and only last month the club decided to replace Motta, with Leandro Parades, a player who I really like. The problem is it should have never been left this late. They are still a midfielder short, and with their failed attempt to bring in Idrissa Gueye from Everton, it has left Tuchel wondering if his club really want to win the Champions League. Their performances in the league have been amazing, but you expect that. When you some of the best attackers in Europe playing in the worst out of the top 5 leagues, of course they are going to perform exceptionally. If you just focus on their performances in Europe, there is a significant difference. That is going to happen when playing better opposition, but it’s staggering how much of a difference there is. Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria have stayed consistent, but the likes of Bernat, Cavani, Kimpembe and Marquinhos all look worse. It does address a problem this side have. Many of their players just aren’t elite. They have these high ambitions of winning the Champions League, but you look at the other top teams, like Juventus, Barcelona and Manchester City, they have talent in every area of the side. Paris’s full backs aren’t good enough, and have a lot of players starting to age out. It isn’t their fault entirely. They play in a league where attracting talent can be difficult, but it begs the question why not focus on their domestic league? Ligue 1 is not as competitive as other leagues, but you can go into every single team and you would be able find one talent that is stand out. Sangare, Thuram, Pepe, Thauvin, Aouar, Atal, Lala. My point is they should be smarter regarding bringing in talent. It has hurt Bayern to an extent, but Juventus and Lyon have all excelled when finding domestic talent. They are the only top club in Paris, so why do they not use that pull to bring the best talent in the country?

Anyways, lets look the players that Manchester United should truly be worried about. There is no other place to start than arguably the best young talent in the history, Kylian Mbappe. The World Cup winner has actually taken his game to a whole new level this season. With Neymar mssing both fixtures thanks to another injury, the pressure is on the young forward to step up on the big stage. While Neymar was comfortably their best player in the group stages, Mbappe was still amazing. He started all 6 games, and finished the group stages with 7 goal contributions, the same as his Brazilian teammate. No other player in this side was taken more than his 3.1 shots per 90. He was thir most lethal player in the box. With Neymar dropping incredibly deep in some games, it left Mbappe as one of the most advanced players. He was also creating 2.3 chances a game, and even completing 2.5 dribbles a game. He will be a massive handful for which ever defenders are selected for the game.

With Neymar out, there was also concern that Marco Verratti would also mix the tie. Thanfully for Paris, he will be available for this game. Verratti has been the best midfielder in France and one of the best in Europe. He has been in the Ligue 1 team of the season every year for the past 4 years (Don’t quote me on that). Even after initial problems with Tuchel, with the German claiming Verratti was overweight, he is back to his best this season. In the Champions League, he was averaging 85 passes a game. No other player in the squad was making more than the Italian international. He also had the highest pass accuracy than any outfield player to start more than 1 game. He was winning the ball back more than any other Paris player, with Verratti making 4 tackles a game, twice more than anyone else. He is the reason why the French champion’s midfield is even functional. His distribution and ball winning ability make him essential in linking the defense and the attack together. Without him, they look so much slower and have less of that drive in the midfield. He is a vital player to PSG.

If Manchester United want to progress to the next round, there is one thing they must do. Play on the counter attack, in a similar fashion to how they did against Arsenal. They play full backs that love to go forward, but don’t have the speed to get back if United move the ball. Rashford, Martial and Lingard have to start this game. If Rashford and Martial split wide, it will make life very difficult for their defense. A lot also rests on Paul Pogba. Their midfield isn’t the strongest. If the Frenchman can use his incredible athletic ability and passing range to find the forwards, it’ll mak United very difficult to deal with. They are missing their best player, so it’s vital that they take advantage of that.

If Paris wish to advance to the quarter finals, they must attack more centrally. While Herrera and Matic have both been good under Solkjaer, Herrera has this habit of going out of position to recover the ball, and Matic is also very slow. You expect intelligent passers like Verratti and Parades to find the holes to get through the wall. It also helps that United’s defense has this habit of making mistakes. Mbappe and Cavani have to make sure whoever is playing with Lindelof is the one receiving the ball. Lindelof is the only one with the confidence to try and break out of the line. If you limit United to goal kicks and long balls into the channels, it makes dealing with their attack much easier. While they have improved, there is definitely still a Mourinho-sized shadow looming over some of these players.

This tie is so hard to predict. Paris can beat anyone on their day, but their inability to deal with sides with good wingers makes them quite easy to beat. Liverpool and Napoli proved that beating this side is not difficult. United have proved that they know how to deal with tough away games and come back with the 3 points, as seen by their wins in North London, but Europe is an entirely different stage. I think I’ll go for a United win. Tuchel still hasn’t got this side as good as it should be, and with their midfield looking worse than the Red Devil’s, it is just the perfect time to play them.

Will Roma Replicate Last Year’s Success? Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Preview

 

Let’s begin with by far the least interesting fixture of the round. This isn’t to say there is nothing to say about this tie, but the other games are by far more interesting. Let’s start with Roma. I was originally going to disucss why Roma are struggling so much in Serie A, and it can quickly be summarized by key players leaving and not being replaced by players of the same level. The giallorossi sold two of their starting midfielders, and brought in an aging Seven N’Zonzi and a very average Bryan Cristante. The positives for them this season is some of their younger talent truly shining and the future does look bright. Monchi seems to be looking in Italy and other less known leagues for reasonably priced talent and it seems to be working to an extent. I am still very unsure on whether Di Francesco is the man to bring this side success. He is managing the side in a very difficult period, with many of the side’s star players beginning to age out. He is still seemingly unsure what is best eleven truly is, and it’s resulted in players constantly in and out of the side. El Shaarrawy and Pellegrini have been two of the best players for Roma this season, yet they have only started a combined 25 games. He’s relying heavily on the older players in the side, and talents like Schick and Kluivert just don’t seem to be flourishing in the same way we all hoped. They are struggling and there isn’t any signs to say they should be higher than where they are.

While they have been very up and down this season, they have actually been very good in the Champions League. It did help that their group was relatively easy, with a struggling madrid, a Moscow side they comfortably beaten twice and a Plzeñ side they managed to put 5 past. While Edin Dzeko has struggled in the league (he has arguably been very unlucky though), he has been fantastic in the Champions League. In the 4 games he started, he scored 5 and managed 2 assists. He’s had more goal involvements than any other Roma player, and only Messi and Lewandowski have scored more than the Bosnian. He has had some injury problems, but he will be available for this game, which is a huge boost. I mentioned before that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been good, but he’s been even better than he has been in Italy. He has 3 assists to his name in Europe, with only Mbappe, Depay and Mahrez getting more. He has been a creative hub for his side in his 3 starts, with only Toni Kroos making more key passes than his 3.5. He has to play if Roma want anything out of this game. Their wingers, Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder, have both been great whenever they’ve played. Kluivert’s time in Rome has been limited, but he’s still only 19 and has put up solid numbers in the Champions League. Under and Kluivert have completed the most dribbles for Roma in the Champions League, and only Pellegrini is creating more chances the Dutchman. I like Under a lot and think he does have a very promising future, but it’ll only be positive if his shot numbers improve. Kluivert takes a more shots in the box than his turkish teammate, and considering he is also creating more chances too, it is worrying. Under just takes too many shots outside the box and seems to have Coutinho syndrome (a condition where all your positives can be outweighed by awful shot locations. Suso also has this awful condition). He’s still only 21 so this is definitely an area will improve on with time.

Let’s move on to Porto, who have been very good since Sérgio Conceição arrived at the club. Porto won the Liga Nos title last season by scoring the most goals and conceding the least. They only conceded 18 goals too, bettering every other side in the league. They have continued this into the current season, only conceding 11 goals so far this season. It does help that the competition in Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, have droppped off massively in the past couple of years. Benfica have sold a lot of talent in the past few years, with the likes of Lindelof, Ederson, Mitroglou and Semedo all leaving the club for better things. Sporting have had a similar problem but with completely different circumstances. There were claims that the club president sent fans to attack the players, with key figures of the team like Gelson Martins, Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Piccini all leaving the club because of the dangerous enviroment. They were allowed to leave for low figures too, which meant it was hard to find good replacements. I bring this up because Porto have not had these problems. While selling Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot, leaving 34 year old Maxi Pereira as their only first choice right back, but it seems to not be a problem, thanks to Eder Militão. The Brazilian arrived from his native league for a bargain £3.6 million, and it could be seen as one of the signings of the continent. He has been playing as both a right back and a centre back. and is seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. Porto haven’t had the same transitional period as their rivals, which has allowed them to have an easy running in the league. While I do think they have had more talented squads in the past, but it cannot be argued that the manager is getting the best out of what they have. While they were unbeaten in the group, some of the scorelines have painted the image of a side that is performing well, when in reality, that isn’t the case. Their wins away at Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow were games where they were outshot do show they have been lucky to even finish the groups unbeaten (they scored 3 goals with 3 shots on target against Galatasaray). They were in fact one of only two teams  to have a negative expected goals difference at the end of the group stages. They also scored the most penalties. This isn’t to discredit them, but to show that while what they have done so far is imprsssive, they are a side that have rode their luck.

I discusssed how well Dzeko has done for Roma in the Champions League, so it only seems right to credit Porto’s own striker, Moussa Marega. The Mali forward has been stand out for his side in the competition. He has scored the most goals with his side with 5. While Dzeko was a shot machine Marega was not. He was only taking 2 shots a game, but 1.8 of those were coming in the penalty area. Marega is not a great player in the slightest, but to his credit he does very well in this system. He gives the most fouls away in the side, and that for striker can be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign of a player who knows how to press effectively. Players like Firmino and Lewandowski are great at pressing and usually give away a lot of fouls in an attempt to regain the ball in an aggressive manner. Marega does this in a similar fashion. He leads the line very well for his side, and excels in the 4-3-3 system they have deployed. Another reason why Marega has done so well is because of his teammate, Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has been insansely good for the past few years, mainly because of his dribbling. In 5 games, he managed 2 assists and is completing 3.6 dribbles per game, double of the player behind him. He is so important for Porto’s attack, and helps massively in transision and can give full backs an absolute nightmare. In a majority of Porto’s attacks, the ball will always go through the Algerian. If he manages to bring his A game, Roma will have a horrid time.

If Roma want to earn their place in the final 8, they will need to take advantage of their home leg. While it is very simple, it seems Serie A might have to take priority. Before their game in Portugal, they have the Rome derby against their biggest rivals, Lazio. Roma haven’t been great in big games this season, losing to Juventus, drawing twice to Atalanta, failing to beat the Milan clubs. Their only win would be against Lazio back in September. If they have any chance of getting top four, they need to beat their closest rivals. Porto are a defensively solid side and are very aggressive. But as mentioned, their right back is a massive weakness. If El Shaarawy or Kluivert can take advantage of a very weak right side, there could be a chance create chances for Dzeko and Under. Under can not be wasteful. It’s something you expect from the wide man, but this side do not give up goals. It’ll be difficult to score against them, but as seen against Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, their away record is not great and have to hope they aren’t as lucky as they have been.

If Porto have any chance of getting by the giallorossi, they must deal with that weak midfield. When I say weak, I do not mean in lacking ability, I mean in physicality. Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera are two players who are defensively solid and need to bring their aggressive side. Porto are great at winning the ball higher up the pitch, and with midfield consisting of a slow De Rossi and N’Zonzi and defenisvely poor Pellegrini and Cristante. These are players you can truly get at and it’s so vital to not let them play their game.

With all this considered, I’d put my money on Porto advancing through this stage of the compeition. Di Francesco’s job is truly on the line, and Porto are just in much more comfortable place. Dzeko isn’t firing in the same way as he was last season, and the loss of Strootman and Nainggolan have add a real fragility and lack of leaders in the side. This is arguably the worst side in Roma’s recent history, and this just isn’t the year for Roma to be focusing on Europe, when Champions League qualification is on the line.

 

5 Players Who Could FIX Manchester United’s Defence

United are on a real resurgence at the moment. Oli Gunnar Solskjaer has just broken an English record for the first manager to win his first 5 games with a +2 goal advantage in each game. A strange record broken but it is still impressive nevertheless. United are currently attacking better, moving the ball faster and overall look happier. It wasn’t going to take a master tactician to improve United. They just needed a coach who was going to make the players happy, and not alienate half the squad with pointless masculinity tests. Ever since Solskjaer has arrived, Pogba has gone into supernova, and putting in some of the best performances of his career, Rashford is looking like the striker I never thought he could be, and even Matic is looking competent again. But one area that needs changing no matter what happens in the next 5 months is the defence. United’s pool of defenders just isn’t good enough. Even looking at last season, United might have kept the most clean sheets, but that wasn’t down to the defenders and the way United sat back. It was down to David De Gea having the best season a goalkeeper had ever had. Now that De Gea has came back to earth, it has exposed United’s defence to being average at best. It’s time for this back-line to get reshuffled, whether it’s now or in the summer. Let’s look at the players currently at the club, and go on to see where they need to improve.

Victor Lindelof

A player who didn’t exactly start his United career off in the best of ways, making an awful mistake to gift Huddersfield with a huge win over the Red Devils. After the occasional start last season, he has truly shown why United spent so much money on a relatively unknown player. You just have to look at his man of the match display against Newcastle. He was so calm on the ball, which is a massive boost for United, having a defender who doesn’t look so nervy whenever the ball is near his feet. He has shades of Alderweireld in the way he distributes the ball. He created 2 chances against Newcastle. That is crazy considering he is a centre back! He suits exactly what you United thrive to be. The biggest issue is his aerial ability. It’s a problem that just cannot be avoided. While he can read the game relatively well, he just struggles when balls are played in the air. This can be seen from his aerial with percentage. While elite defenders like Van Dijk and Sergio Ramos win 71% and 70% respectively, Lindelof wins 57%. It’s a clear weakness to a player with a very good skill set. Not only is he staying, but he has to start.

Conclusion – Starts Every Game!

Eric Bailly

While Lindelof started poorly and came into his own, Bailly has almost went into reverse. He was signed almost out of no where, only being at Villarreal for less than 2 years, before making a big £30m move to United back in 2016. I had no idea what to expect, but in his first 2 months, I was incredibly impressed. His composure, speed, aggression and intelligence made him stand out among a group of defenders with zero ability on the ball. However injuries arrived. From memory I remember one during United’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, which kept him out for a couple of weeks, and in his second season he missed most of the winter period again, coming back to rescue United against Liverpool. While his recklessness can let him down, as seen against Bournemouth. He barely gets dribbled past, wins a majority of his tackles, and is great when needing to make a recovery tackle. He’s still only 24. I would definitely keep him around, and hope he can regain the form that looked so promising when he arrived.

Conclusion – Keep as a squad player

Chris Smalling

An ever present under every manager since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Smalling has been able to keep his place in the side, based on bring the best out of a bad bunch. He excelled under Louis Van Gaal, with the Dutchman’s style and set up massively protecting Smalling. Soon as he was given as much protection under Mourinho, he was massively exposed for his inability to deal with small agile players, like Hazard and Sterling, who can run circles around him. He is great at dealing with aerial threats, but that’s it. He can’t distribute effectively and is getting too old to be able to learn more. While he could be a decent squad player, it’s time for this club to finally grow a pair, and not settle for average. I wouldn’t be surprised if a team in the lower half of the table would be interested.

Conclusion – Sell

Phil Jones

Injuries, clumsiness, slow, dangerous. Just some of the words to describe Phil Jones. I would go into detail but by now it’s so obvious she should be sold.

Conclusion – SELL IMMEDIATELY

Marcos Rojo

Another who was plagued by injuries. He was a player I wanted gone from United after his first season. He was just a defensive nightmare throughout his time under LVG. It included the worst left back I’ve ever seen. After Shaw’s leg break, Rojo filled in at left back for a majority of the season, and was just awful. Truly, truly awful. He did have a very good debut season under Mourinho, including an incredible performance at home against Spurs. But I just think he’s a liability in the squad. His injuries and mistakes mean he cannot remain in Manchester. I would sell him January for anyone who would be slightly interested.

Conclusion – Sell immediately

Axel Tuanzebe

Who a small majority of you are asking? Well Tuanzebe is a current prospect who is on loan at Aston Villa. Many Villa fans have been heaping praise on the young defender, for his calmness on the ball and his maturity at such a young age. I can completely understand where they are coming from. Every time I’ve seen him play I notice just how cool and relaxed he looks. He can read the game well and is a very good distributor of the ball. He is completing the most passes for Aston Villa with 49. However he has a similar problem as Lindelof, he just isn’t great in the air. He is playing in a league where a majority of the times do play it high, which is going to make it more difficult for him. He is still only making 2.1 tackles and interceptions per 90, which seeing as he ranks high in his defensive actions, is more of a sign of the team he’s playing for. He is definitely not going out on loan next season, and with Bailly being consistent with injuries, he could be useful to come in during the busy winter period. I’m unsure if he would want that role though.

Conclusion – Keep as a back up

After going through the current crop of players, it’s c lear that with the average age of the remaining players being 23, it’s clear some experience is definitely needed. While having such young talent is useful, some of these players still need guidance and a leader beside them, to bring the best out of them. Another quality that is definitely needed is some aerial dominance. As mentioned, Lindelof and Tuanzebe both aren’t great in the air, and need a player who can deal with that threat. They also need to have some ability on the ball, as seen with my criticism of Smalling and Jones. These are a lot of criteria’s to fill here. Not all will fill them, but a couple definitely will. Let’s go through them, from best fit, to some good options.

Kalidou Koulibaly

When Liverpool signed Virgil Van Dijk last year, it was seen as a genius bit of business. Van Dijk was the definition of a defender at his peak. He has everything to succeed at the top level, having an amazing range of passing, superiority in the air, able to read the game well and is even very useful at set pieces. While I would love to argue that Liverpool have been pretty lucky this season to even be at the top of the table, Van Dijk has still been a massive improvement at Merseyside. I bring this up because I thnk Kalidou Koulibaly would have a very similar impact.

The Senegalese international’s rise to the top as been a great story. He began his career playing in the second division of French football, playing for Metz. He was only 18 at the time, but he went on to start 16 games, and then 21 in the following season. He only stayed for 2 seasons, signing for Genk in 2012 for £1.1m. He then went on to further establish himself in Belgium, putting in some very good performances in the Europa League. He made 7 appearances in the 2013/14 season, and put in some great performances in their run to the round of 32, after losing to FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Koulibaly put in 5.3 tackles and interceptions, made 4.3 clearances and 2.4 aerial duels. He was only 21 at the time. They were great signs of a player with plenty of potential.

His time at Napoli can only be seen as an absolute success. His first season was under Rafa Benitez, a season where he performed very well. Even though he was playing for a better side, he still managed to have better defensive numbers, was barely getting dribbled past and his pass numbers truly started to blossom. He finally started to show why Napoli seemed to think he was ready for the big stage. After Benitez departed for Madrid, Maurizio Sarri arrived. This was the start of all the praise the defender began to receive. He fitted a difficult and demanding system perfectly. He was fast and strong enough to be able to deal with the constant counter attacks Napoli would face, due to their players being so high up the pitch. It also helped that he is an excellent distributor. This season, the defender has been averaging 4.9 long balls per game, with only Raul Albiol beating that. It shows how good is range of passing is, helping his side keep hold of the ball, and allow their midfielders to receive the ball at higher areas of the pitch. It’s an essential quality to have in a defender in the modern game, giving more flexibility in how to approach different games.

He adds that high level in defence to a United side in desperate need of it. His presence and ability will not only improve the team, but improve the players around him. Those incredibly close games, like that game against Tottenham, would have been so close. United face way too many shots. With the likes of Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Wolves all facing less shots than the Red Devils. They are allowing their opponents to create chances in good areas. Having better players does help to fix this. It will allow the manager to approach games with less fear, because they have defenders who aren’t going to be caught out and allow the opposition players to take advantage of it. Koulibaly is at an elite stage and is in his prime years. While £95 million is a lot for any player, if they can get him, they should.

Toby Alderweireld

While this may seem boring, it just has to be done. United’s long chase for the Belgian has became tiring at this point, and while discussing him might be a bit safe, it’s easy to forget why the Red Devils wanted Alderweireld so badly.

I like to think of Alderweireld as the worst mistake made by Atletico Madrid and in maybe Southampton to an extent. Back in 2014, fresh after winning La Liga and reaching a Champions League final, Alderweireld was sent out on loan to Southampton. It’s easy to see why however, with the Belgian only starting 10 games in the league that season. Atletico had the best defence in Europe that season, with Godin and Miranda forming an aggressive and tough defence, one that Alderweireld just couldn’t fit into. In hindsight, leaving the club was definitely the best idea. He isn’t a player who is fantastic in the air, or never put in massive tackle and interception numbers. He didn’t fit the Simeone system, and it was time to move to a club that fitted his style.

His arrival in the South of England was one of many smart deals done by Southampton that year. The sales of Lovren, Lallana, Shaw, Lambert and Chambers gave them plenty of cash to splash in the market, and replaced them very adequately, and in some cases, improved them. Sadio Mané and Dusan Tadic were brought to add some creativity and flair to a side that just lost its best attacker in Lallana. Bertrand arrived from Chelsea to fill in at left back, and became a very good player in the process, and Pelle and Long arrived to fight for a place upfront. They took players from all over the continent, in a bid to outsmart some of the clubs at the higher end of the table. By Christmas, Southampton were 2nd in the table, and their smart business practices seemed to have paid off.

Alderweireld was one of the highlights here. His distribution and reading of the game made for a perfect partner to the more aggressive Jose Fonte. At the time, many saw Fonte as the superior player. His numbers show that, making 5.3 tackles and interceptions and making 5.5 clearances. But now thanks to hindsight, it’s clear to see that Alderweireld was given his teammate the freedom to be doing all of the destroyer work. Alderweireld might have been putting in less defensive work (Fonte also had the advantage of playing more games. 37 to to his teammates 26), he was completing more long balls and was giving away less fouls. There are usually two types of defenders. The more aggressive type, like a Chiellini or Ramos. These are players who will rush out and put pressure on the attackers. The sweepers have to fill in for the space that the destroyers leave behind. David Luiz, Gerard Pique and of course, Toby Alderweireld all fill this quota. They are the more intelligent players usually, and are key to a defence functioning. It puts less pressure on their partners, knowing that if they fail to make the challenge, someone will be there to make the recovery tackle. It was no surprise that after Alderweireld left the club to return to Atletico Madrid, Fonte was never able to recapture this career high.

His first season at Tottenham was simply outstanding. He played all 38 games, registering 4 goals and 2 assists. The curious question is how did a central defender get 2 assists? Well this leads into Alderweireld’s best quality, his passing. The 30 year old has arguably the best passing ability out of any centre back in Europe. Both of his assists that season came from balls right over the top to Dele Alli, landing straight to his feet, gifting him a chance at goal. This exact move happened twice, and it shows why he became so valuable. Before his arrival in the 2015, Spurs’s defence was seen as a massive weakness. During the 2014/15 season, Tottenham conceded the 5th most goals in the league with 58, more than the likes of Sunderland and Burnley, who were relegated that season. After Alderweireld arrived, they conceded the joint least amount of goals with 35. This could be down to Pochettino just improving his team and improving in all departments, but Alderweireld still deserves plenty of credit. His calmness and great reason of the game gave Vertonghen, Rose and Walker more freedom in a way. Rose and Walker didn’t have to worry as much in a defensive sense, giving them a licence to attack without having to worry about being caught out by opposing winger. While the England pair did get plenty of benefits with Alderweireld’s arrival, it was Vertonghen who gained the biggest boost. This wasn’t the first time they have played together. Both play for Belgium and they also played for Ajax in their younger days. Their time in North London together created one of the best defensive partnerships in recent memory. This isn’t to discredit Vertonghen in any way. He is one of a very small group to win player of the month as a defender. He was finally given a competent partner in defence, who would allow him to not worry when he steps put to intercept the ball. One player was able to bring the best out of an entire defence, and Alderweireld deserves all the credit for that.

I bring all of this up because they all back up exactly what he would offer to United. Whether it’s Solsjkaer or Pochettino managing the club next season, they need a leader and a great distributor. Alderweireld ticks all of these boxes very effectively. He will give not only his defensive partner (most likely Lindelof) a calmer and experienced head beside him, but will give the full backs the reassurance to bomb forward, and finally get to good positions to support the forwards. There is a problem here however. The first being his age. Alderweireld is now 30, putting him in a position where improving is unlikely, and declining is very unlikely. You don’t know how some players adapt as they age. Will they stay consistent in some cases improve, like Chiellini and Xavi, or decline at a rapid pace, like Ferdinand or Iniesta. Spending money on an older player is always a risk, but this actually brings into the next positive. The Belgian will be available for only £25 million. Even if there is a chance he will decline, you hope by then the younger players will be ready to step up. Alderweireld might not be my first choice, but I would have no issue with him playing at Old Trafford, but there are definitely better options now.

Kostas Manolas

Onto a player who has only recently became a possible option, Manolas has became a very good defender during his time in the Italian capital. While he wouldn’t be my first choice, I would have zero complaints if he was brought in. His time at Roma has largely been a success. He arrived in Rome with a lot of pressure, with Manolas arriving to replace outgoing defender Medhi Benatia. Benatia was one of the best players in Italy that season, and losing him was problematic. He was signed for £10 million from Olympiacos. Looking back now it can be seen as a real bargain. He was also heavily linked to Arsenal before moving to Serie A, showing how he had impressed more than his current club. It was his displays the 2014 World Cup that got the attention of some big clubs in Europe. Greece weren’t exactly impressive in that tournament, but he was still able to make a very good impression. His very traditional, physical style of defending is one reason why many clubs were so interested. He arrived that just after the World Cup, playing under Rudi Garcia for 2 years. Roma were runners up in both of those seasons, and Manolas was a key figure during those very good finishes. His great interception numbers showed why he is considered such a good player. It’s by far the best part of the game. He was making 2.5 interceptions per 90, with only the late Davide Astori making more. Manolas also made 30 appearances that season, more than any other defender. He quickly showed himself to be the most reliable defender in this side.

This form continued under their next manager Luciano Spaletti. The current Inter manager highly favoured Manolas, to the extent of trying to sign when he became the new Inter manager back in 2017. He said:

“I want Manolas to stay at AS Roma, I’ve told him already. He is physically and mentally very strong. He arrives everywhere on the pitch, sometimes he exaggerates with sliding tackles.”

Roma were one of the most fun sides in Europe in that final season under Spaletti. Many players in that side, like Nainggolan, Salah and Dzeko went supernova. While Manolas wasn’t nearly as good as his attacking teammates, it was still arguably one of his better seasons. It did help that his defensive partner this season, Federico Fazio was having the best season of his career. Roma were also very flexible this season, playing 3-4-2-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. It shows that Manolas is very adaptable. Koulibaly has predominantly played a 4-3-3 during his time in Napoli. When you have a player who has had a history of playing in different systems, it helps with whatever the manager wants to do going into individual games. If it was Pochettino coming in, he would like to have someone like Manolas. The current Tottenham manager who has previously fiddled with different systems and formations, makes players who can quickly learn these systems, would be massively beneficial.

While my first preference for a central defender would be Kalidou Koulibaly, I would have no problem with the Greek international coming in. It does seem like he does want to leave the club, with Manolas being increasingly close to leaving back in 2017, with Zenit coming very close. He doesn’t have long left on his contract, which explains why his release clause is only £32 million. The problem is that this release clause doesn’t actually activate until the summer. His agent is also Mino Riola. The man has had an involvement in many recent Manchester United deals, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. Dealing with him is a problem, and he famously will rinse your club for all he can. I just look at that pricetag and think it’s too hard to pass up on. Transfermarkt value him at £40.50 million and they usually value players in their twenties quite accurately (Potential isn’t usually considered and instead only look at what they’ve done). He would definitely improve Manchester United.

Milan Škriniar

With the 3 more experiences players done, let’s at younger options. If the club do not want to invest heavily in players who do not have a high resell value (even if this model can be frustrating at times). Lets start with Milan Skriniar. The Slovakian originated from Sampdoria’s young talent machine, which includes Patrick Schick, Lucas Torreira and Mustafi all being some high profile sales. With the last 3 players, there were clear reasons for why these players were signed. Koulibaly, Alderweireld and Manolas all showed their talent at their previous clubs, but Skriniar is different. He was apart of a very average Sampdoria side, and the Slovakian defender wasn’t exactly stand out in his final season. He is was only putting in 2.2 tackles and interceptions per 90, and putting in 1.4 aerial duels. These aren’t stand out in the slightest, but the problem is defenders are very difficult to judge from numbers. Midfielders are simpler because you can see what kind of midfielders they are just by seeing what their numbers show. Defenders can be in different systems so tackle and interceptions are useful, but don’t tell the whole story. There were still other parts of his game that were very impressive. He was an excellent distributor. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any of his teammates with 91%, and was fourth for his side in passes completed. He was great when bringing the ball out from the back (the theme of all the players on this list). He wasn’t spectacular, but showed enough promise to earn a move to Inter Milan the following summer.

During his time at Inter Milan, he shown himself to be one of the best defenders in Serie A. His signing made so much sense at the time. Miranda wasn’t getting any younger, and he needed a partner who was younger and more athletic. Miranda’s defensive numbers dropped massively during Skriniar’s first season, going from 4.9 to 2.7. This is because Skriniar seemed be given the more aggressive role, with the Slovakian committing more fouls and winning more tackles than he was at Sampdoria. Miranda had a more reserved role, to help allow Skriniar to play with more confidence, to not have to worry about making mistakes, when he has one of the best defenders of the last 10 years beside him.

It does open up a very good question. Is he ready to be the leader of a title challenging team? A reason why he has excelled is because he has had an experienced head like Miranda next to him. United do not have that luxury. The club have 2 young defenders, who both would excel if they had a top level defender beside them. Skriniar is younger than Bailly and Lindelof, so is he ready to be the main man? I would say he is. Skriniar has the most starts out of any outfield player for the Nerazzurri (only Handanovic has made more). His numbers have stayed relatively similar to his breakout season, and he looks like he just keeps improving. He is already the defender who is trusted the most, so how couldn’t he excel in Manchester?

Nikola Milenkovic 

Last but not least, let’s look at by far the youngest option. I mentioned with Skriniar that Manchester United in the past have looked at the resell value of players, as seen by the club’s refusal to sign Alderweireld because of his age. He’s a player I have spoke about before near the beginning of the season. I highlighted how good he is on the ball and in the air. Now months later, has anything changed? Well not exactly. That isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. I wasn’t expecting him to keep up his early form, considering it was his first time starting consistently for Fiorentina.

Let’s go over by far his biggest strength, being his aerial ability. Milenkovic is 6.4ft. The man is a giant. and it shows from his aerial duels. He attempts 4.8 aerial duels per game, and wins 60% of them. In the Fiorentina squad, only his defensive partner, Germán Pezzella has won more aerial duels than the Serbian. He is also putting in a very solid 3.3 tackles and interceptions for his side. He also rarely ever gets dribbled past, only 0.3 times a game. The defender has all the qualities to become a complete defender. He is tall, strong, fast, confidence while also having a humbleness about him, and he has a great ability on the ball.

One of his stand out moments of his short career was his performances in the most recent world cup. Serbia had a lot to be excited about in Russia. Key players like Mitrovic, Matic and Milenkovic-Savic all came into the tournament in great form, and with other solid players like Tadic, Kolorov and Ivanovic making it a strong side all over the pitch. Even with these well known players, it was Milenkovic who stood out among his teammates. He was one of only 5 players to play every minute at the world cup for Serbia, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s important to remember that before the world cup, Milenovic wasn’t a starter for Fiorentina, so this was the first time we could all see how good the young defender was. He had the highest pass accuracy out of any player to play more than 90 minutes for his country, made the most clearances and won the second most aerial duels. This was his break out tournament and showed why there was so much promise surrounding Milenkovic.

So where does he fit in at Manchester United? Well firstly he will add that aerial prowess that the team desperately needs. Lindelof is a great reader of the game and excellent distributor, but he struggles against teams who play a more physical and direct style of play. Milenkovic is not only tall and strong, but he is also very fast. One problem I’ve realised this season regarding the defender is he has actually spent a majority of the season playing as a right back. While he isn’t as good as he is playing as a centre back, he was actually still very impressive. At a young age, Nikola Milenkovic actually used to be a sprinter, which explains why he is still adept at playing at full back. It’s a demanding role in modern football that needs players which have great athleticism. Milenkovic is surprisingly fast considering his size, and he’s done a fine job in a position he is not accustomed to. I bring this up because it would help if Solskjaer was still the manager. The team will always be defensively vulnerable because of how high up the pitch they play. Having Bailly, Lindelof and Milenkovic, three defenders with pace to burn, makes it easy to deal with any dangerous counter attacks. While I did mention previously mention that having a more experienced defender would definitely make more sense (and is still think it’s the right decision), I highly doubt Manchester United would sell Rojo, Jones and Smalling all in the same window. The club seem to have a problem with selling players, because of their contracts. They have given all these players big money contracts because of how long they’ve been at the club. It’ll be so hard to sell them because no one is going to want to pay for players over 27 with limited ability, and pay their huge wages. The club have put themselves in a difficult position. Signing someone like Milenkovic would ensure that players would be able to make those recovery tackles. He will also give us a real aerial threat at set pieces. While we are second in the league for set piece goals with 11 (it is including free kicks), we still seem very lacklustre at moments where the team should be taking advantage of a great chance to score. He takes 0.8 shots a game. It isn’t massive in the slightest, but it’s nearly double of Chris Smalling’s 0.5, which is the highest out of United’s defenders. It’ll give the club an extra advantage in an area they need to improve at. Liverpool are at the top of the Premier League and have scored the most goals from set pieces. They are a must for a team that wants to compete for a league title. Milenkovic would apparently cost €45 million. It’s a figure that United can definitely pay. While it would be a risk considering he’s only 21, but it could be a genius move on the long term.

4 Players Who Could FIX Spurs’s Midfield

Tottenham are in a position of trouble at the moment. Their stadium is still unfinished, which has left them with a real lack of resources to upgrade one some of the positions in their squad. It’s why players like Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld are still at the club. They do not want to risk a sale because there is a low chance they could bring in an improvement or even an equal replacement. However with a midfield full of players, it gives them not only the ability to sell, but an easy chance to improve on them. Let’s go through their options first and find out who should stay and who should go. This will only be brief.

Eric Dier

An ever present since his breakout season back in 2014, Dier is a player loved by Pochettino. Since 2015/16, he’s played over 30 games every season. His versatility, aggression and his injury free record do make him a player easy to like. I do think he is a player who is good to have in a squad, with the hectic game schedules that occurs during the winter. I just do not think he excels in anything. His defensive work does leave a lot to be desired. He isn’t a creator or a good dribbler, and rarely ever shoots. He is definitely worth keeping however. His ability to cover in defense is great to have and it’s always good to have a player who seems to be available whenever the manager needs him.

Conclusion – Keep

Moussa Sissoko

Easily one of the worst bits of business done by Tottenham in the past few years. Sissoko arrived after performing relatively well in the Euros back in 2016 for £30m. This all happened in the last hour of deadline day, which just shows the desperation. He came in during a summer which saw Tottenham sign Janssen, N’koudou, and Wanyama. None of these players screamed title challenge and ambition at the time, even if some were pretty smart bits of business. This was the same summer that saw Manchester United bring back Pogba for a record fee, N’golo Kante moving to Chelsea and John Stones moving for £50m to Man City. Sissoko came in to remind the league that they should be taken seriously, yet made them more of a laughing stock. While he has had a bit of a resurgence in recent months. His age and quality just isn’t what this team needs.

Conclusion – Sell

Victor Wanyama

As mentioned, Wanyama came in back in 2016 for a very cheap £11m. Spurs sold both Mason and Bentaleb that summer, so midfield support was needed. The Kenyan did very well at Southampton. He was an absolute titan in midfield, using his size and strength to win the ball back for the saints, and help protect the defense. Dier did often cover in defense, so bringing in a player, who while not as flexible, was still a better player than his English teammate. He had an excellent first season at White Hart Lane, playing 36 games. While his defense work did drop (which is due to Spurs having more possession than his former side), his passing accuracy and chance creation were at a career high. He was on the up, but a growing injury record has halted his progression. It might seem ruthless, but it might be time to let him go. There shouldn’t be a place for a player who is this unreliable.

Conclusion – Sell

Mousa Dembélé

Dembélé is a classic example of a player who might not be a fancy name, but adds so much to your midfield. His dribble success rate, solid defensive numbers made him one of the critics’ favourite midfielders in Europe. He could plug a gap in midfield that can be so difficult. However last season, this talent of his started to decline. His dribble numbers were dropping and his defensive work jumped off a cliff. This season it has only gotten worse, making his usability even less. This isn’t all his fault. It’s the effects of aging in football. Eventually your numbers drop like this and every player has experienced it. It’s just a shame it’s happened faster to Dembélé. The Belgian was incredible on his day, but now it might be time for him to move on and play in a less demanding system.

Conclusion – Sell

Harry Winks

When he broke onto the scene last season, I thought he was a massive boost for Tottenham. Of course he was playing in the 2016/17 season, but only played 480 minutes. However he began last season very well, with his performance against Madrid highlighting how promising he is. His range of passing is incredible, and keeps a solid 91% pass accuracy. While his chance creation is still quite low, there is definitely a real talent here who still has a lot of work to do. My biggest problem with Winks is his defensive awareness. In their game against Barcelona at Wembley, he was at fault for a majority of the goals, because he allowed Messi and Arthur to just walk through the midfield. It is was arguably one of the worst midfield performances I’ve ever seen this season. He is still a talented player and does add something to this squad, so he will remain.

Conclusion – Keep

The reason I’ve went through this is to examine what Tottenham truly need, after the right sales are made. They will not only need one midfielder, but two. A very clear Dembélé replacement, to help with transition from defense to attack, and to win the ball high up the pitch. The first move I’ll be making is to promote Oliver Skipp to the first team, as an available option. He has only started a single Premier League game this season so it is difficult to know if he is ready. However he did put in the most tackles for Tottenham, won the most aerial duels and created a chance. He is only 18 so the experience is invaluable at his age. The next player to bring in is a more defensively minded player, someone who might not contribute much in an attacking sense, but will offer solid protection to the back line. Let’s begin with the 4 midfielders who could fix this midfield.

Nicolò Barella

This will be my Dembélé replacement. Barella has been on the radar of many big clubs for a couple of years now. He possesses very high defensive numbers and is a very good dribbler. Last year, Pirlo and Totti both highlighted him as the future of Italian football, and it’s clear to see why. He has been playing for an average Cagliari side, who aren’t prolific in front of goal and are mostly average at the back. He wins the most tackles for his side per 90, with 2.7, and attempts the most dribbles. The problem with Barella recently has been his decline in his dribbling. It’s went from a very impressive 1.5, to 0.8. This is easily explained by opposition teams seeming to figure him out. They have realised that he is one of Cagliari’s most threatening players and know he has to be dealt with. It’s shown by the number of times he is fouled is increasing. It’s went from 1.9 to 2.6, a dramatic increase and it has made this season a bit more difficult for him. He still attempts the most dribbles however and it’s clear how important he is to the transition of this side. Even with his completed dribbles decreasing, he is attempting more, giving away less fouls, shooting and creating more chances and even completing more passes. The problems he’s facing could only be because he’s the best player in this side, making him an easy target. If he did go to Tottenham, I don’t think he’d have the same problem, with Eriksen, Kane and Alli all seen as huge threats. It would give that unpredictability again, and truly bring out the best in him. He’s 21 at the moment, making him a perfect signing for Tottenham, but also a slight risk. He has never played in a Champions League side before, so the amount of games could be surprising, but as mentioned he will be one of two signings, and Spurs do not have the resources to spend of Champions League players. He attempts more dribbles than any other Spurs midfielder, and only Foyth (who has only played 6 games) wins more tackles than Barella’s 2.7. This could be explained by Spurs simply more of a possession side, but it would still be a massive help, knowing he’s that good at winning the ball back. His disciplinary record is also a bit of a worry, with the Italian being sent of already this season, and amassing 13 yellow cards last season. However it is his responsibility in the Cagliari side to win the ball back, and usually that involves making tackles to stop counter attacks. He would cost Tottenham a record fee of more than £45m, which for a player who would be such an improvement, would definitely be worth it.

Ibrahim Sangaré

A player I have spoken about previously, but let’s go through why I think he just makes sense as a signing. Ligue 1 is always a league full of players that go under the radar, as seen by Brighton signing Bissouma for next to nothing. Sangaré is another along this line. The Ivorian started the season so well for Toulouse, but picked up an injury at the end of October, tearing his tendon. It’s forced him to miss 10 games so far, and hopefully will be back by the end of January. Nevertheless, he is a player with a lot of potential. He’s played 9 games so far this season, playing the full 90 on every occasion, and his stats look incredible. He’s completing 4.3 tackles per 90, the most for his side and more than anyone who has made as many appearances as Sangaré. What is most impressive about the midfielder is his dribbling. For a 6.3ft player, he is actually very mobile, completing a crazy 2.3 dribbles per 90, with a 71% success rate. He can just do everything, all from a number 6 position. He’s even taking 1.2 shots per game, with 0.8 in the penalty area. He is somehow putting in a high volume of tackles, completing a lot of dribbles and even advancing to the opposition box. It is simply incredible. He seem to be able to fill in both in a defensive sense, and being able to help with transition, with Barella now being linked to Chelsea, I would recommend going for Sangaré, if Barella is too pricey. But this all depends on if these numbers continue when he comes back from injury. If they are, he has to be a high target.

Philip Billing

While both Sangaré and Barella should be top targets, and have potential to improve this team, Philip Billing is a signing I can’t recommend more. He is playing for an awful defensive and offensive side. Huddersfield seem unable to score goals, and keep clean sheets. There is a very likely chance they will get relegated, and Billing should definitely be the first player to be taken from them. He has been very good this season. He is a large player, who is winning 3 aerial duels a game, and is winning 5.6 tackles and interceptions this season. While that does seem likely considering how often he will be without the ball, it’s just how dynamic and aggressive he wins it. Billing is seen all over the pitch and doesn’t seem to have a set zone to stay in. He just roams and intercepts the ball, and does this effectively. He’s already started more than double the games he did last season, and only Idrissa Gueye wins more tackles in midfield than the Danish midfielder. The only problem is he really doesn’t offer much in attacking sense. While Sangaré was taking a majority of his shots in the box, making him a very good box to box midfielder, Billing is the complete opposite. He takes most from outside the box. It can’t all be blamed on him. As mentioned, Huddersfield are awful and it could be Billing just wanting to help his team in any way, and taking any half chance they have. His chance creation and passing aren’t exactly great, but he is playing for quite a poor side, and is seemingly being relied heavily on not only defensively, but on the other side of the pitch. If he is given a specific role, and grow in his ability on the ball, he would be a fine player for Tottenham. With Huddersfield going down, it’s possible to get him out for less than £15m, which would be a massive steal for a club that need some.

Mario Lemina

Arguably the most obvious of signings. Lemina fits the Dembélé mold pretty easily. He is an excellent dribbler and puts in a lot of defensive work. While he did excel in a poor Southampton team last season, completing 2.2 dribbles and winning 4.8 tackles and interceptions last season, he is now playing under a manager who isn’t awful. Ralph Hasenhüttl has brought in an aggressive press into this side. This made so much sense because many of the players at the club are able to play a pressing system, with Lemina being one of them. His ability to win the ball back and his transitional play make him perfect. The problem with trying to bring him in would be the price. He’s currently 25 years old, a player at the perfect age, where he’s at his peak while also having the ability to improve. The problem with bringing him in is the price. Southampton charge a lot for their best players, and Lemina would be no exception. Hasenhüttl has already said that Lemina is a very important part of his plans, so letting him go for less than £40m would be unlikely. I would definitely recommend him, but it just depends on if Spurs want to spend a lot on him.

That’s the four players I would recommend. I think Billing is a must depending on Huddersfield’s relegation (which looks likely). Sangaré would need to keep up his form after his eventual return to justify a big move. Barella is currently being pursued by Chelsea, which are a club that are difficult to beat when it comes to transfers. Lemina would make so much sense, but it all depends on how well he does this season. He has enough talent to justify a purchase. Spurs are in a real money problem at the moment. I’d recommend Sangaré and Billing if money is a problem. They might work, but would have sell on value. This is a massive area for Tottenham, and need to get it right.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Team of the Group Stage

With this year’s exciting group stages over, let’s look at the players who have stood out massively this year. The only rule is 1 player per team, to add some variety to this team and to not go on about the same players. There are some great players in this side, so let’s get straight into it.

Allison

While Szczesny and De Gea are also great shouts in between the sticks, Allison just has to win it for me. While many have been critical of his occasional errors, he has changed that defense, along with Van Dijk. He has added that reassurance to his teammates, that there is nothing to worry about. The way he commands his goal is incredible and his presence is why Liverpool have improved so much this season. His game against Napoli at Anfield was great, making an incredible close ranged save right at the end of the game to deny Milik a change to send his side through. He is the reason why Liverpool were able to get out such a tough group.

João Cancelo

He has been absolutely sensational this season. While I have covered him previously, with his great performances against Manchester United and Inter Milan all highlighted, he has been a key member to a Juventus side that easily qualified, thanks to underperforming opposition. He was such a great outlet for a side that has found it difficult to find a consistent player in that right back position since Dani Alves departed. His pace, dribbling and defensive work make him a perfect modern full back. While it is questionable to put a player who only played 3 games in here, he was just that good. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions, completed 2.7 dribbles and even was taking 1.3 shots per game. A real stand out performer for a side who are looking to finally win the trophy after waiting so long.

Aymeric Laporte

Man City were very good in the group. While they had massive struggles when playing Lyon, failing to win in both games against the French side. They were still able to get top of the group, and that was mostly thanks to their own french defender, Aymeric Laporte. He was at his best in the Champions League. He was great on the ball as usual, completing 5 long balls per game, and having a 93% pass accuracy while doing so. His defense work is quite difficult to judge, considering Man City are such a possession heavy side. He did put in more interceptions than any other defense for his side, and also won 2.2 aerial duels per 90, only Fernandinho and Otamendi winning more. However he will be remembered for the 2 goals he scored. The first was to help his side secure a 3-0 win against Shaktar, and the other was to draw his side level with Lyon in their final encounter. He is has truly turned himself into a key player for Pep, and has been their best defender throughout. Alongside Ederson, he has played every minute of the Champions League. To do that under a manager who usually rotates all of his outfield players, it tells a lot about how well Laporte has done.

Mattias De Ligt

Ajax have been a huge surprise this season. Their two great performances against Bayern Munich showed this team has the potential to remind Europe why they were once a European Giant. Their blend of youth and now experience, with players like Blind, Tadic and Huntelaar all helping talents like Van Der Beek and De Jong perform at a higher level. But the player I’m choosing here is De Ligt. The Golden Boy winner has truly shown why he currently holds that award. When I first watched him back in 2017, I thought he was a player who had a massive ceiling, but didn’t have the stature and size to be able to perform against the top sides. Two years later and he has turned into the most wanted defender in Europe. The Dutch International showed his quality in the group, showing maturity and intelligence for a player so young. It does help being paired with Daily Blind, one of the smartest players in the competition when it comes to reading the game. While he is a good defender, he lacks the size and physicality that De Ligt has. It gives their back line a lot of balance, and great ability on the ball. De Ligt averaged a 93% pass accuracy, and won 3.1 aerial duels per 90. His stand out performance was against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. It was a game that showed Ajax are finally back to being taken seriously. While Zieych and Tadic were all great, De Ligt was also very good. He completed the most passes out of the Ajax back line, won 5 tackles and even had 2 shots. It showed that he is a potential super star at the back, performing at a ground where many have struggled. What a season the Dutchman is having.

Alex Grimaldo

While Benfica have yet again disappointed in the Champions League, it was a tough group to get through. Both Bayern and Ajax are good sides, they still seemingly haven’t recovered since losing Lindelof, Ederson and Semedo back in 2017. They are good domestically, but those players were truly a step above what they currently have. One player however who has stayed forever consistent is Alex Grimaldo. The Spaniard has been one of the top left backs in Europe since his time playing for Benfica. Coming from La Masia, it has helped give Benfica a great dribbler and creator from the flanks. While his stats are great, with his chance creation looking exceptional, it has been swayed thanks to the Spaniard taking his side’s free kicks. But they are still great. He put in 5.2 tackles and interceptions and 2.2 clearances. He was able to attack just as well as he can defend. He was taking 2 shots, creating a chance and completing 1.5 dribbles. He has continued to show why many top clubs are still very much interested in him.

Axel Witsel

This whole midfield is going to very different, considering none of them play for super clubs, like PSG and Bayern (sticking to my one player per club rule), so let’s begin with Witsel. A player I used to hate for so long, but he has been absolutely sensational this season, and has actually changed my opinion of him. I used to think he was a clumsy player who loved to put in a late challenge, but now he has turned into a really good passer, and is so important to what Favre is doing. Only Diallo has played more minutes than Witzel. He has also completed the most passes with the highest pass accuracy of any midfielder at the club. He helps massively in build play retaining the ball. He has improved Dortmund massively and is one of the key reasons why they have been this good so far this season.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Another player who you might not expect to be here, but deserves to be. Pellegrini is currently in his second season in the capital, and after a season where he wasn’t given as many chances as the likes of Nainggolan and Strootman. But as soon as they departed, The Italian has truly stepped up to the plate in this competition. While he has been good in Serie A, it’s in the champions League where his stats have rocketed. He’s got 3 assists in 3 starts, creating 3.5 chances per 90. It’s the highest in the Roma side and only Depay and Kroos (a player who maybe should be here) have created more chances per 90. He’s stepped and is finally showing why United seem so interested in him.

Nikola Vlasic

The final surprise pick if this XI. As previously mentioned, Kroos and Pjanic all would have been good options, but I’ll stick with arguably one of the surprise packages of the Champions League. The midfielder is currently on loan from Everton, after a season of a lack game time. He did show moments of real quality, but he just wasn’t able to show it. He was the best player in the group stages, when not including a certain Argentine. Vlasic was massively influence in their two leg shock over Real Madrid. He was the man of the match in both, scoring in the first and assisting the second. His numbers are just outrageous. Playing as an inside left forward, he played every minute for Moscow, and there’s a reason why. Per 90, he was taking 2.5 shots, creating 3 chances, completing 3 dribbles and even put in 2.3 tackles. It’s crazy to see that from a 21 year old. While Moscow are out of the competition, Vlasic has definitely put his name on some club’s radars.

Lionel Messi

Of course he has to be here. The best player of all time, even when he barely starts in the competition, still managed to score 6 in only 4 starts. His highlight so far was easily his performance against Tottenham at Wembley. The GOAT played Tottenham like they were Leganes. He had 6 shots and 4 on target, the highest in the match. Messi is arguably the only player in Europe where he is truly unstoppable when he is at his A game. His performances throughout the champions league have highlight just how irrelevant the Balon d’Or is, if Messi finishes fifth. The best player to ever play the game, the golden boot winner and has already got double figures in goals and assists, and is the top scorer in La Liga, even with missing a month through injury. He is the best player of all time and will always deserve a place in this side.

Robert Lewandowski

While Dzeko, Dybala, Tadic and Marega all deserve mentions here, Lewandowski scored the most goals in the group stages, giving him the spot for the best number 9. While Lewandowski is starting to show his age, with his mobility being the biggest problem as these years go on, he is still a very good striker. He was taking a very good 4 shots a game, with 2.7 of them coming from inside of the penalty area. Like in the Bundesliga, Bayern were not vintage in the champions league. Their massive struggles against Ajax highlighted that this team is definitely beatable. They couldn’t handle Tadic’s movement in the first leg, and played an entertaining second leg. They finished the group unbeaten. This is what you expect from them however. Their group was a gift. A poor Benfica side and Athens made it so easy for them. Lewandowski did definitely show his best though. Bayern will have to keep him fresh.

Neymar

I have made this very clear in the past, but I can’t stand Neymar as a professional. I think he takes the dark arts of the game too far sometimes and seems to have zero professionalism on the pitch, refusing to shake player’s hands because of disagreements on the pitch. While I can’t stand him a majority of the time, he is still just so incredible to watch. His hat trick against Red Star, including 2 delightful free kicks, was Neymar at his best. Even against Napoli, a game where he didn’t score or assist, he still managed to complete 13 dribbles and create 4 chances. He is arguably the most talented player in Europe. It is a shame he has a horrible way of showing it.

Why Mourinho Was Sacked. Top 5 League Talking Points

While this week wasn’t as interesting as the last, there are still plenty to talk about so let’s start with Germany

Bundesliga

Frankfurt Outclass Leverkusen

While Bayern and Leipzig all pick up big wins, let’s look at Frankfurt, who continued their great start to the season with a 2-1 victory over Bayern Leverkusen. While Frankfurt have been very good this season, Leverkusen are still a side that can cause any side trouble, with Werder Bremen conceding 6 against them. They also haven’t lost since the 11th of November, so this was a tough task for both sides.

Let’s start with the winners, who won this game, even without their young shot machine Luka Jovic, who started the game on the bench. This wasn’t as bad as it seems. They still had both Ante Rebic and Sebastian Haller, who have been very good this season. Rebic has continued on from his World Cup exploits, with the Croatian scoring 5 and assisting 2. His shot numbers are healthy considering he’s played all over the field this season, and he’s creating 1.8 chances a game, showing how much of a well rounded player he is. While he has been good, Haller has been absolutely brilliant. He’s scored 9 goals and is at the top of the assists chart in the Bundesliga, with 8. If you count the Europa League, he’s in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s incredible in the air and while he has been rather fortunate to have this many goal contributions, he has still been arguably the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Against Bayer Leverkusen, he took 4 shots, created 3 chances and won a ridiculous 12 aerial duels. Dragovic and Tah just couldn’t deal with him, with the pair only winning 3 aerial duels. I wouldn’t be surprised if clubs aren’t looking at him, for bids in the summer. He’s only 24, meaning there is still a ceiling to hit. He was only signed for £6.3m from Utrecht. What a brilliant bit of business from a club that seems to keep impressing me.

While Haller was as good as ever, the man of the match was arguably Filip Kostic. The Serbian was great on the day, scoring and assisting to help his side get the 3 points. He also created 2 chances, made 4 tackles and interceptions and 6 clearances. Frankfurt play in a way where their full backs are pushed so far forward, that they are almost like inside forwards. The first goal showed this, with Kostic assisting Da Costa with a beautiful low cross. It gives their side a constant attacking threat in all areas, and it means players like Rebic and Haller can stay more central without worrying about lacking isolation. But their marauding full backs come at a cost. It leaves them so vunarable at the back. Leverkusen were probably unlucky to not get more out of this game. They started it off so well, with Brandt having two great chances, and Bellerabi having a goal disallowed. They exploited the wide areas that are always left so free at times, and if not for better finishing, would have let Frankfurt pay for it. But they didn’t, and Frankfurt continue on this season, looking to get Europa League football.

La Liga

Betis back on track

While November did include a brilliant victory over Barcelona, it wasn’t a great month for Betis. It was their only win last month, with a draw against Celta and a defeat to a poor Villarreal, it left them in a position where they couldn’t seem to put two wins together. Now in December, they haven’t lost a single game yet, with their only points dropped being in the Europa League. Wins and clean sheets against Sociedad and Vallecano, means they are finally showing how good they really are. This side have a solid defense, and a great midfield. This actually transitions very smoothly to talk about Giovanni Lo Celso. The Argentine is one of my favourite players to watch this season, and has been the best midfielder in the league. While he’s only started 9 games, it is because the horrible Europa League campaign they are also playing in. He’s clearly being saved for those games, and it’s understandable why. Lo Celso is a midfielder who can play anywhere in the midfield. His tackle numbers and great dribble numbers make him a very flexible player, similar to Moussa Dembele or Allan. The difference here is goals. Lo Celso is Betis’s top scorer, and while it’s only with 4, it does show how good he at getting in the box. He also ranks third in the squad for shots per game, and xG says he is achieving what he should be, which shows there isn’t much luck or a purple patch here. This is Lo Celso playing his game, which is just frightening. He’s only 22, meaning there are still plenty of years left.

He was the man of the match in this game, taking 4 shots and completing 4 dribbles. Lo Celso is not a creator. Canales takes that role (and is another who has performed very well), while Lo Celso plays as the player who arrives late in the box, but is also an expert at winning the ball back. It does seriously trouble me why Paris let him go out on loan, and are now forced to play Marquinhos to play as a holding midfielder, a position where Lo Celso could definitely fill in. It would would amaze me if Paris actually let him go. He’s a player with massive potential would offer something different in a midfield which will see Rabiot leave by the summer. He is such a good player and is the reason why Betis are such a threat.

Ligue 1

Monaco Misery Continues

It is fair to say Monaco have been the worst side in Europe. They have went from Ligue 1 runners up, to a side hiring a manager with zero experience, and are now suffering for it. They have conceded the 4th most goals in the league, and scored the 3rd least amount of goals in Europe. They have turned from league winners, to a shambles. This game against Lyon just shows their weaknesses in both areas. They are currently suffering with 16 players out in the sidelines. I can definitely sympathise with Henry in that department. He has been forced to play Raggi as a right back, a player who should really not be at the club at this point. Monaco were truly awful in this game. It may become boring just looking at numbers, but they sum up the situation perfectly. The five highest shot takers in this game were all Lyon players, and the most dribbles were all Lyon players. Falcao actually won 3 tackles, more than all of his teammates. A striker should never be doing that. They had a pass accuracy of 77%. That is just awful. You expect a side, with ball players like Monaco to have at least 80%. You expect lower than that from direct managers like Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. While Lyon managed 21 shots, Monaco managed a poultry 4, meaning Aouar and Depay had more shots than their opposition, with 5 each. This all wasn’t helped from Golovin getting sent off. The Russian decided to throw a terrible challenge in, earning a straight and justifiably got his marching orders. They offered nothing in this game, which can’t be highlighted more than Benaglio getting the second highest amount of touches with 45. It was just a nothing performance from a side that has been no where near average this season.

Let’s quickly look at Lyon. They are now looking like the second best team in Ligue 1, which they are. Their best player on the day was Nabil Fekir. It might be an exaggeration, but he is arguably one of the top 20 players on the planet. Not many attackers can boast his creativity, shot numbers, set piece ability, dribbling and versatility. There’s so much to his game that is makes him such a desirable player to every top club. He could get into any team in the world. This game showed his quality. He scored, created 6 chances and completed the most passes out of any forward for Lyon. He was at his unbeatable best in this game, tearing through Monaco as if they were a light piece of paper. It was a great performance from a player who is just too good for this league. Another who stood out is Kenny Tete. He completed the most tackles and created 4 chances, with only Fekir creating more. His cross for the second goal was fantastic, and showed this determination and fight that he clearly has.

With Paris already seemed to have wrapped up the league, Lyon could seriously shock some sides the champions league. Barcelona are arguably the favourites for the competition, but injuries to their defenders and Luis Suarez’s ability to have an incredible off day, means they are definitely beatable. Valverde’s pragmatism is his biggest weakness, and best quality. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it just doesn’t work. Losing to Roma, failing to win the league because of his complete team change against Levante, and their terrible performance against Betis only last month. It leaves questions on whether they can actually go the distance. They go against this Lyon side. A side full of attacking quality, and a side that showed a lot of versatility in the past, able to play a 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3. It could be a real challenge, as Manchester City found out.

Premier League

Manchester United outclassed

While this is quite late, let’s look at Mourinho’s last game in charge of Manchester United, arguably his side’s worst showing. I compare every single bad performance from United this season to that game against Brighton, where I saw nothing in attacking sense and complete incompetence in defense. Even the games against, Southampton, Valencia, Juventus, Manchester City, Spurs and Derby, they just weren’t as bad as Brighton, but the against their closest rivals is definitely the worst. Allowing Liverpool to have 36 shots, is a disgrace. United just sat back and allowed Liverpool to attack relentlessly. While Liverpool were quite wasteful, with Fabinho, Lovren and Mane all wasting chances, they still created so many chances and were allowed so because of just how bad United were. While United did get a goal back thanks to an Allison mistake, it was not deserved. Liverpool won the game thanks to goals from Xherdan Shaqiri. I think the line up was the start of things to come for United. No Martial, Pogba or Mata meant a huge lack of creativity and spark in the side. It made United so much more predictable and passive in an attacking sense. They lacked Mata’s ability to drift and find space, Martial’s speed and chance creation and Pogba’s pure arrogance. While I like Herrera, he isn’t going to offer anything in a creative sense, and Matic is just not very good. I like Lingard, but he works better when he’s playing off other attackers. Rashford, while he tried his hardest, did struggle in this game. United are an absolute mess, and it truly doesn’t make sense. This side has some of the best attackers in the league. Lukaku was scoring over 20 goals only 2-3 years ago, Martial was carrying United’s attack, Rashford was ruthless in his first full season, Sanchez was linked to every single top during his final year at Arsenal, Mata is arguably as good as David Silva. How this team isn’t scoring more than Arsenal and Chelsea is mind blowing. Mourinho started his time at United so well. Two trophies, an arrogance and swagger with the signings of Zlatan and Pogba, and huge progress to be made. However it’s just been downhill from there. This is written right after Mourinho was sacked, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been appointed. The Norwegian will hopefully bring back the confidence in this side, and make times at Old Trafford much more enjoyable.

While I still do not think Liverpool are near City in performance and quality, credit needs to be given. They were very good against United. It does help that their opponent was so bad, but they themselves were good. Fabinho was their best player on the day for me. While many have given Shaqiri the man of the match for his effect on the game, I think Fabinho did show exactly why Liverpool have been such a solid side this season. While he started slow, he seems to have finally found his place and purpose in this side. Considering he was playing in defensive midfield, he played more as a number ten. He had 5 shots, created 2 chances and 3 dribbles. He got the assist for the first goal, with an excellent ball that cut the United defense open like cheese. He dominated this game and could be a real important player in a season where Liverpool finally seem ready for a trophy.

Serie A

Roma entertain Genoa

With all the big clubs getting typical wins, let’s look at the most entertaining of those wins, being Roma’s 3-2 victory over Genoa. Roma have been poor this season. I still have massive question marks over Di Francesco, and Monchi just hasn’t had the impact all expected him to have. I do think it is a massive shame that Malcom made the wrong decision in joining Barcelona. If he did sign as he was expected to, they would definitely be more of a threat in front of goal. Roma have scored a very good 29 goals, but an injury to Dzeko has left them with a difficult situation. Schick hasn’t impressed in the slightest since his arrival from Sampdoria last season. Instead, they started Zaniolo. The Italian didn’t manage a shot on target in the game, but having the opportunity will definitely help him grow as a player. For the first time this season, I can say Roma’s midfield were very good. Di Francesco chose to start Bryan Cristante and Steven N’Zonzi in this game. Cristante is a player who isn’t full of talent, but he did show what he’s got against Genoa, scoring and creating 3 chances. His midfield partner was even better. N’Zonzi has not been great since his arrival in the capital. He’s started show his age, and struggling with the pace of some sides in Italy. But in this game he was back to his best. He completed 6 tackles and interceptions, and won 8 aerial duels. He is finally showing why Monchi chose to take another risk on him, at an age where he should start to be fading. He hasn’t been at his best this season, but he is still a presence in midfield and hopefully he can find a certain place in this side. With Pellegrini in the sidelines, it was important that the pair stepped up, and they did.

Genoa can truly call themselves unlucky. They had a lead in this game, with the shot monster Piatek and Hiljemark both scoring, but Roma clawed back and got the result. xG had this game at 1.88 to Roma and 2.18 to Genoa. This is mainly due to how good Piatek is. The Polish marksman has been on fire this season, and showed it here. He had 5 shots, with every single shot on target. It’s something you don’t usually see from a forward, being able to hit every shot on target in a game against the second best defense last season. There is no doubt that Piatek is over performing, but he is playing for a side that isn’t exactly a top 6 contender. They don’t create a crazy amount of chances, so it’s very impressive. It’ll be hard for Genoa to keep hold of him, if any big clubs would go for him.

Is The Serie A Title Race Already Over? Top 5 League Talking Points

Bundesliga

The Revierderby

While Dortmund’s game against Bayern is always a huge fixture, their game against Schalke is arguably just as big. Both sides are only a 23 minute drive away. They are both located in a real working class area and this derby has produced 152 meetings, with Schalke coming out as the better of the pair. Going into this game, it was clear that while Schalke have picked up some form in recent weeks, Dortmund were the favourites. While it was close, it was Dortmund who came out as victors, thanks to goals from Thomas Delaney and Jadon Sancho. Schalke did bring the game level thanks to Caligiuri’s penalty, but it just wasn’t enough.

Let’s discuss the victors, who weren’t great on the day, but still managed to win the game. The Veltins-Arena is not an easy ground for Borussia Dortmund, with their last win coming in October 2013, so the fact they were able to pick up the victory is still very impressive. However their performance wasn’t their best showing. They only managed 3 shots on target. Schalke managed the same but they have a valid reason being they lack forward options at the moment, with Mark Uth and Breel Embolo both picking up injuries. Dortmund didn’t have any massive injury troubles going into this game. They started all of their big performers, with Reus, Sancho, Alcacer and Brunn Larson all starting as their attackers. Reus was very good on the day. He has been revived this season, and while isn’t the brilliant winger in his earlier days, he has evolved as a player, similar to how R9 changed from a player who relied solely on physical power, and instead used his technical prowess to his advantage. Reus is the leader in this young side, and knows what it means to play for the club. In this game he created 3 chances, more than any other player on the pitch, and got the assist with a delightful free kick into the box. Other than Reus, their attackers weren’t good enough on the day. Both Sancho and Brunn Larson were lack lustre, but they are young players. This is a game that is so hard to predict, and it can be overwhelming. Paco Alcacer was arguably the worst out of the three. He didn’t manage a single shot on target, and was taken off for Mario Gotze. While Dortmund should be happy with the win, it wasn’t vintage from them. Lucien Favre has garnered a reputation for completely misleading xG. They are currently top of the table, yet xPTS claims they should actually be 2nd, with Bayern as the comfortable leaders. They are actually the luckiest team in the league, with Favre’s side only expected to score 27, 12 less than they have actually managed. Dortmund have been very good this season, there is no denying that. But with Bayern being more dominant, Hoffenheim taking more shots and Leipzig having a better defense, it does show how maybe they’re fortunate to be where they are. I still hope they can keep it up. The Bundesliga has been very boring for a while now and it needs this refresh. Not only does it throw Dortmund right back at the top, but it will make Bayern really reconsider how well they think they’re ran.

La Liga

Atletico Madrid show quality against in form Alaves

Onto La Liga, which has had a predictable, yet interesting week. The high scoring game between Levante and Eibar, but let’s look at Atletico Madrid. They have truly disappointed me this season. With the huge additions they made in the summer, it was expected for them to finally push on. They have been fine enough. They still have a very good defense, but Simeone has faced some real problems. The first was his midfield. Since the loss of Gabi, a player so similar to Diego Simeone, it was as if there were two of them. The signing of Rodri from Villarreal was so good. I’ve already gone through previously why he’s so good, but there was doubt he could be the guy to replace Gabi. But after a start to a season which lacked minutes, he has finally found his place in the side. Only Koke completes more passes a game than Rodri. He also completed the most tackles in the side and the most clearances out of any midfielder. He holds the ball very well and is a great shield for the defense. I bring this up because he was one of Atletico’s best players on the day. He scored, completed more passes than any other Atletico Madrid player, and made 3 tackles and 8 clearances. He was very good on the day, and it seems Simeone finally has put his trust in him.

The Rojiblancos were deserving of the victory. They created better chances, and kept Alaves quiet and unable to create real substantial chances. While Alaves did take more shots, they only managed 3 on target. Atletico Madrid are one of the best sides in Europe at ensuring the chances you make are poor ones. It is why they are such a good side, and even with aging defenders, they are still rock solid at the back. One of their stand out defenders in this game was Santiago Arias. The Columbian was brought in as a replacement for the departing Sime Vrsaljko, and has been a worthy successor. He had a very successful time at PSV, where his dribble numbers and attacking threat were his most notable attributes. He was very good in this game, and showed all these qualities. He created 2 chances, more than any other defender, and even got an assist. It was a very good display from a player who will need plenty if he is to replace Juanfran.

Let’s quickly touch on Alaves, who while didn’t deserve the 3 points, they still had some chances in this game. Ibai Gomez managed more shots on target than any of his teammates, with 2. Alaves have been fine this season. While they don’t score many goals, they take the chances they get and play a very direct style. They can seem old fashioned, with Alaves being near the bottom of the table in shots, possession and pass accuracy, but right now they are just taking advantage of the state that is La Liga right now. The league is a mess, which has left teams like Alaves and Levante to climb the table, in times where they really shouldn’t be this high. While they are having a good season, it’s mainly because of how bad some other sides in La Liga have actually been.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 will not be spoken about this week. The yellow vests protects have brought up security concerns. France is not exactly the happiest nation at the moment. 5 games have been suspended this weekend, including the game I most looking forward to, St Etienne against Marseille. It is still unsure when these games will be played, but I will cover Ligue 1 when it eventually comes back.

Premier League – Manchester City stunned by Sarri

Arguably the game of the weekend, Sarri was the first manager in the Premier League to truly dismantle Pep’s side. While City did dominate, Chelsea took their chances and limited City to create chances that aren’t as high quality as usual. It was arguably the most interesting game of the season.

Let’s start with Chelsea, who were truly great on the day. They came into this game in arguably the worst of situations. They lost 2 in their last 3, with their win coming against Fulham, a side even United could put 4 past. There was reason for worry, and even in the first half that worry was still there. City dominated and definitely should have got on the score sheet, but Chelsea rode their luck, and thanks to a goal from N’golo Kante and a late header from David Luiz, the blues managed to get the win. When I say that City dominated that first half, it was no exaggeration. Kante’s goal was Chelsea’s first shot on target. It’s Kante’s 4th goal contribution this season, the same as he’s managed in his last 2 seasons for Chelsea. While he is still learning his new role of box to box midfielder, it cannot be argued that he is definitely showing progress. While both Kante, Hazard and David Luiz will be remembered for what they did going forward, the man of the match was comfortably César Azpilicueta. The Spaniard was a monster at the back, that if you just add up all his defensive actions, he made 24. That is unheard of and it could be the first time I’ve ever seen a player amass that many. No matter where he plays Azpilicueta will always be one of the most consistent players in the side. He is just a delight to have for any squad. What Chelsea did so well is actually realise they are a lesser team than Man City. They might have played a 4-3-3, but in defense, it looked more like a 4-5-1. They were fine to have less of the ball, because they knew they could score a goal at the perfect opportunity. Both Kovacic and Kante are incredibly athletic, and could definitely help transition. It’s was a great approach from Sarri, and seems to be doing well at Chelsea, playing a different style to many of his predecessors.

This did seem like a huge off day for Manchester City. The champions dominated the first half, but late in the game they failed to get back a goal, and the pressure seemed to have got to them. The biggest talking point of the game was Man City’s lack of striker. Pep after the game said he was happy with how they played and the how his side set up, but I disagree. While he has played a striker-less team before, it just didn’t work here. Sterling just doesn’t have the same ability as someone like Jesus, to get in behind and make very intelligent runs. Sterling has been incredible this season, but it’s more as a winger, not a striker.

While Liverpool might be top of the table, City are still comfortably the better side. Every result they have had all been earned, with no luck to speak of. Let’s hope the better side actually win it this year.

Serie A – Juventus extend lead at the top

With Serie A going back to its one horse self, let’s look at their Friday night battle against Inter Milan, a side who have massively disappointed me so far this season. They have a very good manager, and made additions that should have seen them skyrocket up the table, but have been labouring on. While Icardi and Brozovic have been their usual great selves, Perisic, Nainggolan, Candreva and Vrsaljko have all underperformed this season. Perisic has always been their main creator, so having him slow down is a massive problem. Luckily, Keita Balde has been in good form recently and has helped his side. However even Keita couldn’t make the difference, with Juventus winning 1-0.

Inter had 2 incredible chances to get ahead, but thanks to Icardi creating them, instead of being on the end of them. Gagliardini hit the post and Skriniar hit it over the bar It meant they didn’t have their most clinical striker taking the shots. Other than those two chances, Inter only managed a single shot on target. They were wasteful in the final third and but the fact they created the chances they did, does earn credit. Vrsaljko was arguably their best player. While he hasn’t been as good as I expected, he did definitely bring his a game in this one. He completed 2 crosses, more than any other Inter player, and had their only shot on target. He was arguably one of the only highlights from a defense that wasn’t good on the day. xG had this game at 1.41 to Juventus, and 0.95 to Inter.

Let’s move on to the victors, who while weren’t great, still managed to get the job done. It’s classic Juventus. They are a winning machine. They have a team full of players who know how to win games, through the more dirtier side of the game, with players who have played at the top level for a long time, and know what it takes. They were good in this game, creating better chances than their opponents, with their forwards performing very well. Paulo Dybala was very impressive on the day. He created 3 chances, took 4 shots and even completed 4 crosses out of his 5 attempted, which is frankly ridiculous to see a player be that accurate. Mandzukic scored the only goal, and also had the most shots on target, and created 2 chances. Ronaldo wasn’t stand out in his game, but it’s good to see his teammates performing even when their main man isn’t. However another full back stole the show, this time it was João Cancelo. The Portuguese, while disappointing in Spain, has simply been brilliant since arriving from Valencia last summer. He was signed permanently by Juventus in the summer, after his loan spell with Inter came to an end. He has arguably been the signing of the season in Serie A. He created 3 chances, made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and got the assist with a delightful ball to Mandzukic.

It’s hard to see how Juventus aren’t favourites for practically every competition they’re in. They have a deep squad, quality in every position, and huge competition for places. I still think their midfield is a bit weak. It’s the only thing truly holding them back from being the best side in Europe. While Atalanta and Napoli might be more fun to watch, Juventus are winners, and that is what’s most important when winning league titles.