Guardiola and City didn’t malfunction, they’re just human.

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One goal in football can change everything. It can take you from the relegation to safety, Europa League to Champions League, a 2nd placed finish to a league title (as Manchester City fans know all too well), or a “genius” to a “fraud”.

Unfortunately for Pep Guardiola, in this new age of football conversation via social media and clickbait articles, not even a domestic treble will now be able to spare him of criticism for going out of the Champions League last night on away goals to Tottenham.  Reference will inevitably be made to the money Guardiola has spent during his time at City, the fact he is yet to take this team further than a Champions League quarter final, and that Guardiola’s special sauce will never taste the same without his not so secret ingredient – Lionel Messi.

However, the efforts to undermine the achievements of Guardiola as a coach are so ludicrous that they should almost be seen as a testament to how well he is doing as Manchester City manager. Apart from his failure to win a Champions League within the first 3 years of his tenure at City, Guardiola’s performance in England has been nothing short of revolutionary. Much is forgotten of the squad Guardiola inherited, which makes City’s turnaround from other-yearly title contenders to Centurions even more impressive.

After finishing 3rd and trophyless in his first year at the club, Guardiola knew to implement his style he needed youth with a willingness to learn, rather than world renown superstars. In the summer of 2017, Guardiola shipped out the following; Wilfried Bony (28), Nolito (30), Fernando (30), Aleksander Kolarov (31), Samir Nasri (30), Gael Clichy (31), Jesus Navas (31), Pablo Zabaleta (32), Bacary Sagna (34), Joe Hart (30) and Willy Callabero (35).

The type of overhaul Manchester United fans could only dream of. And here lies much of the reasoning behind criticism of Pep and Manchester City – opposing fans just wish someone could do what he is doing with their team.

Over the 2 seasons that led to the record-breaking 100 points total gained in 2017/18, City signed; Gabriel Jesus (19), Leroy Sane (20), John Stones (22), Aymeric Laporte (23), Benjamin Mendy (23), Bernardo Silva (22) and Ederson (23). On top of these transfers, only 3 recognised first teamers were signed between the ages of 25-27, those being Kyle Walker, Ilkay Gundogan and Danilo. Many of the younger players Guardiola signed were fairly irrelevant on the world stage, with the most notable being Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva for their part in City’s exit out of the Champions League in Guardiola’s first season in charge of the club. Although highly talented young players, none of these signings could have been considered a “big name”. Similarly, there was no signs in Raheem Sterling’s performances in sky blue prior to the implementation of Guardiola’s style of play that he would ever reach the heights he is currently soaring at. In his first 2 seasons at City, Sterling only managed 13 goals in 66 league appearances. In his last 2 seasons, Sterling has got 55 goal contributions in 62 league appearances. Although expensive, these players were not proven world beaters. They had the potential, but Guardiola was the key to unlocking it.

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Sterling celebrates against Spurs

However, fast forward to today, and Guardiola’s Manchester City look like seasoned veterans of the game, who have been playing with each other for 10 plus years. Their awareness and trust in each other verge on telepathic. Even the goalkeeper Ederson, appears to possess the touch and passing range of a top European midfielder. They appear almost impossible to dispossess at times. City’s patterns of play are so ingrained in the players they seem to score the same goal every weekend. Aguero’s finishing, De Bruyne’s passing, Sterling’s movement, Bernardo Silva’s close control. These unique qualities to each player are machine-like, with success rates telling in the 183 points Manchester City have gained in nearly 2 full seasons.

But they aren’t robots.

These players are susceptible to human error. And last night they fell short because they did not defend a corner well enough, and that is the bottom line of it. To the reasonable-minded, you will understand how usually, to play the football Guardiola teams do, you need mobile, creative, attacking players. Therefore, you will be more prone to losing aerial duels. This really does not go any deeper than this. Spurs were brilliant, and City were brilliant. Both showcased the different qualities that have got them so far in the competition. Heung Min Son was frightening and could one day play for Barcelona or Madrid. There appears to be no fault in the South Korean’s game. He’s strong, deceivingly fast, creative, smart, funny, handsome and charming. But you get my point. Ironically, for many systems in the modern game, the lone striker now needs to offer a lot more than just goals in the box. Son does this, but not only that, it feels like a foregone conclusion when he believes he is in range of scoring, he scores. It felt inevitable once he had taken the touch before his 2nd goal that the shot was going in.

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Son in irresistible mood

Pochettino deserved to be on the receiving end of last night’s last-gasp VAR interference after another year of defying expectations. Daniel Levy is often regarded as a shrewd business mind, however his handling of the Tottenham boss has been nothing short of negligent, and doused with luck. Pochettino has been one of the best managers in world football for a number of years now, and after not making a summer signing, coupled with the underperforming jobs carried out by Jose Mourinho and Julen Lopetegui at Manchester United and Real Madrid, it seemed clear his time at Tottenham would be coming to an end. However, after Solskjaer’s successful audition as caretaker manager at United, and Madrid succumbing to the demands of a returning Zinedine Zidane, Pochettino was left with no alternatives other than to stay with Spurs. And had Sterling’s goal stood last night, or Llorente’s not have, Pochettino would have bared similar criticism to what Guardiola is suffering from today. Fingers would’ve pointed at his team’s mentality on the big stage when it comes down to the crunch, because that’s how football fans work.

Players and clubs make so much money nowadays, we don’t see them as human beings anymore. There’s no connection between the working man and the elite footballer. We no longer account for human error from footballers.

In actuality, both teams and managers should be praised last night. We should be thankful we witnessed one of, if not the, best Champions League knockout game in the competition’s history. Because there is only one set of supporters in the world who would reject the idea of Guardiola or Pochettino managing their club; and that’s Liverpool fans.

For Tottenham and City, they will meet again on Sunday. City will look to now get back on track to not only keep alive their hopes of a domestic treble, but to become the first team since Manchester United in 2008/09 to retain a Premier League title. For Tottenham, their league approach may now change. With talisman Harry Kane seemingly out for the remainder of the Champions League campaign, Pochettino cannot afford to lose another key player before the ties against Ajax. As important as top 4 is to teams in England nowadays, Tottenham may never get a better chance to arrive in a Champions League final. Ajax have proved they’re no pushovers, but similarly to Liverpool’s draw to Roma in last years Champions League semi-finals, there will be an unspoken understanding around White Hart Lane that Spurs have drawn the team that Liverpool and Barcelona ideally would have wanted. However, despite their different aims for this season, both managers and teams are performing miracles.

Pochettino and Tottenham are outperforming the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, having not spent a penny this season but still coping with the demands of Premier League and Champions League football.

For Guardiola and City, a domestic treble is still within reach. Consecutive league titles are still within reach. 198 points in 2 seasons is still capable. No matter how much money a manager spends, that level of domestic dominance would be unparalleled if achieved. A Champions League for City under Guardiola will be delivered in time, just not this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graeme Souness: Benfica’s British Invasion

When we tune in to our televisions on a Sunday to watch four hours of solid football, we expect to watch people with knowledge and thought-provoking insight on the game. Instead, we get Graeme Souness spouting off his outdated views and living up to the role of ensuring that we all get to listen to a dad’s stale opinion.

Whether it be Graeme informing the world of Juventus getting rid of Moise Kean due to him having attitude problems, World Cup winner Paul Pogba having an attitude that could stink out an open-top bus or Mousa Dembele not scoring enough goals to be considered quality (despite being a holding midfielder), Graeme loves to ensure that we all are reliably misinformed every single Sunday.

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Kean and his ‘attitude problem’

Lets time travel back to Lisbon in the late 1990s.

In  November 1997, Graeme Souness was tasked with the difficult job of getting Benfica back to their prime. He attempted to do this via the route of signing bang average Premier League players who would throw up at the thought of wearing white boots.

He inherited FA Cup winner, and now the face of the Championship, Scott Minto. After initially assessing his squad, Souness realised that Minto being the first-ever Englishman to play for Benfica was a true travesty, so decided to bring in as many players from the British Isles as he could get away with.

Brian Deane, the man who scored the first goal of the Premier League era, must have thought all his Christmas’ came at once when Benfica came calling. Playing in the second tier of English Football, Deane jumped at the chance to move from Sheffield to Lisbon. Deane scored seven goals in 18 games for the Lisbon giants, but was fed up with life in miserable Lisbon and could not resist a move to Middlesbrough. Deane was a rare British success for Souness due to his decent goalscoring rate and a goal at home against fierce rivals, Porto.

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Dean Saunders: Benfica legend

Lightning never strikes twice, however. Souness bought Deane from Championship side Sheffield United, so obviously, the Scot had to return to Yorkshire to sign everyone’s favourite Talk-sport pundit, Dean Saunders. The ex-Welsh international scored five goals in 17 league games and was probably a symbol for the failure of Souness’ ‘British Invasion’ as he was shipped off to Bradford after his sole year sipping Sangria.

Nuno Gomes was the main man for Benfica during this period and the definition of a ‘slotsman’ during the late 90s. The season before Saunder’s joined Benfica, Gomes bagged 22 goals in 40 games and was already an international footballer. However, Souness and Saunders believed that Gomes needed a more ‘English spin’ on his way of playing. Souness believed that Saunders could help Gomes realise what he wants in his striker and believed that Gomes could learn a few things. Maybe this worked as Gomes went onto score 54 goals in his following two seasons, but it would be presumed this was just because Nuno Gomes had the innate ability to sniff out a chance, and not because of a 34-year-old Championship striker teaching him how to get volleyed by a bulldog at the back whilst running the channels.

Nuno Gomes shockingly did not have the greatest relationship with his former manager Graeme Souness. Portugal achieved a superb comeback, coming back from two goals down against England in Euro 2020, eventually winning 3-2. Gomes scored the winning goal in typical fashion as he found a yard in the box and prodded the ball over the onrushing David Seaman. Before the game, Gomes was told that if Tony Adams and Sol Campbell ‘ show their teeth’ then the striker would ‘run away in fear’. This gave Nuno Gomes the motivation to prove his former boss wrong, and that he did to the misery of millions of English fans.

Mark Pembridge was signed on a free transfer fresh from reaching the nose bloodying heights of 16th with Sheffield Wednesday the year before. The ‘Welsh Paul Scholes’ did not quite live up to his tag. Going from an unspectacular midfielder in a relegation fight to the heart of one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs surprisingly did not work out well. Who would have guessed? After a year in Portugal’s capital, Pembridge decided to join Everton, where he would attempt to score off every single corner he took, much to the sheer delight of all Toffees fans.

It seems that Pembridge had one crucial thing that Souness liked about him which many other players had Benfica could not offer him – he was not Portuguese speaking. After stories of Nuno Gomes being castigated for using the outside of his foot when striking the ball in training. Rumours have it that Souness stopped training and told his star player and the 20+ goal a season man that ‘we are not in Brazil now’. Truly astounding stuff.

After hearing this shocking news that Souness does not like flair or a player going against the mould, it should come as no surprise that Souness did not fancy 19-year-old, Brazillian born Deco. After scoring 13 goals in 32 games whilst on loan at Alverca, Souness did not fancy him and decided to let him go on a free transfer.

He let Deco go on a free transfer. Deco.

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Not good enough for Benfica

It should come as no real surprise that Souness made a few basic errors in the transfer market. Who can forget about the signing of Ali Dia whilst he was in charge of Southampton. After the club receiving a call from Goerge Weah, Souness jumped at the opportunity to sign his little cousin and striker for PSG on a free transfer. The deal sounded far too good to be true for the Scottish manager; largely because it was a lie. Dia was fresh off the back of failed trials at Port Vale, Gillingham, and Bournemouth, he eventually got a deal with non-league Blyth Spartans. After making just one substitute appearance for the non-league club, Dia decided to aim for the bright lights of the Premier League.

George Weah never actually phoned Souness believe it or not; it was Dia’s college roommate. Souness offered a one month trial to the make-believe Senegalese international and took a gamble on the forward, lashing him on the bench against Leeds United.

When Matt Le Tissier got injured in the 32nd minute, George Weah’s ‘cousin’ took to the field of play to show just what he had in his locker. Unfortunately, his locker was pretty bare. The sub got subbed and was nicknames Ali Liar and Ali Dire by the press due to his clear lack of footballing ability. A definite egg on the face moment for the pundit who slags off every man and his dog each Sunday.

Souness’ British invasion no doubt ended in failure. He was told in the April of his final season he would be replaced by future-treble-winning Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynkes. Souness went on to be suspended by the club due to his ‘passivity’ in a 1-1 draw against Campomaiorens. Souness later branded the club owner, Joao Azevedo, as a ‘dangerous man’ which later turned out to be true. However, he then went on to say he was going to pay some ‘Latinos’ to beat him up.

Not very classy, Graeme.

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Azevedo and Souness: Not the best of friends

A common joke at the time of the Brittish Invasion read as: ‘If a plane crashed which contained Souness, Azevedo and Joao Pinto (club captain at the time): who would survive? Benfica.’ Harsh and extreme, but once the manager and the owner left the club then Benfica could rebuild and become a domestic force once again, as they have shown in recent years, largely dominating Primeira Liga.

The club was, unfortunately, rotting from within when Souness was in charge. Club owner, Azevedo, was arrested in 2001, showing the dodgy side of his persona which Souness and the Benfica fans knew existed. The former owner was accused of keeping £1m from the transfer of Sergei Ovchinnikov to Alverca FC, as well as laundering cash through offshore banks on the British Virgin Islands. Therefore with this occurring in the background, it can be no major surprise which Souness did not achieve as much success as he would have hoped for.

However, with public statements suggesting that Portuguese players lacked ‘heart and desire’ and that they needed to develop more of a Scottish mentality, it can be no surprise that Souness was the victim of a mock farewell with 80,000 angry Portuguese fans ironically waving handkerchiefs during a 0-3 defeat to Boavista. Souness found himself locked out the training ground; sadly not earning a place in the hearts of Benfica fans throughout the world.

 

Atalanta – The Shining Light of Italy

It has been a dark year for Italian football. Multiple disgusting incidents surrounding racism, off the field controversy, teams underperforming domestically and not showing up in European competitions have resulted in an overwhelming negative feeling amongst Italian football fans this season. Even Juventus only managed a handful of genuinely good performances on the way to their 8th Scudetto in succession, whilst a club like Fiorentina head into the last match of the season in serious danger of plummeting out the division. There has been one shining light in Italian football, however. Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio.

Atalanta have risen above the behaviour of fellow Italian clubs and have been the much-needed positive story for all who follow Italian football. Their fans are currently watching arguably their best ever team, enjoying their greatest ever season. Obviously, this could and should be made even sweeter if they manage to overcome a Sassuolo side they destroyed 6-2 away from home earlier in the season, helping them to grab a much-coveted spot in the top four. Atalanta are adored by neutral fans due to their style of football. They share Jürgen Klopp’s philosophies of overrunning their opposition through superior fitness and hard work, whilst playing attacking football which is easy on the eye with a dynamic front three. This is a rarity in Serie A and a breath of fresh air in a league, which at times this season has flattered to deceive.

Atalanta have nothing to lose compared to their Champions League chasing rivals Roma, Inter and AC Milan; who are fighting to stay within the boundaries of FFP if they fail to qualify. If Atalanta do finish 5th or lower it can be seen as simply a hard luck story. If any of the other teams lose out, then they may have to sell out their biggest assets in order to stay within the boundaries of the law. Atalanta are simply pleased to be in their situation and have no pressure of missing out defining their club’s future.

Of course, Ilicic is rumoured to be leaving for Napoli, which would be a huge blow and potentially not the wisest deal for both clubs. But this is not the end of the world for Atalanta. Their model is to sell for a profit and use their fantastic development system and scouting networks to bring through the next gems for Gasperini to play with and mould into his flawless system.

For Atalanta, players can come and go. But what is crucial is that they keep hold of Gian Piero Gasperini. He is their most important asset as his personality and leadership stands out in this current team for all to see. They play aesthetically pleasing football, partly due to the bravery Gasperini has to play three forwards. This bravery is combined with his ability to make his players run into the ground for him. The effectiveness of his attacking play is shown in Atalanta currently scoring the most goals in the competition (74). If you consider the attacking talent that other clubs such as Juventus and Napoli have amongst their squad, this is a clear sign that Gasperini is bringing the best out of his players. Leading the line is Duvan Zapata, who is the second-leading goal scorer in Serie A, with 22 goals. This doubles his previous highest scoring domestic season, where he scored 11 goals last year with Sampdoria.

The sign of a good manager is to make players bleed for your team and play with blind confidence that the managers tactics will provide success. This is another connection Gasperini has with Jürgen Klopp. Klopp makes seemingly average players look like world beaters. Wijnaldum, for example, got relegated with Newcastle and looked like merely a decent player, but now you would be hard pushed to find someone who could do as good of a job for the German manager’s team.

Ilicic is a clear example Gasperini’s influence on a player. At 21 years of age, the talented but inconsistent forward, was thinking about retiring due to the lack of enjoyment when playing football. Now, he is arguably one of the top 3 forwards in Italy due to the unbelievable consistency he is showcasing on the pitch, producing huge goals when it matters. Last week at Juventus was a sign of this as he looked the best player on the pitch. Gasperini is the driving force behind Ilicic being the player he is today, and another reason why the Slovenian should reconsider leaving Atalanta this summer.

If there was one slight cloud over the weekend’s match against Sassuolo, it would be that Atalanta have to play their final game away from their home stadium despite being the home side. They are redeveloping their stadium in order to become a more modern club, which will stabilise their future. They will be creating a stand behind the goal which is similar to Borussia Dortmund’s “yellow wall”, operating with a safe standing stand in order to retain their electric atmosphere. Although this is an inconvenience (especially for the fans as it is a 2-hour drive away from Bergamo), it is part of the clear signs that Atalanta is a club moving forward and showing the correct ambition to become a future powerhouse in Italy.

Atalanta represent something which is rare in football in modern times. They are achieving success based on hard work and determination. Football fans across the world want their team to represent who they are. Football is a working-class sport. Stadiums are filled with normal people who all work hard throughout the week in order to watch their beloved team play. This is why it is so special when a team such as Atalanta, who were in the second division just over a decade ago, play with such passion and heart, representing their fan base, whilst achieving great feats on the pitch.

The footballing world should stand up, pay attention and aim to replicate the successes of Gasperini’s men this season. They represent all that is good about the game and stand against all the controversy which is currently surrounding not just Italy, but football as a whole right now.

The End is Inevitable

With 10 minutes remaining in the Copa del Rey final, Barcelona were trailing 2-1 against Valencia. Kondogbia picked up the ball and walked past 2 Barcelona midfielders as they had no energy or fight to keep up with Central African Republic international. This is an image which portrays everything Barcelona lack and everything they need. They are a team who have no energy or pace throughout the team, and a team who have shown at vital times in the season that they do not possess the sufficient fight to overcome challenges.

Valverde will now be facing some difficult questions. Questions that he may not have answers to. He is a conservative manager, almost the opposite to his successful predecessors. Luis Enrique was a manager who won the treble and was a manager who relied on the dynamic, and one of the greatest forward combinations the world has ever seen, MSN. Pep Guardiola was different in the sense that he was focussed more on the tactical fluidity and possessional aspect of the beautiful game.

Pep’s Barca will possibly go down as the greatest club side that have ever been, as they destroyed anyone and everyone in front of them. But what was crucial is that Pep was a disciple of Johan Cruyff.

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Pep Guardiola being saluted as Barcelona manager.

Valverde does not share these offensive principles. He is a manager who does not excite the fans, as his first priority is being solid with organisation being paramount to his work. He has had unbelievable success in the league and has never been beaten by Valencia, Atletico or Real Madrid throughout his two years in charge. They have been an unstoppable force and made a laughing stock out of Real Madrid, who have finished nowhere near their bitter rivals.

However, Valverde’s time at Barcelona will be defined by their miserable failure in the Champions League. Last season, their performance in Rome was inexcusable. They lost 3-0 to a decent Roma side, but not a side of the quality to hammer a side of Barcelona’s quality. This could have been excused as a blip – if it were not for the gutless show at Anfield. Barcelona failed to turn up and got embarrassed by a Liverpool side who were missing key players such as Firmino and Salah, and Robertson for the second half.

Lessons were not learnt and the same mistakes were punished. Barcelona did not have any pace on the pitch against Roma, resulting in Messi dropping deeper and deeper to get the ball, without having pace on the field to trouble in behind the opposition defence. A high press results in Barcelona becoming suffocated and unable to play out from the back, with Busquets and co becoming stifled. Valverde again put 11 players out on the field at Anfield who had no intention of getting behind Liverpool.

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De Ja Vu. History repeated itself at Anfield.

Kondogbia ran through the Barcelona midfield like a year 11 playing football with the year 7’s. He walked through them with minimal effort as the power of Valencia midfielder was uncomfortable to watch. Busquets could be Pep Guardiola’s greatest ever discovery. A gangly midfielder from the B team became arguably the greatest holding midfielder ever. But he has never had pace, and in a midfield of Rakitic, Vidal or Arthur, his advancing years becomes painfully obvious.

This was a problem at Liverpool. Wijnaldum is everything Barcelona do not possess in a midfielder. A dynamic box to box midfielder with pace and unlimited energy. Technically speaking, Wijnaldum is nowhere near the level of Barcelona’s maestro’s, but football is so much more than technical ability. They could not handle the intensity of the Premier League side and a famous night occurred in front of the Kop’s eyes.

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Frenkie de Jong needs to be the first of many big changes.

Frenkie de Jong is heading to Barcelona, but this is not enough. Barcelona need much, much more. Messi is increasingly isolated and has never been more relied upon throughout his career. Suarez has lost 2 yards of pace and looks like he is running in 5 inches of water every time he is on the pitch. Dembele has a scary amount of potential but cannot stay fit long enough to showcase his ability and Coutinho will be deemed a flop until he gets a chance to play in his correct position.

Malcolm was robbed from Roma, but isn’t trusted enough to get regular game time. Rakitic is trusted far too much and takes up the place of the slightly more dynamic Arthur, who has enjoyed a promising start to his Barcelona career. Roberto plays in any position except his correct one, whilst Semedo watches on the bench, despite him having the explosiveness to be the equivalent to Jordi Alba (who has died off as the season has drawn to a conclusion). Alba perhaps has been the victim of the club unforgivably letting go of Everton’s player of the season Lucas Digne with no replacement being made available. Pique has been, like Messi, far too important, whilst Umtiti has not been fit all season. Lenglet has been a pleasant surprise but it is not clear if he is of the quality to be the main centre back for one of the biggest clubs in the world.

These crucial decisions are all team selections are all Valverde’s. Whilst he has done a good job in the league, it cannot be ignored that his opponents have been a Madrid who need 5 or 6 players to rejuvenate and aged team and an Atletico Madrid team who have been heading into the biggest summer of their recent history. And whilst league success is always welcome, the second Messi made that famous  speech on the pitch, pressure mounted upon the Champions League campaign. Valverde and his players failed to deliver.

Whilst De Ligt and Griezmann are rumoured to be all but done deals for Barcelona. It seems that a more drastic approach may be needed for Barcelona to get back to their best. After the Copa del Rey defeat, it seems inevitable that there will be unparalleled pressure for Valverde to face the sack.

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Messi reacting to Barcelona’s collapse

What is clear is that Messi does not have long left. And whilst the elite clubs across Europe are not at the level they were 5 or 6 years ago, there will be a huge sense of injustice on how Messi’s club career is being drawn to a close. Playing 4 central midfielders with no pace in it, and a slow Suarez in front of Messi, he is the sole threat for Barcelona in far too many of his games.

Valverde is a good manager. There is no denying that. But there is being a good manager, then there is being a Barcelona manager. Unfortunately, Valverde does not tick the boxes for Cules across the globe.

Let’s play the blame game.

As Raheem Sterling tucked away Manchester City’s 6th goal during Saturday’s Emirates FA Cup final victory over Watford, the BT Sport cameras cut to the ‘celebrations’ of manager Pep Guardiola. In fact, this celebration has become a bit of a Pep trademark. Slumped forward on the bench, scratching his head and covering his face.

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Sterling scores the 6th goal of the game.

Guardiola looked embarrassed at his team’s onslaught of the opposition, almost like an apologetic dad as his son’s side destroy the team in the league made up of the kids looking to make new friends through sport. These are probably the only times Pep actually wishes to emulate the approach of others, this approach being the Sunday League way of reducing humiliation for opposition by subbing off your best players and putting on your worst.

If he could, Guardiola would’ve brought on 3 of the coaching staff to replace Sterling, Jesus and Mahrez, and had Ederson swap positions with Zinchenko. But this is football at the highest level, and respect is channelled through professionalism. Therefore, on came Kevin De Bruyne at 2-0, and Leroy Sane at 4-0. Guardiola knows how difficult he is making life for Watford, but to not utilise his key players in a cup final would be to disrespect his opponents. Plus, Pep knows how the media will inevitably react to this result. As for some reason, the bigger the margin City win matches by, the more questions are asked of them, rather than the opposition.

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Aguero scores in the last minute to win Man City the league over their city rivals.

Liverpool and Manchester United are the two biggest clubs in England. They’re also two of the biggest clubs in the world. Therefore, naturally, there is a good chance that a high percentage of those who comment on football will support one of the two teams. Since the arrival of Sheikh Mansour at City, the club has gone on to pip city rivals Manchester United to a league title on the last day of the season in 2012, with Liverpool also suffering similar fate in 2014 and 2019. And now, most notably after denying Liverpool of their first league title in 29 years, you would think journalists and pundits alike are on some sort of pay-to-say contract with their employers, receiving their own “separate payment” every time they utter the abbreviation FFP.

City’s off the field problems should never enter the line of questioning to players or staff of the football team, which unfortunately it did this weekend. In Guardiola’s post-match press conference, journalist Rob Harris decided it was an appropriate time to ask the Manchester City coach whether he had ever received any separate payments from Abu Dhabi during his time at the club.

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Sheikh Mansour and Pep Guardiola

The question was, rightly, met with disgust and contempt by Guardiola, because this issue has nothing to do with what is going on inside the pitch. A small minority of teams have always had a financial advantage over the rest of the league, the only difference in Manchester City’s case being that they are asserting a level of domestic dominance that has never been witnessed before in this country.

Pep is making the back pages of the papers boring. His team play almost like robots. They never abandon the philosophy he has drilled into them. They’re as comfortable performing passing triangles in their own box involving goalkeeper Ederson as they are moves in the final third. The real question that the English media need to be asking is can any coach in the Premier League work out a style to corrupt Guardiola’s machine.

City’s financial strength has undoubtedly been the catalyst to their current success, however it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to downplay the achievement of the club’s scouts, coaches and players. For example, rival fans love to refer to City’s recruitment of two £50 million fullbacks in Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker as proof they are “buying the league”, however it is 22-year-old attacking midfielder turned left back Oleksandr Zinchenko who has consistently played right through the title run in and FA Cup final, who cost the club just £1.7 million. In addition to this, Raheem Sterling was considered a “flop” after his first season at the Etihad, and Kevin De Bruyne was labelled the same tag upon his arrival in 2015.

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Zinchenko, an unsung hero.

As for recruitment, whilst United invested in big names, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba, City invested in big futures, signings young players such as Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Leroy Sane, who were relatively unheard of apart from by those who supported the clubs they came from, or avid Football Manager fans. Guardiola helped these players realise they could become what they are now, he helped them become superstars.

Money has helped undoubtedly, but you cannot buy the attitude and desire this young Manchester City squad possesses. For all the money they earn, they’re still relatable. They celebrate with the staff as much as they do the player who scored the winning goal, evident through the antics of the team’s kitman in the changing rooms after the game on Saturday.

You cannot buy mentality. You can scout a player and know if they can finish or pass or tackle. But you can’t scout a player and know they’re going to be able to handle the pressures of winning 14 games in a row to win the league, and then a week later stay focused enough to complete a treble by winning 6-0 in a final at Wembley. And although they play like robots, the media need to remember they aren’t robots. These are footballers who have came through clubs such as Barnsley, Anderlecht, Palmeiras and Benfica, who through their ambition to become the best are now making English football history.

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Talent from the north of England

Before their victory over Watford, City had won 5 of their last 9 games 1-0. This team can graft as well as they can play. And again at Wembley on Saturday, this side of their game was evident. They possess world class talent all over the pitch, however the game’s opening goal came from David Silva and Raheem Sterling, both 5 ft 7, winning consecutive headers against Watford defenders, before the Spaniard Silva smashed home. City’s third goal came from a defensive clearance, which Gabriel Jesus battled hard between two Watford defenders to head on through to Sterling, ending with Kevin De Bruyne finding the net. Even the fourth goal of the day came from a long ball pumped up by Aymeric Laporte to Jesus, who again won the aerial battle, this time against opposing centre half Adrian Mariappa, before being put through on goal for his second by De Bruyne.

After another record-breaking season, Guardiola now has 5 major trophies in his first three years in England. 198 points in his last two seasons. He is helping players to actually go beyond the ceilings they were expected to reach over their entire career in just a couple of years. No more questions need to be asked of Pep, it’s time to question the other managers in the league.

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King of the league for years to come.

Ole Gunnar Solskær – A man without his own identity.

When Manchester United sacked Mourinho, they turned to former Cardiff manager and current Molde manager, Ole Gunnar Solskær, as caretaker manager. This was followed by a fantastic bounce as the players who, according to Roy Keane, threw José Mourinho under a bus. Ole is a club legend. The ‘Baby Faced Assassin’ scored 127 goals in 374 goals, none more crucial than the 93rd minute winner at Barcelona against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. If this goal was not enough to cement his position as a United legend, the Norwegian poacher also won 6 Premier Leagues and 2 FA Cups. A caretaker role seemed a sensible idea to see the season out with maybe the ambitions of a valiant attempt to achieve cup success.

In 2014, BBC posted an article written by Simon Davies titled: ‘Ole Gunnar Solskær: A gamble that failed for Cardiff City’. The article alludes to the concept that Ole did not know his strongest starting 11, as he named a different team in each of his games after taking the job in January. The Norwegian manager accepted the blame for no wins in seven games as he put on a, now familiar, brave face accepting the responsibility for the poor run of games.

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Ole Gunnar Solskær in his Cardiff City days

Meanwhile, United were undergoing the first season without Sir Alex Ferguson. He had hand-picked ‘The Chosen One’ in the figure of David Moyes, resulting in a huge error as Moyes failed to see out this season following from an Everton game where they embarrassed Manchester United. This has proved to be an all too familiar feeling for United fans having travelled down the M62 recently for the same outcome. This was the beginning of an era for Manchester United which would offer no parallels to their previous two decades, which stunk of success and trophies. Millennial Manchester United fans grew up superior to their rivals, laughing at Liverpool and belittling Manchester City. How times have changed.

Ole Gunnar Solskær began life as a caretaker manager at Old Trafford like a man with a plan. 8 wins in his first 8 games and just one loss in his first 13 games saw Ole get the job on a permanent basis, with the help of his friends in the media singing his praises for all to hear. The 1-3 win in Paris helped Ole, but how much of that was down to luck? Mbappe and Di Maria could have scored a hat-trick each that night and the penalty on Kimpembe was as fortuitous as can be. On the other hand, it could be argued that an FA Cup victory against Arsenal shown that Ole has the capabilities to operate with a tactical game plan to trump a rival manager, as his use of the diamond formation seemed to bring the best out of United’s talented squad.

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Ole having a superb night in Paris

Since that night in Paris, Ole has managed just 2 wins in 10 games. Those wins were also laced with luck. Watford had 13 shots, compared to United’s 3 and had 55% possession. Against West Ham it was a similar story. West Ham dominated the game and if it were not for Pogba scoring a brace of penalties, the Hammers would have achieved a famous away victory.

Their losses have been less than inspiring. Wolves dumped them out the FA Cup with ease and repeated the result in the league, Barcelona put them firmly in their place – winning 7-0 over two legs, Everton thrashed them 4-0 – a score line which flattered the visitors and Manchester City played one of their poorest games of the season against their city rivals, but still won 0-2 at Old Trafford.

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Bernardo Silva breaking United hearts.

Ole has therefore drove United to their worst run of form since 1962 and a grim 27 points behind their city rivals and Premier League leaders is a bitter pill to swallow for fans. If this was not bad enough, United’s saviour in recent years, David De Gea, has the look of a keeper who would struggle to get a game for FC United, never mind one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Of course, it would be crazy to suggest this is all the Norwegian’s fault. A poor collection of managers and decisions from those above have accumulated to the demise of Manchester United since Ole’s former manager retired in 2013. Sir Alex Ferguson hand-picked his wannabe mini-me in the form of Everton manager David Moyes, which ended sourly. Then the United board hired Sir Alex Ferguson’s doppelgänger, which provided cup success, but Van Gaal did not produce anywhere close to the style of football expected by United’s fan base. Next was the turn of Jose Mourinho to take his step into the driving seat. The Porto and Chelsea legend provided unbelievable success in hindsight. A 2nd place finish, albeit some way off City’s final points total, was partnered with Europa League success and a Carrabao cup in his first season. Unfortunately for the Portuguese man, his players appeared to stop working for him and he was kicked out the car.

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Mourinho could not get United’s superstars to play for him

Ole is now at the wheel without having truly shown that he is worthy enough to hold a license. Rather than being the designated driver for one of, if not the biggest, clubs in the world, he should have been a simply a spare tire. A spare tire is solely meant for the use of an emergency, or as a short-term replacement for a flat or damaged tire. A perfect analogy for what should have been.

Ole initially performed miracles, this much cannot be denied. But for a man of his experience, to be given the responsibility of being the figure head of Manchester United seems ludicrous. A major problem for United is the imminent fear of losing their place amongst Europe’s elite clubs. Milan are a shining example of everything United are desperate to avoid. A European heavyweight who are now absent from the Champions League. Manchester United have hired a club legend, similar to Milan, in attempt to rekindle former glory. But this is currently not going to plan as Gattuso is permanently rumoured to be one result away from the chop.

Ole Gunnar Solskær will never be removed from United history due to his heroics in 1999. Since the arrival of Solskær, if we have heard about that famous night once, we have heard it a million times. But does signing a manager based on affection bring success? Just because the man has the inside knowledge of how a previous regime was operated, it does not result in the automatic guarantee that there will be an instant replication of the achievements which were achieved.

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Ole scoring against Bayern Munich in 1999

There is a stench lingering which absolutely reeks in Manchester. A large reason for this stench comes in the form of Ole’s old manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The football legend and the greatest manager of all time quite rightly as a stand named after him at Old Trafford with his statue sitting proudly just outside. But the great man joined the United players on the team coach whilst at Barcelona. This cannot be the correct way to put your fresh stamp on a club. Liverpool legend Bill Shankly got told he needed to stay away from the first team by the Liverpool manager at the time, as he was still possessing an influence amongst the players, who were referring to him as “boss”. It is this strong leadership which lead Liverpool to be the powerhouse they were post-Shankly.

The dismantling of previous regimes which have went before which can be the making of a new man at the helm. Ole does not have to destroy the history of the club, or even ignore the advice of his former manager to become a success in his own right, but he cannot live under a shadow of inferiority.

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Sir Alex Ferguson and Cantona joining Ole Gunnar Solskær in the changing rooms after the PSG win.

Ole Gunnar Solskær refuses to park his car in his former boss’ car parking space. Again, this shows a sign of inferiority to his former manager. It is not to be debated the greatness of Sir Alex, but you have to move on from this and become your own manager, building your own legacy.

With the rumoured talks of Rio Ferdinand becoming the technical director at Old Trafford, it is clear United are desperate for their past to become a reality in the future. But I am unsure this is the way forward for the club. Rio Ferdinand was undoubtedly an unbelievable defender in his playing days, but was experience has he got of working behind the scenes of such a huge club? It is the ineptitude of those behind the scenes which has put Manchester United into their current situation.

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Rio and Ole set to be reunited? Unsure if it’ll feel so good.

There is an overwhelming feeling when viewing United from afar that they should throw everything they know in the bin and start again. Liverpool and Manchester City are comfortably the best teams in the land right now and both clubs hired managers who are consumed by extreme philosophies which provide fantastic entertainment and results on the pitch. United should share both their rival’s willingness to do the extreme and be bold on, and off, the field.

A mass exodus is needed at Manchester United, that much is obvious. But United need to be brave in order to find their way back to the top, and I am not sure hiring Ole Gunnar Solskær was the sensible decision by the same board who pay Alexis Sanchez around 400 thousand pounds each week. Pochettino should have been the priority for Manchester United. A man who has proved he can perform miracles and above expectations, whilst building a team with an attractive philosophy.

However, what’s done is done. If Ole Gunnar Solskær is to work at Manchester United, he needs to strip himself of the United legend title and focus on being on a young and ambitious manager who has been offered the chance of a lifetime. If he is to embrace this opportunity, with the right backing and help from those above him. He could well be the man to take United back to where they belong. But for now, he looks a mouth piece for Sir Alex Ferguson, and a man who the board know fans will not be hostile towards any time soon.

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Hopefully Ole can create his own identity and be successful at United

Everton FC – Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Stick or Twist.

Marco Silva’s tenure at Everton looked like it was destined to fail whilst leaving a sour taste in the mouth. The season began with promise, whilst not achieving the perfect results, he Everton fan base were cautiously optimistic about their third manager in as many years. However this was all to change. One mistake by Everton and England’s number one caused their season to derail in the most unsavoury way in a manner which even the most negative of Everton fan could not have dreamt of.

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Pickford makes an error which gifts Liverpool an unjust winner.

It has been a miserable season for Everton fans; having to endure watching their city rivals run riot domestically and in the Champions League. Pickford’s error, and the following atrocity of 3 wins in 13 games, left Everton facing Cardiff City with a sense of desperation at having to pick up a much needed three points to not allow their relegation form, resulting in a relegation battle. The relief of a comfortable 3-0 followed with Sigurdsson and young striker Calvert Lewin showed his ability by slotting a last-minute goal to add gloss to a routine win against a poor Cardiff.

The following match was the big one for Everton. A Merseyside Derby which, if a positive result was achieved, would take the title out of the hands of Liverpool and into Manchester City’s. The atmosphere was electric, the sirens before Z-Cars deafened and the Everton fans became the ‘twelfth man’.  A hard-earned point followed, perhaps Everton could have even snatched it if only Bernard was not the smallest man in the stadium, but since potentially being the team who snatched the title away from their rivals, Everton have not looked back. They could have scored five or six against West Ham in the following game, despite a poor first half performance against Chelsea, they annihilated Sarri’s men in the second half. Arsenal were extremely fortunate to escape with only a 1-0 loss due to the wastefulness of Everton’s attacking midfielders. Manchester United could only wish Everton were as wasteful against them as when the blues faced the Red Devils. Everton slaughtered Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men, a game which had a look of men against lethargic boys. Everton still found the time to do an ‘Everton’, a phrase fans have coined, performance in the middle of this run, suffering a pathetic 2-0 loss against relegated Fulham.

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Everton have been guilty of dismantling the top 6 in recent weeks, with little widespread credit.

There is no question that since the home Merseyside Derby, Silva is producing the type of football which Everton fans crave. Rio Ferdinand sat on national television and had the audacity to question what Everton fans wanted as Everton stunk the yard out every week under Big Sam. Everton fans demand players who care, and whilst they are playing with passion and drive, adopting a high pressing style of play which gees up the Goodison faithful, their fans will terrify all opposition. It is crucial that this passion does not solely produce effort. Quality of equal measure is paramount, which Gylfi Sigurdsson and co have been able to produce in their most recent matches.

If Everton can secure Zouma and Gomes on permanent deals, Everton no doubt possesses every attribute of a team that have the potential to gate-crash the top 6 which the media adore so much. However, there is one problem Everton must solve – A goal scoring centre forward.

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Calvert-Lewin celebrating his goal against Cardiff

 

Dominic Calvert-Lewin in recent games has performed admirably, and at 22 years of age, he has everything to be a top-level striker in years to come. The development of his game is clear to see. Physically he is improving, whilst developing the aura of a man who believes that he can rob his opposition centre backs’ lunch money. His hold up play is also improving by the game and against Arsenal he contested 17 aerial duels whilst getting Mustafi and Sokratis booked. This was combined by an impressive 24 sprints, most in the match. He is also rapid, shown by the statistic of him consistently hitting over 20mph during a match.

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Calvert-Lewin bullying Arsenal’s centre backs.

There is, however, a dark cloud hanging over both him and Everton – Goals. The Sheffield born striker has only managed  6 goals in 33 games so far, this season, albeit only 17 of those games have been starts. If you compare this to clubs who are competing for 7th spot; Jamie Vardy has 16 goals and 4 assists and Raul Jiménez has 12 goals and 7 assists. This could argue that if Everton did have a more reliable goal scorer then they would comfortably be the best of the rest, and would be more than capable of challenging the top 6 for their positions in the league table.

Another problem of Calvert-Lewin’s game is the ability to get himself into goalscoring positions. Against Manchester United and Arsenal, Calvert-Lewin had the beating of each centre back who faced him. But where were all his chances? He is a striker that is not missing sitters, but maybe it would be more comforting if he was. He is averaging 1.3 shots per game in the league this season. This is compared to Vardy’s 2.3, Jiménez’s 2.9 and Callum Wilson’s 2. These stats suggest that Calvert-Lewin is not getting himself in positions to score, never mind score goals, an aspect of his game which needs to be improved if he is going to continue Everton’s number one striker.

However, Dominic Calvert-Lewin is just 22 years of age and he is no worse to the calibre of player which Everton have been linked with, such as Mitrovic or Wilson. Tottenham Hotspur’s rise has been incredible and they deservedly get the praise for their rise to England’s, and now Europe’s, elite table. You have to question how much of this is down to the luck/faith they had with Harry Kane growing into one of the world’s finest strikers after mediocre loan spells in the Championship. This is not stating that Calvert-Lewin will definitely grow into a player who sits in the company Europe’s top strikers, but who is to say a similar trajectory is impossible? Harry Kane has a ruthlessness which Calvert-Lewin can only dream of, but in Dominic’s ever-growing arsenal, he showcases physical attributes which Kane would certainly look at with envy. If Calvert-Lewin continues on the path which he is travelling on, under the guidance of coach who studies the game religiously, he is sure to become a striker to be relied on.

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Harry Kane on loan at Leicester, barely recognisable from the striker we see today.

Everton were desperate for a striker 15 months ago and splashed the cash on Beskitas’ Cenk Tosun for just shy of 30 million pounds. If Everton fail to finish 7th, who is to say they can attract a player who is significantly better than the Turkish international. It could be suggested that if Everton did manage to sign a striker who is better than Calvert-Lewin, they could be found guilty of denying the young striker the chance to develop and get much needed game time. Another possibility is that Everton spend the bulk of their budget on a striker, therefore ignoring other areas of the squad where  Everton need to revamp to continue to progress. Calvert-Lewin could possibly grow to become better than the new striker and the money Everton invested was a waste of their resources.

What is important to remember is all of these scenarios are speculation. Can Everton take a risk on Calvert-Lewin and sign the right back, centre mid and another attacking midfielder they need? What is known is that Everton have high hopes and lofty ambitions. Majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri stated that “It is not enough to say ‘we are special’ – we don’t want to be a museum, we need to be competitive”. It remains to be seen if Calvert-Lewin can fill this void, but his development could be the key for Everton to regain their rightful position as one of England’s top clubs.

 

 

Bayern Munich – Stagnation and Complacency

Bayern Munich this season look like a distant cousin of the side they once were. They still have their iconic stadium, the famous kit and their passionate fans. But star quality is severely lacking. This was shown in their recent struggles against Liverpool, who are a side filled with everything Bayern lack; hunger, pace and unparalleled determination. What is most concerning for the Bavarians is these are the traits which they have been known for in recent years.

Bayern Munich in the last decade have been a proud tenant of the latter stages of the Champions League. Under Jupp Heynckes, they were dubbed called Heynckes’ side ‘ the best Bayern ever’ by legend Franz Beckenbauer after they completed the treble. Although Pep Guardiola did not manage to get his hands on the illustrious trophy, they were widely considered one of the best sides within the competition during his reign. Most of this has been down to Ronaldo and Messi producing arguably their greatest performances in the Champions League against Pep’s Bayern.

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Bayern’s last Champions League winning side.

Against Liverpool, however, there was no elite performance by an all-time great which was their undoing. Yes, Mane’s goal was riddled with quality, but it could be argued that a 2014 Neuer, who was an innovator in terms of goalkeeping, would not have been caught out of position and turned so easily. It was the sheer lack of pace and quality which ran through the Bavarian giants which was the cause of concern for fans. Bayern were one paced and unimaginative. Gnabry looked slightly out of his depth, only making a meaningful impact once, where he ran at Robertson and put in a ball which lead to Matip’s own goal and Ribery looked like a man who is nowhere near the level he once was, understandably due to his age. This is combined with a James Rodriguez who at times can lack the explosiveness at elite level and Javi Martinez who was solid, but by no means spectacular. Alaba is a player who definitely has star qualities, but he and Rafinha, who is nowhere near the level of suspended Kimmich, were terrified of leaving two slow centre backs exposed to Liverpool’s pace on the counter. Combined, this resulted in Liverpool being simply a better team than Bayern Munich, a statement laughable merely two years ago.

Bayern look stale. Last season they bought James on a two-year loan who has been extremely hit and miss, and it seems unlikely his move will be made permanent this summer. Correntin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman were bought for a total of 65 million pounds from Lyon and Juventus, respectively. There is no doubting the quality of both of these players. However, with Tolisso’s cruciate ligament injury has only resulted in him playing just 2 games in the league this season. Coman’s inability to stay fit has resulted in not to dissimilar stats. Just 13 games in the league this season and only starting 35% of possible games has proved nowhere near enough games for him to kick on from his undoubted potential. It has been impossible for the two French stars to replace the iconic figures which have went before them. Serge Gnabry was purchased with mild success, but is 7 goals in 22 Bundesliga games deemed good enough for the mighty Bayern? This matched with no goals in 7 games in the Champions League, it is form which not exactly inspiring. Although Gnabry is definitely a player not worth giving up on. This showcased recently in his goal against the Netherlands, where he breezed past the colossal Van Dijk and stuck the ball in the top corner. Süle has been arguably the most successful out of the significant purchases from the past two seasons. The towering 21-year-old was signed by Hoffenheim and is the successor of Jerome Boateng in this Bayern and German national, without a shadow of doubt.

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Süle, the present and future of Bayern Munich

This however may be an issue which Bayern are addressing due to the club smashing a league and club record transfer with World Cup winning left back Lucas Hernandez and Pavard the imminent signing of Benjamin Pavard. But do these players obviously fix Bayern’s weaknesses? Sure, Pavard is a man with immense quality and has a World Cup to his name, but this was at right back where he certainly is no Joshua Kimmich. Will the signing of Pavard result in Kimmich out of position or will Pavard go to his more native central defence. Whilst there is no doubting Pavard’s talent at central defence, he does not strike fear into the eyes of strikers across Europe in the way a prime Hummels and Boateng would. Hernandez brings a similar predicament. A player of versatility who is most known for being a flying left back, can also play central defence. Will his introduction result in Alaba leaving the club or moving into the middle of the park where he loves to play. Perhaps he has joined to partner Süle, but again he does not strike me as an elite centre back. An argument could be raised at why would you spend this much money on a World Cup winning left back to play him in his unfavored position.

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Lucas Hernandez

Bayern are a magnificent club with one of the most iconic grounds in world football, but they have not shown any signs of progression in recent years. Since Guardiola left they have stagnated and failed to replace players who are no longer the forces which destroyed teams in their path. Pep left a team of warriors who were reaching the end of their prime years. Perhaps this was the reason why he decided to leave as he understood the task that lay ahead of him to replace icons such as Ribery and Robben. What is clear, however, is the urgent need for replacements. Their team may be enough to overhaul a spirited and youthful Dortmund side to win the Bundesliga, but it does not possess sufficient quality or depth to strike fear in the rest of Europe’s elite.

This weekends Der Klassiker brings them against a Dortmund side not exactly firing on all fronts, but they are getting the job done and winning games by any means necessary. Dortmund are young and can grow to be a special team, but at their stage right now they should not be challenging Bayern for league, which speaks volumes about the quality of this weekends hosts. Despite the bookmakers seeing Bayern as clear favourites, Dortmund will feel they can cause an upset to get a five point lead.

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Dortmund waiting to pounce on Bayern’s stagnation

Overall, Bayern have not improved their team for the best part of a decade. It is their comfort in the league which has pushed them to not progress and compete properly in the Champions League for years. An overhaul is needed and they need to wake up to match their fellow elite clubs. Stagnation and complacency has resulted in a weary Bayern side, who are preparing for an ambush against a young, ambitious Dortmund side.

 

Kai Havertz – An Insight.

Bayer Leverkusen boast a glorious history of developing fantastic central midfielders. From Benrd Schneider and Michael Ballack, to Toni Kroos and Arturo Vidal, they have developed some of the finest midfielders of their generation. If you close your eyes and imagine a player who possesses the grace and finesse of Toni Kroos, the power and natural goal scoring ability of Michael Ballack, the dribbling and control of Schneider, combined with the combative approach of Arturo Vidal possesses, you have Kai Havertz.

The Aachen-born central midfielder is one of the first names on the team sheet in a gifted Leverkusen side riddled with potential. Leon Bailey, Julian Brandt and Jonathan Tah, to name a few, compose a young side who are hungry for success. The best and, perhaps the player who is the most complete, is the 19 year old.

Havertz is having his finest season yet. He has contributed with 9 goals and 4 assists in just 24 games, along with 3 goals and 3 assists in 6 games in the Europa League proving that he is not just an aesthetically pleasing player. With what he boasts in technique and grace, he matches with end product and substance. His 13 goals and assists so far this season is an improvement to what he achieved in the 17/18 season. With 3 goals and 9 assists in 30 games, he has already beaten his contributions for the first team this term. In the 16/17 season he produced an astonished 4 goals and 6 assists in 24 games, highlighting the astonishing potential he possessed at 17 years of age.

Overall his 20 goals and 22 assists in 95 games for Leverkusen highlight his importance to the team. Along with making his National team debut earlier in the season, he is not just a young boy getting playing time who seeks to find his potential. He is a fundamental part of a thrilling Leverkusen who are striving to sit at the table of Europe’s elite.

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Havertz making his National Senior Team debut.

Labelled ‘The New Toni Kroos’, there are big pressures on the Leverkusen wonderkid, in an age where Germany’s World Cup winning heroes are on the decline. They need fresh blood. Toni Kroos was part of a Madrid side who get embarrassed at home to Ajax this week, Ozil struggles to find a starting place at Arsenal and Khedira struggles for form, fitness and the respect of Juventus’ fans. It could be argued that this is the perfect opportunity for Joachim Low to introduce fresh blood, and they should look no further.

“Havertz has a gift with that left foot of his and he uses the ball like Ozil. Sensational.” Rudi Voller, Bayer Leverkusen’s Managing Director

Havertz is a tall and graceful player who glides with and without the ball. It is this grace, along with a stunning left foot which brings the obvious comparisons to Mesut Ozil. Rudi Voller, Leverkusen’s Managing Director stated that Kai is a “A Sensational Player. He’s talented with that left foot of his; almost as good as Mesut Ozil’s”. This, of course, is an obvious comparison due to the similar positions, nationality and grace. However, this year, under new coach Peter Bosz, he has developed into more of a conventional centre midfielder alongside the reinvigorated Julian Brandt.

What is key to the article to highlight how Kai Havertz is not simply a clone of players who have gone by. He is unique. You could go on and highlight how he is similar to big german players, or maybe how his grace could liken him to Kaka for example. But he is unique and a class above pretty much every midfielder of his age. It is this quality which has lead to him naturally being linked to the heavyweights of European football.

The danger for Leverkusen is that there are several major European clubs who are in a moment, or about to hit, a moment of transition. Madrid need midfielders to replace an ageing Kroos and Modric, Bayern are trying to invest their money in young and exciting German talent, Barcelona are slowly but surely preparing for life after Messi and Juventus have a midfield which simply is not of the sufficient quality to win a Champions League. Of course that is without mentioning the financial juggernaut of the Premier League.

Bayern Munich’s President, Uli Hoeness, has went on record to state that there are going to be big changes at Bayern over the upcoming summer transfer window. With the uncertainty of James Rodriguez’s future at the club, Havertz seems an obvious choice to push Bayern Munich out of Pep Guardiola’s 2012 Champions League winning side’s shadow. There is no doubt he has the ability to fit into Bayern Munich’s new vision, replacing their talismanic, yet ageing, figures.

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Havertz and Bailey – Two of the young talents who can be the future of Leverkusen

However, similar to a previous article based on Fiorentina sensation Federico Chiesa, it would be a shame for Leverkusen to let their teenage starlet go. Havertz possesses the ability, no question, but there could be a fear he become another Renato Sanches, for example. A player with obvious talent who has been left forgotten and trapped in a major clubs wilderness. Havertz, at Leverkusen, is at a club who will finish in Europe, whether that is Champions League remains to be seen, but he is a certainty to play every game. He will make the German National Team. He is 19 years of age, only 20 in June. He should focus on developing his game, playing for a wonderful club, for as long as he possibly can, and with the talent of this young Leverkusen team, they could help on another grow into a force, without having to jump ship.

TheLibero

Statistics courtesy of Transfermarkt.com.

 

 

Federico Chiesa – The Future of Italian Football

In a huge match, during the Copa Italia semi-final, Fiorentina found themselves 2-0 down at home to an efficient Atalanta outfit. Papu Gomez and Josep Ilicic were ominous throughout, appearing as though they could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, to a vulnerable Fiorentina defence. They needed a spark, an ignition, something or someone to stand up, in and already emotionally charged evening, and be counted.

Up stepped 21 year old captain for the night, Federico Chiesa.

The forward chased and harried the Atalanta defence to submission, raced towards the goal and, like a 30 year old veteran striker with 250 goals in his career, slid the ball past Berisha with ease. The Italian looked like a wild animal as he charged into the goal to collect the ball, sprinting to the halfway line, geeing the crowd up in the process.

Chiesa, whose father, Enrico, played in Fiorentina’s side the last time they lifted the trophy in 2001, grew in stature and maturity yet again when his side needed him most. The home side were trailing 2-3 and seemingly running out of ideas. This was until Chiesa picked up the ball and fed Muriel with the easiest goal he is likely to score all season.

Chiesa plays far beyond his years. He leads by example, via both his actions on the pitch and with his ability to morph into a cheerleader for  the loyal Viola crowd as a signal for them to get behind their team. His 100th appearance for the club was heroic, and becoming the norm.

In the previous round, he produced a similar performance. He lead by example once again, scoring a hat-trick against the Roman giants of Roma. Previous to this, he scored a brace in a 0-2 win away to Torino, a tough place to go. The performances in Fiorentina’s cup run, coupled with a decent return of 5 goals and 7 assists in 25 games league games, shows Chiesa’s importance to this Fiorentina team.

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Chiesa with the match ball after his hat-trick against Roma

Officially, Chiesa is a right winger, but he cannot be confined to one position when he is on the pitch. He floats around to wherever the action is taking place. It is a surprise, when watching Fiorentina, if there is an attack which does not involve the young Italian. He would best be described simply as a forward, having the ability to play in all three roles behind a central striker. Maybe one day, he will replicate his father and transition into a centre forward due to his power and pace.

Fiorentina fans may be fearful that they are seeing another Federico Bernardeschi, who came through the youth system at their club, only to move onto Juventus for around 36 million euros. Although it may be hard to see Chiesa seeing out his whole career at Fiorentina due to his frightening potential, the passion which he releases on the pitch is a clear sign of the love he holds for the club from Florence.

Another reason why Fiorentina fans may relax a little is the financial times we live in today. According to Transfermarkt.com, Chiesa, an Italian international, is currently worth around 45 million euros. However, with the recent captaincy, along with the impressive performances where he to carries the burden of his club on his broad shoulders, it is possible that this price could be almost doubled. It would be a great sight if Fiorentina, similarly to how they managed to keep club legend Gabriel Batitstuta at the club for so long, could replicate this feat with their young starlet and progress alongside him to become a serious player within Italian football.

Although I have never won a major trophy, I consider myself a winner because I helped Fiorentina to compete with the big boys.” Gabriel Batistuta

Chiesa is a serious talent and has naturally been linked with such heavyweights as Bayern, Liverpool, Manchester United and of course, the inevitable Juventus. It would be hard to imagine that Chiesa would struggle to get into any of these teams. Due to his youth and desire to work hard on the pitch, any system could do with a Federico Chiesa.

Bayern Munich, for example, will be desperate for fresh blood in their team due to Robben and Ribery’s advancing years. Kingsley Coman can not be relied on due to his injury record and it remains to be seen if Gnabry can continue his current performances. Chiesa would therefore be a natural fit into this ageing Bayern team to replace one of the Bavarian legends. In the graphic below it is clear the role Chiesa would fit into, he would add extra support with his central support to Lewandowski, whilst having the work rate to perform in big matches when required.

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Bayern team vs Liverpool

Liverpool are looking to add depth in their squad and more possibilities. With Chiesa’s work rate and desire, he would be a natural fit for Jurgen Klopp’s ‘Heavy Metal’ football. He can chase, he can run, he is powerful, he is perfect. His finishing ability and running power would make him perfect for the famous Anfield counter attack and his presence would allow Salah to vacate into a more permanent central role to allow him for maximum goal scoring opportunities. In the graphic below, it is clear Liverpool’s plan A did not work in terms of breaking a team such as Bayern down. This could have been changed for perhaps moving to a more traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, swapping Keita for Firmino, moving Salah central and having Chiesa’s energy on the right. This would allow Liverpool to continue their high press, not damaging their defensive cohesion, whilst having extra creativity in games where their opponents are being stubborn.

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Liverpool team vs Bayern

Manchester United have been crying out for a right sided midfielder for years. With Martial occupying the left wing role, Rashford becoming the central striker English football hoped he would became, there is a gaping hole for a right sided option to this attack. On the surface, Chiesa is a perfect fit. To fit into Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team you need pace and energy, both of which Chiesa has in abundance. Although Lingard is a clever player, Chiesa would probably be an upgrade on his qualities, and considering he is 5 years his junior, it would be a positive plan for the long term. Chiesa can also adapt in ways which Lingard probably could not. He could play in a similar role which Lingard plays, whilst adapting a right wing role mid game if Plan A was not working.

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Man United team vs Spurs

The above teams are all in need of progression and evolution. With Bayern struggling for the title this season, Liverpool struggling for depth and a Plan B, and Manchester United desperate to find their way back to title contention, the enthusiastic warrior that is Chiesa would appear to be the perfect match for all teams.

It would be a fantastic story for both Fiorentina, and for Italian football, if Chiesa continues his development in Florence. He has everything be at the top of the game at his tender age. He has a natural ability and aggression which cannot be taught in a young player, sharing similar desire to a young Wayne Rooney, for example. It is crucial he plays each week for as long as possible. Hopefully he is a player that understands this, and stays at the club, and with the fans, that love him so dearly for many years to come.

 

 

Statistics and Pictures courtesy or TransferMarkt.com and WhoScored.com.