Category Archives: European Football

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved?

The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with an option to buy in the summer for around €35 million. He was specifically targeted by Atléti manager Diego Simeone, who was in personal contact with the player urging him to join Los Colchoneros. It is a logical move, one that I am sort of surprised happened now instead of in the summer, but the more you consider the needs of all parties involved, the more it makes sense for everyone.

Atlético Madrid have been looking for a striker to act as a proper back up to Luis Suárez. With Diego Costa’s departure this month, they needed to sign someone quickly. Dembélé provides them with immediate relief in that position, as a player who is able to play in Atléti’s 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 attacking system and do many of the things Suárez can as a target man, while also providing a bit more in the way of off-the-mark pace than the 33-year-old Uruguayan can provide at this point. As a player, Dembélé has grown quite a bit as a complete forward, able to play as a target man and off the shoulder of the center back, able to play in a two or as a lone striker. It is this flexibility in deployment that will give Atlético plenty of options in using the Frenchman either as a back up for Suárez or playing him alongside Suárez. He also acts as the long-term replacement for the aging Uruguayan, who is only signed on for one more season in the Spanish capital. Dembélé is only 24 and is entering the prime of his career, and he fits the mold needed to lead the line for Atléti for years to come, able to bag the goals when needed but also act as a target man and combine with the likes João Félix and Marcos Llorente. As an added bonus, they have seemingly got him at the nadir of his value, having not been a consistent first-team fixture for Lyon this season, and on a six-month free trial to boot. This is a home run of a deal for Atléti, one that shows that, despite their financial limitations, they are still able to make the moves to keep them competitive not only for this season, where they are still top of La Liga, but also for the years to come.

So why would this move make sense for Lyon, you might ask? Dembélé was great for them, right? He scored those goals against Manchester City in the Champions League Quarterfinals! Why would Lyon sell him now, and for so little?

And yes, you are right. Dembélé has been a fantastic player for Lyon since he moved to the Rhône from Glasgow Celtic in 2018. He has scored plenty of goals, including very important ones against Saint-Étienne and the aforementioned double against Man City. As a player who seemed like a panic buy after Mariano Díaz returned to Real Madrid, he turned out to be a fantastic signing. However, he no longer fits into the plans of the team. Under Rudi Garcia this season, the team has moved to an inverted 4-3-3 system, with Memphis Depay acting as the false nine center forward with Karl Toko-Ekambi and Tino Kadewere play as the inverted wingers. Dembélé is a great player, but he does not fit that central role as well as Memphis, and he does not play the inverted winger role better than Toko-Ekambi or Kadewere. It is this system that has made Lyon title contenders in France, so it does not make sense to hang on to Dembélé if he does not fit the system. Even if Lyon do win the league, it is unlikely that manager Rudi Garcia will continue on in that role after this season, meaning a large upheaval will likely happen at the club this summer that would have likely meant the sale of Dembélé anyway. It is not ideal for Lyon to lose Dembélé now instead of in the summer and at this price point, but ultimately it is not the end of the world.

While it is an option to buy and not an obligation, it seems unlikely that the option will not be exercised by Atlético Madrid, which allows Lyon to use those funds to boost their chances of winning Ligue 1 and getting back into the Champions League next season. Former Sporting, Leicester, and Monaco striker Islam Slimani has seemingly been identified as the short-term replacement, and while he is not as talented as Dembélé, he does at least fit this 4-3-3 better. Slimani is a striker known for his ability to also drop into space and play passes, combining well with Wissam Ben Yedder in Monaco last season to amass a respectable nine goals and seven assists in the league. He can fit better in that center forward position in this 4-3-3 than Dembélé, so, at least in the short term, it makes sense. Lyon have also been one of the teams seeking the signature of Stade Brestois midfielder, and arguably Ligue 1’s biggest breakout star this season, Romain Faivre, a player with incredible creative quality and the potential to become a capped France international very soon. While they could lose out to PSG in the hunt for his signature, Faivre is still a player they now have the ability to pursue and one that I would absolutely give up Dembélé in order to sign. There are also rumors connecting Lyon to several players in South America, with a move for River Plate’s Julián Álvarez being the most likely to happen in January. The point is it gives Lyon options to start their rebuild early. Sporting director Juninho has become a more influential individual behind the scenes at the club, and it is clear he has the long-term vision of where he wants to take the club. Selling Dembélé now, even if at a less than ideal price, allows him to move ahead with his plans.

For the player, this obviously makes sense. He now goes to a club where he will not only play fairly regularly, but one that is clearly a step up for his career from Lyon. Diego Simeone specifically wanted the Frenchman, which says quite a bit, and this move makes sense for Dembélé to advance his career, especially at the international stage. Dembélé never really got the deserved credit for his talent and performances for Les Gones, having yet to make his senior team debut for France despite his clear talent and good performances, as well as the lack of many top quality French strikers in good form. Being on the outside looking in when it comes to the Euros team, Dembélé needed a move away to a top quality club where he could play fairly regularly and catch the eye of France manager Didier Deschamps. While this move might not be in time to make the Euros team, this is still the exact move Dembélé needs to move forward in his career. After his failed move to Manchester United in the summer, a big move was inevitable, and now it came.

The summer window started with a bang, with Dominik Szoboszlai moving to RB Leipzig, and this seems to be the next domino to fall this window. Dembélé will be a miss for Lyon, but it is a logical move that allows them to kick on with their title challenge, as well as their eventual rebuild in the summer. He is a perfect signing for Atlético Madrid, and this move could be a major cause in the player becoming a capped international. This is the next logical move for a young up-and-coming player who many may have forgotten about.

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Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on… Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need […]

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance…

AC Milan

Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto?

I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may not be the most stylistically pleasing to watch in Italy, they can still score some goals, and their team spirit makes them an easy team to root for. Plus, they are full of talent. Zlatan is the obvious one, but they really have talent in every position. Ante Rebić, Alessio Romagnoli, Gigio Dommarumma, Ismaël Bennacer, Sandro Tonali, Franck Kessié, Jens Petter Hauge, the list goes on. They are definitely talented enough to win the Scudetto, especially in midfield, and Stefano Pioli deserves more attention and praise for the job he is doing. Plus, Milan look to be fairly active in the January window, with Strasbourg youngster Mohamed Simakan at the top of their list. An already talented team could be adding more young, promising talent, forming a team that could be contenders in Serie A for years to come. Milan are on their way back.

Manchester United

In a similar theme to Milan, are Manchester United back? Are they going to win the Premier League title this season?

Again, I have no idea, but I am interested to see what happens. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been under pressure as a manager, but he has now seemingly figured out how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. United are clearly very talented, revolving around the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in midfield. Their other stars have had good seasons, with Marcus Rashford in particular impressing on and off the pitch. They have also gotten good performances out of role players, including the likes of Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly. Right now, their entire team is seemingly playing with confidence and are in good form, helping them start 2021 joint-top of the table. My one caveat with this team is their great run of form has come against mid-to-lower-mid table teams, not truly being tested in the league outside of forgettable draws against Man City and Chelsea. Their European form was also questionable, losing to PSG and RB Leipzig to get knocked out of the Champions League. Things can change quickly in football, though, and the match at Anfield in two weeks will be a great barometer to see where this United team are at. With Liverpool’s current slip ups, that match at Anfield becomes the biggest of the season so far, with United being fully in the thick of the title race alongside Liverpool and Manchester City should they leave Merseyside with all three points.

Even if they do not win the league this season, I do feel this United team are a right winger, defensive midfielder, and center back away from being serious contenders on the domestic and European stage. They will likely be busy this summer, and they will be a team to keep tabs on for the 2021-2022 season. Like I said before with Milan, Manchester United are on the right track.

Everton

We have just finished year one of the Carlo Ancelotti project at Everton, and despite some inconsistencies in form, as well as a rather dismal loss to West Ham on New Year’s Day, the Toffees still find themselves within reach of the top four after an incredibly hectic festive fixtures run and being without several major players. Ancelotti has done incredible work in just one year on Merseyside, but they are still not a team that will shatter the world this season. It is entirely possible that Everton finish in the top four this season, but I do not believe it will happen. Top six is likely, but that is not the reason why they should have your attention.

Especially if they get European football for next season, they will likely be active in the summer transfer window. Given how successful they were in the last window, attracting talents such as James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Allan Marques to the club, it is going to be interesting to see who else Ancelotti and Marcel Brands, the club’s sporting director, are able to bring in. I imagine they will be one of the teams that are able to take advantage of the potential talent exodus from Ligue 1, mentioned previously in this series when discussing players such as Sven Botman and Renato Sanches. Brands is known for being able to make smart, financially sound moves for hidden gem talents, so this window could be the perfect opportunity to put that reputation to the test. It is apparent that Everton have the man at the helm needed to lead their project, and as he gets more time and more windows to build his team, it is possible that Everton could improve and truly become the team that gatecrashes into the “Big Six”. It is very possible that the Toffees could look a bit different, and a whole lot better, just 365 days from now.

Southampton

Here is your feel good story for this year.

Fresh off of their 1-0 win at Anfield yesterday, I think it is safe to say that Saints have earned themselves some admirers this season. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s redemption arc at Southampton, and in his managerial career in general, is something quite remarkable. His reaction at the full time whistle against Liverpool says quite a bit. Unable to hold back the tears, he likely remembered his early struggles with Unterhaching and VfR Aalen, the rocky and rather cutthroat end to his time in Leipzig, the fears of losing his job on the South Coast after the infamous 9-0 game against Leicester, all of the struggles he overcame to reach the point where he can stand on the Anfield turf, having been victorious over a man he was often compared to. And he can look at his players, a group that bought into his philosophy and coaching despite the struggles and fears of relegation or his firing. Truly a heartwarming moment.

Hasenhüttl has demonstrated that he is one of the most, if not the most, underrated managers in the Premier League. The job he has done at Southampton is nothing short of remarkable. And the team he has assembled is not half bad either. It is a group of veteran players, many who were often overlooked or discarded at bigger sides but managed to find form and confidence under the management of the Austrian. Alex McCarthy, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Danny Ings, Oriol Romeu, and Theo Walcott are just among the names that have found a second life at Southampton. There is even a solid set of younger, promising players in this team as well, including the likes of Che Adams, Kyle Walker-Peters, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Diallo, and Jan Bednarek. Saints are still flying high, technically only four points off the top but, in more realistic aims, well within reach of a European place. On paper, you do not fancy this team’s chances of finishing in the top six places.

But they could. They really could. And if they did, that would be one of the best stories of the year.

Paris Saint-Germain

The Mauricio Pochettino era is about to begin in Paris. Having just been announced and made official, the ex-Tottenham manager looks to be returning to the club he once captained to become their next manager. This instantly becomes possibly the most interesting project in European football. He inherits an obviously talented team, one including two of the best players in the world, but one that has had a rocky season and currently is in the midst of a serious title race, something the club has not been accustomed to over the last few years.

In the short term, Pochettino’s project will be repairing the obvious deficiencies in this team in order to get them back on track and retaining their league title. They might do so by making some moves in January, with the club being linked with two of Poch’s former players in Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. The club has also made it clear that new contracts for Kylian Mbappé and Neymar are also major priorities. Obviously, though, he was brought in with the long-term aim of winning the Champions League. They made the final last season, coming within touching distance of the trophy they have long desired, but there is still work to be done to make PSG a true consistent European contender. Managerial expertise and ability to handle big situations has been something PSG has lacked on the European stage, with last season’s Final disappointment joining a long list of PSG failures in Europe under Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery, and Laurent Blanc. Pochettino is a manager who, while he has very little in the way of silverware to his name, has managed in the big moments before, famously guiding Tottenham to the Champions League Final two years ago. It is this expertise and reputation that brought him to Paris.

In the meantime, he has some interesting decisions to make. How do they fix this midfield? Will he buck previous trends and trust their youth team? Do they make Moise Kean’s loan deal permanent? What happens with Neymar? With Mbappé? With Di María? With Icardi? Can they actually bring Lionel Messi to the club? Plenty of interesting possibilities are on the table, and it will be interesting to see what Poch is able to do with this team.

Italy

You have heard it here first: Italy have quietly assembled one of the most balanced national teams in Europe. They should be considered a dark horse contender for the Euros this summer, and I would not be surprised if they go far in the tournament.

People seem to have forgotten all about the Azzurri, though to be fair, failing to qualify for a World Cup does have that effect. After the disaster in 2018, the national team began their rebuilding process under new manager Roberto Mancini. While not the most famed and alluring coaching candidate, and with many wanting the return of Antonio Conte, Mancini has done a great job instilling a sense of discipline and team spirit back into the team, two things that was vacated under the fairly negative and somewhat toxic management of Gian Pieo Ventura. He also got the team attacking and scoring goals again, something that was also lacking under Ventura. Mancini’s time in charge also coincided with the rise of a new generation of Italian stars, one that makes up a substantial part of this team. And man, some of these players are quite exciting.

This is what brings this team balance. Not only do they have a great blend of youth and experience, but it is spread throughout the team and not just concentrated in a few positions. Leonardo Bonucci, Francesco Acerbi, and Alessandro Florenzi are veteran players in the heart of defense joined by the younger and potentially-future Italy captain Alessio Romagnoli. The delayed Euros could allow prodigal winger Nicolò Zaniolo to return fit in time for the competition, joining what could be a terrifying attacking front three with Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Should he not be fit for the competition, then no problem. Domenico Berardi, Federico Chiesa, and Vincenzo Grifo can fill in. Their midfield is probably the most remarkable part of their entire team. Marco Verratti has been a fixture in the Azzurri midfield for years now, and Jorginho has joined recently and has stuck. Verratti is having a fine season, but Jorginho is struggling for form. Who could they bring in to join Verratti if Jorginho cannot go? Well, they could use Inter’s Nicolò Barella, or Roma’s Lorenzo Pelligrini, or Milan’s Sandro Tonali, or Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli, or Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, or Udinese’s Rolando Mandragora. The options in depth is remarkable, especially in an area of the pitch that is so crucial in winning the slower, more methodical style of match played on the international stage. And they go into the Euros with the added bonus that most of their crucial players are in good form. Immobile is scoring goals for fun, Insigne is back at his dynamic best. Romagnoli and Donnarumma have been solid. There are a number of very good midfielders they can use who are in great form. Even players once on the fringe of the national team, including Moise Kean, Davide Calabria, Mattia Zaccagni, and Leonardo Spinazzola, are in fine form, offering even more options for Mancini.

I am telling you, Italy are dangerous. I would not be shocked at all if they went far in the Euros, and even if they do not succeed this summer, keep them in mind for the World Cup next year.

Bayer Leverkusen

Home to Florian Wirtz, the main future star talent we highlighted a few days ago, Bayer Leverkusen have assembled a high-octane attacking team that, when they are at their best, are a joy to watch.

Leverkusen are seemingly the “other” team that has found themselves in the middle of Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig’s title fight. Sitting currently in third and only five points off first, they are most definitely in the hunt. While they are not the favorite, they are a dangerous team that could have their say in who brings home the title this season. They are the joint-second highest scorers in the Bundesliga through 14 matches, and they have the young talent needed to possibly not be weighed down by pressure and expectation when it comes to chasing down Bayern. They also find themselves in the Round of 32 in the Europa League, and with the talent in this team, I would not be surprised to see them go deeper into the competition.

And what about that talent? Well, there is a lot of it, a nice mix of youth and experience. Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is not short of experience in working with younger players, coming from his time at Ajax and Dortmund, and this team is no different. We talked about Wirtz earlier in this series, but the rest of their attack includes the 21-year-old Moussa Diaby, 23 year old Jamaican forward Leon Bailey, and 24 year old Czech striker Patrik Schick. They are young talents to watch elsewhere in the team, including 22 year old midfielder Exequiel Palacios and 21 year old center back Edmond Tapsoba. Combining this with the experience from the likes of Lukáš Hrádecky, Charles Aránguiz, and Lucas Alario, and you find a very balanced and exciting team, with the youthful dynamism to be dangerous and the experience to be composed in big situations. Definitely fun to watch for the style of play and goals, but worth sticking around to see if they make some noise near the end of the season.

Real Sociedad

And finally, another team to watch purely because they are fun. Like Leverkusen, Real Sociedad are one to watch for those who want to see goals.

La Real started the year off in scintillating form, climbing to the top of the La Liga table while being the league’s top scoring team. Their form has tailed off recently, but they still go into 2021 in third place and only eight points off the top of the table. It is possible they can still contend for the title this season, but I do not believe they will. This does not mean they are not a team to watch, however, as they are, like Leverkusen, an incredibly entertaining side with plenty of young talent to keep an eye on. Imanol Alguacil has a team with a good blend of experience and youth, but they are a team that is fully committed to attacking and scoring goals. Despite losing Martin Ødegaard after last season, David Silva has arrived from Manchester City and showed that there is still magic in his left foot, taking up the role vacated by the Norwegian and performing very well. Mikel Oyarzabal is continuing to show why he is one of the top rising stars in La Liga, on pace to put together arguably his best year as a professional and captaining his boyhood club. In midfield, Mikel Merino and Igor Zubeldia form a strong partnership, with Merino in particular being one of the more impressive midfielders in the league over the last year. Alexander Isak has put his struggles at Dortmund behind him and is showing why he is such a special talent, and the emergence of young winger Ander Barrenetxea has given Sociedad another young, dynamic danger man to call on.

They may not win the league, and while they will likely win the Copa Del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao (which was supposed to be last season but will likely be played sometime in 2021), they may not win anything else of note this season. However, still watch them. They are just such a fun team. Everyone needs to keep a tab of a few teams to watch just to see goals and attacking football. In the past, it has been Pep’s Barcelona or Klopp’s Dortmund and Liverpool or Sarri’s Napoli. Now, I am telling you, it is Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen this season. Keep an eye on them this year.

Those are just a few teams to keep an eye on this year among the major domestic leagues and the Euros this summer. In the final part of this series, we will talk about some of the biggest stories and sagas that will develop over the year that you should keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe it will be something that seriously impacts the team you support?

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Looking to 2021 Part 1: The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars

In our first preview of the year, we look at some of the young players that could enjoy break out years and enter the mainstream football discussion… Welcome to 2021! As a follow up to our 2020 Year In Review, I will be writing a few posts to give you some topics, stories, players, and […]

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year… Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more […]

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate […]

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year…

Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more mainstream names, as compared to Part 1’s emerging talents. These are all players that are must-watches in 2021 because of their scintillating form, budding superstardom, transfer interest, or any other reason. These already established stars are poised to have big years.

João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal

After a rather mediocre first season, it looks like we are finally seeing the João Félix we were all promised when he made his mega-money move to the Spanish capital. The Portuguese wunderkind can have a genuine claim at being the best player in La Liga for the first half of the season, amassing eight goals and four assists in 20 games in all competitions, as well as adding a league player of the month award to his list of accolades, as he helped Atlético Madrid end 2020 top of the league.

As the best attacking player in the team, Félix usually plays up front in the traditional Simeone 4-4-2, but his positioning can vary, usually allowed to roam around in the attack as more of a center forward rather than an out-and-out number nine. In this role, he can use his incredible ability on the ball to beat opponents on the dribble and combine with his teammates. He has likely benefitted the most with Atléti’s signing of Luis Suárez, and the two have combined well to be a deadly duo for Simeone’s team. It is his dynamic ability on the ball that has allowed Atléti’s attack to be much more potent than in years past, and it is part of the reason why they are serious contenders for silverware this season. If Félix continues this form, Atléti could very well be champions of Spain at the end of the season, and Portugal will be getting a very in-form attacking player for their run at defending their Euros crown. Félix’s continued growth makes him one of the main players to watch this year, as he grows into a superstar right in front of our eyes.

Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain

The other main superstar of La Liga outside of the El Clásico teams, Mikel Oyarzabal has been one of the best attacking players for arguably the most entertaining team in Spain at the moment. The Basque winger and captain of the club was receiving serious attention from Manchester City last summer, being identified as a potential replacement for Leroy Sané, and will likely be one of the next big stars on the move.

Oyarzabal has the ability to play on either wing or as a number ten behind a striker, but has primarily played on the left wing for La Real. He is not the typical inverted winger, as he is a primarily left footed player playing on the left. He is a very good dribbler, able to beat defensive players with simplicity rather than serious amounts of flair. His positioning is still similar to an inverted winger, though, as he often comes inside and operates between the defense and midfielders to combine with the rest of the Sociedad attack and primary creative midfielder, last season being Martin Ødegaard and this season being David Silva. It is here where that dribbling ability comes into play, as he is able to move inside and beat defenders, creating opportunities for key passes or shots. He has managed seven goals and four assists through 18 games in all competitions, helping guide La Real to third in the league and the Round of 32 in the Europa League. He has also become a constant in the Spain team, especially due to his flexibility in Luis Enrique’s system. He will likely feature at the Euros, and if he follows up a strong season with La Real with a strong performance at the Euros, I imagine there will be a list of big teams wanting to sign him.

Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France

2021 could be the year that Olivier Giroud becomes France’s all-time leading goalscorer. Bit mad, right?

Giroud has always been a fairly underrated player throughout his career, but even while he is no longer a consistent starter for Chelsea, he retains the admiration of France manager Didier Deschamps. The towering striker was a constant in the World Cup-winning team in 2018 despite not scoring in the competition, and he appears to remain the top choice for starting striker going into the Euros this summer. Deschamps has expressed his displeasure in how little Giroud plays for Chelsea, however, and has said he wants the player to leave the club in January in order to be ready for the Euros. A few teams throughout the continent have registered interest, including the likes of Inter and Juventus, and it will be interesting to see if Giroud can find a club where he can play regularly and remind us all of how good he can be. Should he make the move that allows him to retain his spot with Les Bleus, Giroud only needs eight goals to surpass Thierry Henry’s 51 goal record to be France’s all-time leading scorer. It would be a remarkable achievement for a player that has been the target of criticism throughout his career, who often did the thankless work needed to make attacks work for club and country, and who has often been the unintended target of animosity when discussions around Karim Benzema’s absence from the national team surface. I hope he breaks the record; it is an accolade he deserves. Keep an eye on him this year to potentially see history.

Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France

The French brick wall, who starred last season in Leipzig’s run to the Champions League semifinal, Dayot Upamecano will be a name that gets mentioned quite a bit this season for two main reasons: the Euros and his release clause.

Upamecano was always known as a strong and rapid center back, able to use his recovery pace and sheer force to defend well and win tackles. The reason he really catapulted as high as he did last year, however, is how much he has grown as a positional defender and with the ball, no longer being reliant on his physicality to defend. His football IQ has grown by leaps and bounds, and his ability to read the game and be in the right positions, skills that top tier center backs need, is what has turned him into a budding world-class talent. This was best shown during Leipzig’s 0-0 draw against Bayern last season, where he helped to nullify the incendiary Bavarian attack. Having grown this much as only a 22-year-old, he has become one of the best young talents, let alone young center backs, in the world. He has continued at a high level this season as part of a Leipzig defense that is the best in the Bundesliga in terms of goals conceded. If Leipzig are to overcome Bayern and win the league, it will be because of Upamecano and their defense, rather than their attack.

This is also an interesting year, as Upamecano recently made his debut with the French national team. While he looked visibly nervous, he was alright, and it is not crazy to think that he has a shot of making the Euros team for Les Bleus, which would make his transfer situation even more interesting than it already is. With a relatively cheap release clause in his new contract, it looks like this will be his last season in Leipzig. It was fairly assumed he would be moving to Bayern, with a rumored move falling through last summer, but should he perform well this season and in the Euros, there could be some more competition for his signature. He is one to keep an eye on. He is a promising talent that will likely be a part of one of the biggest transfer tug of wars this summer.

Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France

Yes, another French center back.

Jules Koundé burst onto the scene last season, following his move to Sevilla from Bordeaux. The diminutive afro’d Frenchman was a rock at the back for Julen Lopetegui’s team, forming arguably the best center back partnership in La Liga last season alongside Diego Carlos and being a large reason why Sevilla ended the season with a Europa League title. While Carlos was impressive for his own reasons, Koundé was the true gem of the team. Despite being only 5’10”, he is a very fearless player, and he makes up for lack of strength with very strong positional awareness and ability to win the ball back. He is also great on the ball, being the more composed passer between him and Carlos. Apart from his height, he demonstrated all the tools needed to succeed as a modern center back.

His success with Sevilla last season attracted plenty of attention, with the club reportedly having turned down a large money offer from Manchester City. He is currently continuing his strong run of form, playing very well for a Sevilla team in the hunt for European places in La Liga and in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Despite likely not being in the running to go to the Euros with France, he will still attract plenty of interest in the transfer window. Center backs, especially young ones that possess world-class potential, are a rare commodity in this market, so a player of Koundé’s caliber and potential will be coveted by clubs across the continent. Sevilla are renowned as a club that has a good eye for talent while also not being afraid to sell important players, knowing they have the infrastructure needed to replace them. I imagine that, should Koundé’s form continue, there will be clubs wanting to sign him this summer. He may not be the first name brought up in the center back transfer discussion, as that should be Upamecano, but I would not be surprised if he played well enough to earn a move.

Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England

So, he is a big name at the moment. Sure, he is technically a breakout star, worthy of inclusion in yesterday’s article, but I did sort of forget to put him in. His recent performances have still made him worthy of discussion and definitely one to watch this season.

Emile Smith Rowe is one of the new crop of youth team graduates from Arsenal’s Hale End Academy. He struggled for consistent first team chances, only really featuring in cup matches and Europa League games before going out on loan to Huddersfield last year. This season, Mikel Arteta had been looking for solutions to solve the Gunners’ run of woeful form, so he made the move to bring in some of the younger players, including Smith Rowe, starting for their match against Chelsea. And well, it worked like a charm. Smith Rowe has starred in Arsenal’s last three matches, racking up two assists and arguably being the best player on the pitch in all three. He offers Arteta something that no other creative player had previously: a desire and confidence to take on players and play risky forward passes. His passing and movement actually helps to create genuine goal scoring chances, something that no other Arsenal player had been able to offer this season. With most of Arsenal’s previous goals coming from dead ball situations, and with lengthy scoreless runs in the league under their belt, Smith Rowe appears to be a heaven-sent gift for Gunners fans. With all the rumors surrounding a loan move for Isco or a pricey permanent deal for Julian Brandt, it appears Arsenal have no real reason to search the market for a creative midfielder. Smith Rowe is exactly who they need, and he will likely be a fixture in the team for the rest of the season. Despite how poor Arsenal have been over the last few months, they are only six points off of fourth place. Smith Rowe could be the key to Arteta and Arsenal turning things around. Trust the kid, Mikel. You have nothing to lose.

Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal

We could be on the verge of seeing Renato Sanches’ redemption arc be completed, as the Portuguese midfielder has overcome some early career struggles to become one of the more coveted talents in Europe.

After failing at Bayern Munich and Swansea, he found his confidence and form playing for Lille the last season and a half, showing his ability to dictate the tempo of a match and be a strong presence defensively. In that short time, he has become one of the best central midfielders in Ligue 1, showing off all of the traits that made him such a coveted talent when he was at Benfica. He is still only 23, after all, he still has so much more room to improve and grow, and finding a good situation to get his career back on track means he is still able to fulfill his sky-high potential. Young players can often get unfair treatment in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of football, so it is good to see that the naysayers calling Sanches a flop a few years ago might be proven wrong very soon.

With the Téléfoot deal in France failing, Lille have been thrusted into a position where they need to sell players to alleviate their serious debt issues, despite their strong season and serious potential of getting back into the Champions League and, potentially, winning the Ligue 1 title. Sanches will be one of the most coveted players in this team, with some rumors saying Liverpool are interested in bringing him in to replace Georginio Wijnaldum in January. Should he leave in January, expect him to be a serious contributor immediately at whatever club makes a move for him. Should he stay past January, I would expect this to be his last season for Les Dogues, but he could be important in Lille winning their first league title since 2011. Keep an eye on him, this is not the same Renato Sanches many of you may have seen with Bayern and Swansea.

Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands

Speaking of redemption arcs, quite a bit has happened since Memphis Depay’s failed stint with Manchester United.

The petulant child has grown into a mature and confident player, captaining Olympique Lyonnais to the Champions League semifinals last season and to being top of Ligue 1 this season while coming off a major cruciate ligament injury. Eight goals and four assists through 17 games this season playing as the “false nine” in Lyon’s attack puts Depay on pace for one of the best statistical seasons he has had in France, and his performance and role in the team will be crucial for Lyon’s title chances. Only problem? His contract is up at the end of the season, and it does not seem like he wants to sign an extension to stay in the Rhône. He almost left this past summer, having a deal already agreed with Barcelona falling through due to their inability to sell a player and open up room for the Dutchman’s arrival. Lyon sporting director Juninho has said they have no intention of selling key players in January, but press speculation has indicated they could be willing to sell Depay at an incredibly cut rate fee to get something of value for him instead of him leaving on a free transfer in the summer. January will likely be a stressful window for Les Gones, but if they make it through without selling Depay, he should continue his strong form in what could be a “Player of the Season” level campaign, potentially being the reason Lyon win the league. Should he leave, then he would be an incredibly shrewd signing for a club desperate for a creative, dangerous, and tactically flexible forward. Like Renato Sanches, look for him to potentially be a big mover in January, and even if he does not leave in January, this is most likely his final season in Lyon. He will be on the move in the summer at the latest, whether it to be Barcelona or somewhere else.

Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy

Manuel Locatelli might be a name you recognize but have not seen in a few years. Locatelli shot into the spotlight in 2016 when he scored a thunderbolt of a winning goal for Milan against Juventus. Only 18 at the time, Locatelli was viewed as the bright young prodigy that could help rescue Milan from their growing issues. He then seemingly fell off the face of the Earth, falling victim to the madness and failure that plagued Milan in the mid-2010s. His lack of trust in club leadership led to him demanding a transfer, eventually going to Sassuolo in 2019.

Well, I am here to tell you that he is still only 22 and he is definitely still a promising young star. He is arguably the brightest young gem in a Sassuolo team that unbelievably found themselves fourth in the league at the end of 2020. Playing as the regista, or deep-lying playmaker role (think Andrea Pirlo), he is able to dictate the game and keep possession ticking over in midfield, setting a platform for a team to attack from. He is also a good enough defensive player to be the deepest lying midfielder. He is an incredibly polished player, growing by leaps and bounds in the short time since he left Milan. He has been so impressive that Sassuolo have valued the player at between €40-50 million, a skyrocket in valuation for a player that moved to the Neroverdi for a quarter of that value. He will be a name that you hear quite a bit this summer, with Juventus especially being one of the teams that will go after his signature. Expect some Premier League teams to join that hunt, however, especially if he plays well for Italy at the Euros. He could be one of the players that benefits the most from the spotlight that the Euros will give him, and given that players like Jorginho and Sandro Tonali are having poor seasons, Locatelli might be given his chance to shine on the biggest stage for his country.

Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina

Papu Gómez could be on the move this month. The star of everyone’s favorite underdog team last season, Atalanta’s Alejandro Gómez has been one of the best attacking players in Italy over the last few seasons, being the most important player for La Dea in a team that has truly punched above its weight class. However, he has had a disagreement with manager Gian Piero Gasperini that has only gotten worse, forming a serious rift between the two. Because of this, Gómez has expressed his desire to leave the Bergamasque club in the January window, with no shortage of suitors lining up for his signature. He reportedly wants to stay fairly close, which means the two Milan clubs are likely the favorites, being geographically very close and two teams that could very much use a player of Papu’s talents. There has also been some rumors about him leaving Italy altogether and going to MLS, which would be very interesting, but I imagine the two favorites to sign him are the Milan clubs.

It is a potential move that has generated discussion. While AC Milan and Inter are both very good teams and could use a player like Gómez, it is very possible that moving away from Atalanta would be the worst thing for the player to do. Gómez is a very good player, but he is a star in part because he fits the Atalanta system perfectly, and leaving that system might expose his weaknesses as a player. It is definitely a massive risk, especially if he stays in Italy. He could be a massive piece for a Scudetto-winning Milan or Inter team, but it could also be a massive failure that hurts his legacy within Serie A. Either way, he is for sure a player to keep an eye on this year.

There you have it, the ten stars you poised for big years or big moves that you should keep an eye on. In the next part, we will look at the teams you should be watching in 2021.

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Looking to 2021 Part 1: The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars

In our first preview of the year, we look at some of the young players that could enjoy break out years and enter the mainstream football discussion…

Welcome to 2021! As a follow up to our 2020 Year In Review, I will be writing a few posts to give you some topics, stories, players, and teams to keep an eye on as we get into the new year.

In part 1, we will look at every football hipster fan’s favorite topic: the next big names you need to know for the year. Especially with the Euros in the summer, there will be plenty of opportunity for young, up-and-coming players to show off their talents to the world, potentially earning them transfers to bigger clubs, maybe even the club you support. These are a few of the young talents that could enjoy breakout years this year, a few to keep your eye on as we progress through 2021.

Florian Wirtz, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

Leverkusen youngsters have been a common theme of discussion in recent years. Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz both shot to stardom and earned their big money moves away after reaching star levels with die Werkself. Go back a little further, and you will remember a young Heung-Min Son lighting up the league in Leverkusen. Well, we now have the next in line.

Florian Wirtz moved to Leverkusen from FC Köln in January 2020 and moved quickly from the youth team to the first team, making his league debut in May and becoming Leverkusen’s youngest ever Bundesliga debutant (breaking the record previously held by Kai Havertz). He would also score his first goal against Bayern in June, becoming the youngest ever Bundesliga goalscorer at the time (a record since broken by someone we will talk about later). While Leverkusen are a team full of exciting young talent, Wirtz is considered THE guy, the next young German prodigy from this team. With Havertz gone, Wirtz has been thrown into the number ten role that Havertz vacated, and he is having a great first season, with five goals and six assists in 19 games in all competitions and has Leverkusen sitting second in the Bundesliga and in the knockout stages of the Europa League.

While more diminutive compared to Brandt and Havertz, Wirtz makes up for his lack of size and strength with an incredible skill on the ball and ability to read the game. He is such a composed player for his age, very exciting and fun on the ball, and has the passing ability and IQ to orchestrate a high-power and potent Leverkusen attack. He is, in my opinion, the most likely and biggest breakout star coming in 2021. While a spot in the Euros team with Germany might be one step too far, expect Wirtz to make headlines in 2021 and announce himself to the world as an up-and-coming talent. If Leverkusen have success this year, Wirtz will likely be one of the main reasons why.

Ryan Gravenberch, Ajax/Netherlands

Ajax, as you all know, are very good at growing youngsters into serious talents. We all saw the midfield pairing of Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek grow from young academy graduates to incredibly talented and highly coveted future stars. Now that both players have left the club, many wondered how they would be able to replace two influential players. Well, this is Ajax, there is always someone next in line.

Enter Ryan Gravenberch, the towering 6’3″ midfielder who is the next prodigal talent to come through in Amsterdam. He has actually been around the first team for a few years now and made his senior team debut back in 2018, when he became the youngest Ajax player to play in the Eredivisie, breaking Clarence Seedorf’s record. He remained a bit part player until last season, when the departure of Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schøne opened up more opportunities. When van de Beek left the club last summer, Gravenberch was trusted to step in as a major player, and he has impressed. Combining a strong physical frame with an incredible ability on the ball and cracking long shot, he has grown into possibly the most promising young center midfielder in Europe at the moment. While he does not have van de Beek’s engine, his incredible technical ability has made him the ideal number eight midfielder, able to use a strong passing range to set up play from deeper positions but also move forward with the attack and get the occasional goal and assist. His skillset reminds me of a young Paul Pogba, and he definitely has the potential to live up to that comparison.

While he may not be leaving Ajax for another few years, he is a player to get to know now, and Ajax’s potential to make a run in the Europa League could give Gravenberch the spotlight to show off his skill to a wider audience. As we get later in the year, when he has a full season of being a crucial player under his belt, I expect that his performance level will rise even further. He will be a fun player to keep an eye on this year.

Sven Botman, LOSC Lille/Netherlands

Liverpool fans, pay attention. He could be playing for your team very soon.

Sven Botman, the towering and rather intimidating looking center back, is another one of the latest talents to come through the football factory that is Ajax Amsterdam. However, despite being rated highly in the youth teams, Ajax let him leave the club last summer following a loan spell with Heerenveen in the 2019-2020 season. Lille, with their incredible eye for finding young talent for relatively cheap, immediately snapped him up for a paltry €9 million, seeing him as the ideal replacement for Arsenal-bound Gabriel Magalhães. He has so far fit the billing, with his aerial ability and comfort in winning defensive duels replacing the key traits that made Gabriel so good for Les Dogues. He has been one of the most impressive center backs in Ligue 1 this season despite being only 20 years old and playing his second season of top flight professional football. His talent and ability to form a solid partnership with club captain José Fonte is a large reason why Lille find themselves second in the league at the end of 2020 with the second best defense in the league in terms of goals conceded.

Botman, as a player, is very similar to Gabriel in many ways. Both are tall, good in the air offensively and defensively, are fairly decent on the ball, and both won a high percentage of their defensive duels. While Botman is not the quickest player off the mark, he is more than comfortable playing in a defense that regularly allows its fullbacks to attack up the pitch, and he is able to make up for a lack of pace with a strong positional sense and a desire and aggression that permeates through his game. He reminds me of Nemanja Vidić in that sense, right down to the fact that they both kind of scare me. He definitely is not the perfect center back prospect, as is the case with most 20 year olds, and he does need to improve his passing ability, especially at longer distances, and his one-on-one defending, where his aggression can lead to him putting in a rash challenge that allows his man to get by him or draw a foul. Despite this, he still has plenty of time to grow as a player, and his consistency and reliability for both Heerenveen and Lille make him both an experienced player for his age and a desirable prospect.

However, due to the poor financial situation facing Ligue 1 clubs following the collapse of the Téléfoot TV deal, as well as a growing debt problem at Lille, it is very possible that Botman leaves the club even as soon as January, with Liverpool reportedly among the favorites to land his signature. A move to Liverpool, while a massive step up in a very short time, would be good for Botman. Klopp has a reputation of helping guide young players from inexperience into the first team, and the lack of fit defensive players gives Botman chances to play immediately without having the pressure of needing to be the main option in defense for years to come. He would be one for the future for Liverpool, a potential ideal partner for Virgil Van Dijk and/or Joe Gomez down the road. It would be a shame for Lille to lose such an important player, and his departure might dampen their title hopes, but it would give Botman the chance to show his talents to a wider audience.

Noni Madueke, PSV Eindhoven/England

Ok, let us talk about one of the other Dutch clubs now.

Noni Madueke is another of the “Jadon Sancho School of Development”. The London-born former Tottenham youth team prodigy was one of the most coveted young players in England a few years ago, having starred in the youth ranks in North London and becoming a U-18s regular at just 15 years old. His incredible youth team career for Spurs made him wanted by teams across the country, with Manchester United in particular working hard to bring in the talented youngster. Despite this interest, Madueke chose to leave England. Being inspired by Jadon Sancho’s move to Dortmund, Madueke sought out opportunities on the continent, eventually choosing to move to PSV in 2018. As a 16 year old, he starred in PSV’s U-19 team, becoming a favorite of coach and PSV legend Ruud van Nistelrooy, before making his professional debut with Jong PSV in 2019. His rapid ascent continued, making his senior team debut in March 2020 in what would be PSV’s final match of the 2019-2020 season before the COVID Pandemic forced the league to halt. As the 2020-2021 season began, Madueke found himself as a permanent fixture in the first team, playing on the right or as a center forward in a 4-2-2-2 utilized by new manager Roger Schmidt. While he may be behind Mario Götze, Mohamed Ihattaren, and Donyell Malen in the pecking order, he has still had plenty of chances to play, tallying six goals and seven assists in 20 appearances in all competitions as a kid who just turned 18. He said when he moved to PSV that he wanted to get into the first team as quick as possible, feeling that it was incredibly difficult for younger players to get first team time while playing for big clubs in England. It seems that gamble has paid off.

Madueke started his career as a tricky and skillful winger, proficient at cutting inside on his preferred left foot to score and assist. Since arriving in Eindhoven, though, you can see how his game has adapted and matured. With the U-19s, van Nistelrooy took a particular liking to him, helping him work on his finishing and goalscoring ability. Since Schmidt’s arrival, Madueke has had to adapt and learn how to play in a 4-2-2-2 as well, learning how to play as a wider winger and as a center forward. You can see the results, especially in his much improved movement and attacking intelligence. While he is still probably best used as a winger, he is able to play as a center forward and play off the shoulder of the center backs, giving Schmidt plenty of attacking options. It will not be long before Madueke becomes a regularly discussed name among fans of English football, much in the way Sancho did once he starred for Dortmund. This is a very talented PSV team, once that is firmly entrenched in a title scrap against Ajax and Feyenoord. If they do end up as champions, Madueke will be one of the influential players in the team, as he stars alongside…

Cody Gakpo, PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands

There seems to be a very unique tradition tied to PSV and developing left wingers. Dries Mertens, Memphis Depay, and Steven Bergwijn have all come through PSV as left wingers in recent years, starring in the team and making big moves to the “top five” leagues. Now we have the next in that line of development.

Born and raised in Eindhoven, Cody Gakpo came through the club’s youth system, making his professional debut with Jong PSV in 2016 and his senior team debut in 2018. While clearly incredibly talented, he played in a position where PSV had quite a bit of talent already at the club, meaning he had to wait his turn. With the departures of Bergwijn and Hirving Lozano in 2019, opportunities arose for the young Eindhovenaar. He featured 39 times for PSV last season as a starter and substitute, bringing in a respectable tally of eight goals and nine assists in all competitions. In 2020, under new manager Roger Schmidt, Gakpo has been deployed on the left as a hybrid wide CAM/winger in Schmidt’s 4-2-2-2, a slightly different role from his winger role in previous 4-3-3s, but one that he has adapted to well.

As a player, Gakpo is very different from the Bergwijn/Depay mold of winger that came before him, and he is even very different from his aforementioned teammate Noni Madueke. While players like Bergwijn and Madueke are smaller and more technical dribbling wingers, Gakpo is very powerful and direct, able to use his 6’2″ frame and mobility to play more as a wide striker. Do not get me wrong, he is still very good on the ball, with the vision and passing ability to play as a CAM or winger and provide for his teammates, but he is not the skillful winger that the likes of Bergwijn and Madueke are. That almost makes him a more attractive prospect, as his technical and physical traits make him able to play in that wide role as well as a center forward role in place of, or sometimes alongside, fellow Dutch future star Donyell Malen. He is also capable with both feet, allowing him to play on both wings. He has played almost an equal number of games for PSV this season as a left winger, center forward, and right winger. It is that flexibility that has made him such a key player for PSV, being able to utilize him in multiple positions and allowing Roger Schmidt to fit in the plethora of attacking talent he has at his disposal. With nine goals and three assists through 18 games in all competitions, Gakpo is on pace for what could be his best season as a professional, which has piqued the attention of Netherlands manager Frank de Boer. Should Gakpo maintain this form through the second half of the season, not only could he guide his boyhood club to their 25th league title, but he could also find his way into the Netherlands squad for the Euros. Should he go to the Euros, he could be one of the players that benefits from the enhanced audience watching him, possibly being one of the players making a move to a “top five” league following the competition.

Viktor Tsygankov, Dynamo Kyiv/Ukraine

Now for one completely out of left field, but here me out here.

Viktor Tsygankov is a name that is likely unfamiliar to most apart from serious fans of Ukrainian football or serious fans of FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager. The Ukrainian winger has been considered a prodigy for a few years now, being the next big thing in Ukrainian football. He had incredibly impressive seasons for Dynamo Kyiv in 2017-18 and 2018-19, and after a less successful 2019-20 due to injuries, he is back at his best this season. A very strong technical winger, he is a deadly goalscorer cutting in from the right wing, and he is able to combine with his teammates and register a few assists as well. With 10 goals and three assists in 19 matches in all competitions this season, he is putting together another fantastic domestic campaign, but he will unfortunately not get the attention he deserves with just domestic performances. Dynamo Kyiv have reached the round of 32 in the Europa League, so I anticipate he could have some great performances in the knockout stages if they are able to go far. He will also be crucial for Ukraine this summer. He is an already established fixture within the national team, even having scored goals against France and Spain last year, and if Ukraine do well in the Euros, Tsygankov could be one of the players who benefits most from the added attention.

The concern is he becomes like Andriy Yarmolenko. Yarmolenko was also a star winger for Dynamo Kyiv who impressed with performances in the Europa League. He was rumored to leave Ukraine for several years but never did so until it was too late, hurting his progression as a player. If Tsygankov performs well this season and in the Euros, I imagine he will not follow that mistake and make his way to Western Europe. He is a name that may not reach the highs of the two players I mentioned previously, but he could be one of the stars of the Euros and a name you hear a lot more very soon.

Unai Simón, Athletic Bilbao/Spain

Spain was said to have a serious goalkeeping question ahead of this Euros. With David De Gea and Kepa Arrizabalaga struggling at times for form and confidence, people were actively questioning who would wear the gloves for La Roja this summer. Well, Luis Enrique’s decision was actually quite easy. While Kepa and De Gea floundered, Unai Simón was shining in La Liga and earned himself a chance with the national team.

Simón came through the Basque academy at Athletic Club, earning his chance in the first team when Kepa left for Chelsea. When injury to his competition gave him a starting chance in 2018, he took it. Despite impressing, he was relegated back to second choice later in the season. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, he was named the first choice, and man, did he impress. Simón was among the best goalkeepers in Spain that season, conceding only 29 goals in 33 matches and finishing third in the Zamora Trophy race, awarded to the goalkeeper with the best goals conceded-to-games ratio, finishing behind only Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois and Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak, widely considered two of the best goalkeepers on the planet. Considered by many in the Basque Country to be better than the Premier League-bound man he replaced, Simón has quietly become one of the best young shot-stoppers in Europe with an ever-improving ability on the ball in distribution. Having only just turned 23 years old, the world is seemingly at his feet.

Spain have done quite a bit of rotation of their goalkeepers in recent international matches, with Enrique not really giving away who his preferred number one and number two options are. While De Gea and Kepa could still be the two choices, do not be surprised to see Simón on the plane for the Euros this summer, and, despite somewhat of a rebound in form from De Gea recently, do not be surprised if you hear discussions around Simón being Spain’s number one for the Euros. He is a brilliant keeper, one of the most underrated in the world at the moment. If he gets a chance in the Euros, I imagine he will be one of the players that earns a move off of the spotlight that the Euros provides.

Silas Wamangituka, VfB Stuttgart/DR Congo

Look away, Arsenal fans. Your former head of scouting may have unearthed another gem.

Sven Mislintat, the famed former chief scout at Borussia Dortmund and brief technical director at Arsenal, was named sporting director at Stuttgart two years ago, truly beginning his sporting project following Die Schwaben‘s relegation to the second division at the end of the 2018-2019 season. He brought in several young attacking players that played a key role in getting Stuttgart back into the top flight, and they continue to play a key role in a team enjoying a fairly positive return to the Bundesliga. Chief among those signings was a tall and incredibly skillful winger named Silas Wamangituka.

The Congolese winger moved to France in 2017, spending a little over a year and a half with Olympique Alès before moving to Ligue 2 side Paris FC. He looked to be a star in the making in Paris, as his 11 goals and two assists nearly helped to carry the club to promotion. This caught the eye of Mislintat, who brought the talented winger to Stuttgart in 2019. He once again was one of the stars of the show, with his seven goals and eight assists helping Stuttgart achieve promotion back to the Bundesliga. He has continued to impress in the top flight, racking up eight goals and 3 assists in 14 games in all competitions, the most notable being the two goals and one assist in his Man of the Match display against Borussia Dortmund last month. His performances this season earned him the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month award for the month of November and potentially put him in discussions to win Player of the Month for December. Despite Stuttgart’s inconsistencies this season leaving them firmly mid table, they have built an exciting young team that could be dangerous in a few years, and the 21-year-old Wamangituka is at the heart of it all.

Silas is a very interesting combination of physical and technical traits. Not to harp on the fairly racist “pace and power” stereotypes that follow African players, but the Congolese dynamo is 6’2″, fairly strong, and quite quick, and that is something that makes him incredibly dangerous as an attacker. He is also an incredibly gifted technical player, with a dribbling ability and sense of confidence that allows him to attack defenders in one-on-one situations, navigate through tight and congested spaces, and makes him an absolute nightmare to defend against when he is on form. This combination of physical and technical traits allows him to play anywhere in an attacking front three, starting his career as a striker but later moving into wider positions that allow him the space to run at defenders and beat them off the dribble. In the top flight, he has been deployed on the wide left or right positions in Stuttgart’s sort of weird but also sort of unique 3-1-4-2 system, giving him the room to attack space on the counter, dribble at opposition fullbacks, and still cut inside and find a few goals. Silas is a very unique player and one that is a joy to watch when he is at his best. As this young Stuttgart team improve over time, I imagine he will become one of the Bundesliga’s biggest young stars. He is one to keep an eye on, especially as we get later into 2021.

Timothée Pembélé, Paris Saint-Germain/France

He may not be the most exciting young French player, but he certainly is the most interesting.

Timothée Pembélé is the most recent graduate of the PSG academy, a youth set up that is often overlooked in discussions about being among the best on the continent despite the litany of incredible young talents that have come through there over the years. Pembélé broke into the first team very recently, only making his professional debut and scoring his first goal this season. He may not be the first thing you think of when you ponder young French stars, but he is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Why? Because he is a right back. Despite the litany of young talents coming through in France at the moment, right back has remained a problem position for Les Bleus. When Bacary Sagna aged out after Euro 2016, there was no real ideal replacement. While Benjamin Pavard did a commendable job at the World Cup in 2018, he was a center back for most of his career before that competition, only selected for that role due to being the best of a list of mediocre candidates. Now, there are some more options. Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele is an interesting option as a center back turned wingback. Saint-Étienne’s Yvann Maçon almost made this list, but his cruciate ligament injury has likely pushed back his true “break out year”. Even outside of just looking at the France team, there are not that many true budding star right backs in the world. There are very few star right backs in the world in general. It is a position that has not had many great players in the late 2010s, so Pembélé has the chance to become a very unique youth prospect. This distinction will likely get him more attention from around the continent very soon.

Pembélé remains the most impressive of the young French right backs, being a natural right back with the physical skills needed to also play center back. He combines impressive technical skill and ability to attack with a solid defensive IQ, which even allows him to play any role in a defense on top of his preferred right back position. He has been one of the main positives in a so far rocky season for PSG, showing that he is ready to be a consistent first team player right now. Should PSG actually choose to trust their youth academy, something they infamously tend to not do, Pembélé could be a fixture in their team for the next several years. Do not get me wrong, he is not ready to play for France, and he is most likely not going to be on the plane for the Euros. But despite this, if he carries his strong form with PSG into 2021, he will become one of the most talked about young players in Europe.

Youssoufa Moukoko, Borussia Dortmund/Germany/Cameroon

Remember that kid who I said broke Florian Wirtz’s “Youngest Bundesliga Goalscorer” record? Well, this is him.

Youssoufa Moukoko sprung into the mainstream football world after his absolutely absurd youth team goalscoring stats made their way to the internet. And yes, they are hilariously absurd. In the 2016-2017 season, playing for Dortmund’s U-15 team as an 11 year old, he scored 33 goals in 21 games to guide Dortmund to their regional title. In October 2017, when he was just 12 years old, he scored a brace for Dortmund’s U-17 team against Schalke to help them come from 4-1 down to draw 4-4. He scored 40 goals for the U-17 team in that 2017-2018 season, including decisive goals in their national title semifinal against Leverkusen and final against Bayern. Again, he was 12 years old at the time. He would score 50 goals for the U-17 team in 2018-2019, setting an all-time record for the competition and earning him a move up to the U-19 team, where he scored a record 34 goals in just 20 games. He was 15 at the time. That is insane.

Due to the DFB changing laws around the age at which a player can get their professional license, Moukoko is now eligible to feature for the senior team at 16 years of age. He has already done so, appearing as a substitute against Hertha Berlin in late November and becoming the youngest debutant in Bundesliga history. He has since become the youngest debutant in Champions League history and the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history. Again, this is all just bafflingly insane.

It is interesting to think about where he could play with the senior team. He was a number nine with the youth teams, but with Erling Håland playing that position and also scoring goals at insane rates, he is likely not going to play there in the short term. He is not small, but his 5’9″ frame does not really suit playing as a sole striker. He has an impressive ability on the ball, however, and that skill combined with his quickness and agility makes him suited to playing slightly wider or off of a striker. He has quite a bit of competition for places in the other attacking positions, but with Jadon Sancho presumably on his way out of the club and Marco Reus not getting any younger, the chances will definitely come. Allegedly-incoming manager Marco Rose and his high-energy Red Bull-disciple system will likely benefit a player like Moukoko, and it is possible he starts seeing not-insignificant amount of time next season, likely playing just off of Håland as a second striker or wide forward. Dortmund’s future attack looks terrifying, even if Håland does leave the club soon, as Moukoko joins Jude Bellingham and Giovanni Reyna as prominent attacking talents at the club under the age of 20.

I do not want to stack expectation on the kid. It is very possible he does not feature prominently for Dortmund this season. He might go out on loan next season. You never know. But I do think he will play senior level football somewhere, whether it be at Dortmund or elsewhere on loan. And when he plays, he is going to be a sight to see.

There we have it, just a few names for you to keep your eye on this year. I always found that watching young players grow into stars is one of the most satisfying parts of being a football fan, and these players look to be the ones on the cusp of becoming big names in the sport.

In part 2, I will discuss a few more established players to keep an eye on this year, either due to under-appreciated performances, a potential big transfer, or the chance to elevate their game to the next level in their domestic league or at the Euros.

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2020 In Review

A look back at the highlights from a difficult year as a reminder of why we love football…

2020 has been a very difficult year for all of us. It has also been a difficult year for football as an industry, leaving lasting financial effects that will be felt for years to come. The COVID Pandemic, among other things, has irreversibly changed the lives of millions of people and left its mark on the football world.

Today, as I write this, is New Year’s Eve. A fine time to say goodbye to the bad from 2020 and welcome in 2021, hoping for better and brighter in the coming year. It is also a good time to look back on the year and pick out the positives, and there definitely were positive moments in the football world this year. In this post, I will highlight my “Best of” moments for the year in football, with several categories talking about the highlights of the year and some things to look forward to in 2021.

Let us start with some of the easy ones first…

Player of the Year

Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich/Poland

Had to be him, right? The man that came remarkably close to breaking Gerd Müller’s Bundesliga single season goal record, the man who guided Bayern Munich to a historic treble, the man that epitomizes the cliché “he scores when he wants”. Robert Lewandowski was the best player in the world in 2020 and demonstrated to the world that he is one of the best strikers of his generation. Combining an incredible attacking intelligence, knack of knowing exactly where to be, an underrated passing ability, and an absolutely lethal finishing ability, Lewandowski is exactly what every team looks for in a striker. With 17 league goals in only 12 appearances this season, on top of three goals in four Champions League games, the Pole is well on his way to maintaining the ridiculous goalscoring level he set last season, when he scored 55 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions. He notably won the Player of the Year award at FIFA’s The Best awards, and, had the Ballon d’Or been awarded this year, he likely would have won that as well. Long considered one of the most underrated players in the world, Lewandowski is now getting the recognition he has deserved for years.

Manager of the Year

Hansi Flick, Bayern Munich

Again, had to be him, right? Hansi Flick was a long-time assistant for the German National Team under Joachim Löw, but joined Bayern in 2019 as assistant to Niko Kovač after a few years in a sporting director role for the national team. When Kovač resigned as Bayern manager in early November 2019, Flick took over as the interim manager. Bayern never intended for Flick to be the new permanent manager; he was simply a stopgap until they could find a new permanent manager, with many saying they were going to make an offer to ex-Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Bayern lost twice early under Flick, to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, and then they did not lose for the rest of the season. They ran away with the league, won the DFB Pokal fairly comfortably, and stormed through the Champions League, capping off a historic treble year with a fairly routine win over PSG in the Champions League Final. Bayern went unbeaten for nearly nine months under Flick, amassing a 23-match winning streak that ran from a 4-1 win over Köln in mid-February to their 4-1 loss to Hoffenheim in late September, a loss that remains their only loss in 2020 and only the third loss Flick has on his record in management. The stats are absolutely crazy, but that is not all. Flick has Bayern playing like a well-oiled machine, shattering goalscoring records last season and looking to break those same records again this season. The same Bayern team that looked lost and clueless at times under Kovač were turned into a terrifying force of nature under Flick. The likes of Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng enjoyed a renaissance in form, while Serge Gnabry and Joshua Kimmich enjoyed their first steps into superstardom. Hansi Flick has done a remarkable job in his short time in management, and he is without a doubt the best manager of the year.

Best Team of the Year

Bayern Munich

Again, easy choice. They won five trophies and lost one game this whole year. Since hiring Hansi Flick, Bayern have basically become the footballing equivalent of the Death Star from Star Wars. They are a terrifying attacking team with an incredibly balanced midfield and strong defense and, if the rumors about the impending arrival of Dayot Upamecano next summer are true, they will only be getting better. Even when you do everything right against them, they can still find ways to win (as Leverkusen learned earlier this month). They are just an incredible team, the best team in the world at the moment, and one that could make history next year by winning back-to-back league and European trebles.

Ok, that is enough Bayern Munich love.

Young Player of the Year

Erling Håland, Borussia Dortmund/Norway

The lanky, awkward-looking Norwegian that burst onto the scene scoring goals for fun for RB Salzburg continued doing so in the Bundesliga. His strong physical presence combined with deceptive speed and long strides made him an absolute nightmare to defend against, seemingly being equally able to function as a target man and get in behind defenses. His positional sense is also phenomenal, and his ability to unleash thunderbolt shots with his left foot is just the cherry on top. Despite only 18 total appearances for Dortmund last season, all conveniently coming in 2020, he scored 15 goals in all competitions, a startling return for a player in his first half season playing in a “Top Five” league. He has continued that red-hot form into this season, scoring 17 goals in only 14 appearances in all competitions.

He just turned 20 this year. This is all patently absurd.

Yes, Dortmund have had their struggles this year, leading to the dismissal of manager Lucien Favre. With rising star Marco Rose looking to replace him, it looks like things will be looking up for die Schwarzgelbe soon, and Håland could lead this talented team to silverware before his time in Westphalia is up. Or, if the papers are to be believed, he might be moving back to England to his dad’s former club in the summer. Who knows…

Biggest Surprise Team

AC Milan

Yeah, I did not expect this either.

In the final game of 2019, Milan lost 5-0 to Atalanta. They were dreadful, having lost nearly half of their opening 17 games and sitting firmly mid-table with one of the worst goal differences in the league. And that was two months after they had sacked manager Marco Giampaolo and hired Stefano Pioli. It looked as though Pioli was on his way out as well, with the club having begun secret negotiations to bring in Ralf Ragnick as the new manager. Things began to turn around in January, with the free transfer signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović giving the club a talismanic striker and leader to rally around. They were not great, but they were good. They had improved, Zlatan continued to win his battle against aging, and you could see some of the talent in the team.

Then, the COVID Pandemic hit and halted the league. Serie A would eventually restart in June, and Milan began the restart with a 4-1 win over Lecce. They did not lose for the rest of the season. And then the new season started, and Milan still did not lose. 26 total matches unbeaten, a run dating back to last season, has turned Milan into the most in-form side in Italy and has them sitting top of the Serie A table at the end of the year. They are also the only unbeaten team remaining in Europe’s “Top Five” leagues in the 2020-21 season, an honor that not even Bayern Munich or Liverpool can boast. It is not just all on Zlatan either, as playing without the Swede this season has demonstrated just how talented this team is and how well-managed it is. The likes of Hakan Çalhanoglu and Alessio Romagnoli are enjoying their best runs of form as professional players, while Ismaël Bennacer, Franck Kessié, and Theo Hernández are growing into future stars. The job Stefano Pioli has done is nothing short of remarkable, as he has built a talented team with a true fighting spirit. Even if they do not win the Scudetto this year, it is a sign that Milan, a truly legendary club in European football, are on their way back to prominence.

2020’s Breakout Star

Theo Hernández, AC Milan/France

A talent that may not have fully “broken out” for mainstream fans, Theo Hernández has still been phenomenal for Milan this year, arguably being one of their most important players and becoming, at least in my opinion, the third best left back in the world at the moment. A player who is able to combine rapid pace, strength, great technical ability, and an eye for picking out a pass and finding a goal, Theo has become the prototypical attacking fullback. Having notched six goals and three assists for Milan last season, the Frenchman is seemingly raising the levels of his performances, having already gotten four goals and three assists through half of this season, including the winning goal in stoppage time against Lazio in the Rossoneri‘s final match of the year. He turned 23 in October, so he is still technically a “young” player, even though I did not put him for the breakout young star category. He has a bright future ahead of him, and this fantastic year may have been enough to put him on the radar when it comes to top talents in Europe, as well as potentially put him on the plane for the Euros this summer. If Milan qualify for the Champions League next season, or even if they find a way to bring home the Scudetto, Theo will be a major reason for their success.

2020’s Breakout Young Star

Eduardo Camavinga, Stade Rennais/France

One that is a bit out of left field, and a player who technically “broke out” in 2019, but it still counts. And trust me, you will be hearing this name a whole lot more very soon.

Eduardo Camavinga, Rennes’ teenage sensation who made his professional debut only a year ago, has become the brightest young star in France, a country that has never really lacked bright young rising stars. He followed up a great 2019, where he became Ligue 1’s youngest ever Player of the Month winner, with an even stronger 2020, cementing himself as one of the best midfielders in Ligue 1 and attracting attention from across Europe. He even earned his first cap for the French National Team, becoming the youngest player to make his debut for Les Bleus since Réne Gérard in 1932. He even added a brilliant individual goal for Rennes against Montpellier and a goal in his first start for France against Ukraine to an ever-expanding highlight reel.

A daring and confident midfielder who is silky-smooth on the ball and has an eye for a pass, Camavinga looks to be a constant fixture in the France midfield for years to come. He performed admirably for Rennes in the Champions League, and he looks to have les Rennais in position to potentially make it back to the Champions League next season. With the impending financial trouble in Ligue 1, however, it would not be a surprise to see Camavinga leave the Brittany club sooner rather than later. Either in January or the summer, I would expect the youngster to leave Ligue 1 behind, with Real Madrid and Manchester United being among the clubs interested. You will be hearing this name even more soon enough.

Best Transfer of 2020

Bruno Fernandes, Sporting Club to Manchester United, January 2020

I know this dead horse has been beaten relentlessly over the last few months, but I am going to do so again. Let us face it, Bruno Fernandes is a world-class player, and he has seemingly transformed the fortunes of Manchester United, as well as possibly saving Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s job, almost immediately. A dynamic, creative playmaking midfielder, Fernandes is seemingly at the center of quite literally everything Man United do going forward. Having amassed 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions in just 22 appearances for United last season, he firmly cemented himself as the team’s best and most important player, a large reason why they were able to make it back into the Champions League this season. He would follow that up with 14 goals and nine assists in all competitions so far this season, as well as being at or near the top of the list of chances created among all Premier League players. This is a remarkable immediate return for a player that just entered the Premier League less than a year ago, a league that can often take quite a while for newly arriving players to adapt to. He has fit into this United team perfectly, and his visible vocal leadership has also helped to instill a more decisive and ruthless mentality into the team.

Manchester United find themselves just three points off the top of the league at the end of 2020, a massive step forward from where they were when Fernandes joined the club, and the Portuguese maestro is a large part of the Red Devils’ success this season. It is hard to say that Fernandes has not been among the four or five best performing players in the Premier League in 2020, and he will go into 2021 as one of the contenders to win PFA Player of the Year, potentially being the reason United win the league when it is all said and done.

Best Match of 2020

Liverpool 2-3 Atlético Madrid, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg, 11 March 2020

The final major European match before the COVID Pandemic halted the European season was a dramatic battle under the lights at Anfield. Atlético Madrid, holding a 1-0 aggregate lead, had to hold out against a siege from the Liverpool attack. Strong performances from Jan Oblak and Thomas Partey in particular held the defense for as long as they could, but a rather fortunate rebound falling to the foot of Roberto Firmino allowed Liverpool to take a 2-1 aggregate lead in extra time. It looked almost certain that Liverpool would be going through.

And then, the legend of Marcos Llorente was born.

A mishit pass from Adrián fell to the feet of João Félix, who managed to find Llorente in a bit of space. The Spaniard got the ball on his stronger right foot but was closed down, having just enough time and space to let off a prayer of a shot. It somehow found its way in past a stumbling Adrián. 2-2 on aggregate, with Atléti going through on away goals as things stood. Seven minutes later, Atléti got another chance, with Álvaro Morata starting a counter and finding Llorente in space. With the Liverpool defenders backing off of him, Llorente had time to get the ball onto his right foot and fire another shot at the Liverpool goal, which also went in. 3-2 on aggregate, a prayer from the heavens, los Colchoneros looked like they could really escape Anfield with the win. Liverpool needed two goals, but for all their might, they could not get past Oblak. In the final minute of the match, Llorente played through Morata, who finished calmly past Adrián. 4-2 on aggregate, Atléti were through. The entire team piled on top of Morata, Diego Simeone ran arms extended and screaming toward the traveling Atléti fans. 120 minutes of madness at Anfield had ended, and the reigning European champions were out of the competition.

It is hard to think of another match with the same level of sheer madness as this one. The electric atmosphere at Anfield, the dramatic twists and turns, the brilliant performances, and a cult hero being born all added up into the best match I saw this year. Had we known it would be the last big match we all saw in a full stadium, we might have appreciated it much more at the time.

Best Goal of 2020

Jordan Flores, Dundalk vs. Shamrock Rovers, 28 February 2020

I mean, just look at it.

Click the hyperlink above. Watch the goal.

Did you watch it yet? Good.

How in the world was this not a finalist for the Puskás award? Flores got his foot basically above his head to strike a cross from a corner first time into the top corner. Amazing. I do not think a ball has been struck that well the entire year, and Flores may never strike a ball that sweetly for the rest of his career. Just an absolutely baffling combination of athletic and technical ability, a fantastic goal that should have gotten more love than it did.

Best Moment of 2020

Olympique Lyonnais eliminate Manchester City from the Champions League, 15 August 2020

Sorry, Leeds fans. I know the best moment should probably be your team getting promoted back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades. But, I am a Lyon fan and the one writing this blog, so there was no way I was not going to include this moment.

The Pandemic condensing the football schedule meant that, after leagues restarted, UEFA was forced to condense the Champions League, moving to one game rounds for the quarterfinals and semifinals instead of the two legs that was used before. Many thought this would increase the chance of an underdog story in the knockout stages of the competition. However, the underdogs began tumbling out of the competition, with Atalanta and Atlético Madrid losing at the first hurdle. All that was left was Lyon, who finished their worst league season in two decades and, due to Ligue 1 canceling their entire remaining season, did not play a competitive match for several months prior to narrowly escaping against Juventus a week prior. Surely this would be simple for Man City. This would be the best chance for Pep Guardiola to get his Champions League title with City, arguably being one of the best teams remaining in the competition. Lyon were talented, for sure, but there was no way they could stand a chance against City. This would be routine.

24 minutes in, Maxwel Cornet scored. 1-0 Lyon. That was not in the script.

City seemed flustered, this was not part of the plan. They did fight back, Kevin De Bruyne eventually leveling the match with 20 minutes remaining, but Lyon, attacking through their star midfielder Houssem Aouar, took the lead again, with Moussa Dembélé beating Ederson in a one-on-one after Aouar played him through on goal. City fought back again, and Raheem Sterling had the opportunity to level the match. All he had to do was pass it into an open goal after receiving a brilliant cut back pass. And he skied it. As if determined by fate. Lyon scored their third moments later, with Dembélé scoring from a shot spilled by Ederson. It was over, City were out. Lyon pulled off the historic upset, one of the biggest wins in their club’s history, and knocked out arguably the presumptive favorite to win the competition. In a dismal year that featured three Champions League semifinalists that were far from romantic, Lyon reminded us that the Cinderella story is still alive.

My Best XI in 2020

Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi

Kevin De Bruyne, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller

Alphonso Davies, Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold

Manuel Neuer

This is the end, but I just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for your readership in 2020. It means so much to us that you all take time out of your days to read our content. It was a successful starting year for us, and we are excited to continue bringing you content for the upcoming year! I will be publishing a follow-up to this talking about things to look out for in 2021.

I wish you all peace, health, and happiness in the upcoming year.

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Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his […]

The Ludovic Casset Story Part 1: Making History in Vietnam

Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his teammates like Abou Diaby and Djibril Cissé went to forge relatively successful careers in Europe, Ludo had an interesting spell in Vietnam.

After all he’s one of the first few players who came to Southeast Asia to play for national teams based on their ancestry. Nowadays you have a slew of such foreign born players playing in the region. Names like English-born La’Vere Lawrence Corbin-Ong who plays for Malaysia, Spanish-born Álvaro Silva who plays for the Philippines, and Dutch-born Stefano Lilipaly who plays for Indonesia come to mind. Yet it wasn’t always the case and even though Ludo did not represent Vietnam, he was the first foreigner of Vietnamese descent to attempt to play for the national football team. In part one of this article, I shall look at his playing career – looking at his time in France, the failed Vietnamese national team trial and his brief but eventful Vietnamese adventure.

Starting his Football Journey with Auxerre and Turning to Vietnam

Just like other French footballers, Ludo embarked on his footballing journey with his local neighborhood team to his Burgundy regional side and then on to AJ Auxerre’s youth teams, rising up the ranks all the way to the Auxerre reserves. At 20, Ludo tore his ACL and was sent to a professional sports therapy and rehabilitation center in Southwest France. It was there when he met Francileudo Santos, a Brazilian-born naturalized Tunisian who played in the 2006 FIFA World Cup with the Tunisian national team. Santos was nursing an injury he had sustained while playing with Ligue 1 club Sochaux.

“We were talking and I got to know him and he got to know me. Then he asked me why I don’t go and play for Vietnam. He told me that I was more Vietnamese than he was Tunisian. Back then, I was 20 years old and I was wondering whether there was actually football in Asia? You know, in the 1990s, Europeans would be thinking if they drew Asian teams for the World Cup, it’s like striking the jackpot. That was then, the thinking, you know. Now, the gap is no longer as wide as it was, but back then you’d be wishing for an Asian team. Santos told me that no matter the country, there is football everywhere.”

Ludo may have dismissed the idea then, but Santos’s words were already planted in his mind. At 23, just as my previous interviews with Frenchmen have demonstrated, Ludo realized that breaking into the first team Auxerre was an almost impossible task. The competition for places were ridiculously stiff. It was at this juncture where Santos’s words resurfaced, and Ludo remembered what the Tunisian forward suggested two years prior.

“I contacted my uncle in Vietnam, who was previously working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. He used to come to France because the Ministry had partnerships with a few [French] Universities. He came pretty often – maybe once or twice a year. So, I mailed him and he told me to wait for him to come to France.”

A few years later, Ludo’s uncle came up to France and met up with him. When Ludo first told his uncle his intention of playing for the Vietnamese national team, he was taken aback at first. However, he helped his nephew out by reaching to some of his contacts within the Vietnamese Football Federation to see if something could be arranged. It was not long after when Ludo departed France for Vietnam to attend a trial and see if he was good enough for the Vietnamese national team. His world was literally going to change overnight.

The Brief Taste of Vietnamese National Team Football

The moment Ludo landed in Vietnam, he was thrusted into a newfound fame. As he exited the plane, Ludo was met by an official from the Vietnamese ministry in the transit area. He welcomed Ludo and (since Ludo knew virtually zero Vietnamese), in French, began to brief Ludo about what was going to happen next.

Waiting outside were 25 journalists who were armed with multiple questions, ready to fire them away at Ludo. It was a big shock to Ludo because, even at Auxerre, there were never that many journalists during press conferences. Ludo was informed to discuss nothing but football and the Frenchman fully concurred. The hype surrounding Ludo was real. After collecting his baggage, he was met by a sea of people who were eagerly awaiting his arrival. After the glamorous first day in Vietnam, Ludo was engaged in a trial period for the subsequent two weeks – something he looks back with fond memories.

“I had my Rolling Stones moment for two weeks. For two weeks, during the trial period, there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese football fans who attended the two exhibition matches I played in. After the match, [the fans] would have scrap books that they would ask me to sign. I felt like Zidane. There was no Instagram back then, if not I think, my Instagram would explode.

“During my first match I played, I scored a header off a corner. And for me, I play on the defensive side (CDM or CB), so it was really huge for me to score a goal. I got on well with most of the guys but then I started to realize different social groups and social hierarchies within the dressing room. There was an older group of players and the younger group of players. I realized that the younger group of players [were subservient to] the older group of players and also that the older group of players could do whatever they want. The Confucian ideal of respecting your elders was very evident.”

The strong influence of the older guard in the Vietnamese national team would come to affect, or so it’s believed, Ludo’s ability to play for Vietnam. Despite what he believed was a relatively successful trial, Ludo was not chosen to represent Vietnam. The Star reported that the VFF spokesman, at the time, Nguyen Lan Trung, told that then head coach Edson Tavares felt that “Casset was not visibly better than any player of the national squad.” Ludo suspects he was never chosen because some of the older players in the squad disliked the fame and attention that he was receiving. Tavares may have had his hands tied behind his back – we may never know.

During his short spell in the national team set up, Ludo believed that the Vietnamese internationals he played alongside were really good technically. What they lacked instead was tactical ability. Ludo still finds it shame that he never got to represent Vietnam. However, his trip to the state was not a total waste. While the Vietnamese Football Federation may have rejected him, Vietnamese clubs began to take notice of a young Ludo. One in particular, Quảng Nam Đà Nẵng (now known as SHB Đà Nẵng) , reached out with an offer which kickstarted a new chapter in his footballing career.

The Professional Dream with Đà Nẵng – A Mixed First Season

Ludo was brought into a Đà Nẵng side that was in the process of building up a super team. The Frenchman was brought in alongside 4 other national team stalwarts, including the captain, Lê Huỳnh Đức (who is current coaching SHB Đà Nẵng) , that he played alongside during his trial. Besides the financial allure of Đà Nẵng, the late mayor of Đà Nẵng City, Nguyen Ba Thanh, played a crucial role in Ludo’s transfer to the club. He had significant influence over the club because of his status as a powerful politician. He was the one that promised Ludo that he would try to push for him gaining Vietnamese nationality if he signed with Đà Nẵng. While Vietnam has permitted dual nationality in limited circumstances in 2009, it was forbidden for one to have dual nationality back in 2005.

Ludo was given a month to think about the offer from Đà Nẵng, and he went back to Auxerre. Back home in France, Ludo seriously reflected on the offer. He was hesitating to take up the offer since he still had the dream to play in Europe. Then, his Auxerre academy coach told him the reality is of his situation.

“You know in France, there are so many talented players who are better than you. However, because there are only so many places, most of these talented players would never ever end up playing professionally. They’d reach 26 and 27 [years old] and then they’d be the stars of their neighbourhood teams and that’s it. I told myself let’s go to Vietnam and get the exposure. After all, the future is in Asia.”

Back then, the V.League had a foreign import quota of 5 players, but they also had a rule where only 3 players could be on the pitch at any one time. This meant that if one foreign player was to be brought off the bench, one of the three foreigners on the pitch had to be subbed off. With his opportunity already limited by the foreign player rules, a rocky start with his then head coach meant that playing time was seriously limited for a young Ludo.

“The coach was really old school, and it was during their first pre-season training but for me, I had been playing (in France and the trial in Vietnam) all the way till moving to Đà Nẵng. So during some of the drills I had a bit of pain and I told the interpreter to inform the coach that I would do some light training instead. I realized that it was a clash of cultures. In Vietnam, players were expected to play through the pain, whereas in Europe, they expected you to rest and not make the injury worse. And after that, that’s it – my season was over. The coach thought that I was lazy because of the fame I had received during the trial with the national team. They started to play without me.”

During the first half of the season, Ludo played zero matches. Then a miracle happened. After 4 to 5 months, somehow, however, Ludo managed to get dual nationality, and to his knowledge, is the first person to hold dual nationality in Vietnam.

After becoming a Vietnamese citizen and the club registering as a local player, Ludo managed to play a few games. There were other obstacles standing in Ludo’s way – behind the scene politics within his own team. One day, Ludo had decided to go to an infamous bar in the city, and he happened to bump into one of the younger players of the squad and drank together. It would become a mistake that he would long regret.

“The next morning, I go to training and I had this African teammate who had been playing in Vietnam for 8 years. And he told me – just see what happens. You will have [issues]. So, I found out much later that the young player went to the coach and said he heard from a friend that I was out partying. But, it was actually him who was there with me in the bar! And so, I got excluded from selection because the coach believed I liked to party more than train.”

Besides finding his playing time limited, Ludo also experienced what allegedly was a case of match-fixing. Back then, it was a game against Saigon. Saigon needed a win to remain in the Vietnamese top division. On the other hand, Đà Nẵng were already guaranteed of their AFC Champions League place regardless of the result. Perhaps that was why a large number of key players were taken out of the game. However, according to Ludo, the match “played out weird” and Đà Nẵng eventually succumbed to defeat. Then the young Frenchman was in for a huge shock.

“The Stadium was packed with 40,000 fans. A lot of them had been drinking beer and thousands of fans threw their beer cans at the pitch. We were trapped we couldn’t leave the stadium. So the (officials) used the electric (batons) and started hitting the fans to help manage the situation and bring this ruckus to a close. I was wondering why this was happening. One of the players heard that the match was sold, which explained why we were playing weird. I didn’t know what was happening back then. It was truly a new experience for me.”

The season ended on a high for Ludo, as Đà Nẵng managed to qualify for the AFC Champions League and the head coach resigned. A new technical director, Gerd Zeise from Germany, took over instead. Interestingly, Zeise would go on to manage the Myanmar U-20 team and lead them to qualification for the U-20 World Cup. He would later go on to manage the Myanmar national team after the departure of Radojko Avramović, the former Singapore national team head coach who won 3 AFF Championships with the Lions.

Things were seemingly looking up for him, but then he was sent out on loan to a V2.League club. Ludo was devastated because there was a huge gulf in quality between the V1 and V2 leagues. Fortunately, the club recalled him back soon. The club used Ludo sporadically in the league, but he featured prominently in the Champions League.

Image provided by Ludovic Casset. Photo Credits: Ludovic Casset

In Đà Nẵng’s AFC Champions League group, they were tied together with some titans of East Asian football – Gamba Osaka, Dalian Shide and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The most memorable moment of that Champions League Group stage would probably be one of Ludo’s most painful ones. His side was thrashed by Gamba Osaka in Japan and it was truly a dark day in Ludo’s career.

“In the first match, we played really well and we received a lot of media attention. In the second match against Gamba Osaka in Japan. It was really really cold and raining. I was used to it but the Vietnamese players were not used to this kind of conditions. Gamba Osaka thrashed us so severely and it was so embarrassing. Every attack against us they scored. It was so bad. Perhaps it was because of the media attention we received and it sort of backfired because Osaka came out for blood and they took us really seriously. So much so, they were merciless. ”

Ludo’s time in Vietnam would come to an end after that season in 2006. After 2 and a half years in Vietnam, it was time to bring his episode in the country to a close. In part 2, I’ll look at the end of Ludo’s playing career and how he landed the director position at Etoile FC Academy.

Featured Image provided by Ludovic Casset. Photo Credits: Ludovic Casset

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It’s Time to Start Appreciating Karim Benzema

Featured Image by WONJONGSUNG from Pixabay

The Frenchman is now getting his time in the spotlight, time that has been due for a while now…

What if I told you there was a player out there who is among the best in his position of his generation and we are not appreciating him nearly enough? A player who came out of one of the best academies in Europe, won several league titles and a league player of the year award with his boyhood club before earning a big money move to European giants Real Madrid. At Real Madrid, he won three league titles and four Champions Leagues, adding to his already crowded honors list. He is currently Real Madrid’s fifth highest ever goalscorer with 249, their top assister with 133, and one of only four players to score 20-plus goals in eight or more seasons for Los Blancos, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, and Raúl. He amassed those 249 goals and 133 assists in a little over 500 games, with a goals-to-game ratio of around .50, seemingly the golden standard of being a world-class forward. He has just wrapped up a second consecutive season of being his team’s arguably best and most important player, and he has helped Real Madrid to their first league title in the post-Ronaldo era.

And this player is being underrated seemingly to a criminal degree.

Yes, this is not a guessing game. You read the title, so you know I am referring to current Real Madrid and ex-Lyon striker Karim Benzema. You probably have your own opinions on Benzema, quite a few people do, but hear me out first.

Benzema has begun to earn his deserved praise this season. He was arguably Real Madrid’s most important player and easily their most important attacking player, scoring 27 goals and adding 11 assists in all competitions. With Ronaldo gone, Bale permanently stuck on the bench, and Hazard struggling to fully adapt to life in the Spanish capital, Benzema has been the main guy for Zidane going forward. In a team that does not score too many goals, at least compared to previous Real Madrid teams, Benzema is often the irreplaceable part of their attack. Los Blancos only scored 70 league goals this season, so Benzema’s 21 league goals and eight league assists by himself accounted for a little more than 40% of his team’s scoring output in the league. You could very well make the claim that Benzema had the best season of any player in La Liga not named Lionel Messi, and that would not be an outlandish argument to make. Real Madrid’s 2018/19 campaign was one to forget, but Benzema was also near this level that season as well, bringing in 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions and being responsible for around a third of Real Madrid’s league goals that season. He was seemingly their sole shining light from a dreadful year.

This praise has come in the last two years, but it is long overdue. Benzema is obviously shining now, and you can argue he is simply just stepping up in Ronaldo’s absence, but he has been an important player in previous years as well. He just never got the credit he deserved.

Benzema was an unbelievable player for Lyon. I would argue he remains the most talented player to emerge from their now-world famous academy. He earned his big-money move to Real Madrid, where, yes, he did initially struggle. He played second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuaín, and he had issues with his fitness. The first two seasons under José Mourinho were very tough, but he fought through and earned his place in the team. Mourinho himself gave all credit to Benzema for transforming himself as a player to fit into the team. Succeeding in the famed white shirt is quite difficult, even for talented players. Just look at Hazard’s struggles this season. There is a significant list of talented footballers who failed to adapt to life in Madrid and failed to live up to the weight and expectation that wearing that white shirt brings, so Benzema’s ability to overcome initial struggles to have the level of longevity and greatness that he has had is something that is not commended enough.

But let us move on past those first few years. Since then, Real Madrid added Gareth Bale to their strike force, forming the notorious “BBC” triad up front. They were one of the best attacking units in Europe, scoring and winning at a historic level. Despite this, however, Benzema was still the target of criticism. He seemed to constantly be the butt of the joke, with many viewing him as the ugly duckling of the trio. He seemed to be viewed as the less shiny and flashy player surrounded by two superstars. To be fair, it is hard to truly shine when an all-time great like Ronaldo did ridiculous things on a weekly basis, but the conversation seemed to be more than that. The discussions seemed to center around how good Real Madrid would be when they finally sold Benzema and replaced him with a “better” player. I will forever stand by the argument that not only would replacing Benzema not have made Real Madrid better, it would, in fact, have made them worse.

I am not going to roll out the generic “Benzema sacrificed for Ronaldo” line, as I do not feel it is nuanced enough to describe Benzema as a player and what made him so important for those Real Madrid teams. Benzema is a very well-rounded forward, able to use pace to get in behind defenses and use strength to hold the ball up and act as a target man. Possibly his best strength lies in his positional sense and passing ability, which saw him mostly deployed as a center forward or “false nine”. In this role, he is able to do everything I said above, but also be tasked with dropping into space between the lines to receive the ball and pass, as well as make movements and runs that move around and draw the attention of the defenders, often opening up space for his teammates to occupy or run into. It is similar to the role that Roberto Firmino plays for this current Liverpool team. Firmino has the ability to drop into space or play as a traditional number nine, and his ability to make dummy runs and occupy the center backs opens up the space for Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to get into good goalscoring positions and make dangerous attacking runs. This similar idea is applied here. This role, and his traits that perfectly fit the role, has allowed Benzema to turn provider on several occasions, often being Real Madrid’s leading assister and why he has so many career assists for a striker, and to make the runs or take up the positions that opens up space for Ronaldo and Bale to attack. This, many times, happened between him and Ronaldo, where he was able to hold the ball up slightly or make a dummy run toward the left that moved the center back or fullback wider, opening up space for Ronaldo to cut inside. He also had the ability to make runs wide and make plays from a wide area, which allowed Ronaldo to swap places with him and move into the 18-yard box, able to take advantage of his physical skills to score off of crosses or other center forward-like goals. This is where the “sacrificing for Ronaldo” narrative comes from, but it really does not give Benzema enough credit. Simply saying he is sacrificing implies it is something any striker could do instead of it being a use of Benzema’s skill set and high football intelligence that actively makes those Real Madrid teams better. His understanding of space and ability to make the runs or play the passes that gets his teammates in great goalscoring positions is a very unique skill that very few forwards possess at this level, and his ability to combine that with a very good end product is what makes him such an incredible player. He has done significant work as a player to bind that attack together and make them the cohesive unit that they were at their peak. Had Real Madrid decided to sell him, those traits would be gone, and they would not have been as fluid of an attacking unit. There are very few players that Real Madrid could have brought in to truly replace Benzema in that team, as there are not many that bring the specific skills and traits that allowed him to glue that attack together. It is Benzema’s well-roundedness as a forward that makes him such an elite player and so important to that team.

Also, let’s not pretend that he was simply there to run around and allow Ronaldo to score. He has had some statistically impactful seasons in that “BBC” trio. Bar two seasons, he has scored 20-plus goals in all competitions as part of that front three, as well as adding a minimum of five assists onto that total. He reached double digit assists in the league three times and never had less than eight assists in all competitions since Bale’s arrival, amassing 16 and 15 in all competitions in Bale’s first two seasons in Madrid. People talk about his five league goals in 2017/18, which seemingly indicates a poor season for a striker, but people do not talk about that he had double digit assists, being Real Madrid’s leading provider that season, and he had five more Champions League goals in nine games on the way to Los Blancos being crowned European Champions again. His worst season as a member of the “BBC” was still a fairly good season. And let’s not forget those milestones I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. He is Real Madrid’s fifth-highest ever goalscorer, leading assister, and one of only four Madridista players to have at least eight 20-plus goal seasons in the famous white shirt. He seemingly remained the butt of the joke until recently despite constantly and continuing to be one of Real Madrid’s most important players in every sense.

Now, let’s talk about big moments. Every great player has big moments they are remembered for, right? When talking about Benzema’s big moments, one definitely springs to mind for everyone: his famous elastico-assist against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League in 2017. However, many of his other big moments seem to be ignored. People laugh about his fortunate goal in the Champions League Final against Liverpool in 2018, but many forget it was his two goals against Bayern Munich in the semifinal that got them into the final. He scored two crucial goals against Valencia in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey in 2013. He scored goals in Madrid Derbies and in El Clasicos, including a notable equalizer in a 2-1 Real Madrid win over Barcelona in 2014 that came very close to being a title-deciding match. This is also ignoring him scoring possibly the goal of the season, his volley against Valencia, and assist of the season, his back heel pass against Espanyol, as part of his scintillating form at the end of this past season. Yes, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo, no one on planet Earth is. However, Benzema has had his fair share of incredible moments in a Real Madrid shirt, moments that deserve recognition for a near-legendary Madridista.

In another sense, maybe this is where some of the criticism stems from. Yes, he has had fantastic moments and scored important goals, but he has had very few spectacular, “wow” moments in his career outside of that elastico-assist. When he was playing alongside Ronaldo and Bale, who scored brilliant highlight-reel goals on a near-regular basis during their peaks in Madrid, he often looked like a member of the supporting cast instead of one of the main protagonists. Football media also latched onto the extraordinary play of other forwards, who shined brighter than Benzema at times. He often looks ordinary, while Bale and Ronaldo, Falcao and Lewandowski, Mbappé and Griezmann, looked extraordinary. His “ordinary”, and it is still quite unfair to him to call him ordinary, has not made him a bad player, however, but it unfortunately cast him in the shadow of the extraordinary moments of his teammates or others who caught the eye of the football world. It is that “ordinary”, however, that is what made, and still makes, Benzema so important for Real Madrid, and his consistency in that regard has allowed him to outlast many of the shiny toys Real Madrid brought in to star in their attack. Real Madrid, as a club, lack patience and know how rich they are, having the ability to snap up the best and brightest talent from all corners of the globe. Benzema was one of those players, but he arrived with little fanfare compared to Ronaldo and Kaká, who arrived at the same time. Since Benzema moved to Madrid, they have also brought in the likes of James Rodríguez, Isco, Álvaro Morata, and Luka Jović, meant to be the new bright star to go into their forward line and take it to the next level. While they had their bright moments, they all faded in time, while Benzema still remains. New York Times football correspondent Rory Smith called Benzema the “Low-Wattage Galactico”, and I cannot think of a better way to describe this idea. His game was never the flashiest or the most ridiculous or insane, but Benzema was, and still is, a world-class forward who was and is an integral part of the Real Madrid team. His light just so happened to be a little bit dimmer than some of the players that he played alongside, but it did not make him any less integral to the team.

I have shown you one of the best strikers of a generation. He is probably the most complete and well-rounded striker of his generation. He has won basically everything there is to win in football, he holds high accolades at arguably the biggest club in the world, and, when you get right down to it, he is an incredibly impressive and productive player statistically and has the skill set needed to bring a team together on the pitch. Other players rightly get praised for their ability to do exactly what he has been ignored for doing for nearly half a decade, and he is often criticized for not producing at a high level when, if you look at the statistics, he actually has been doing for basically his whole career. I have laid the case out in front of you; we have a player currently playing at a world-class level right now who is not being given nearly enough credit. He has done everything throughout his career to earn the title of “world class”, and his resumé and accolades include almost everything a footballer can win. As I said in the beginning:

It is time to start appreciating Karim Benzema, and we need to appreciate him for whatever time is left in his career. He more than deserves it.

An Absolute Bargain: Ferrán Torres’s Transfer to Manchester City and Wider Implications

For 23 million Euros, Ferrán Torres’s move to Manchester City is an absolute bargain. He comes in as a replacement for Leroy Sané, who moved to Bayern Munch on July 3, 2020, for an initial 45 million euros (that could potentially rise to 60 million euros with add ons). He may be only 20 years old, but Torres is a real talent and has played incredibly well for Valencia. A move to City is a definite upgrade for the player. Yet, I don’t know if it is the right time for him to move to the Etihad. 

Why? Let’s look at why Leroy Sané moved to Bayern in the first place – a lack of playing time. There is a good chance that Torres may face a similar predicament. Most of the time, he will probably find himself on the bench at City. Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva are above him in the pecking order and have cemented their positions in the wings. He also will face competition from Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden (if he stays) for a spot on the bench.

Thankfully, Manchester City are a club that have a winning mentality – they want to win every competition they play in and therefore need to rotate their team for the different competitions. Chances will come for the highly-rated Spaniard to shine, but he will not likely be playing the same number of games he did for Valencia this past season. Torres may not be playing weekly, but he will learn a lot under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola as well as under the mentorship of senior players like Riyad Mahrez.

Torres publicly announced that one of the key reasons why he wanted to sign with the Manchester club is because of their attacking mentality and style. That was not the only thing that he revealed to the press and went on to publicly criticize teammate and Valencia captain Dani Parejo’s leadership ability. Speaking of Valencia, Torres departure could be the first of a mass exodus of players after the controversial end to their season, which saw Albert Celades was sacked and replaced by Javi Gracia. As a result of missing out on European competition altogether and ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the club will reduce its operating cost by 40%. Part of this reduction involves potentially selling upwards of 100 million euros worth of players during this window. Torres himself did not want to leave Valencia but instead, was forced out of the club. While that may be, it is safe to say that Torres has escaped from a sinking Valencian ship, where Peter Lim is the captain.

Guardiola had one for the future in mind when he was making this deal. Perhaps the not so distant future. Mahrez is approaching his 30th Birthday early next year, and City need to look at long-term replacements for the Algerian. On top of that, Guardiola doesn’t seem to rate Patrick Roberts highly, and the English winger could be transferred out this window. Roberts had loan spells with Celtic, Girona, Norwich, and, most recently, Middlesbrough. Now 23, a move away would be best for the player where he can establish himself at a club as opposed to spending another season out on loan or featuring as a fringe player for City.

Torres is by no means a finished product. In 44 appearances across all competitions, he has racked up 6 goals and provided 8 assists, which is a fairly average return for a player slated to become the next breakout star. However, his low goals and assist return rate could be due to the formation he is being deployed in. At Valencia, Torres often plays in a 4-4-2 system, where he is played as a wide midfielder, as opposed to a conventional winger.

Under Pep’s system, Torres could better use his pace, dribbling skills and creativity, as he is given much more freedom to cut inside. Sterling is an example of a clear benefactor of Pep’s system and Torres could follow suit. At the same time, given his experience at Valencia, he can assist and contribute from wide positions as well. It makes him a useful player to have because he offers the Manchester City options in-game. Comfortable with both feet, Torres might develop into a hybrid between Sterling and Bernardo Silva, having the pace of the former and the creativity of the latter. What he needs, however, is time to adapt to the playing style in England. With a relatively low transfer fee involved, there is less pressure on the player to produce immediate fireworks. However, because of the hype surrounding the player, many will monitor his development, and Torres would be expected to develop into a quality player.

Let me end off with this point; the transfer fee surrounding the player. 23 million euros is slightly lesser than the wingers market value. It raises questions on why the fee was so low. Granted, Torres was entering into the final year of his contract and Valencia may have been desperate to cash in. It doesn’t explain why he was bought for a fee lower than his market value. As I mentioned earlier, missing out on Champions League football and disruptions caused by the global pandemic meant that Valencia needed funds. I raise this point because it supports the notion that we might see an overall reduction in transfer fees for players. Many clubs need to recoup their losses and might be less inclined to hold out for higher fees because of the urgent need for cash. We saw this with Werner moving for only 48 million pounds. It is concerning because the pandemic might usher in a greater imbalance in leagues, with richer clubs exploiting cash strapped sides and buying their star players for significantly lesser fees than their market value.

Image by jorono from Pixabay

A New Challenge Outside England: Angel Gomes Moves to Lille

When Angel Gomes left Manchester United at the end of June, many believed he would secure a quick move to Chelsea or another top-flight club in Europe. Rumours circulated that Chelsea were seriously considering signing the player. However, no offer came from Stamford Bridge, and since the start of July, the pacey attacking midfielder has been without a club. July must have been a difficult month for Gomes, who probably second-guessed his decision to leave Old Trafford in search for regular first-team football elsewhere. August, on the other hand, paints a different story for him, as he starts a new chapter in his footballing career.

Ligue 1 side Lille have recently signed Gomes and have shown that they are serious about the player’s development because they have done something that United failed to: loan Gomes out. For the upcoming 2020/21 season, Gomes would be on loan at Portuguese side Boavista F.C. A move to the Primeira Liga is a sensible one because the level of competition is relatively high and Gomes would surely gain regular playing time. Also, as a footballing romanticist, I do think it’s pretty symbolic of a spiritual restart to Gomes’s career. The player heads to Portugal, where his family is from, to gain some much-needed experience before he returns to Lille.

It is a smart piece of business from Lille, who look to rebuild their club with a host of key players expected to leave the club the upcoming transfer window. Victor Osimhen has already left for Napoli on a 50 million Euro transfer, and it will be hard to replace the Nigerian, who was Lille’s top scorer last campaign. Other players rumoured to depart the club include:

  • Gabriel Magalhães, CB
    • Linked with a move to Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal, Napoli
  • Boubakary Soumaré, CM
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Chelsea
  • Mike Maignan, G.K.
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea
  • Mehmet Zeki Çelik, R.B.
    • Linked with a move to Everton, Tottenham Hotspur
  • Jonathan Ikoné, FW
    • Linked with a move to Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund

These players formed the backbone of Lille, and the Ligue 1 outfit probably needs a season or two to rebuild and create a new spine for the team. Lille have already signed veteran Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis from Napoli as a short term replacement for Maignan if he leaves. In addition, the club has also signed Turkish icon Burak Yilmaz on a free transfer from Besiktas. The move for Yilmaz is a good piece of business as well. Lille get an experienced forward who adds depth to their frontline, which would be severely depleted if Jonathan Ikoné leaves.

Lille have also attempted to sign Colombian forward Alfredo Morelos from Rangers F.C., who would come in as a replacement for Osimhen. Morelos would be a shrewd piece of business for Lille. They get a good player to build a new spine for the team at a bargain price, and yes, while the Scottish Premier League may not be the most competitive in Europe, his statistics in the Europa League show that he is a lethal finisher. He has scored an impressive 14 goals in 16 appearances for Rangers in Europe this campaign, and Lille would have an upgrade from their current crop of strikers (other than Ikoné).

Another player heavily linked with Lille is Jonathan David, which indicates that the club is more than likely going to cash in on Ikoné. David is one of the brightest talents to have emerged from North America, let alone Canada. He has been absolutely brilliant for Gent in Belgium and will easily fill the boots of Ikoné. Only 20 years old, David’s impending acquisition is further evidence that Lille are in the process of a rebuild.

The decision to sign Angel Gomes is in line with this plan of creating a new backbone for the long-term. He comes in as a free transfer and represents a low-risk acquisition with no significant transfer fee involved. However, his inexperience in first-team football means that he cannot be rushed into the first-team. As much as people call Ligue 1 a farmer’s league, the level of competition in France is high, and Lille cannot afford to risk fielding Gomes weekly.

Manchester United and Ole take note, this is how you develop your academy prospects. Loaning them out to gain valuable first-team minutes at another top-flight European team shows the players that they are part of the club’s plans for the future. Gomes was stuck playing Under-23 football when he could have been playing on loan at a club like Celtic. Seeing his peers and fellow academy teammates get significantly greater playing time

For Gomes, Lille have offered him a new challenge and the chance to prove Ole and Manchester United wrong. As a United fan, I sincerely want Gomes to do well. I hoped that he would develop into a phenomenal player and become an integral part of the United team. That dream has been crushed with his departure, but he can become an essential player for Lille if he performs well with Boavista and remains free from injuries. Only time will tell. That being said, I am probably going to closely follow Gomes’s spell in Portugal and see how he progresses. Fingers crossed that he shines!

Featured Image by Edar from Pixabay

The Jonathan Toto Exclusive Part 2 – Football Stardom in Singapore, A Greek Nightmare & Life after Football

In part 1, I examined Jonathan Toto’s career before playing in Singapore. From playing with Koulibaly and Pjanić in the FC Metz Academy to a stint with Hearts in Scotland, Toto had quite the eventful career by the time he was 21. It was this next chapter in Singapore where his footballing career really took off, and due to unfortunate circumstances, ended up peaking. After 2 years in the S.League, Toto secured a move to a Greek club but was then released shortly after, never to be heard from again.

Living the Footballing Fantasy in Singapore

In his short but eventful career, his two years in Singapore were by far the best. It was where he really lived out his footballing dreams as a star player. However, it wasn’t the motivation of becoming a star player that drove Toto’s decision to take up the opportunity to play in Singapore.

“After the failed Qatar trial, I decided to come to Singapore to get as far away as possible from Europe. I was fed up with the European footballing scene and all its problems. I didn’t have any family; I didn’t have any kids; I was young, so i decided to take my chance and come to Singapore. I had an amazing agent who linked me up with Étoile and I signed. This was where in my head, I started to think that a football career could be a real possibility. Before Singapore, I was training hard and playing well but for some reason [like agent troubles] i couldn’t secure a professional contract. I started to think if I was cursed. But Singapore man, I tell you, this was where [a professional] really started [for me].

“It was amazing; A French football club who wants you to make a career in Asia. You would be surrounded by French people, so you won’t be alone and they gave you money. I really enjoyed it. We had a special objective of retaining the S.league title and on top of that we needed to challenge the accomplishment of the previous Étoile FC team. People were talking how the new guys, us, were not that good, so we had a point to prove.”

The offer from Étoile FC was an amazing opportunity for a young Toto hungry for both professional game time and goals. And boy, did he do well in his debut season with the French club. Even though the club finished 5th, which was underwhelming given how the club had won the league the previous campaign, he scored 14 goals in 28 games in all competitions. I must say that a goal-to-game ratio of 0.5 is really respectable for any 21 year-old. Toto had many fond memories playing with Etoile and one of them was playing against Tampines at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

“I remember scoring against Tampines and that day, I saw [Aleksandar] Đurić. I remember people talking about how he was the Ibrahimovic of the league. When I saw him, he was so tall and I was happy to see and play against him. I love it when I’m on the field with superstars, better players, because they challenge me to do better and Đurić was one such player.”

However Aleksandar Đurić was not the only player that Toto looked forward to challenging. One other player was then-Home United talisman Fredric Mendy, who was part of the 2010 Étoile FC Championship winning squad. In many ways, Toto was brought in to replace Mendy for the 2011 campaign and naturally, Toto was fired up every time he faced Home United.

After the 2011 season concluded, Étoile pulled out of the S.League and opted to focus on grassroots football development instead. Many players returned to France or earned moves to other Southeast Asian clubs, with a few of them choosing to remain in Singapore. Toto was one such player who decided to remain in Singapore. Alongside Sirina Camara, he sealed a move to Courts Young Lions for the 2012 SPL campaign. He enjoyed playing football for the Young Lions team and huge reason for that was team manager Eugene Loo, who not only engineered the move but also made both French players feel right at home.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“He is an amazing person and Eugene Loo was always there for us. He was like a friend to both of us. He was somebody who took care of us. He was this person in the FAS who was very kind since the beginning. I remember how Étoile informed some of us hat we will be linked with the FAS to determine where we will play. Eugene called me and I spoke with him and that started my budding relationship with him. That is also how I became a Courts Young Lions player.”

Playing for Young Lions was indeed a special experience for Toto.

“We were two French guys playing in a squad full of local Singaporeans so it was a different experience to playing in Étoile. I was sort of used to this after playing Italy and Scotland but I had Sirina with me. Sirina is like a year younger than me and we were like brothers but Sirina wasn’t like me. I could speak English well but Sirina struggled to early on. They were tough on us, especially, because he was always speaking French. One day I told him, enough is enough and that we should only converse in English. I remember sometimes during training when Sirina asked me a question in French and I replied in English and it was very funny.”

Off the pitch, Toto enjoyed life in Singapore. He shared a condominium with Sirina and Canadian Under-23 player Sherif El-Masri, and he had a ball of a time. Life in Singapore was not that expensive for the forward, who loved the food and the city. Even though they were paid in Singaporean dollars, which was (and still is) weaker than the Euro, they were paid well for local standards, and Toto felt that life was really comfortable.

“I did not want to leave Singapore. People were amazing and I really loved Suntec City. I got all my stuff there. One thing I liked about Singapore was how there were luxury stores and at the same time nearby, you could have hawker centers or food courts where you could get chicken rice for a few dollars. It was amazing. In France, if you go to Paris and if you want to get a croissant or a bageutte, you can never get the same price as you do with the food in Singapore.”

Jonathan wanted to remain in Singapore and carve out a long career in the city-state. However, he couldn’t agree to contractual terms proposed by the clubs that approached him. He wanted the exact terms of the contract he had with Courts Young Lions, but none of the clubs were biting. He would then leave Singapore and head to Greece.

A Greek Nightmare & The Missing Piece to the Sirina Camara Story

After leaving Singapore, however, Toto came to realize that many Singaporean clubs, as well clubs around the region, were keen on signing him. He would later go on to regret this decision. To sum up his time in Greece in two words: “messed up.”

Problems started early on in his stint with Greek second division outfit Doxa Dramas. The agent that brought Toto to Greece told the forward everything he needed to hear, and then he left him there without any news henceforth. Being left alone was just the tip of the iceberg. Unpaid wages was the biggest issue that Toto faced during his time with Doxa Dramas. For an entire season, Toto was rarely paid. In fact, despite a relatively good season, most players in the club were not paid as well.

“They paid us a few times but that was it. It was so difficult to get paid without an agent present. And not just any agent, an agent that really takes care of players. I didn’t have that and I said I had enough of football, I went back to France to focus on myself.”

During his time in Singapore, Toto fell in love with tourism in Singapore, and he decided to invest in tourism. So, together with his family, they stared their own tourism business in Cameroon. Even though most of his wages was never paid while playing in Greece, Toto survived through the profits he earned through his tourism venture. However, his experience his Greece really soured his aspirations of becoming a professional footballer. Not only that, it also made him start asking himself some serious questions.

“I have goals in life, like I wanted to be married by a certain age, I wanted my own house, my driver’s license and have kids at a certain age. After Greece, I asked myself if I’m able to achieve my goals if I continued to play professionally. And the answer was no. I had sacrificed so much in my life for football.

“I started to look at other foreign players who played in Asia and realized they were leading luxurious lifestyles and had to spend alot of money. I did not need that. So, I had to make a decision at that moment after leave Doxa Dramas. If I don’t leave now and do something else, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

When the door to a professional football career was about to shut, a lifeline to keep the footballing dream alive came from an all too familiar friend.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Sirina [Camara] is an amazing person and I don’t think a lot of people know how good a person he really is. After I leave Greece, I go back to France and I get a call from Sirina. Sirina calls and tells me that after what I’ve been through in Greece, he wanted to help me. He was in talks with his coach at Home United about a potential contract. In some sense, he was my soccer agent. He was helping me negotiate my contract [to help me secure the terms that I wanted].

“While Sirina was doing that, I was looking for opportunities outside of football. My heart was still divided. Then, something amazing happened. I applied to university to further my studies and I got accepted into the course I applied for but my heart was divided. Then I get the best news from Sirina. Home United agreed to all the terms that I wanted. So then I had to decide between both offers not just on the same day, but within the same hour.

“I was praying; God, what path should I take and the answer was one that I did not expect. I came to conclusion that it was time I should build my life so I rejected the offer from Home United, even though the club offered me everything that I asked for.”

When Toto revealed this to me, I was momentarily speechless. It dawned on me how a few bad agents left him disenchanted over a career in football. Toto was by no means a bad player. However, poor guidance from agents ended what could have been a great career prematurely.

Understandably, Camara was disappointed with Toto. After all, the defender worked hard to help his friend out and secure all the conditions he wanted. However, Toto felt the need to build something for himself and create the life he wanted. After receiving a degree in tourism, he got employed at a champagne house and focused on his business in Cameroon. On top of that he became a motivational speaker, a pastor and he helped many youths in France. However, Toto felt a burning desire to get himself involved in football yet again.

Becoming an Agent to Help Future Players

Picture credits: Jonathan Toto (@jonathanmindset)

Currently residing in Reims with his wife and kids, becoming a football agent is the next chapter of Toto’s life. He feels that the best way to help French youths, namely young footballers, is to guide them properly as an agent and has been undergoing a 2-year course to make that into a reality.

Quite honestly, Jonathan Toto makes a perfect agent candidate. After suffering a lot from the decisions of bad agents, he wants to ensure that future generations do not face a similar predicament and make the mistakes he did.

“I want to give a chance to young players who are poor an opportunity. It really is all about giving players a chance. You can have a lot of talent and potential but if you do not give that player a chance, no one can discover that. Good agents give these players a chance and I want to give that chance.”

Jonathan Toto’s professional football career may have been brief, but it was eventful and surprising. Plagued by constant agent troubles, Toto wants to become an agent so he can help future generations of footballers achieve their dreams and aspirations. He is looking to return to Singapore one day, and I told him that maybe he should plan something with Sirina Camara. Who knows, maybe Toto comes back as an agent and helps engineer a move to France for Singaporean players?

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