Category Archives: Weekend Previews

What Season Ticket Prices Can Say About a League

Charlotte FC’s Inaugural Season Ticket prices have caused a stir, but why is this only part of a bigger issue?

So you all may have wondered, since I am an American, why I have not delved more into the stories of Major League Soccer? Surely there is plenty to talk about related to how the league is growing and how football in America is growing, right? And you would be correct, for sure.

But I have not touched MLS as a topic until now because, for the most part, it is a league I do not know much about. I do not really have a team I support in MLS. Growing up in North Carolina, the closest MLS team to me for most of my life was DC United, residing in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital was a whopping six and a half hour drive from where I grew up, making the idea of going to games nearly impossible. It also never really felt like a “local” team to me. I never had a connection to them. As a Southerner, I wanted to support a team in the South, even if I did question whether a MLS team could work in the Southern United States, where American football seemed to be the sport that nothing could take attention away from.

That changed in 2015 initially, when Orlando City SC entered the league as an expansion team, becoming the first Southern team to join MLS. For those who do not know, there is no promotion and relegation in MLS, so teams join the league as “expansion teams”, who sometimes existed in lower leagues before they joined or are just completely new teams. There is no sporting requirement to be an expansion team, just a need to be backed by rich owners who can pay an expansion fee of a couple hundred million dollars to the league and demonstrate that there is a viable football market in that location. Orlando City existed before, so they got a team in MLS due to interest already being there. Despite a fully Southern team joining the league, I still was not sold. A Southern team was nice, but I just did not have that connection.

And that changed when Atlanta United joined in 2017. They felt local. Being only three and a half hours from where I grew up in North Carolina, going to games (though I have never been to one) seemed much more simple. It was a team with a very Southern identity, one that attracted a very large and passionate fanbase, and one that, under then manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, played a very fun and aggressive style of football. They have fallen off a bit since Martino left to become manager of the Mexican National Team, but they are still the main Southern team in the league. Nashville SC, in Tennessee, has since been added, but the main draw for me was still Atlanta.

And then came the announcement that Charlotte was getting a team. This was the project of David Tepper, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, the American football team in Charlotte. Since he purchased the Panthers, he was outgoing and public about his desire to bring a MLS team to the city. His success makes him the richest individual owner of a MLS team and second only to City Football Group, the owners of New York City FC (and obviously Manchester City), when factoring in all ownership groups as well. Surely he would hire the right people, sign the right players, and put the pieces together to make Charlotte like Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC in becoming an immediately successful expansion team.

I was born and raised in Charlotte, so I was very excited that my home city was getting a team. Finally, a truly *local* team for me to support. I was willing to look past the fairly bland name, Charlotte FC, and the fairly “meh” badge to still be excited. The team’s entry into MLS had to be pushed back to 2022 due to the COVID Pandemic, but I was still excited. No major sporting announcements have been made aside from a few random signings from small European leagues, understandable due to the team’s timeline of entry into the league, but I was still excited. I was not alone, as the team racked up tens of thousands of season ticket deposits, reportedly outpacing the rate of other expansion teams. The interest and positive buzz was palpable.

And then the ticket prices came out, and the positive energy seemed to dissipate.

These prices are very high, some of, if not the most expensive in the league, and this is without considering the one-time seat license fee. For an expansion team with I think four players and no manager to be asking for $630 for the cheapest season ticket package is patently absurd, and it quickly put me off any minor interest I had in season tickets. I could probably buy season tickets for Atlanta United and drive from North Carolina to Atlanta for every game for less than buying season tickets for my home town team.

I will take a second to explain the seat license fees, as this is something that is very American in nature. It is called a Personal Seat License, and it is fairly connected to sports history in North Carolina, as the idea of Personal Seat Licenses really came into full swing with basketball’s Charlotte Hornets and American football’s Carolina Panthers before becoming very common with many American football teams in particular. Basically, the person needs to pay a one time fee for the literal seat in the stadium, which gives that person the right to buy tickets for games in that seat once the license is purchased. You need to buy the seat, and then you can buy tickets for that seat.

It is a scam. Let’s not beat around the bush here; Personal Seat Licenses are a scam. There is zero justifiable reason to make a fan buy a literal seat before having the opportunity to buy tickets. It is a money-making mechanism. Many teams implement these licenses when they move into new facilities or into new cities as a way of passing on some of the cost of moving or constructing the new facility onto the fans. In this case, Charlotte FC owner David Tepper is seemingly passing along the cost of the expansion fee he paid to bring the team into MLS onto the fans.

Charlotte FC are the only team in the league to implement these licenses, and while they likely do have marketing data that tells them their sales will not be hindered by these prices or by these licenses, it is still a very bad look to be the only team using these licenses in the league, dragging up the cost of attendance for an expansion team that has yet to sign a Designated Player or even hire a manager and is playing in a NFL stadium, where the fans will be seated further away from the pitch than in a soccer-specific stadium. Charlotte is a city with quite a bit of banking and high-paying finance jobs in it, but the main demographic that this team markets to are people around my age, teenagers and twenty-something/30 year old young(ish) professionals, who are the main core of the soccer market in America. It also markets heavily to minorities, and the best showing of interest in football in Charlotte (and likely among the examples Tepper used to demonstrate the football market in the city) has come from the city hosting several Mexico matches, which have brought 50-60k fans each time. These prices cater to the rich in the city, those who may already have season tickets to the Panthers or Hornets, as the team tries to be the main summer sport attraction in the city. In the process of doing that, they are seemingly pricing out the core section of the market that they should be attracting to games, the ones who are going to be bought in and want to come back every game in every season, rather than just going to a few to have something fun to do during the summer.

And this is a small example of a problem that is seemingly prevalent in all areas of football in this country: it is a system designed for the have’s and to keep out the have not’s. Charlotte got this team purely because David Tepper has very significant amounts of money, and other expansion team candidates that maybe had a more established culture or market were left in the dust for not having the financial backing that Charlotte had. Instead of making the tickets more affordable to market to the prime soccer-loving demographics and expand the market and fandom, the club marketed simply to those who had the money to help them pay off the expansion fee. In a grander sense, these expansion teams are let into MLS while promotion for teams in the lower leagues in America is left off the table. The have’s, the rich MLS owners, hold the priority over the have not’s, the poorer and smaller lower division sides. Youth development in this country, despite the growing population of minorities who love football, is largely dominated by upper-middle class and rich families, who tend to be white, because the youth development system prioritizes those who can write the biggest check instead of those who can perform at the highest level. I can obviously go into so much more depth on any of these topics, but the point is that there are so many areas of football in this country where money is the only talking point, and this is another example of that phenomenon.

And that is a shame, because there is a serious growing “American soccer culture” in this country. The rest of the world might scoff at that, but it really is true. There is fan culture, there are a lot of people who know football in this country. It is cheesy at times (I’m sure you can find cheesy American fan montages on YouTube) but it is very genuine and very real. Many clubs do work to foster a fan community, and many clubs charge reasonable ticket prices despite their stature and high-level facilities. There are a lot of problems with this American soccer culture (I’m looking at you, American Outlaws), but it is so interesting to see how the culture behind football has grown in this country over the my lifetime. The sport itself is now the fourth most popular sport in America, overtaking ice hockey and gaining quickly on baseball. Yet it seems to be getting lazy, almost willingly leaving that base behind in some cases.

The teams and league almost shy away from a unique culture they could form at times. The team kits are mostly incredibly bland and look like every other team. Charlotte and Miami have seemingly ignored the main viewer market in their cities, Miami especially with their managerial move to hire Phil Neville in one of the greatest acts of football nepotism in recent times. Some expansion teams simply want to throw their teams in NFL stadiums to sell more tickets, trying to be like the Seattle Sounders or Atlanta United atmospheres while ignoring everything that makes those teams playing in NFL stadiums work. Sometimes, it seems like MLS just wants to make money, and it is hard to just skate by as a league when you are not even the only show in town when it comes to football leagues. MLS is growing, but is still not the most popular football league in America. Liga MX, the top flight in Mexico, is by far the most popular league, and the peak viewership of English Premier League matches does outdo that of MLS on most at least fairly big occasions. The Bundesliga and Serie A are not at the same level of MLS, but their viewership and following is growing. It seems like MLS just talks about wanting to be one of the biggest leagues in the world without doing what is necessary to get as many eyes on them as Liga MX.

I might be off base with some of this, I will admit. I do not closely follow MLS and could probably be wrong in some of those points. But I just find it hard to comprehend a league trying to be the next big thing when a new team can charge these absurd ticket prices, thinking they will be fine chasing away the market they should be appealing to. There are many things going well in America for football at the moment. There are many things going poorly, many more than what can be discussed in this article. But this small issue of ticket prices irked me, it rubbed off as arrogant from a league and footballing system that has often been too pompous and arrogant for having achieved little outside of merely existing for 25 years and riding the coattails of the World Cup and Premier League.

I hope I am wrong. I hope there is a grander purpose for these prices and seat licenses, potentially a new stadium. I hope this is not a growing trend in the league, and the league will continue to grow its unique trend and desire to foster homegrown talent. I am not too optimistic about that, but I so do hope I am wrong.

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Antony, Ajax/Brazil

Everyone loves an exciting and tricky Brazilian, right?

Especially among those of my generation, who grew up with the vibrance and skill of the likes of “O Fenômeno” Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, we all look forward to the next big talent that comes from Brazil to the European stage. Neymar is obviously the most successful Brazilian export in recent time, but we have had a few exciting prospects come over in the last few years. But here, we have the biggest potential star.

Antony Matheus dos Santos, or Antony for short, is the most recent exciting graduate of the youth academy at São Paulo FC, the same academy that gave us Kaká and many other decorated players. Antony came through as a forward, able to play on the right and through the middle as a striker, and the hype immediately followed. There was so much attention around the player that he only spent two years in Brazil, being a first team regular for basically one season, before he was ready to leave São Paulo and make the move to Europe. Despite significant interest from across the continent, Ajax Amsterdam would win the race, signing the Brazilian for €15.75 million, potentially rising up to €21.75 million should certain bonuses be achieved. Having sold Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea for €40 million, Ajax were in need of a replacement. With their incredible eye for young talent and familiarity with the São Paulo system, having signed David Neres from the Brazilian giants back in 2016, they made their move for Antony.

The Brazilian has taken well to life in Amsterdam. He has slotted in perfectly on the right wing in Ajax’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, and with nine goals and nine assists in all competitions, he has definitely succeeded in his first season in Europe, being a major reason why Ajax find themselves beginning to pull away with yet another Eredivisie title. And yeah, he is a very fun player, and he does not turn 21 until later this month. Ajax, once again, have a real star on their hands.

While Antony came through as more of a multi-position forward, he has settled in on the right wing, operating and thriving as a sort of inside forward for Ajax. In this role, he takes up a more narrow position, usually attacking the half space between the left back and left center back. This position not only allows the team to have the right back make overlapping runs, which Ajax right back Noussair Mazraoui often does, but it gives Antony the freedom to drift inside and float into the attacking third to play the ball on his stronger left foot. It also gives him a more advantageous one-on-one battle to win, either attacking an overwhelmed left back or a less mobile center back, and this is where his dribbling ability shines. With a background in futsal and street football, Antony has a very strong ability to dribble against pressure and control the ball close to his body, as well as an added flair in his game. It also gives him a great understanding of space, able to manipulate his body and the ball to get around defenders and dribble into space. This often revolves around a move to get onto his stronger left foot in order to pass or shoot, which runs the risk of becoming predictable, but is very difficult to stop when Antony is at his best. Even without the ball, Antony moves very well for a young forward, able to find the right pocket of space to be threatening in when the ball is on the other wing, which leads to him scoring many of his goals.

While he is exciting and dynamic in attack, he could improve his passing ability, especially with his right foot. It is definitely a part of his game that has improved since his arrival in Amsterdam, as shown by his nine assists in all competitions, but it is still a part of his game that can be improved. He is not a player tasked with doing much crossing for Ajax, but when he is in a position to play a pass that cuts the ball back to the penalty area or the edge of the box, those passes can be slightly off or overhit at times, ruining a goal-scoring chance. The power he generates in his shots also needs to be improved. He is a pretty good finisher when he has chances inside of the penalty area, but when he is outside and shooting from a longer distance, many of his shots do not generate the power and accuracy needed to threaten the goalkeeper.

Both of those points do tie together. While Antony is a very dynamic player on his day, he can also be fairly predictable due to his strong desire to use his left foot. This desire, combined with his lack of ability to succeed in more physical duels, can make it easier for opponents to deal with the threat he provides. Arjen Robben is a famous example of a player who obviously felt using his right foot was optional, but what made Robben so dangerous was that after the inevitable cut back move, which was often very difficult to stop by himself, he was immediately a threat. Once he got the ball onto his left foot, Robben could score from close range, score from distance, cross, play a killer through ball, or do practically anything that could lead to a goal. While the move onto the left foot was predictable, it became hard for defenders to predict what Robben would do the moment the ball got to his left foot, and that is what made him such a terrifying attacking threat. This is where Antony still needs to develop. If he becomes an even better passer or adds some more power to his shot, then he can have the ability to cause similar panic in defenders when he cuts inside. This, combined with his already incredible dribbling ability and lightning-quick pace, would make him a world-class right winger. And he definitely has the potential to become world class.

Gonzalo Montiel, River Plate/Argentina

Let us stay on the South American theme for this one, but we will instead talk about a player who is on the verge of making his move across the Atlantic, instead of one who just made his move to Europe.

Gonzalo Montiel is a 24-year-old right back playing for Argentinian giants River Plate. He came through River Plate’s youth system, making his debut in the first team all the way back in 2016, and he has been a fixture in the first team ever since. Manager Marcelo Gallardo took an immediate liking to him, specifically seeing his pace, ability on the ball, and work rate as being crucial for his high-energy Millonarios team. He became a crucial player a year after breaking into the first team, slotting into the right back/right wingback slot in Gallardo’s varying 4-3-1-2/3-5-2 systems.

Montiel found success in that position as an attacking fullback, bombing up and down the pitch to be involved in the attack and the defense. Gallardo’s 3-5-2/4-3-1-2 system also gives freedom for the center midfielders to drift onto the wings, which allowed Montiel to show the ability to invert and fill the space vacated. In general, and even as an inverted fullback, he is a strong defensive player, largely due to his seemingly never-ending energy and desire but also due to a strong tackling ability and ability to anticipate the attackers’ moves. He also aggressively presses from his wingback position, which may not come into play should he move to a team playing four at the back, but it shows his endless motor and desire defensively. He is also a very good attacking player despite a lack of eye-catching goal and assist numbers throughout his career. He makes a notable amount of progressive runs and crosses, even if they all do not lead to goals, and he even has the ability to come closer to the center of the pitch and participate in the build up during an attack. He is not a large or physical player, but he is comfortable on the ball and has a strong ability to control the ball close to his body, which means he is able to keep the ball under pressure when overlapping. He may not have the ridiculous stats that some attacking fullbacks are able to boast, but he has all of the technical and physical characteristics needed to be a successful attacking fullback at the highest level.

He was especially crucial in continental competitions, as he was an important player in River Plate’s run to winning the Copa Libertadores in 2018 and reaching the final in 2019. Despite their disappointing semifinal exit in the competition this season, it was possibly Montiel’s best individual run in the competition, tallying one goal and six assists in 11 games and making the inaugural Libertadores x EA Sports Team of the Tournament. He has long been a favorite in that famous red-striped shirt, and his performances the last few seasons have garnered him serious attention from teams in Europe.

And this is why he is a major player to watch. His contract at River Plate expires in the summer, allowing him to move to the club of his choice in the summer window. A team has the potential to get a very good right back for no transfer fee. With a lack of big name right backs on the market, as well as many clubs still suffering from the financial impact of the COVID Pandemic, the prospect of signing a player as good as Montiel on a free transfer will be incredibly enticing to many clubs across Europe. The attention reportedly started in January, with Roma, Lyon, and West Ham all enquiring about the possibility of signing the Argentine at a cut price before his contract expires. While none of them were successful, I anticipate that this is only the start of serious interest that will follow the player this summer.

If you support a top flight European team and they are in need of a right back, then they will likely be linked with Montiel. He may not be the biggest transfer story of the summer, and he obviously will not have the biggest price tag attached to him, but he could be the most influential and impactful mover in this summer window. Keep an eye on him next season.

Ivan Toney, Brentford/England

Brentford. Moneyball. Things of that nature.

Brentford FC are a club that are very much punching above their weight class, having nearly been promoted to the Premier League last season and looking very likely to go up this season. They have done this through an incredible scouting network that has been able to find great talent at very cheap prices, often called a “Moneyball” system due to the similarities to the data-driven system used for player recruitment by the Oakland Athletics in American baseball. I will not waste time talking about something that has likely been discussed at length and will be discussed even further should Brentford secure promotion, but I will focus specifically on the newest gem they have uncovered.

This past summer window, Brentford signed Ivan Toney from League One side Peterborough United for about £5 million. Toney was sought after by several clubs after scoring 26 goals and adding seven assists in 39 games in all competitions for Peterborough in 2019-20, with Championship side Derby County and Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic also vying for the Englishman’s signature. Since signing for Brentford, Toney has tallied 23 goals and nine assists in just 29 league games, which is clearly quite impressive but especially so when you consider the man he replaced, now Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins, scored 26 goals in 46 league games last season. Toney’s incredible goal scoring pace leaves him five goals clear of the next closest player on the Championship top scorer charts, and he is a major reason why Brentford currently sit in second and look to be on pace to secure promotion to the English top flight for the first time in 74 years.

While he played in a strike partnership for Peterborough, Toney has been tasked with being the lone striker in Brentford’s 4-3-3, usually being flanked by Tariqe Fosu and Bryan Mbeumo. Despite this tactical change, he has clearly not skipped a beat since moving to West London, as his ridiculous goal tally would indicate. The reason why Toney has been able to fit in without a hitch is simply because of how well-rounded of a striker he is. He is dangerous in so many different ways. While he is not lightning fast, he is quick enough to play off the shoulder of the center backs and get on the end of through balls. His lack of searing pace is definitely more than made up for by just how direct and intelligent his attacking runs are. Even as a lone striker, he is able to pick out the space he needs to attack and make runs that can either put him in incredible goal-scoring positions or occupy multiple defensive players and open up space for others. He is very dangerous inside the penalty area, able to finish with both feet and find the exact position where he can be found by any of the dynamic attacking players in this Brentford team. He is also very good in the air, despite being under six feet tall, because of that positional sense and his athleticism allowing him to challenge taller center backs in the air. He has also improved with the ball at his feet, especially since moving to Brentford, which has allowed him to drop into open space and be a part of the build up play, turning him into a true target man striker. He is also clearly a bit of an underrated creator, with an ever-improving passing ability which has allowed him to rack up nine assists as a striker this season.

Is there anything he can’t do? Obviously very few, if any, players in the world are without fault, but it is very hard to find any major issues with Toney’s game. The main thing is he needs to ensure this season is not an outlier season, especially as he moves to higher levels. He failed to impress in the Premier League with Newcastle much earlier in his career, and while there is blame to be shared on both sides in that case, Toney needs to make sure he is ready for the step up when he inevitably returns to the Premier League. England’s top flight is obviously a more physical league than the Championship, and Toney may find his pace becomes relatively slower or center backs are much more able to deal with him physically and positionally. He will need to continue to adapt and raise his game as he faces tougher competition, and, if he does, then he has all of the tools needed to succeed at the Premier League level. Should Brentford finally secure promotion, he will likely stay with them for their first Premier League season, but should the Bees fail at the final hurdle once again, then Toney will most definitely be on the move to a Premier League team in the summer window. There is a good history of players moving from the Championship to the Premier League and succeeding, with Leicester and former Norwich City midfielder James Maddison being the most recent example, and I do not doubt that Toney will be added to that list if Brentford are unable to gain promotion themselves.

Amine Gouiri, OGC Nice/France/Algeria

We stay at the striker position and discuss a player that is personally near and dear to my heart while objectively being an incredibly bright young player.

Amine Gouiri was born in Bourgoin-Jallieu, a town about 20 miles outside of Lyon. A boyhood fan of Olympique Lyonnais, he joined the club’s famous youth system at the age of 13 and began to be involved with the first team by the time he turned 17. He was a prodigal talent in the youth set up, scoring plenty of goals at every level for both club and country, even being very successful at the continental level in the UEFA Youth League for Lyon and at the Under-21 European Championships for France. He was one of the main “young hopes” among Lyon fans, who fell in love with not only his technical skill, but his fighting spirit and desire to win at Lyon. His career seemed to be thrown off the rails with an ACL rupture in 2018, but he showed that same incredible fight to come back from the injury and continue at a high level.

He was bound to be a future star, but unfortunately, it would not be for Lyon. After a few years around the first team with little to no playing time, Gouiri lost faith in the club’s development strategy for him and demanded a move away in order to play. The result was a move to OGC Nice in the summer of 2020 for a meager €7 million, a move that left many fans, including myself, and, allegedly, club sporting director Juninho, very frustrated. Gouiri has gone on to play well in his first season on the south coast, tallying 12 goals and five assists in 30 matches, being one of the few bright spots for a struggling Nice team. With the financial struggles facing many Ligue 1 teams, it is very possible that this will be Gouiri’s only season with Nice, and he is certainly giving many clubs enough reasons to consider signing him.

While Gouiri has often played on the left wing for Nice this season, he is at his best playing through the middle as a striker/center forward. He is not the quickest or the strongest player, but he is incredibly calm and silky on the ball, with great technical and dribbling ability that allows him to be a danger to center backs. He is able to play off the shoulder of the center back and play more of a target man role, but he is also more adept at dropping even deeper and acting as more of a center forward, becoming much more involved in the build up play and using a solid passing ability to also provide for his teammates. He has an incredibly dangerous positional sense, able to find the right run and end up in the right place at the right time to score a goal. It is the combination of these traits that earned him many comparisons to another one of Lyon’s prodigal sons, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema. While he is definitely not as good as Benzema was at this age, the styles are fairly similar. It is these traits, however, that do make me say he is less effective as a winger. He lacks the outright pace and athleticism that is needed to succeed as a winger in the modern game, and he is able to fill this role for Nice because their system gives him quite a bit of freedom to move inside and operate more as an inside forward than as a traditional winger.

It is this lack of athleticism that more or less leads into his weaknesses. Sticking with the Benzema comparison, Benzema has been able to succeed as a less-than-athletic striker because of an incredible ability on the ball, able to pass and score with both feet and be skillful enough to skill cause defenders issues in close quarters. Gouiri can succeed in that mold, but he needs to continue to improve as a passer and with using both feet, as well as improve his strength and ability to act as a more traditional target man when needed. If he continues in that Benzema/Firmino/Kane mold of center forward, he will need to add more assists to his stat line, likely being expected to at least be in the 15+ goal 7-10+ assist region when he is at the highest level. If not acting as a traditional target man, he needs to be enough of an immediate threat that his movement can drag center backs out of position, much in the way Benzema and Firmino are able to use their movement to open up space for their teammates. Gouiri can definitely reach that level, but he does have improvements to make to his game, and it is kind of clear why he was not fully ready to contend for a starting place at Lyon against then-established striker Moussa Dembélé.

As stated before, this will likely be Gouiri’s only season with Nice. With the financial uncertainty facing Ligue 1 teams, as well as the risk of Nice being dragged into the relegation places, Les Aiglons will more than likely be forced to sell the youngster in the summer. With a potential Lyon return or a move out of France likely being on the table, Gouiri will have a serious decision to make, and that might not be the only decision. Like many talents in France, Gouiri has the option to represent the nation of his birth, France, or the nation of his ancestry, Algeria. With serious questions surrounding many of the striker options for Les Bleus ahead of the Euros this summer, there are rumors that manager Didier Deschamps wants to call up the youngster during the next international window in March, which would cap tie Gouiri to France. It is safe to say that it will be a very interesting and important next few months for a potential future superstar.

Sékou Koïta, Red Bull Salzburg/Mali

One last striker. You can’t blame me, strikers are exciting.

In 2015, Mali surprised many people by reaching the final of the Under-17 World Cup. Two years later, that same pool of players carried Mali to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup. One player stood out above all others in that competition specifically, an 18-year-old diminutive but incredibly lethal Malian striker named Sékou Koïta.

On the back of that incredible run at the Under-20 World Cup, Koïta was a wanted man among many European teams, but the Red Bull scouting network eventually signed the player up. He joined FC Liefering, the feeder club for Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg, in 2018. Despite injury issues, he was still impressive enough to go out on loan to Wolfsberger AC, where he scored five goals and assisted four in just half of a season. After that strong run for Wolfsberger, he got his chance in the first team with Salzburg, albeit as a rotational player, still amassing a very commendable eight goals and three assists in 16 league games. He has been on fire this season, however, tallying 14 goals and five assists in only 16 league games as a starting striker, playing alongside fellow promising young African forward Patson Daka. Having just turned 21, he is really showing that incredible promise that was on display at the Under-20 World Cup, and he truly looks like the next star unearthed by the Red Bull scouting network.

Koïta does not have the height and strength that former Red Bull Salzburg striker Erling Håland had, but he more than makes up for his lack of height by being absolutely rapid. In the Red Bull 4-2-2-2, he is able to use this pace to play off of the shoulder of the center backs, as well as moving into wider spaces to stretch a defense. He has a good positional sense and makes smart runs, which allows him to get into very dangerous positions and where he is able to score with both feet at a very reliable rate. Despite his short height, he is still fairly strong, with the ability to use his body to ride challenges from center backs and stay on his feet. He seems to be the ideal player to fit into the Red Bull high-energy and aggressive system, and it is well-established that he works very well in a two striker system.

The question about him, especially as teams look to take him away from Salzburg, is how effective he can be outside of a two striker system. While he definitely is not weak, I am unsure how well he can function as a lone striker. He is seemingly not big enough to function as a target man, and I have some questions about how effectively he can function as a winger. He might run into similar adaptation issues that Timo Werner is currently facing at Chelsea, where a pace-centered striker is tasked with playing wide in a one striker system instead of playing as a second striker. Should he end up being the next Salzburg player to go to Leipzig, he will likely not run into this problem, and he makes sense as the best option for die Roten Bullen to replace Timo Werner. If he moves elsewhere, then I have some questions, not really concerns, but questions. I think he could succeed eventually as a wide player, as he does take up wide positions for Salzburg at times, but he will have to improve as a passer and crosser of the ball should he be put into situations where he must play as an out-and-out winger.

Sékou Koïta looks like the next in a long line of talent to emerge from the Red Bull system and the next on the ever-growing list of African stars in football. The hype that followed him following the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 seems to be warranted, and Koïta will definitely be a player to follow over the next year as he continues to score at a ridiculous rate in Austria and garner attention across the continent.

Loïc Badé, RC Lens/France

Everyone in the world loves a French center back. Center back seems to be the position of specialty in France at the moment, churning out young star players in that position like it is no big deal, and here we have another star.

Loïc Badé was born in Sèvres, a southwestern suburb of Paris. His youth career started with local teams before moving to the academy of Paris FC in 2015. He then moved to Le Havre’s youth set up in 2017, where he would become a professional. For those outside of France who may be unaware, Le Havre has one of the more highly respected track records when it comes to youth development and youth scouting in France, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet, Benjamin Mendy, and Ferland Mendy at least spending some time in the youth system of the Normandy-based club over the last decade or so. Badé was next on that list, making his debut with the first team in 2019. He only played in seven matches, but he was already a wanted man. Unfortunately for Le Havre, Badé was still on his youth contract, which was set to expire. Some lucky club was going to get a very talented player for free, and that club would be newly promoted RC Lens, who signed the player on a free transfer in the summer of 2020. So far for Lens, in what is essentially his first professional season, Badé has made 20 appearances, playing the full 90 minutes in 17 of those 20 games, and only missing five total games, two due to card suspension and three due to injury. He has been one of the key players for a Lens team that has been the surprise package of the Ligue 1 season, currently sitting sixth in their first season back in the top flight. Those performances have not gone unnoticed, with rumblings of interest from the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, and AC Milan, as well as attention from both PSG and Olympique Lyon. It appears that Badé is next in line when it comes to talented young center backs leaving France for other clubs.

Badé is of the same mold of center back as many that came before him. He is not too dissimilar from, for example, Wesley Fofana, who left Saint-Étienne for Leicester City last summer. He is not as good as Fofana was, but they are a similar archetype. Both are tall players who are known well for their composure and comfort on the ball, as well as a very impressive passing ability for a central defender. In comparison to Fofana, Badé lacks a bit of the defensive solidity that Fofana provides. Badé is prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, which can lead to him being caught in possession with the ball or caught in a bad defending position. He is obviously a very young player, this is more or less his first true professional season, so things like that are not the end of the world and can be worked out of a young player as he matures. The most incredible thing is probably how good he has been at his peak performance, given that this is basically his first professional season. The goals conceded statistic may not support this, but it still feels like Lens’ defense, in which Badé is the central center back in a back three, is a large reason why they are doing so well this season. His level of comfort on the ball and composure in his passing and his tackling is remarkable for a player that is still only 20 years old. Teams have begun to recognize this, with Badé being linked with moves to Milan or Liverpool in January, while Lyon and Chelsea have also expressed some interest in signing the player this summer. He is slowly but surely becoming a wanted man.

Loïc Badé is yet another fantastic young French center back, seemingly a common commodity in football these days. Despite the “dime a dozen” rate that French teams are producing quality center backs, Badé still needs to be appreciated for the talent that is clearly there. Even with how much he has already accomplished, he is not the finished product, but by the end of the year, we may be talking about him in the same sentence as the likes of Fofana or William Saliba or Ibrahima Konaté. He has the potential to be special.

And one more as a bonus, just because…

Maxence Lacroix, VfL Wolfsburg/France

Yes, another French center back. But he is really good too, I promise.

It is hard to talk about Badé without talking about another player in his age group. Maxence Lacroix is another of the Fofana/Badé archetype of center back, also being the same age as the other two. The similarities with Badé are quite interesting as well. Both came through in a Ligue 2 team before earning a move away, though it feels like Lacroix is one step ahead of Badé in career moves. Regardless of the similarities, Lacroix has done enough to stand out in his own right and earn his own recognition.

Lacroix, like Badé, is also from a Paris suburb. He played for several youth teams before ending up at Sochaux, where he emerged from the youth system in 2018 and became a professional player in Ligue 2. He was a bit part player until last season, when he featured 20 times and was one of the few bright spots in a poor season for Sochaux. His strong performances attracted a few suitors, and German side VfL Wolfsburg eventually brought in the Frenchman for a measly €5 million. He has stepped straight into the team in Wolfsburg, forming a strong partnership with American center back John Brooks. While Wolfsburg right back Ridle Baku has, very deservingly, gotten the most attention and praise as a young Bundesliga star, Lacroix has quietly become one of the best young players in the league this season and a crucial player for a Wolfsburg team that is chasing the Champions League. Die Wölfe have conceded the second-fewest number of goals this season, only one more than RB Leipzig, and much of the solidity in their defense can be credited to the ever-consistent Lacroix. The 20 year old has taken to top flight football very well, and if this continues, he may be playing in the Champions League for Wolfsburg next season.

As I said before, Lacroix is a very similar player to both Wesley Fofana and Loïc Badé. All three players are 6’3″ in height, are right footed, and are very comfortable and composed on the ball and capable of playing passes out from the back to kick-start an attack. It is Lacroix’s composure on the ball and in defending that has earned him major praise, however, and it is a composure and maturity beyond his age. He is only 20, but you could be mistaken at times for thinking he was a veteran of the Bundesliga. While he is not faultless, no player is immune to mistakes, he never seems flustered when defending or playing out of the back. His incredible comfort on the ball, ability to play a pass or dribble into space, is quite remarkable for a young player, and his positioning and tackling in defense is spot on most of the time. He has won over 70 percent of his tackles this season, and he is equally competent in defensive duels and aerial duels. It almost makes you forget about how physically imposing he is as a player. Lacroix is 6’3″, making him comfortable in the air both defensively and offensively, despite not having a goal this season. He is also very quick, measuring the 17th fastest recorded top speed of any player in the Bundesliga, second only to Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano among center backs. While he is not physically strong, more lean and graceful than large and powerful, he has the strength and capability to use his physicality in smart ways in order to contend with different types of attackers. He is truly an incredible prospect.

German clubs have been very good at signing young French players, particularly young center backs, from Ligue 1 or Ligue 2 sides and turning them into stars. Dayot Upamecano is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this wave of transfers. Maxence Lacroix is next in line, and you will be hearing much more about him over the next year. Wolfsburg really got a bargain of a deal for him, and it will be interesting to see how he develops alongside the other French center backs of his age.

And there we have it. More young stars that you will be hearing more about very soon. I will not promise to not do another one of these in the future, but these should be the most likely names to keep an eye on this year. If you enjoyed this, please catch up with Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars: Part 2

Because who does not like an exciting future…

We all love looking out for the next big thing in football. I love it because I am a nerd who is just fascinated by things like this. And it appears you all loved it as much as I did.

I wrote a piece as part of my 2021 Preview series talking about ten potential breakout stars for the year. It went very well, and it appears I may have left a few off of the list that deserve their own recognition. So, I will give you a few more to keep your eye on or add to your transfer lists in FIFA Career Mode or Football Manager. With a seemingly very important summer transfer window coming up, several of these players might be on the move to your favorite clubs, so it could be worth getting to know them now.

Pedro Gonçalves, Sporting CP/Portugal

So, we all know Bruno Fernandes, right?

The Portuguese midfielder has been phenomenal since moving to Manchester United from Sporting Club a year ago, becoming one of the best attacking midfielders in the world in such a short amount of time. We all know that side of the story. But how did Sporting manage? Fernandes was the club captain and their best player, so losing such an important player is likely massive for them, right?

Well, no. They sold Fernandes to United for €55 million in January. In the summer, they bought an attacking midfielder from a newly promoted team with the vision of him being the Fernandes replacement. That player is Pedro “Pote” Gonçalves, signed from Famalicão for €6.5 million. He was a star in the 2019/20 season, amassing seven goals and eight assists in all competitions to help newly-promoted Famalicão finish sixth. In 21 appearances this season in all competitions, he has 14 goals and three assists, with all 14 of those goals coming in just 16 league games. He has become the leader of a team that came out of a crisis few seasons to currently sit top of Liga NOS as an unbeaten team, eight points clear of rivals FC Porto. Pretty good replacement plan, huh?

The tag of “Bruno Fernandes replacement” is not an exact characterization of Gonçalves’ game, but when watching him play, you can see similarities between the two. While Fernandes and Gonçalves both can play as a number ten, Fernandes is purely a central player. Gonçalves has thrived this season playing on the right in Sporting’s 3-4-3 system. Despite this wide starting position, he has the freedom and ability to roam around the attack, meaning he becomes the focal point for seemingly every Sporting attack, much in the way Fernandes has become a focal point for every United attack. While he has not been as creative as Bruno, he has been a more lethal goalscorer, amassing a goal nearly every game in a green and white jersey. He is Sporting’s leading scorer, just as Bruno was last season. His ability in the ball and attacking intelligence make him such a dangerous player to defend against, with him seemingly knowing the exact run to make, the exact pass to play, the exact position to be in that will hurt the defense the most. It is this trait that makes him so unique; it is difficult to teach this high-level attacking IQ to young players, and he is only 22 years old.

The inevitable Fernandes comparisons are a pretty good way to characterize his game, but it is clear Gonçalves is a special player capable of standing in his own right among the most talented young players in the world. He is having a phenomenal season, one that could have him lead Sporting to their first league title in 20 years. It will take a colossal amount of money to get him out of Lisbon, but if his star continues to shine, it will come soon enough.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund/United States

An American? That is not Pulisic? Being a young star?

Let me introduce you to Giovanni Reyna. He is the son of former American great Claudio Reyna, who did enjoy a spell with Glasgow Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City in the early-to-mid 2000s that you might remember. He was also in the All-Star Team in the 2002 World Cup, so he is no slouch of a player. Gio was born in England but raised in New York City, joining New York City FC’s academy in 2015 as a 13 year old. He was only there for four years before Europe called, with his English birthplace and access to a passport allowing him to leave and join Borussia Dortmund at only 17, when normal rules restrict American players going abroad before they turn 18. He shot through the youth set up at Dortmund, making his first team debut in January 2020, breaking Christian Pulisic’s record as the youngest American to ever appear in the Bundesliga. His maiden first-team season was promising, with one goal and two assists in 17 games understating the potential that was on display. This season has been stronger, with four goals and six assists in 29 games again slightly understating the potential on display. He has been one of the brighter sparks of a dismal Borussia Dortmund season, and, despite several key players aging or likely leaving in the summer, he remains a good reminder that the future is always seemingly bright in Dortmund.

Reyna is a dynamo of an attacking player, able to play on either wing or as a CAM behind a striker due to his ability on the ball and intelligence. He looks the most comfortable in a central role, having played there for Dortmund’s youth teams before breaking into the first team. Despite this preference, he played well on the wing in Lucien Favre’s 3-4-3, which gave him the opportunity to attack the half spaces or drift fully toward the middle of the pitch. He is a strong passer with both feet, very able to combine with his teammates and be a key provider in an attack. Since Favre’s departure and interim manager Edin Terzić’s return to a 4-2-3-1, he is able to act as a substitute for any of the three attackers playing behind the striker, but he still seems to be most comfortable in that central role. Despite early success and clear promise, he still has things to work on. He is not the most lethal player in the final third, while prone to the occasional wonder goal, and he needs to improve his composure in his finishing. If he is able to replicate the level of composure found in his passing game to his finishing, then he has the potential to become a superstar midfielder, the most ideal candidate to replace the aging Dortmund icon Marco Reus.

Reyna is likely the most promising young American player not named Christian Pulisic. He is one of the brightest gems of an American generation that is slowly trickling into the strongest teams and major leagues in Europe. Should Dortmund lose the likes of Jadon Sancho or Erling Håland in the summer, Reyna will be one of the players called on to be the next generation of Dortmund star. And come 2026, he might be a reason why the United States make some noise at the World Cup they are hosting.

Romain Faivre, Stade Brestois/France/Algeria

Ok, now for a real hidden gem name. World, let me introduce you to Romain Faivre.

Born in Asnières-sur-Seine, one of the northwestern suburbs of Paris, Romain Faivre came through the youth system at Tours and, eventually, AS Monaco, where he entered the professional ranks. He moved to Brest in 2020 for a measly €650,000, unable to find any time at Monaco under several different managers. Brest had been promoted back to Ligue 1 in the prior season, and Les Pirates manager Olivier Dall’Oglio identified Faivre as a key player to fit into his team’s more expansive and attacking style. Brest have had a solid, albeit inconsistent, season, but one that will be appreciated for keeping the club in Ligue 1 once again. Faivre has been a crucial part of their success, with his five goals and three assists this season perhaps understating the talent on display. He has been among the leaders in the league in chances created, key passes, and successful dribble percentage, stats which indicate a brave and confident creative player who is at the heart of everything his team does. When it comes to breakout stars in Ligue 1 this season, it is hard to find one whose star has shone brighter than Brest’s Franco-Algerian midfielder.

Faivre has played a variety of roles in his short career. He has featured in seemingly every midfield role, operating as a box-to-box and a creative number ten as well as playing off the left and right. This season, he has primarily played on the left and right of midfield in Dall’Oglio’s 4-4-2. In this role, he has thrived in attacking the half-spaces between the center back and fullback, using deceptive pace and dribbling ability to find pockets of space to play passes or fire in shots on his stronger left foot. He also runs quite a bit. Like a lot. He is a very hard-working player, taking responsibility for his share of the defensive duties and seemingly always tracking back to help his teammates. He reminds me quite a bit of Juan Mata, a player who is able to play in those half spaces as a creative outlet while also being known for his work rate and defensive support. If anyone remembers Juan Mata’s 35 assist season in 2012/13, you know this comparison is not something to be taken lightly. Faivre has all of the talent and work rate needed to become a star, and he has a clear future for France, having already made his debut with the France U-21 team. He obviously has a choice to make, since he is also eligible to represent Algeria, the country of his ancestry, but there is no doubt that he will be a star at the international level for whichever nation he chooses to represent.

Romain Faivre is Ligue 1’s biggest breakout star of the season, a player who has the individual skill needed to become a world-class creative midfielder with the work rate needed to become a cult hero among the fans. He has exploded onto the scene in French football, and this will likely be his last season in Brittany should things continue in this manner. With both PSG and Olympique Lyon heavily scouting the youngster, as well as rumored interest from Manchester United lingering in the press, do not expect this to be the last you hear of Romain Faivre any time soon.

Aurélien Tchouaméni, AS Monaco/France/Cameroon

We stay in France to talk about another midfielder with significant transfer interest surrounding him.

Aurélien Tchouaméni is, like Faivre, one of the brightest breakout stars in Ligue 1 this season. Coming through the youth set up at Bordeaux, he made his first-team debut when he was only 18, becoming a constant in the team for Les Girondins almost immediately. He began his career as an out-and-out defensive midfielder, being tasked with doing the gritty work and shielding the back line, making sure the ball advances from defense to midfield so Bordeaux can attack. It is clearly a thankless job, but his ability and composure at such a young age earned Tchouaméni significant transfer interest and an eventual move to Monaco in January 2020. He was not a consistent player in the team early on, as he struggled to earn the full trust of then-manager Robert Moreno. When the Spaniard left the club in the summer, his replacement, former Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Munich boss Niko Kovač, took a liking to the young midfielder and gave him his chance in the team. He has not looked back, appearing in every Monaco game this season bar one and shining in a Monégasque midfield that is among the best in the league and a major reason that Kovač’s team find themselves firmly in the French top flight’s frenetic title race. France is seemingly becoming known for being a breeding ground for talented midfielders, and Tchouaméni seems to be the next name in that line of succession.

While Tchouaméni entered professional football as a purely defensive midfielder, his maturation in the game has allowed him to become a much more gifted technical player, this season setting personal milestones for pass completion and shot-creating actions. Even in watching him play, you can see that the player is now literally covering more ground and getting involved in more ways for Monaco than he did for Bordeaux. He has become an incredible blend of physical strength and tenacity alongside technical skill and composure. This has allowed him to play in multiple different roles in midfield, either in a double pivot alongside fellow France youth international Youssouf Fofana or as the most defensive midfielder in a midfield three, usually with two of Sofiane Diop, Cesc Fàbregas, or Aleksandr Golovin ahead of him. This has greatly aided Kovač’s team selection as he went from his original 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to some form of 3-2-4-1 that they have tended to employ recently. Tchouaméni has found his greatest form while playing in a double pivot with Fofana, as it allows him the most freedom to move further up the pitch and display his technical ability while still being able to cover the defense and win the ball back when needed. He exemplified this in Monaco’s 3-2 win over PSG back in November, arguably his best display of his professional career, where he was able to win an incredible number of tackles and break up PSG attacks while playing incisive progressive passing that gave Monaco a platform to attack. His ability to fill multiple roles in midfield makes him an asset in whatever team he plays for.

Having been a key transfer target for Frank Lampard prior to his sacking at Chelsea, it is clear that Tchouaméni’s performances this season have put him on the map. Just as Bordeaux were unable to hold onto their young star, we are likely reaching the point where Monaco will be unable to hold onto him. Should Monaco not make the Champions League next season, he will more than likely move to another club in the summer window, and whichever club signs him will be getting a true blossoming talent.

Joško Gvardiol, Dinamo Zagreb/RB Leipzig/Croatia

The perfect example of scouting on display.

Joško Gvardiol is likely a name that you have not heard of. That is ok, I doubt the vast majority of football fans have even heard his name before this year. The Croatian wunderkind is the next in line of great players to emerge from the youth academy at Dinamo Zagreb, beginning his career as a midfielder and left back before being moved into the center back role. He was a superstar in the youth team, being a significant part of the Dinamo team that reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Youth League in the 2018/19 season, knocking out Liverpool in the Round of 16 before losing to Chelsea on penalties. In the 2019/20 edition of the competition, Gvardiol once again was one of the main stars of the team, helping to guide Dinamo to the quarterfinals. He then began to be fully integrated into the first team, with his performances in the youth ranks making him a surefire future star as a center back.

Now, this is where the scouting comes into play. When teams do their homework, they are able to identify future stars before their competition. Leeds United were one of those clubs, who fought hard to sign Gvardiol during the summer window in 2020. Bielsa specifically took an interest in the player, and despite Dinamo accepting a €22 million bid, the player rejected the move. RB Leipzig then came calling, and it was one offer that could not be turned down. Dinamo accepted a €16 million plus add ons deal, with Leipzig opting to loan Gvardiol back to the Croatian club for the remainder of the season. This is why both Dinamo Zagreb and RB Leipzig are in the title, he will be playing for both this year.

In the senior team this year, Gvardiol has been fantastic. Dinamo are top of the league at present moment, but the real impressive performances have come in the Europa League. Gvardiol was a centerpiece of the team in a major European competition at only 19 years old, and he did not look out of place. Dinamo won their group, only conceding one goal in six games and being given a very winnable Round of 32 match against Krasnodar. We could be seeing Gvardiol against top talent in Europe even before he finally moves to Leipzig.

Gvardiol has the entire physical skillset needed as a center back. He is strong, fairly tall, good in the air, and is incredibly quick. He combines these physical skills with a very good eye for a pass and composure on the ball, able to play a wide range of accurate passes with his left foot. Dinamo play out of the back almost religiously, and Gvardiol’s confidence and desire to take responsibility by moving toward the goalkeeper and accepting the first pass out of pressure is a trait that not many teenagers possess. He has a calmness about him that is rare in players his age, willing to accept the pressure of playing out of the back while still being able to pick out a pinpoint pass or being confident enough to dribble past a pressing attacker into space. He is incredibly unique; he has “future star” written all over him. He is not perfect, however, as he is prone to the occasional mistake. His defensive positioning is not always great, and while he has the pace to make up for bad positioning or a failed challenge, he is going to have to learn to become less reliant on his physical skills as he moves into bigger leagues and plays against better attackers. He is able to get away with mistakes while playing for Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia that he will not be able to get away with while playing for RB Leipzig in Germany.

Gvardiol is not only one of the brightest young stars in Europe at the moment, he is the example of perfect scouting, and demonstrates why the Red Bull scouting system is among the best in football at the moment. Knowing there would be significant transfer buzz around their players this summer, Leipzig acted proactively to find a promising young player that can come in and replace outgoing players. They also found one more…

Mohamed Simakan, RC Strasbourg Alsace/RB Leipzig/France

Another bit of brilliant scouting from Leipzig. Mohamed Simakan has emerged as a sought-after center back talent after a few seasons shining in Ligue 1.

Born and raised in Marseille, Simakan began his career playing as a striker before being fully converted to a central defender in the youth set up at his home city’s premier football club, Olympique de Marseille. He was a fixture in the youth teams at OM, starring alongside eventual Marseille stalwart Boubacar Kamara. Despite being clearly talented, Simakan was not offered a professional deal at Marseille, leading to a few years adrift before settling in at Strasbourg, where he quickly rose from the youth team to the first team. He was trusted with great responsibility early on by Strasbourg manager Thierry Laurey, being thrown into the heart of defense initially as a right back, then later as a right-sided center back. Despite Strasbourg being fairly average in the 2019/20 season and struggling this season, Simakan has caught the eye of many bigger clubs around Europe. AC Milan tried and failed to sign him in the summer window and January window this season before Leipzig concluded a €15 million deal to bring the Frenchman into the Saxony-based club at the end of this season. Despite a recent knee injury ruling out Simakan for two months, the German club still wanted to push through the deal, knowing the profile of the player could help them in the years to come.

Simakan is an athletic and versatile defender, able to combine great physical pace and recovery speed with a toughness and strength in the tackle needed to be a menace to attackers. He wins a high percentage of his tackles and defensive duels, and he has shown an advanced defensive intelligence for his age, with a good sense of anticipation and timing in his tackles and his defensive positioning. He does have areas where clear improvement is needed, however. He is not the best on-the-ball center back prospect in the world. While he clearly has the talent on the ball to be much better than he is, he often panics in crucial moments when playing out of the back, leading to mistakes or bad passes. A lack of seriously impressive progressive passing statistics can also be pinned on his team, as Strasbourg are not an adventurous team when it comes to playing out from the back, and they do not often pin responsibility on their center backs when it comes to progressive passing. When those moments arise, however, Simakan is often quite inconsistent in end product. He has the talent on the ball to be a confident ball-playing center back, but he just needs to add that sense of calmness and composure when the ball is at his feet. He is young, it is natural to be nervous, and I do not doubt that this is a skill that can come with age and experience, especially going into a team as talented as Leipzig and working with a coach as talented as Julian Nagelsmann.

Like Gvardiol, Simakan’s immediate future is already decided. Both will be joining RB Leipzig next season, and they will likely have quite a bit of responsibility in the first team put on them from minute one. It was no secret that Leipzig’s star center back Dayot Upamecano will be leaving the club in the summer, and now with a deal sending the Frenchman to Bayern reportedly agreed, there is an open position currently in the team for next season. It is also now a possibility that Ibrahima Konaté could leave the club, as Manchester United are among the clubs monitoring Upamecano’s also very talented teammate. While Konaté’s departure is not decided, Upamecano’s is certain. While Simakan and Gvardiol may not start immediately, they will likely be in the first team picture the moment they arrive, with Nagelsmann knowing he needs to replace an outgoing star in the heart of defense. This is the epitome of the Leipzig model. Upamecano will leave Leipzig for €42.5 million in the summer, and Leipzig proactively found two incredibly talented young players to replace him and signed them for a combined €31 million, not including any potential fees. That is perfect scouting and perfect business. Take note, rest of the world.

Well there are six more rising stars for you to keep an eye out for this year. There will be a part three, because everyone loves trilogies, where I will cover six more players. Until then, feel free to catch up on part one here.

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On Everton’s Addition of Joshua King

The most 11th hour signing of the window… Among the interesting stories from a quiet Transfer Deadline Day, the player who seemed to be involved in the biggest tug-of-war saga was Bournemouth striker Joshua King. The 29 year old Norwegian was a fixture of the Cherries team during their time in the Premier League, and […]

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On Everton’s Addition of Joshua King

The most 11th hour signing of the window…

Among the interesting stories from a quiet Transfer Deadline Day, the player who seemed to be involved in the biggest tug-of-war saga was Bournemouth striker Joshua King. The 29 year old Norwegian was a fixture of the Cherries team during their time in the Premier League, and with Bournemouth’s relegation to the Championship, it seemed to be only a matter of time before a Premier League side brought King in to bolster their attacking options. There was reportedly interest from a number of clubs on Deadline Day, with the ultimate will-he-or-won’t-he saga boiling down to a choice between two clubs: Everton and Fulham. The decision and drama quite literally went down to the wire, with the successful club ultimately needing to submit an offer sheet to the FA in order to finalize the deal.

Now, there is no secret here. There is no suspense. I even put it in the title. King went to Everton.

The Toffees secured the 11th hour signing of King on a six month deal, and, since his Bournemouth contract expires in the summer, this is basically a faux-permanent move. Everton described the fee to bring in the Norwegian as “a nominal fee” in their announcement on Twitter, but a £5 million fee has been thrown around and is the only number I can find, quite frankly, so I am going with it. By all accounts, he is also remaining at the wage figure that he earned at Bournemouth, about £45,000 a week. It is not really a loan, but it is not really a fully permanent move. Everton has the option to sign King to a more permanent deal in the summer, but should they not choose to do so, then he is free to sign with any club he pleases.

Now, I am an Everton fan, and one that clearly has quite a few opinions about things. I had a variety of thoughts after these rumors began, and my mind seemed to change all the way through the deal being completed. This is my attempt to not only report and talk about the signing, but to parse through my thoughts on this move as a fan. This might be the most “fan”-sounding thing I have written, but I do still think this could end up being an influential signing, especially given how close the race for the European places is at the moment. Besides, I support Everton, and it is about time I write a bit more about the club I support instead of about the club Vikram supports.

On paper, King brings quite a few traits that would be handy for Everton. He is a forward that is able to play in any position along the attacking line, offering Carlo Ancelotti some much-needed depth in attacking areas. He is a quick player, adept at playing off the shoulder of the center backs and attacking down the channels, which means he offers something quite different as a forward compared to Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He also has the ability to play in a two, able to play off a strike partner and make runs off of a target man. This would be very helpful for Everton when they are behind and chasing a game, as a strike pairing of King and Calvert-Lewin late in games is most likely better than using Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun. He also knows and understands the Premier League and the league’s physical demands, there is not a communication barrier between him and his teammates, and he is not traveling from outside of the United Kingdom, where COVID regulations might understandably get in the way. Again, this move on paper does have attractive qualities.

But if you are like me and automatically think “oh, I wonder how he has gotten on this season?” when the club you support is linked with a player, then you will start to see the negative sides of the deal. King has made 12 appearances in the Championship this season for Bournemouth, amassing a grand total of zero goals and zero assists.

Yeah, that is not quite the return you want from a striker.

Now, to be completely fair, he has three goals and two assists in two FA Cup games this season. Granted, they were both against League Two teams, but still, he has at least put the ball in the goal this season. He also had injury issues early on, which gave the opportunity for Dominic Solanke to cement himself as the starting striker for the Cherries and take away many opportunities for King to see serious time on the pitch. Even then, to not even score one league goal this season is not something that will inspire your new team with confidence.

The main concern for myself, and for plenty of other Everton fans, when these rumors started were his age and goal return in the Championship (and to be fair, his six goals in 26 Premier League games last season is also less than ideal). This seemed to be the characteristic “old Everton” panic buy: wait until you are in absolute desperate need to bring in a player, when you have absolutely no bargaining power, and overpay for an older player and give him a massive contract that will be almost impossible to move in a few years. Everton have already been burdened with too many of those kinds of players in the team over the last few seasons. The years of irresponsible spending under previous managers and previous directors of football were the exact reason why Everton were in this situation this window, unable to bolster the team in January due to Financial Fair Play issues when you finally have a good manager and a chance at European football next season. We all feared that King coming in was a sign that the same old Everton would never change.

After all, things were supposed to be different! Responsible signings, emerging talents, a clear direction with a competent director of football and manager at long last. And it has been that up to this point. Despite all of that, it does seem disheartening that we loan out Moise Kean back in October, knowing all too well that Cenk Tosun is not good enough to be our back up striker, and our solution is to wait until the final day of the transfer window to bring in a 29 year old forward with zero league goals this season on an expensive deal. I was quite frustrated with the rumor. While necessary depth for this season, I was worried about King becoming another Tosun or Sigurdsson, a player that was almost impossible to move if things did not go well.

Then, reports about the structure of the deal came out. Six month deal, on his Bournemouth wages, £5 million fee, he walks in the summer if it does not work out. This is significantly less irresponsible than I feared. Honestly, I am kind of a fan.

Now, I do not think that King is that good of a player. He had his moments in the Premier League, but he was never the best attacking player on those Bournemouth teams. The main threats were usually Callum Wilson and David Brooks, with King popping up with the occasional good performance. But in this case, he does not have to be a great player. He is not coming into this Everton team and needing to be a significant source of goals or even a consistent fixture in the starting team. At best, he is a “break glass in case of emergency” player, and given how little attacking depth this team has, I am fine with this. King offers a different sort of attacking player off the bench, able to come on in place of any of Everton’s main attacking starters or play alongside them should the situation arise. When you are playing nearly twice a week and exist two or three serious injuries away from having to call up youth team players, having extra depth is never a bad thing. It could also act as a nice bit of motivation for the players already at the club, knowing that there is a better player waiting to come into the team if they do not play at a high level.

The structure of the deal probably means Everton are bringing in a very motivated King. This is not a cushy deal or a sign of a player wanting one last Premier League payday before his career began to wind down. This is a very short term deal on the exact same money he was making at Bournemouth. King knows he was leaving Bournemouth at the end of the season, and given how much he has struggled this season, it is possible that the list of teams that would want to sign him on a free transfer this summer is not as long as it would have been a year ago. Everton have given King a chance to show his ability on the biggest stage. He has four months in a good side to show he is good enough to play at a Premier League level again. It is a gamble, but it takes a player being confident in their ability and motivated to succeed in order to bet on themselves in this manner. If he comes into this Everton team and plays well, helping them finish in the top six, then it is very possible that he finds a Premier League home in the summer, whether it be on Merseyside or elsewhere.

The last added benefit of this signing is it allows Everton the comfort of knowing they can loan out the players that need to be loaned out. Part of Director of Football Marcel Brands’ strategy is investing in young talent, either within the club structure or from outside. This has led to four very prominent and promising young players looking on the verge of breaking into the first team: Niels Nkounkou, Jarrad Branthwaite, Ellis Simms, and Anthony Gordon. Simms and Gordon, being the two attacking players of these four, are pertinent to this discussion. Both are incredibly promising young players, maybe the two most promising to come from the Everton youth set up since Ross Barkley came though back in the early 2010s. And young players need to play. Neither are able to play regularly for Everton at the moment but might have been needed to alleviate depth concerns. With the club bringing in King and also holding on to Bernard, they are able to loan out both Simms and Gordon without any concerns. Simms went on loan to Blackpool, where he has since made his debut, first start, and scored twice. Gordon went on loan to Preston North End on Deadline Day and looks to be a crucial player for them. This is what Everton need to do in order to progress in the long term, so bringing King in on this deal gives them that added benefit of allowing the kids to go on loan and play.

Well, that is my mindset on this as a fan. I went through a wide range of emotions from when the rumor came out to when King signed on the dotted line. I had my doubts, but this seems to be a sensible, low risk move for Everton in order to provide immediate depth, and it is a very good chance for King to come in motivated to prove he can still play at a high level. Despite some recent struggles and injury issues, Everton can still finish as high as the top four. Champions League, while a bit unrealistic, is within the realm of possibility, and even making it into the Europa League would still be a great accomplishment. If this move does not work out, then so be it. If it does, then Everton and the player still have options aside from being committed to each other for a long period of time. King can find a more permanent home, and Everton can move on and look to bring in more talent in the summer window.

If King scores a few goals that help to bring Everton into Europe, then it will be worth it a thousand times over.

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On Liverpool’s Signing of Ozan Kabak

And Ben Davies, but mainly Ozan Kabak…

Liverpool signings are like London buses. You wait forever for one to show up and two show up at the same time.

The Reds’ center back crisis has been well-known for quite a while now, and an additional season-ending injury to Joel Matip has only made it substantially worse. After a month of everyone saying Liverpool need to sign a center back, it appears they have signed two on Deadline Day. Like London buses.

Schalke’s Ozan Kabak joins the reigning English champions on loan with an option to buy of somewhere in the range of €20-30 million, including add-ons. The Reds also beat Scottish side Celtic to the signing of Preston North End’s 25 year old center back Ben Davies, sealing the deal for around £500 thousand with an additional £1.5 million in add-ons. Two center backs that will come in and greatly relieve the pressure on the Liverpool back line, likely reducing the need for Jürgen Klopp to rely on youngsters Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams in pressure situations.

Ozan Kabak is an interesting deal. The 20 year old Turk has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence, coming through at Galatasaray and quickly being snapped up by VfB Stuttgart less than a year after his professional debut. After an impressive six months with Stuttgart, he was on the move again, this time to Schalke. His first season with Schalke was very good, but his form tailed off near the end of the season, seemingly coinciding with Schalke’s disastrous run of form following the restart of the Bundesliga season. This season has not been better. He really has not played well at all this season and, being part of by far the worst defense in the Bundesliga, it would not really be fair to call him a top player at this point.

But the potential is definitely there, and that is likely what attracted Liverpool’s attention. This is what brought other clubs to ask about Kabak in the summer, it is why he was days away from joining AC Milan before the summer window closed. Kabak is still only 20, and there is already quite a bit about his game to like. He is a player that is very confident on the ball, able to dribble out with the ball or make progressive passes. He is comfortable playing in either the left or right center back position. He is also very good in the air, despite not being the same towering presence as a Virgil van Dijk-type center back, for example. He wins a solid amount of his aerial defensive duels, and he is also a goal-scoring threat from indirect free kicks and corners. He possesses the traits that people look for when looking for top modern center backs, and he is only 20. I know I have said “he is only 20” quite a bit, but that is still incredibly young. Kabak has grown into quite a solid player fairly quickly, and he still has plenty of time to grow into his full potential.

There are some issues that have been exposed at Schalke. His positional sense is not always spot on, leaving much to do for his defensive partners. He is also prone to error, either positionally/in defending or with the ball at his feet. These weaknesses have been emphasized greatly by the fact that he plays in a very bad team, one that has conceded 49 goals through 19 games this season and that seems destined for relegation. But this is not the end of the world, as it is natural for young players to have the odd mistake in them. Playing in such an overwhelmingly negative and toxic situation might not be the best for his development, so a move to Liverpool could help Kabak grow into a quality player. He will have the direction of a very good manager and be in a team with several world-class talents, where he can learn in an atmosphere that might be more forgiving than Schalke.

Although, he will likely be asked to be an immediate first team starter upon arrival. With season-ending injuries to van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip, Kabak becomes Liverpool’s best natural healthy center back from his first minutes on Merseyside. With another injury to Fabinho, which ruled him out of Liverpool’s win over West Ham, it is very possible we see Kabak and Davies start together in their first game for the club. That is quite a bit of pressure, he might not be ready for this step up. However, it is easy to forget that Liverpool’s scouting department are no slouches, and, while they have slipped up with some signings (Naby Keïta, Takumi Minamino), they usually get more right than wrong. There is a reason they wanted Kabak, and I believe Klopp will be forgiving with the young Turk during this trial by fire.

Despite the risks, there is potential bonuses for Kabak to make this move now. Yes, he is going to be under quite a bit of pressure playing for Liverpool, but if he succeeds in this position, then he is immediately thrusted into the discussion to be on the plane for Turkey when they go to the Euros this summer. Despite his rapid rise, he has already played seven times for his country. He seems to be behind Çaglar Söyüncü and Merih Demiral in the pecking order, but a strong four months for Liverpool at least puts him in the selection conversation in a way that he may have never reached in this short time period had he remained at Schalke. Should he make it to the Euros and even play in the competition for Turkey, then his stature as a player grows even more. The meteoric rise only becomes more massive. It is quite a gamble to take on yourself, but the positives to this move do rationalize the “thrown in the deep end” risks that it brings.

Long-term, Kabak will be used as competition for that second center back position. Van Dijk, when he is fit, is Liverpool’s left center back without any question or doubt. The right center back was thought to be a lock for Joe Gomez, and it still might be, but Kabak provides serious long-term competition for that place. Klopp will hope that iron sharpens iron in this case, the competition improving both Gomez and Kabak to provide them the perfect center back partner for van Dijk. It is a move that could potentially be very shrewd by Liverpool, especially given how low his buy option fee is. The potential to have two high-potential center backs being able to partner van Dijk is tantalizing, and having both of them playing together when the Dutchman eventually leaves Merseyside or calls it a career is even better.

Now, from a Schalke perspective, people might think it is idiotic for the club to offload one of their better players when they are in a relegation fight. They might say it is even more idiotic for the club to let go of one of their best young assets, especially in a position like center back where there are few top young prospects, for a very cheap fee. And both people would be right. However, I am going to try and draw some logic for this. Let us be honest, Schalke are likely going down. There is still a lot of football left to be played, yes, but they are terrible. It is very hard to see a reality where they stay in the Bundesliga, even if Kabak had stayed. Moving Kabak now is less than ideal, but it is possible that they would get more in return now instead of selling in the summer, when their second division status would reduce their bargaining leverage even further. It might not be much for a young player with high potential, but the €20-30 million return still is more than they likely would have gotten had they sold the Turk next summer. It is a sad state of affairs. Schalke are a big club, and seeing their collapse at this rate is sad for football fans (though I imagine Dortmund fans are enjoying it). There will likely be similar moves away from Gelsenkirchen coming in the summer for the likes of Amine Harit and Suat Serdar. It is a sad state of affairs.

And lastly, a quick word on Ben Davies. On paper, this seems a weird signing. The 25 year old Englishman has been sort of a loan journeyman for most of his still fairly young career, going on loan five times before settling in the first team at Preston in 2017. Admittedly, he was very good at Preston, winning the club’s Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year awards in consecutive seasons. I have admittedly hardly ever seen him play, but from my observations, he never struck me as anything more than a pretty good Championship-level center back. Again, Liverpool’s scouts are usually smarter than I am, and it is hard to dispute their track record, but this seems to be a bit of a panic purchase. If the rumors are to be believed, Liverpool made enquiries into quite a few center backs across England and across Europe during the final few days of this window, and it is possible that Kabak and Davies were the two they could get deals across the line for.

Despite him being the main target or not, Davies will get significant time at Liverpool immediately, especially if Fabinho is out for an extended period of time, so we will see what the man is made of. I do not, however, see Davies having a long-term future at Liverpool. He has all the looks of an ideal stopgap player, but once van Dijk, Gomez, and Matip come back from injury, Davies becomes the fifth choice center back at best. With Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge confirming competition from Liverpool for Bayern target Dayot Upamecano, it is possible that the barriers between Davies and the Liverpool first team become even greater after the summer window. Even then, would the club want to give him opportunities over the likes of Nat Phillips or Rhys Williams or Sepp van den Berg or any of the young players that Liverpool have invested in? It is a tough deal for the guy, but I do not see him as a Liverpool player a year from now. This could be a good deal for him, though. He has six months to show his talent. If he performs well, it is very possible he can get a move to another Premier League team where he could start regularly at a high level. This could be something that dramatically changes the course of Davies’ career, and I do not think Liverpool would throw their lot behind a slouch. It will be interesting to see how he performs.

You can relax now, Liverpool fans, you have signed some center backs. The injury crisis at the back has a remedy. This should help the Reds get their season back on track and return to title contention, though it may be too late to catch Manchester City. Even then, the club is set for next season with a young talent in Ozan Kabak to challenge for that second center back spot. Ben Davies is an interesting move, but who knows? Maybe he is a great player who now gets the chance to shine? Only time will tell.

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On Martin Ødegaard’s Move to Arsenal

Out of the blue…

Earlier this week, Arsenal announced the signing of 22 year old Norwegian dynamo Martin Ødegaard. The player joins on a six-month loan from Real Madrid without any option or obligation to purchase, having turned down the opportunity to rejoin Real Sociedad on a similar six month loan deal. He was specifically drawn to the club after a conversation he had with manager Mikel Arteta, who sold him on the club and what they can offer his development.

It is a very interesting move, mainly because it seemed to come out of the blue. The story seemed to progress from start to finish within a matter of days, going from Ødegaard wants to leave to a return to Real Sociedad to Arsenal has entered the race to Ødegaard has signed for Arsenal in a blink of an eye. It does make sense, and does answer some questions while posing others, and I will try to break it all down here.

Now, you may have completely forgotten about Martin Ødegaard, and that is understandable. The Norwegian’s career has not exactly been smooth sailing since his breakout season with Strømsgodset and his move to Real Madrid when he was only 16 years old. He was not able to set the world ablaze in Madrid as a teenager, so he was sent out on loan, with many believing he was just the next name on the list of football wunderkinds that could not live up to the hype.

He joined Heerenveen on loan in 2017 and quietly began his development journey. He was at Heerenveen for 18 months, developing into a consistent creative midfielder and becoming a regular starting player in a matter of months. At the end of the 2017-18 season, he returned to Real Madrid to be sent out on loan again, returning to the Netherlands and joining Vitesse for the 2018-19 season. Outside of the spotlight, Ødegaard quietly became a star in Arnhem, amassing 11 goals and 12 assists in all competitions and guiding Vitesse to a fifth place finish. He would once again return to Real Madrid, but with a few clubs vying for his signature. Real Madrid did not yet see the true Ødegaard, but many other clubs saw potential in the youngster.

Ødegaard went on loan once again ahead of the 2019-20 season, joining Spanish side Real Sociedad. The loan agreement was supposed to last two years, but Real Madrid and Real Sociedad had a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that allowed Los Blancos to recall the Norwegian after one season. It was here in the Basque Country that the world saw the real Martin Ødegaard. While fitness issues plagued him in the second half of the season, he was arguably one of the best players in the league in the first half of the season, shining at the center of the most exciting attacking team in the league. His seven goals and nine assists in all competitions helped guide La Real to the Europa League places and the final of the Copa del Rey. He even scored against his parent club in Real Sociedad’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal. For the first time, Martin Ødegaard was on the big stage and showing his talent. The world saw the player who burst onto the scene in Norway at 16, the player we all thought he could be. Ødegaard was a star, and he was happy to be a part of a La Real team that, like Ødegaard himself, seemed to lack any limits to their potential.

Facing a summer transfer window where they could not make any signings and looking at a team that was no closer to Champions League glory than they were the day Cristiano Ronaldo left, Zinedine Zidane demanded the club recall Ødegaard. Real Madrid needed something new, and the chance to bring in one of the best players of last season seemed too good to turn down. Real Sociedad had no choice, and Ødegaard could not stop it. You could see in Ødegaard’s interviews after returning that he did not seem too thrilled about coming back to Madrid, almost as if he knew what was going to happen next. And here we are; six months later, Ødegaard demanded to leave after only starting three times this season and playing a grand total of 234 league minutes. He had his chances earlier in the season, but after an injury and a positive COVID test, it seemed the team moved on without him. Arsenal came calling, and that was that.

Ok, now you are caught up. So what kind of player are Arsenal getting? Well, a very good one, to say the least.

Martin Ødegaard is a creative midfielder by trade, a player whose best attributes are his movement on and off the ball, as well as his vision and ability to pick out a pass, often ones more daring and harder to see than the more obvious and simple pass. He has been deployed as a right winger in the past, and succeeded there at Vitesse. However, he really found his footing playing as a number 10 for Real Sociedad and being given the freedom of the attacking third, where he often drifted to the right in order to receive the ball and turn inside on his stronger left foot to pass or shoot. It is in this position where his ability to read the game and pick out decisive, chance-creating passes really flourishes. La Real‘s other two midfielders, Igor Zubeldia and Mikel Merino, took care of the defense and did the hard work in midfield that allowed Ødegaard to focus more on the attack. He is a player that will remind Arsenal fans of Mesut Özil, and it is ironic that the Norwegian comes in within a week and a half of the German leaving North London.

I imagine Arsenal will try Ødegaard through the middle and on the right, but I do not think Ødegaard can succeed as a winger in the Premier League, where his lack of pace and physicality may lead him to lose out to stronger fullbacks and take away some of his best traits as a creative midfielder. He could succeed in this position if utilized in a similar manner to James Rodríguez in Everton’s team. James starts on the right but is given the freedom to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, and he has the space to do so playing in Everton’s 4-3-3, which lacks an out-and-out number 10. In Mikel Arteta’s 4-2-3-1, there is no room for this action, and Arteta has wanted a more traditional winger in that wide right position.

The natural place to play Ødegaard is in the number 10 role directly behind the striker. The midfield double pivot of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka shares many of the same characteristics of the Sociedad double pivot of Merino and Zubeldia, so they should allow Ødegaard more freedom in attack as he had for La Real. Arsenal’s best front three at this point, likely Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Bukayo Saka, seems to relate well to the front three that Ødegaard played behind at Real Sociedad. There is a target man striker (Lacazette/Alex Isak), a direct and goalscoring winger (Aubameyang/Cristian Portu), and a creative winger (Saka/Mikel Oyarzabal). Obviously there are talent differences (Aubameyang is better than Portu, Oyarzabal and Isak are better than Saka and Lacazette), but the system and personnel seem to fit well with Ødegaard, and it should be a fairly smooth transition.

This leads to a very important question, one that seemed to be tied to this move: what happens with Emile Smith Rowe? Smith Rowe has been the revelation of the season for Arsenal, with the 20 year old Hale End Academy graduate stepping into the Arsenal first team and shining as the primary creative midfielder. He is the Arsenal kid, a player that the club seem invested in, so it does feel weird that Arteta would make a move like this to bring in another first team player that plays Smith Rowe’s position. It does make sense when it comes to a need for depth, as it is painfully clear that Arsenal are a completely different, and much worse, team when Smith Rowe does not play. With Arsenal’s Europa League campaign restarting soon, they will likely need a player to rotate with Smith Rowe and keep the team performing at a high level attacking-wise as their fixture list becomes more and more crowded. Ødegaard can step into the same role and same position without a single hiccup or issue, and with Özil gone and Willian continuing to be awful, the Englishman and Norwegian are likely Arsenal’s two best creative players.

There might be a playing time issue, though. How much does Ødegaard play compared to Smith Rowe? Does Ødegaard come straight into the team or does he have to earn the role? How much priority does Arsenal put in allowing Smith Rowe to play for his development? Will the media start saying dumb things if Ødegaard does not play and star immediately? Well, yes, that is obvious. But still, it is not exactly clear how this all comes together. I do not think Smith Rowe and Ødegaard should play in the same team, and rotating them as 10s is likely the best way to get the most out of their talents, but it does leave some questions and could lead to a few issues. This is not another Denis Suárez, I cannot emphasize that enough. But with Smith Rowe’s emergence, there are a few questions that I still have about how Arsenal prioritize the players. Smith Rowe is the only one that is fully an Arsenal player, so prioritizing the development of a player that is on your books seems to be a logical decision, but the discussion becomes very interesting in the summer, should Arsenal negotiate a permanent transfer for the Norwegian. It is something to look out for moving forward.

A quick chat about the Real Madrid perspective of this move, as this is yet another example of a problem that is beginning to become serious for Los Blancos. When Zinedine Zidane returned as manager in 2019, he said he wanted to make some changes. The generation that Zidane coached to several Champions League titles was aging out, and he likely wanted to bring in the new generation of the club. He inherited a team with quite a bit of young talent. Vinicius, Álvaro Odriozola, Mateo Kovačić, Andriy Lunin, Brahim Diaz, Theo Hernández, Marcos Llorente, Federico Valverde, and Dani Ceballos were among the names already there upon his return. They then signed Luka Jović, Éder Militão, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo, and Takefusa Kubo.

Now, how many of them have seen even a sniff of consistent first-team time? How many of them are still there?

Ferland Mendy is really the only one that has broken into the first team. Mendy and Thibaut Courtois are the only consistent first team players in this Real Madrid team that were not in Kyiv to win the Champions League back in 2018. Those changes Zidane talked about have not come. Since the Frenchman’s return, they have sold Kovačić, Llorente, Hernández, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilón, and Óscar Rodríguez, while loaning Ødegaard, Kubo, Jović, Ceballos, Brahim, Lunin, and Odriozola.

Is there any plan to incorporate those younger players when they return from loan? Who knows, because the young players currently in the team have not exactly found consistent playing time. Federico Valverde, who was the breakout star of last season for Real Madrid, has seen his role greatly diminished this season. Vinicius has also seen his role diminished in the team, while Rodrygo, Ødegaard, Militão, Mariano, Jović, Odriozola, and Lunin have all played 450 minutes or less in the league this season. Should these young players believe that they have a role in this team? They have seen Kovačić, Llorente, Theo, and Hakimi all leave to get much more playing time elsewhere, consequentially becoming much better in the process. If Real Madrid’s recruitment policy is to bring in the next generation, why should these young players have to wait for whenever the current generation decides to stop being in vogue?

Conversely, why should Zidane not play his best possible team? This is Real Madrid, after all, they need to be winning things consistently. Does Valverde deserve to play ahead of Luka Modrić right now? Probably not. Did Jović deserve to play over Karim Benzema? Absolutely not. Does Militão deserve to play over Sergio Ramos or Raphaël Varane? Again, absolutely not. The club might want to usher out the previous generation and bring in the new talent, but as long as the pressure is on Zidane to win consistently, then he is going to play the better players and the players that he trusts, as he should. It is not Zidane’s job to usher in young players, it is his job to try and win the league every season, which is the expectation for Real Madrid every year. Ødegaard is obviously talented, but as there is no number ten in Zidane’s system, was Zidane supposed to alter his entire system to fit the Norwegian in? If it hurts the team, then no, he should not have to do it.

This is the issue Real Madrid are in. They are stuck in the dichotomy of contending and rebuilding. They are in the weird gray area between old and new. They are still too good and the expectations are still too high for them to rebuild, but the incredible talent that they could potentially rebuild around is going to waste and either stunting their careers or leaving the club to succeed elsewhere. There is so much more to say in this regard, but that might take too much time, maybe for another article.

In the case of Ødegaard specifically, I really think he is going to push to leave Real Madrid permanently if he succeeds at Arsenal and Zidane still does not want him. The persistent transfer rumors linking Los Blancos with Houssem Aouar and Eduardo Camavinga just puts more obstacles between the Norwegian and playing for Real Madrid, so I would not be surprised if he does everything in his power to not return to Madrid this summer. Does he stay at Arsenal? I have no idea, as it depends on what happens over the next six months, but I think it is very possible that we have seen the last of Ødegaard as a Madridista.

Well, here you go, Arsenal fans. You signed one of football’s wunderkind talents. Could he be crucial in helping your team make Europe next year? Are Arsenal Europa League contenders now? Is this move a stroke of genius from Arteta or forming a conflict with Emile Smith Rowe for no reason? It will be exciting to find out.

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Why Chelsea Sacked Frank Lampard

And where they go from here…

Well, we have reached the moment we all secretly knew was coming.

Chelsea announced the sacking of manager Frank Lampard, a day after the club’s 4-1 win over Luton Town in the FA Cup seemingly eased some of the pressure on the Englishman’s shoulders. Even then, with only two wins in their last eight league matches and the club sitting in 9th, the arguments to sack him were quite hard to ignore. Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich, notoriously trigger-happy when it comes to firing managers, decided to make the decision now, and I will try to explain why. There is blame to be shared.

For starters, and let us be completely honest with ourselves, Chelsea fans. Frank Lampard was in over his head.

Yes, he is a club legend and probably the best player in the club’s history, but is his name the only thing that got him this job? Yes, most likely so. Did he really show anything in his one year of management at Derby County that indicated that he deserved to take one of the biggest jobs in the country? No, he absolutely did not. He had a very talented team at Derby that he arguably underachieved with, losing in the playoff final to an Aston Villa team that miraculously survived relegation a year later. Yes, he did finish top four in his first season at Chelsea and did reach a FA Cup Final, and those are two things to be praised. With the transfer ban and loss of Eden Hazard, Lampard’s results in his first season are worthy of acclaim, but it was not exactly “succeeding with a youth team”, as some Chelsea fans describe it.

The team was very good, utilizing many experienced first team players alongside a few younger players, specifically Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Fikayo Tomori, who had significant first team experience despite their young age. His success also came in a down year for many clubs, with Arsenal and Spurs specifically suffering from serious struggles in form and both sacking managers. Even with losing Hazard, they still had a team capable of competing with the teams around him and one that was good enough to finish in the top four. While his first season achievements are good and worthy of praise, you cannot put too much weight on it.

Then we get to this season, and to be honest, they started well. Free of the transfer ban, they spent a whopping £222 million on transfers in the summer window and brought in Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Edouard Mendy, and Thiago Silva. That spending spree put the spotlight directly on the club, with many considering them favorites to win the league. They only lost one of their first 11 matches, a run that took them to the top of the league, and they seemed to be the league title challengers that they were billed to be.

Since then, they only won twice and fell down the table. You could see the issues coming, too. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have not lived up to expectation, the defense and goalkeeper issues are still prevalent even after the signings made in those areas, the midfield was very imbalanced, the team lacked serious creative outlets when Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech were injured, and Lampard is still seemingly unsure of what his best team is. He has been unable to find the best tactical set up to take advantage of his new signings, despite allegedly being the one pushing for the club to bring in Werner and Havertz.

The tactical output just did not seem to be there. Lampard was facing many questions and did not have any answers for them. He was buckling under the pressure. With the serious investment Abramovich made into the squad, there might be ramifications if the club were to miss out on the Champions League. With only half of the season to go, bringing in someone else did make sense when the stakes are as high as they are.

This sacking has naturally caused a strong reaction from Chelsea supporters, with many believing that Lampard was not given enough time and that this was another cruel decision from a cruel board. Do not get me wrong, the board are not free of blame, but I do think many Chelsea fans were not willing to see the writing on the wall. Many were in love with the idea of Lampard as Chelsea manager instead of the reality of Lampard as Chelsea manager. Many dreamed of their greatest ever player bringing in more silverware as a manager, being so wrapped up in those dreams that they were not willing to see or accept that he was not cut out for the job. If his name was not Frank Lampard, I imagine he would not have gotten this long of a leash from the fans, and I do not think he could have gotten away with setting the team’s expectations so low after the spending spree of the previous summer.

Let us compare to Maurizio Sarri. Sarri was a manager that Chelsea fans did not love in the slightest. Seemingly every decision he made was in question, even as early as when he brought Jorginho in from Napoli and displaced N’Golo Kanté. He was not afforded any leeway with the fans, even leading to a situation where chants of “f**k Sarriball” rang through Stamford Bridge. Fans were convinced he would never amount to anything, he would never win trophies with the club and he would not get them back to the Champions League.

Well, despite the negativity and toxicity, Sarri actually did a good job. You could actually see a tactical identity forming with the club. Yes, they were overly-reliant on Hazard at times, but that over-reliance can only carry you so far. And, at the end of the day, they got results. They finished third and won the Europa League, after all. There was more signs of genuine progress and in formation of a playing identity in one season than in a season and a half under Lampard. Could things have been going poorly behind the scenes? Sure. Could things have fallen apart in year two? Absolutely. But I find it baffling the degree to which Chelsea fans are willing to defend Lampard’s management purely because of his name. You do not have to hate the man, but at least accepting he might not be the man for the job is not too much to ask.

But do not go away, Chelsea board, because you have some explaining to do as well.

Now, when talking about Chelsea, you have to know how ruthless they are with their managers. This is the 14th managerial change since Abramovich bought the club in 2003. A toxic relationship with Jose Mourinho led to the Portuguese walking away from the club during his first tenure. Avram Grant was sacked after guiding the club to the 2008 Champions League Final. Carlo Ancelotti was told of his sacking, ironically, in the tunnel at Goodison Park following defeat to Everton. Roberto Di Matteo was sacked mere months after being the first Chelsea manager to win the Champions League. Abramovich’s ruthlessness knows no bounds, and, like it or not (I do not), this is just how the club is.

But why Lampard? Why did we have to end up here in the first place?

Regardless of whether Sarri left on his own accord to return to Italy or if he was forced out, why would you go with Lampard over a more experienced manager? I truly do not get it, but I can try to rationalize it in either one of two ways.

On one hand, he could have been used as a sort of scapegoat manager, used to bide time. With Chelsea’s transfer ban and the impending departure of Eden Hazard, it is possible that Abramovich, knowing it would be hard for the club to land a big name manager in that current state, wanted to get the less experienced Lampard in to get the fans on his side and remove the toxicity from Sarri’s tenure, as well as to get a less experienced manager in to absorb the negative hits and pressure that may come. Lampard would be able to guide the club through the struggles and leave them in an alright position for a bigger name manager to come in and take the reins from there. If that is the case, then firstly, that is an absolutely awful way to treat your greatest ever player. Have Lampard come in and deal with the difficult bits to keep the pressure off ownership? He does not deserve that type of scapegoating. Secondly, why was he signed to a three year deal? I am sure paying coaches out of their contracts is not new for Chelsea ownership, but if he was just a transitional figure, why would you promise him a longer term tenure and then pull the rug out from underneath him? I get the idea behind it, but it is not an honest and respectful way to treat a club legend. I want to emphasize that this is complete speculation, and I do not have any evidence to say that any of the above is true, but it does feel like an explanation for the last year and a half.

The other explanation is, logically, that Lampard was their choice, and the club wanted to invest in him long-term. This would follow the “Zidane trend” in managerial choice, one that has led to former players being appointed managers for Man United and Arsenal. If this is true, then why in the world did you sack him at the first sign of trouble? Do not get me wrong, I still think Lampard was the wrong guy and was in over his head, but certainly any soundly-ran club would understand that hiring a basically brand new manager would lead to some growing pains, right? If he really was your guy for the long term, then you would understand that he is still figuring out management and that patience and time is needed to see the results of the project. You would understand that it is a project, which, by definition, requires a level of investment and patience up front in order to see results further down the road. If sacking managers at the first sign of any issue was the norm, then Ole Gunnar Solskjær would have been gone ages ago, and maybe United would not be where they are now as a result. I know it is against the trend at Chelsea to not be quick to fire managers, but hiring Lampard without the understanding that things could get rocky is just incredibly irresponsible management of the team and shows a lack of any major long-term project planning at a club that has been far off of title contention for a few years now.

And that issue creates another one: how many managers really want the Chelsea job knowing you can be axed at the first sign of trouble? Yes, Lampard was the wrong “project manager” to bring in, but would a better candidate in that sort of mold want the Chelsea job? Will they just continue chopping and changing managers the moment things go wrong? That is exactly what they have done since Abramovich bought the club, and it has worked, but how much longer will they find success doing that? They are far off the pace of Man City and Liverpool, and with the other “Big Six” sides improving over time, as well as the gap narrowing between the “Big Six” and the chasing pack, the lack of consistency and overall vision at Chelsea could come back to haunt them.

Despite Lampard’s struggles, I do still think he can turn into a good manager. He clearly is very intelligent and has a high football I.Q., and he also clearly works well with players. He just needs time to mature as a tactical mind and understand how to plan and build a team around that tactical vision. Chelsea was still right to part ways with him, as he was too much of a project manager and was rightfully not going to be afforded that necessary time at Chelsea, but if he took a job at a “lower tier” club in Britain and worked his way back up, I am sure he can become a successful manager. Some rumors are linking him with the Celtic job as a replacement for the under-pressure Neil Lennon, and I think that would be a good launching point for him. Celtic are a big club with still significant, albeit not Chelsea-level, resources. He can work under the pressure of a title charge but at a club that is willing to work with a manager and build a project. A job in the Championship or even a mid-table Premier League side could be a good starting point as well, but Lampard generally needs to find shallower waters in which to grow his career. His move to Chelsea was jumping into the deep end too quickly.

Where does Chelsea go from here? Well, we already know. They did not waste any time in appointing Lampard’s replacement, former Dortmund and PSG manager Thomas Tuchel. It is not the perfect appointment, as the German’s time in Dortmund and Paris does give me concerns. Despite his titles and Champions League final appearance at PSG, I never thought Tuchel established his team and his style. There was never really a playing philosophy, he never seemed to know his best team, and he ran through several different formations and systems to try and find something that fit. The Parisians’ success during that time came much more from the individual brilliance of the players, namely Neymar and Marquinhos, as well as the ineptitude of any potential league title challengers and their relatively easy Champions League path, rather than anything specific that Tuchel did. It was notable that this season, where PSG faced multiple competent title challengers in Lille and Lyon, as well as a rigorous Champions League group with Man United and RB Leipzig, was when the cracks began to really show for Tuchel’s team. He also struggled with dealing with the behind-the-scenes politics at Dortmund and PSG, something that is quite prevalent at big clubs. He struggled to get on the good side of the board of either club, and he had some issues with the dressing room at both clubs. Both will likely be issues at Chelsea, where he is working with a cutthroat board and a notoriously difficult dressing room of players.

Tuchel was a great tactical manager at Mainz earlier in his career. His tactical mind and ability to work well with players and with limited resources helped keep Mainz, a relatively small club, in the top half of the table and got them into the Europa League qualifying rounds. It was this great tactical mind and ability with players that got him the Dortmund and PSG jobs, but I am afraid that the recent trends will follow and could plague Tuchel’s Chelsea reign. There are seemingly two Thomas Tuchels: the one from his time at Mainz and the first half of his time at Dortmund, and the one from the second half of his time at Dortmund and his time at PSG. One is very good, one is very bad. Chelsea fans have to hope they get the former, rather than the latter.

Well, Lampard is gone. The seemingly inevitable happened. I have some issues, but ultimately Lampard was not cut out for the job. I hope he is able to find a suitable club to get his managerial career back on track, and the options are seemingly out there. I wish Tuchel the best of luck. He will need it.

Who knows? Maybe he will come back in a few years and be ready for the Chelsea job. What a story that would be.

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On Fikayo Tomori’s Move to AC Milan

Are you sure, Chelsea?

On Sunday, AC Milan announced the loan signing of young English center back Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea. The player joins the Italian giants on loan for the rest of the season, but the loan also, perplexingly, includes a buy option of around €30 million (£25 million) should Milan want to make the move permanent in the summer. It is an exciting step in the career of the 23 year old Canadian-born Englishman, but it is a move that raises many more questions than answers.

To tell you the truth, I was confused when I heard reports about this move coming into picture. It is one that I have not quite understood the purpose of. I know I usually use these pieces to explain the solid realities of these deals, and I will still talk about how this move works for Milan and the player, but I am left with quite a few unanswered questions from a Chelsea perspective. Like this move, this piece may also raise more questions than solid answers.

For those who do not know much about the player, Fikayo Tomori is a 23 year old center back playing for Chelsea. He emerged from the Chelsea youth set up at a very convenient time, with the club eventually suffering from the transfer ban that allowed him and others to get their chances with the first team instead of joining the infamous Chelsea loan army. Before then, Tomori was on loan a few times, impressing specifically while on loan at Derby County under his future Chelsea boss Frank Lampard. He is still growing as a player. While not the most consistent individual defender, he often still shines with his incredible physicality and turn of pace, as well as a calmness and composure on the ball and a passing ability to match. He is clearly a player that has all of the tools needed to become a high-level center back and excel at a top club.

This is why Milan wanted him, and why this move makes sense for the club and the player. Milan had made no secret of looking for a center back over the last six months, a player that could provide necessary depth while becoming the eventual defensive partner for club captain Alessio Romagnoli. In the summer, they were close to agreeing a deal for Schalke’s Ozan Kabak but could not get the deal over the line. Earlier this month, it looked like they were going to complete a deal for Strasbourg’s Mohamed Simakan, but that potential deal fell through.

Tomori emerged as the third option, and they were obviously able to get this deal over the line and do so at a very reasonable fee. Having already sent Léo Duarte on loan to Turkey and dealing with injury issues in defense, Milan needed to bring in a center back this window, so wrapping up the Tomori deal this early, while not in time to help them against Atalanta this past weekend, is still good news and should boost the Rossoneri in their title hunt.

Unfortunately for Tomori, he will likely not be in the starting XI when all players are fit, as it is very difficult to displace Romagnoli and Simon Kjær at the moment. But there has to be some reassurance as part of the deal that you are being tabbed as “the guy” in the long term. While Kjær has been very good this season, he is 31 and will be on his way out eventually. Tomori knows that there is a clear pathway to the first team for him, which is something that was seemingly not visible at Chelsea. Even then, he will likely see more time on the pitch as a rotational player, as Milan continue to juggle their injury and COVID issues alongside playing in a league title chase, the Europa League, and the Coppa Italia. Having to rely on the 20 year old Pierre Kalulu prior to now, it is important for Milan to have a third choice center back that has more first-team professional experience than the young Kalulu.

And, in the long term, Tomori has the traits to be a great partner for Romagnoli. It does not just simply boil down to Tomori being quick to make up for Romagnoli being a bit slower, but that is definitely a bonus. Romagnoli is not the quickest player, and Tomori’s pace will help cover any time the defense is caught out. The pace also helps for covering for the fullbacks, specifically Theo Hernández, when they are caught higher up the pitch. Tomori’s ability on the ball also offers Milan another player that can get his foot on the ball and transition play from defense to the midfield or spring a winger/fullback on a break. They are both big and physical center backs, able to cope with crosses as well as deal with target men strikers. The future looked bright at Milan before, but having everything figured out at the back with these talented young players like Tomori and Hernández and Donnarumma really should give you even more confidence in this Milan project.

Now, I have questions, Chelsea. Why? Quite simply, why? I do not understand the desire to get rid of Tomori permanently. Loaning him out makes sense, because since there are too many center backs in the first team, Tomori needs to go to a good situation where he will play regularly and develop. But why are Chelsea seemingly giving up on him? Why would you include a buy option? Why, if this is about development and not giving up on him, would you loan him to a team where he is not a guaranteed starter? None of this makes sense to me.

Tomori’s potential is clear. Lampard should theoretically know this more than anyone. He was club player of the season at Derby the year Lampard was manager there, he was a key cog in a Derby team that was a game away from promotion to the Premier League. In his first full season at Chelsea, he showed incredible flashes, and, while he still had some inconsistencies to work through, he was clearly an incredibly promising player. Then suddenly he disappears from the first team picture and is possibly on his way out of West London for good. Sure, Thiago Silva has been solid, and Antonio Rüdiger and Kurt Zouma have both had their moments, but is that really enough for a club of Chelsea’s aspirations?

Yes, Lampard have five center backs to choose from, or six if you count Azpilicueta, but it is still the weakest area of their team. Rüdiger is not nearly consistent enough. Zouma is having a good season, but he is no longer the young promising player he was, and he is surely not going to get much better beyond the “alright” level he is already at. Thiago Silva is good but is also 36. And I have no idea what anyone at Chelsea sees in Andreas Christensen that allows him to keep getting chances in the team.

Sure, Tomori is not there yet, but why would Chelsea give up on their most promising center back? He could have been a first team starter for years, and he is literally free! No transfer fee needed, and with how much top level center backs are going for now, that cannot be overstated. He is from that famous Chelsea academy that the club supposedly values, or that is what everyone insisted last season. His wages were not even that high, they are not exactly saving much money here or building toward a big pay day. What is there to gain here for Chelsea? Why would they do this?

I just do not get it, Chelsea. I do not get it. You have a promising and exciting young center back, Chelsea born and bred, with the potential of being a part of the spine of this team for years to come, and you give him away. I mean, congrats Milan. You made a fantastic and, frankly, cost-effective transfer that makes your team better in the short and long term. But Lampard, I just do not understand the logic behind this. This puts pressure on the club, not just Lampard as he might not make it to the end of the season, to sign a center back either in January or in the summer. With the amount of money they spent last summer, they are clearly gunning for a title now, and the defense as constructed is not good enough to contend for the league title at present moment. You are putting a whole lot of pressure on the club to make a move for a Dayot Upamecano or someone of that caliber, moves that will get even harder if Chelsea cannot grind their way back to the top four this season.

Well, good for Tomori. Not often that a young player can get this type of move to a bigger club. Hope he takes advantage of it.

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The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

Bit of a damp squib of a match…

Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation.

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking up the slack, Spanish Super Cup).

So, what happened? Why did it happen? Who will be happier? And how did the reality of this match differ from my predictions?

United and Liverpool’s formations were not all massively different from what I predicted. United did end up starting Lindelöf and Martial instead of Bailly and Cavani, and, for the most part, it was the correct decision. Lindelöf played well, only slipping up a few times but to no punishment. Martial was not great, but the ability for United to bring on Cavani in the second half to attack a tired Liverpool defense did help them get the opportunities that could have led to the decisive goal, and that may not have been the case had Cavani started from the beginning. Their four man midfield did help frustrate the Liverpool team and give them more defensive solidity; using that diamond was the correct decision from Ole Gunnar Solskjær. For Liverpool, they did end up starting Henderson in defense instead of Rhys Williams, choosing to then play a midfield three of Thiago, Gini Wijnaldum, and Xherdan Shaqiri. It ended up not costing them, as Henderson did a sufficient job alongside Fabinho, who was fantastic, and the midfield did enough to limit Bruno Fernandes for most of the match despite neither Henderson nor Fabinho being in that defensive midfield role. Ultimately, I feel a bit proud having my predicted team be that close to the reality.

United’s strategy for the match was to defend first, hitting Liverpool on the counter when their midfield and fullbacks were committed up the pitch and leaving space behind them. United surrendered possession to Liverpool, only having the ball for 34% of the match and completing a little more than half of the total passes compared to their opponents. It would not be wrong to say that United were playing it safe, and given the circumstances, it was the right way to approach this game. Despite United being top of the league, the pressure was definitely on Liverpool. Having fallen off the top as the reigning champions and having struggled to score goals over the last few matches, Liverpool needed a statement result, especially since they were playing at home. United wanted to frustrate Liverpool, and they very clearly did.

United’s defensive shape worked so well not only because of the four man midfield, but also because the weakest part of their defense, the left side of the back four, shined. Before the match, I pointed out Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire as the weakest links of the United back four, being most susceptible to Liverpool attacks through Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. In the actual match, Shaw and Maguire were fantastic. Shaw won his individual battle against Salah, and the Egyptian did not have any real impact on the game aside from a few half chances. Alexander-Arnold was also very limited on that right side, not putting in a successful cross for the whole 90 minutes. Maguire was phenomenal, United’s best player on the day, in my opinion. He could not put a foot wrong. He kept control over the defense, won the tackles he needed to, and not only did he not make a single noticeable error the whole match, he also made up for any mistakes made by Lindelöf. There are definitely issues with the Liverpool attack, but the United defense deserves all of the credit for limiting Liverpool’s usually potent front three. That back four, especially that left side, was the reason why United were able to get a point and had the chances to get all three points.

And in that point lies my sole criticism of Solskjær’s game plan. He set up United well to defend and not lose, and that deserves credit, but the game was also there to be won. United could have turned on the gas in the second half as Liverpool got more tired and more frustrated and gotten the goal they needed to win. To be fair, Ole did recognize this, and this is reflected in their substitutions, but I think Ole was too slow in making those changes to go for it. Cavani did not come on until the 61st minute, a move that was obvious and probably should have happened at least five to ten minutes sooner. Greenwood coming on was also a smart move to go for the win, but waiting until the 85th minute basically eliminated that chance. Had he come on with 15-20 minutes remaining, then I think he could have had a greater influence on the match while keeping United solid enough to maintain a scoreless draw at minimum. This is also a match where Donny van de Beek could have been an effective second half substitute, but he once again remained unused on the bench. Ole had the right idea, but I think he executed it too slowly. Had the substitutions come earlier, then United really could have found a way to win the game.

For Liverpool, this is undoubtedly a frustrating result, not just because of dropping points to a title rival, but you once again failed to score a goal. A three-match goalless run does not seem too crazy from an outsider view, but this is the longest Liverpool have gone without a goal in the Premier League since March 2005. With the downright insane amount of attacking talent in this team, even with injury to Diogo Jota, you would fancy them to score in basically every match they played. By the end of the match, the frustration was visible on the faces of Jürgen Klopp and the Liverpool players. The Reds do seem to be in a rough patch at the moment.

The team was not wildly crazy from the one I predicted, but the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri was a curious choice by Klopp. It was the Swiss dynamo’s first start for the Reds since December 2019, and while he had his moments, I am not sure it was the correct decision. In such a big match, I am not sure why he did not opt for a player like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Curtis Jones, who had both been closer to the starting XI throughout this season and were in better form compared to Shaqiri. With Klopp needing to use Thiago and Wijnaldum to protect the fullbacks when they ventured forward, being well aware of how deadly United can be on the counter, Shaqiri ended up being the sole true attacking player in the midfield at times, and this was a role he could not perform well in.

Thiago played well, and his passing ability was on full display when he got the opportunities to venture forward. Liverpool’s best attacking moves usually revolved around the Spaniard and his passing and movement. Thiago is a world-class talent who should have been on the ball more. The problem was that, as he was the most defensively positioned of the three midfielders, he did not often get the chances to venture forward. It would often be his responsibility to stay back when one of the fullbacks pushed up the pitch, and he would often have to stay back around Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in order to limit how effective United could be on the counter. As a result, Liverpool seemed to lack any attacking cohesion and were not able to construct many quality goal-scoring chances. Liverpool had 66% possession and took 17 shots, but only three of them were on target and maybe one or two of those on-target shots were truly dangerous chances. Firmino and Salah especially were poor, and their fullbacks were seemingly playing in two minds the whole game, wanting to impact the attack while also being afraid of the United counter. This is why I originally said Liverpool should have played Henderson in midfield and Rhys Williams in defense. Henderson’s defensive ability allows him to cover for the fullbacks and defend potential Bruno/Pogba counters, and it allows Thiago, Liverpool’s most dangerous midfielder, to get on the ball more and have an influence on the attack.

This reflects poorly on Klopp, who, while starting with a very logical formation and game plan, did not seem able or willing to make the necessary changes when these issues became clear. The issues and limits in the Liverpool attack were clear by about the 55th-60th minute, if not earlier, and it was obvious Liverpool needed to make a change. Despite sending James Milner out to warm up at halftime, Klopp did not actually choose to make a substitution until the 76th minute, taking off Shaqiri for Curtis Jones. His final two substitutions, Divock Origi on for Firmino and Milner on for Wijnaldum, did not come until the 85th and 89th minutes, respectively, much too late to make a tangible difference on the match. It was clear Klopp needed to do something to free up Thiago, and bringing on Milner is a logical move in that regard, but not doing so until the end of the game is a bit baffling. Shaqiri and Firmino were both fairly ineffective in the match, and making substitutions for them would not have been crazy, but Klopp waited so long to do so for no real discernible reason.

Klopp handled his post-match press conference in the most Klopp way he could. Much like he did after their loss to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, Klopp was frustrated by, or complained really, about United’s defensive set up. Complaining that the opponent did not make it easier for him is not anything new for Klopp, but this might be the most frustrating time to hear it because the necessary changes were so blatantly obvious. Of course United wanted to be more defensive and play on the counter. That is the most logical thing to do because several teams have shown in the past that it is the most effective way to beat any Jürgen Klopp team, but Klopp did nothing to be proactive and change his team’s fortunes even though he should frankly know what to expect from opposition by this point. Surely if he saw how many issues Thiago was causing the United defense, he would have made a move to push Henderson into midfield or bring on another midfielder for Shaqiri to allow Thiago to get forward. Surely a move to bring on a fourth midfielder, for either Firmino or Salah, would have helped Liverpool get control of the middle of the park, get Thiago forward, and allow the forwards to attack the space and the channels instead of continuously spamming crosses onto Harry Maguire’s forehead. This might be my Everton bias taking over, but the Klopp excuses are falling on deaf ears. Yes, the team has injury issues, and yes United were lined up very defensively, but the necessary changes were there to be made. This is still a match that Liverpool could have won. Liverpool dropped points in this match because the team and the manager were not good enough to earn all three points.

That is the inherent paradox of this game. Liverpool dominated possession, attempted and completed more passes, had more total shots, and had more attacking corners, but I at least felt that United were the better attacking side. Yes, a draw was a fair result on balance, but if there was to be a winner, United would have been the more just winner. Aside from less than a handful of genuine chances, Liverpool did not really look like they were going to score. United did not have much of the ball, but especially in the final 20-25 minutes, they looked much more likely to find a goal, and their chances were much better than Liverpool’s. The xG difference was 1.2-1.19 in favor of Liverpool, so the stats do back up a deserved draw. As a viewer, though, it just seemed more clear to me that United had the better goal-scoring chances, even if the stats do not back me up on that.

Regardless of chances or stats, the match ended in a draw. United remain top of the league, and Ole would have been the happier of the two managers leaving Anfield on Sunday evening. While United did not get a statement win, they did show that they do have the talent and pedigree needed to win the title this season, and Liverpool’s faults showed that there is clearly a title race. The happiest person with this result, however, was Pep Guardiola. Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 4-0 yesterday, which, combined with the Liverpool-United draw, took City up to second place, ahead of Liverpool and two points behind United with a game in hand. It was City’s fifth straight league win, with the team being unbeaten in all competitions dating back to late November. They look very good, in arguably the best form of any team in the league. If I was a betting man, I would fancy Man City as favorites to win the league right now. Leicester also leapfrogged Liverpool, being two points behind United and in third on goal difference. While I do not fancy their chances to win the league, they are very clearly in the race and could potentially do it. We knew we had a title race before this match, but this result has seemingly confirmed the scale of the race we are potentially looking at, and with only five points separating first and sixth, the race could potentially get even bigger.

Yes, it was a bit of a boring game. United did what they needed to do, and Liverpool were not able to react and change the game. While the game was boring, it did confirm that we are in for a very exciting title race this season. Buckle up, because it will likely be a bumpy and crazy ride to the finish line.

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The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season…

Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then.

On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight bout between two of the best teams in the league. This is the Ali-Frazier of the football season. It definitely is not hyperbole.

Last season, I wrote a preview article ahead of the title-deciding Der Klassiker in Germany, in which Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund 1-0 on their way to winning yet another league title. Despite it only being January, this game has a very similar feel to it, and I wanted to do something similar here. I will be going in depth into the match up, looking at both teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and the areas in which the match can be won.

Man United enter this match as probably the most in-form team in the Premier League, having not lost in the league since their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal on November 1st. This incredible run of form has seen United rise to the top of the league, a position they have not been in since 2013. Seeing them start the season struggling with the serious potential of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær losing his job but rising to this is quite unexpected, and it is a testament to the job Solskjær has done with this team and the performances of the players he has available. They will travel to Anfield this weekend looking to make a statement, reminding the rest of the country and the continent that Manchester United are contenders and a team to be taken seriously.

Things were not always smooth during that great league run, however, and this is where I have some concerns. While they have not lost in the league since November, that span also included European losses to PSG and RB Leipzig, which saw the Red Devils knocked out of the Champions League. It also included a 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup Semi-final. That league run also included difficult draws against Leicester City and Manchester City, the two arguably toughest opponents they played during that run. Much of their success came against mid-table or lower opposition, and do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a team contending for silverware, you have to win the games against inferior competition, which, especially in the league this year, is easier said than done. It does, however, cast some doubts as to whether this United team is really “for real” or not, as it does bare some similarities to the great run of form they went on when Solskjær came in as interim manager in 2018. It is entirely possible that this match against Liverpool acts as a reality check for this team. We will see how far this team has truly come under Solskjær and how far they still might need to go in order to return to true contention. But make no mistake, this is the biggest match United have played in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. This is where we see what this United team really is.

Tactically, United have some different options when it comes to how to line up in this game. Solskjær has typically deployed a 4-2-3-1 in his time in Manchester, but they have also used a 4-1-2-1-2 and a 3-5-2 at different stages of the season and depending on the opposition they are facing. The tactics of the match will be crucial, as this big of a match will be a true tactical chess match, so how Ole chooses to set his team up will be important. I anticipate the midfield battle will be important, so I believe Ole will deploy his 4-1-2-1-2 in order to have a diamond in midfield, creating numerical supremacy in the middle of the park. With Nemanja Matić out injured, Scott McTominay and Fred will hold the places in midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The midfield four will give United some stability and security, better allowing Pogba and Bruno to attack, knowing there will always be someone covering the back line. The pairing of Fred and McTominay itself is quite balanced as a defensive duo, with both able to get forward when needed but mainly allowing Fred to be the deeper-lying passer and McTominay to use his energy in the press to disrupt the opposition. The key players in this midfield will be McTominay and Pogba. While Pogba has been very good at times for United this season, we are never always sure which Pogba will show up when things matter the most. If he is able to be influential in the attack, then United will have a very good chance of leaving Anfield with all three points. McTominay will also be crucial for his energy in the press and his defensive contribution. If he is able to disrupt the Liverpool midfield and limit the influence that Thiago can have on the match, then United will be in good shape.

Now, this midfield might seem counter-productive against Liverpool in some respects, right? One of Liverpool’s strongest attacking tools are their fullbacks. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both very good attacking players who love to get up the pitch and can play very threatening crosses and give opposition defenses trouble. Certainly you would want to play wingers to try and pin both of them back in their defensive third, right? Well, that is true, but it is also something United can do in this formation. I imagine that in their press, United will want the two forwards to press out to the fullbacks when they get the ball, likely being joined by either Fernandes or whichever central midfielder is on that side. Scott McTominay’s energy in the press will be crucial in this regard, possibly leading to some chances to win the ball high up the pitch. The attacking potential of both midfielders could also force both fullbacks to think twice about pushing up the pitch. If Alexander-Arnold goes forward and Liverpool turn it over, then there is suddenly plenty of space behind him for Rashford and Pogba to attack. It is not the most ideal scenario, as the best way to counter attacking fullbacks is to force them to think about a dangerous winger that they have to mark, but it is something that can definitely work for United.

Elsewhere in the team, the four in midfield means United will only be able to deploy two in attack instead of three. Marcus Rashford is undroppable at this point, despite a poor performance against Burnley, but it will be Cavani partnering him up top. For one, Martial does appear to be injured and unavailable, which makes the choice for Ole slightly easier. In such a massive game, you need to go for the experience of Cavani over a younger player like Mason Greenwood. I also doubt United call on Daniel James, because while he is effective in the press, as he demonstrated against Leeds, he is just a non-factor in attack and gives Robertson more opportunities to attack up the pitch. Cavani also provides them with a more physical presence up top, able to contend with the individual battle against Fabinho and whomever partners the Brazilian while providing more of a target man presence that Fernandes and Rashford can play off of. In defense, I believe the partnership of Maguire and Bailly will continue. Eric Bailly has possibly been the most under-appreciated player for Man United this season, quietly stringing together several very solid performances and able to combine his impressive physical strength and pace with a solid reading of the game and an at least passable ability on the ball. Maguire’s tenure in Manchester has been often criticized, but he is truthfully having a good season, and he seems to be better with a more quick and physical center back next to him. Maguire-Bailly is definitely United’s best center back pairing, and I do not anticipate they will go with Victor Lindelöf. Should Ole choose to go with a back three, which I would not recommend, then the third center back will likely be Luke Shaw or Axel Tuanzebe, with both options being quicker and more mobile than the Swede.

The sort-of theme for this match, as many really close encounters tend to be, are individual battles. Specific areas on the pitch where United are weak are going to be targeted by Liverpool, and vice versa, and exploiting those weaknesses could be the difference between a win and a loss. United’s glaring weakness in this team is the left side of their defense. United’s left back selection is not quite ideal for them in this match up. While Alex Telles is a very good attacking fullback, he is not very good defensively and is prone to being caught out of position. Luke Shaw is not terrible, but he is not exactly good either. He is another player that is prone to being caught out of position, and he is not exactly a solid one-on-one defender either. Playing next to the left back is Harry Maguire, a solid center back but one that is not very mobile or very good at dealing with speed. And they will be going up against Mohamed Salah, maybe the best forward in the Premier League this season. No pressure, right?

Liverpool will likely find a lot of success attacking this left side of the United defense, and I imagine that much of their attack will focus on trying to exploit this weakness. I would not be surprised if Salah was a goalscorer in this match, or if Alexander-Arnold got an assist attacking down this side. To counteract this, United should utilize one of their defensive midfielders to help cover this wing. I imagine this 4-1-2-1-2 will look, more or less, like a 4-2-2-2 at several moments, especially when United are defending. With Fred and McTominay as the two deepest midfielders in that set up, United have the ability to use one of them to help Maguire and (likely) Shaw defend attacks down the left, while the other can be used to defend wherever needed. Again, it is not ideal, but it is probably the best solution for United to protect the weakest part of their defense.

Manchester United will likely line up in a 4-1-2-1-2, with their team being:

Now, let us talk about Liverpool. The reigning champions are coming into this match after a surprising run of poor form. After beating Tottenham 2-1 and smashing Crystal Palace 7-0, the Reds proceeded to draw with West Brom, draw with Newcastle, and lose to Southampton. It is this poor run that saw them surrender first place to United and allow Manchester City back within touching distance of the top, creating quite a serious potential title race in England. Jürgen Klopp will want a response from his team following the disappointment against Southampton, so I expect this to be a Liverpool performance that is as high-energy and ruthless as typical Klopp teams are.

Tactically, Klopp will likely play in his preferred 4-3-3 system, in which Liverpool were crowned champions of England and Europe in the past few years. Do not fix what is not broken, right? It makes a difficult decision quite simple, as it is hard to really predict how United will line up, as they are able to play in multiple different formations, as discussed before. While it could be difficult for Klopp to prepare for which United side he will face, it is still a given that he will want to play his game and dictate how the match will go. It is also the best pressing formation for Liverpool, and we all know how much Klopp loves his “gegenpressing”. In the event that United do go with a four in midfield, as I predicted, then Firmino would likely be tasked with dropping deeper at times, helping Liverpool transition the ball from midfield to attack. If Firmino’s movement is able to move around the United back line, then that will create opportunities for Mané and Salah to cut inside and score. This will also be the biggest test for Thiago in his time at Liverpool, as it will be on him to establish the tempo of the match. If United go with a four in midfield, Thiago’s passing ability, paired with Wijnaldum’s energy, will be needed to override the numerical disadvantage and make sure Liverpool are able to win that fight in defense and able to transition the ball from defense to attack without any serious issue. If Liverpool are able to press well, then they can counteract any disadvantage in midfield by being able to win the ball high up the pitch and attack an exposed United back four.

The biggest storyline of the season remains their injury problems. The incredible fortune that the Reds had last season when it comes to injuries to critical players has seemingly ran out. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez both remain out for the duration of the season, and Diogo Jota is still a few weeks from returning to the first team. Joel Matip also picked up an injury against West Brom, and it remains doubtful that he is able to return for this match. This creates serious selection questions for a team that usually picks itself, and to a certain extent, still does in this game. Klopp will probably still play his 4-3-3. Mané, Salah, and Firmino all surely start. Wijnaldum and Thiago will both play in midfield. Henderson will play. The fullbacks will play. Fabinho will play. Alisson will play. Those are givens.

But it is the center of defense, and in defensive midfield, that provides the biggest selection and tactical questions. Fabinho will be one of the two center backs, as he has been since van Dijk’s injury, but who will play alongside him? It looks very unlikely that Matip will be fit for this match, as Klopp usually requires first team players returning from injury to have at least two training sessions before their return match and, as far as I know, Matip did not train today. In his place, they can start Henderson at center back, which did not work well at all against Southampton, or they could go with one of the very inexperienced but promising Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips. There are positives and negatives to both choices. On one hand, playing Henderson in defense gives you an experienced, veteran player in the back line that can go against a very experienced and deadly United attack. On the other hand, he was not that good against Southampton in that role, and playing him and Fabinho in defense takes away your two best defensive midfielders. On one hand, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips are very talented and physically imposing center backs, with their respective 6’5″ and 6’3″ frames and tackling ability making them a more natural and useful fit in defense compared to Henderson. On the other hand, Williams and Phillips are very inexperienced players who can be prone to the rare error, and trusting a 19 year old kid like Williams in the heart of your defense in the biggest game of the season is a colossal risk.

I do ultimately believe that Rhys Williams will start alongside Fabinho, with Henderson playing just ahead of them in midfield. Williams is a talented player, and while it is still definitely a risk, I do think you cannot play Henderson in any position apart from midfield in this match. Going against a player as talented as Bruno Fernandes creates many difficult match up issues, and you need a physical and imposing presence in defensive midfield in order to limit the Portuguese’s influence on the match. In a perfect world, Liverpool would use Fabinho, who is one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet and has all of the traits and skills needed to be the world’s most ideal “Bruno stopper”, but the Brazilian has to start in defense. Because of this, Henderson must start in midfield, as you cannot take away your two best defensive midfielders when going against a midfield like United’s. Williams also provides more of a physical presence in defense, with that strength and height needed to help deal with Cavani. This will remain Liverpool’s main weakness, however. Just as Shaw and the left side of defense was the biggest piece to exploit in the United team, the center of defense is the weakest link in the Liverpool team. Should they play Henderson there again, then you are giving quite a bit of space and opportunity to Bruno Fernandes without a physical threat to stop him, or you are requiring Thiago to get out of his game and focus on Bruno. Should Williams start in defense, then you keep Henderson in midfield to deal with Bruno but are using a very inexperienced defender to go up against Cavani and Rashford. This is something that United can definitely exploit. Liverpool will need a career best performance from Williams to win this game, one that might turn him into a Liverpool cult hero if it happens.

Henderson will ultimately be the main key player. United’s attacking midfielders are the heartbeat of their attack, especially Bruno, but we have seen in the past how teams are able to take Bruno out of the game in order to limit what United can do going forward. This has mostly come from teams being very physical, almost man marking to an extent, with the Portuguese, and this will likely be Henderson’s job. If Liverpool’s captain plays well, then Liverpool will likely be successful. It will decide how strong Liverpool’s midfield and defense will be. If Henderson is not able to stop Bruno, then United should be able to have quite a bit of success in attack, and they could also overwhelm Liverpool in midfield as well.

Liverpool will likely line up in a 4-3-3, with their team being:

So, who wins? As I said before, this will likely come down to which team is able to control the midfield and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. Based on past results, there are very good reasons to say either team would win or lose. United have played very well recently, but they have not had this serious of a test in quite a while. Liverpool have struggled recently, but they are only a month removed from very big wins against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.

Ultimately, I believe this will be a very big game for Mohamed Salah. That United left side is very vulnerable, and I expect the Egyptian to continue his fine form and get on the score sheet. I think Henderson will do enough to limit the United midfield, and Rhys Williams will do just enough to keep Liverpool from breaking. United are a very good team, but this will be a reality check for them. They are not quite there yet, and Liverpool are still the champions and arguably the best team in the league, even without key players.

Prediction:

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

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