Tag Archives: Champions League

UEFA’s Faustian Bargain

UEFA’s impending Champions League reforms are nothing more than a desperate money grab from teams ready to break away

A story that has lingered under the surface during this season is now coming into prominence, as the UEFA Executive Committee is holding a meeting next week to vote on, and likely pass, a very serious change to the format of the Champions League. Reported by Matt Slater from The Athletic, this meeting will likely be a landmark moment in the modern history of UEFA and European football in general. With all of the talk of “Super Leagues” and things of that nature, this move would clearly impact the discussions surrounding European football for years to come.

And boy, does this seem like a bad deal.

Here are the major changes, should this resolution pass. Beginning in 2024, the Champions League will be expanding from 32 teams to 36. Instead of a “Group Stage” similar to what we have now in European competition, those 36 teams will take part in a “Swiss model” competition. Originating in competitive chess, the Swiss model essentially ranks every player in a competition and seeds them from one to however many competitors there are, and each competitor plays a set number of matches against the opponents seeded around them or a random set of opponents, not playing every participant in the competition. For the Champions League, UEFA will rank all 36 competing teams, likely based off of UEFA coefficient or some other variable, and list them in seeds. The teams would play 10 matches (a substantial increase to the current six game Group Stage), five at home and five away, with the top eight performers advancing to a 16-team knockout stage. The final eight knockout spots will be decided by a playoff between the next highest finishing 16 teams (team 17 through 32 in the overall table). The competition then proceeds in a knockout format, similar to how it is now, until one champion of Europe is crowned at the end.

The other major (and maybe the most controversial) change comes from how the final four spots are decided. The first of the four extra qualification spots is expected to be allocated to Ligue 1, which currently only has three Champions League qualifying places. This would put Ligue 1 on par with the other four “Top Five” European Leagues, all having four Champions League qualifying spots. The other three spots are proposed to be awarded based on historic performance in European competition over the previous five seasons. This is basically a safety net for big teams that may endure a bad season that keeps them out of the Champions League. For example, if this system had already been implemented, it is possible that one of these slots could have been awarded to Arsenal this season, who missed out on Champions League qualification last season but have performed fairly well in European competition in previous years.

I do not need to be the one to tell you that this is wildly unfair.

I have so many problems with this idea and so many things to say about UEFA for going along with this, but let us start with the extra spots and work our way back.

Now, selfishly, I do not object to an extra spot for Ligue 1. It allows Lyon’s always-present and unescapable mediocrity to be excused, with a larger margin for error allowed in trying to finish in one of four qualifying spots instead of one of three spots. On a more serious note, I think it also does a world of good for French football if one more team is given a pathway into the Champions League and the financial boost the competition offers. Four of France’s main five teams (PSG, Lyon, Lille, Monaco, Marseille) being in the competition instead of three, or also the increased chance of a smaller team qualifying, only does good things for French football. The added revenue injection into a league with quite a few teams struggling financially should at least make things consistently more interesting at the top of the table, with three teams more financially equipped to challenge PSG.

And that is about all I like about this plan. The three spots awarded based on “historic European performance” is one of the biggest scams I have ever seen in football. We should apparently want to throw a bone to the world’s biggest and richest football clubs, who already benefit from a system that maintains their financial and sporting dominance, just in case they happen to fall victim to another club showing ambition and intelligence in building a team. They are the unwanted, after all. No one wants to watch Leicester or Atalanta or some other small team in Europe, of course not. Everyone is surely here to see the big dogs play, right? Those big money teams, yes, they are the class above everyone else, and all the other clubs are just second-class citizens within the sport.

This is all just insane. It reflects a mentality held by the biggest clubs that, because of their money and financial power, they should be more important and held in a higher regard than the hundreds of other football clubs on the continent. This is a sentiment that, time after time, has been publicly backed in particular by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, probably the most vocal supporter of a European Super League and easily one of European football’s largest mouthpieces of utterly ridiculous nonsense. Last season, Agnelli was vocally critical of Atalanta’s inclusion in the Champions League, saying “without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?” He went on to cite a similar circumstance to the one UEFA is accounting for in this concept, saying “Then I think of Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s [UEFA League Coefficient] ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially.” How is it fair, Agnelli asks, if a club who had been in Europe for several years fall out when another club has a better season than them and earns the European qualification spot over them?

Yes, this is a hilariously absurd idea.

Football, and all sport in general, is a meritocracy. If you are good enough, building a team, tactic, and mentality good enough to win games, then you will be rewarded for your success. If you are not good enough to maintain that success, then another club that has a good team, tactic, and mentality will come and take that success from you. That is the way of the world in sports. Nothing should be handed to you on a silver platter. UEFA, likely either pressured by or complicit with the world’s biggest clubs, wants those big clubs to know that it is ok if they mess up or get complacent or somehow get overtaken by a club below them because there is a safety net there to catch them. The biggest clubs in the world, purely on reputation and due to the money and influence they have, can now act as higher class citizens and enjoy perks that the vast majority of others do not, a more protected status and access to the absurd media money attached to Europe’s biggest domestic football competition, whether they have earned their place there or not. But they have earned that status because, well, you know, reasons. As Agnelli said, they have history or stature, whatever that means, and because of that they deserve special status and should constantly be in the Champions League even if their performances do not merit inclusion.

And it is funny because European football is seemingly bigger than those few teams and few leagues, right? For example, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest are two of the five English teams to have won the European Cup, being a much more significant part of England’s history in the competition than, say, Tottenham or Manchester City, but those two clubs would be given priority over Villa or Forest in a hypothetical qualification situation under this new system. RB Leipzig, a club founded in 2009 as a cheap marketing strategy by Red Bull, would hold priority in this new system because their stature, money, and ability to consistently use that money to build a team to qualify for European competition surely means they have more of an international reputation in Germany than, for example, Hamburg, the only German team not named Bayern or Dortmund to win a European Cup.

And what have these big clubs given to the competition that teams in smaller leagues have not? Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord have all been crowned champions of Europe in their history, yet UEFA does not reward the Netherlands with an extra Champions League qualification spot. Benfica and FC Porto have each won multiple European Cups, yet Portugal only has the one guaranteed Champions League qualification place. Glasgow Celtic’s European triumph in 1967, the first British side to win the European Cup, is as much a part of British footballing lore as anything done by an English side, yet the champion of Scotland does not automatically qualify for the Champions League. Neither do the champions of the top leagues in Denmark, Switzerland, or Serbia. Is this truly a competition meant to represent the best in the whole of Europe? Or is it just one for those few clubs that hold all of the influence?

I keep coming back to that point Agnelli made, implying that it is wrong that a team without “international history” can have access to the riches of the Champions League while keeping a “higher status” team out. Let us flip that argument back at him. Why would an underperforming Tottenham team, an example of a team not currently in a Champions League qualification place but with some recent performances in Europe that might get them in under this new system, deserve a spot over a club like PSV or FC Porto, who have actually won a European Cup in their history? Can you legitimately say that Porto, who have won the Champions League in my lifetime, have a significantly lower international history than Tottenham? Of course not. But Tottenham are part of the cartel of elite clubs, one of the “haves” of world football, so they would get the special treatment and get the extra qualification place instead of giving it to Liga NOS.

And even then, what is wrong with “smaller” clubs becoming good? What is wrong with clubs of lower stature getting the right plan into place and growing into successful powerhouses? This is what we all do on FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager, right? A club like Atalanta, a fairly small club in size and resources from a small city northeast of Milan, rising from minnows to successful Serie A club and Champions League near-regular should be applauded, not demonized. The ability for Atalanta to build a very good team and employ a very good manager to lead them despite their limitations should be a model of how to run a football club, but the rich and powerful view it as unfair that such a team is able to reach this level and keep one of them away from their money and fame, which is clearly their inherent birthright as a big club. How dare a club far below them figure out how to be better than a big team, that is just not natural!

The Champions League has been criticized recently for being too predictable and being the same teams over and over again, and this proposal does nothing to change that, and, in fact, it only makes it worse. This is not a European competition, this is a competition between the same half a dozen clubs who just so happened to strike rich a decade ago. And because of that, they feel they are important enough to make things more advantageous to them, whether it be structuring the payout of the Champions League to reward the same clubs that keep going far in the competition or by just closing participation to others by doing things like this, taking away the meritocratic aspects that have built the sport to this point.

And this is not even my only issue with this.

The big clubs went into the discussion room with UEFA with two clear desires: adding more games to the Champions League and putting up safeguards to make sure they always qualify. More games is more money, and added safeguards ensures they have routine access to the money. Europe’s top clubs have wanted to play more games against each other for years now; this was one of the main driving forces behind forming a Super League. The Champions League is a television ratings and sponsorship bonanza, an absolute goldmine for TV rights revenue for the clubs involved. These club owners, naturally fixated on the sole goal of earning more money, came to the conclusion that playing more of these games would give them more money. While I disagree with that ultimate conclusion, that is for another article for another day, and they determined there needs to be more games in the Champions League. Thus formed the Super League idea, and the concept of the Swiss model being used in football emerged as a sort of compromise, more politically palatable than a Super League.

The only issue is teams and players cannot deal with more games on the schedule. Fixture lists are already admittedly very crowded, and the rampant fitness issues during this condensed 2020-2021 season illustrate perfectly the physical, mental, and emotional toll that this incredibly crowded schedule is causing on players, and it also illustrates the sporting effects that their fitness issues can have on teams. We all have heard Jürgen Klopp’s repeated complaints about fixture congestion, and while I hate agreeing with Klopp on anything, he is right. However, the club owners will likely move to address this problem in a less popular way. They cannot reduce the amount of Champions League games, because that is where the money is made. Going away instead will likely be domestic cups. The EFL Cup, the FA Cup, the DFB-Pokal, the Coupe de France, all of the domestic cups that have been part and parcel of league football in Europe for nearly two centuries will likely be removed to appease the owners desire for more Champions League money. Gone will be avenues for any club to win silverware and prize money. Gone will be pathways to European qualification for many smaller clubs. Gone will be the “magic of the cup” and the underdog stories that make knockout cup competitions so great. How dare we let the success of minnows get in the way of my money, clamor the top owners. If fixture congestion continues to be an issue, do not be surprised if these competitions are quickly put on the chopping block. Nothing can get in the way of the Champions League money.

And then here is the ultimate kicker: this in no way stops the formation of a Super League. The top teams have now shown that their threats can pressure UEFA into changing the system to benefit them. It has now been thoroughly demonstrated that UEFA is afraid of a Super League, and the lingering threat of the top clubs breaking away from UEFA is enough to pressure the federation into action. What is stopping them from pressuring the federation into more changes? The whole point of a Swiss model in chess is that it is almost infinitely scaleable, able to make a competition out of 10 competitors, 100 competitors, or 500 competitors playing 10, 30, or 60 or however many matches without really any issue. What is stopping these owners from going to UEFA and saying “we want 10 more Champions League games per season.”? 20 more? 30 more? What is stopping them from pressuring UEFA into essentially turning this system into a Super League?

Nothing, absolutely nothing is stopping them. Yes, there are clearly vocal opponents to this, but if this resolution passes and becomes set in stone, then the top clubs in the world have basically shown they can bully UEFA into doing their bidding.

In German folklore, the story of Faust revolves around a man who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, only for his soul to be irreversibly corrupted by the evil he embraced. This is the Faustian Bargain, often called the “deal with the devil”. This is UEFA’s Faustian Bargain. They seem to believe a Super League is inevitable, but instead of working to resist it, they will crack a deal with the big clubs in order to stay in on the action. They are selling the soul of football to the world’s elite, allowing those clubs to remain in UEFA and the federation to keep raking in the television and sponsorship money from the Champions League but embracing the greed and capitalistic ruthlessness that could irreversibly and negatively change the football world forever. They are laying the groundwork for the formation of a Super League in exchange for keeping the UEFA branding on it and still getting their cut of the big money.

Faust dies at the end of his story. Will football die at the end of this one?

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Everyone Calm Down, Barcelona Is Fine…Probably…

I think…maybe…let us talk about it…

So, is Barcelona in crisis? Sort of.

I previously wrote a few articles about the developing issues at Barcelona. Their collapse in the Champions League against Bayern Munich last season spelled the end of the disastrous presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu and really shone a light on just how far the club have fallen over the last few seasons. Things were going horrendously wrong, and it looked as though a former football giant was on the brink of collapse as they were entering a very crucial year in the club’s history. Club legend Ronald Koeman was hired in the summer, tasked with taking control of a runaway train.

Yes, their start to the season was horrendous. It sure did look like this would be the disaster final season that would drive Messi away. Koeman looked in over his head, the older players in the team looked completely over the hill, and poor decisions in the transfer window were making them regret ditching Luis Suárez, who has been phenomenal this season for Atlético Madrid. On top of this, the club is in staggering debt, Bartomeu’s presidency left the club in tatters, and club offices were even raided by Catalan authorities pursuing information on a defamation case now infamously known as “Barçagate”. And yes, the greatest player in their club’s history and arguably one of the three or four greatest players in the history of football was in the final year of his contract with no guarantees he would sign a new one.

That sure does sound like a crisis to me. But for those who have not paid attention to matters on the pitch, things are not exactly going poorly anymore. That horrendous start to the season has been reversed.

Barcelona are currently on a 16 match unbeaten run in the league, which dates back to a 1-0 win over Levante on December 13th. They are also in the Final of the Copa del Rey after completing a phenomenal aggregate comeback against Sevilla in the Semifinals. They are currently second in the league table and firmly in the title race despite starting the season outside of the top four. Yes, they are out of the Champions League, but they at least gave a good account of themselves in the second leg against PSG after a disastrous first leg performance. The only major blemishes on Ronald Koeman’s record over the last two and a half months were the first leg defeats to PSG in the Champions League and Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, as well as a Supercopa de España Final defeat to Athletic Bilbao. Obviously the standards of Barcelona mean this is still not a great season, but it is a far cry from the on-pitch crisis that they were in at the start of the season. It is very much within the realm of possibility that Barça could end the season with a league and cup double.

Now, all of this is largely due to Lionel Messi. He is one of the best players ever, after all, and even at 33 years of age he is still phenomenal. He is currently the league’s leading scorer with 21 goals in just 25 games, and he has added 7 assists to be the league’s joint-second highest assister. Barça have scored 61 goals in the league this season, meaning Messi is responsible for a little less than half of them. He is actually incredible. He is at the center of seemingly everything Barcelona does, and it would still be fairly disastrous if he were to leave the club in the summer.

But, should he leave in the summer (and even if he does not), Barcelona’s rebuild is already showing signs of progress, and the Catalan giants are seemingly developing a young core to build around for the future. Everyone knows about Ansu Fati at this point, and he has shown at times this season that the hype is warranted, and he is not alone. Pedri, the 18 year old dynamic Spanish creative midfielder signed from Las Palmas in 2019 and sent on loan for a season, has probably been the best player under the age of 20 in La Liga this season, and he is among the best players under the age of 20 in Europe at the moment. Riqui Puig, despite not having the full confidence of Koeman upon the Dutchman’s arrival, has continued to show how talented he is. They have found a pleasant surprise in Ronald Araújo, a 20 year old Uruguayan center back promoted to the first team due to injury issues. Despite his age and relative inexperience, he more than held his own when thrown into the deep end. Ilax Moriba has come up from La Masia and demonstrated himself to be another incredible talent, and Óscar Mingueza has also come from La Masia and held his own when Barça faced a defensive injury crisis. Add this on top of the 23 year old Frenkie de Jong, having his best season in Catalonia, and the 20 year old Sergiño Dest, having a strong first season for the Blaugrana, and you have a fairly exciting group of players to build the team around. Even when throwing in Ousmane Dembélé, who is still only 23 and can get his career back on track, and the 21 year old Francisco Trincão, a bright talent with a high potential despite a tough start to life in Catalonia, and you really start to get excited for the future of this team.

I mean, look back at some of those names and take it in. De Jong is bursting into a star in front of our eyes. Fati, Pedri, Moriba, Dest, and Puig all have the potential to be incredibly good, with Pedri and Fati in particular being lined up to be the next world-class attacking talents wearing a Barcelona shirt. Mingueza and Araújo can at least be very useful squad players, and Dembélé can still get his career back on track. If Barça’s faith in Moriba and Mingueza is a sign that they are regaining their trust and belief in their academy, then their future is that much more secure. This obviously does not mean that they would be able to seamlessly transition into a post-Messi era. Should Messi leave at the end of the season, it will still be rough. Losing a player of that level will always be a brutal transition. However, it should be comforting for Barcelona fans knowing that the future of this club is fairly secure. Unlike Real Madrid, who are still largely relying on the core of players that started their Champions League dominance a few years ago, Barça are seeing the future of their club play important roles and produce in the team right now.

And this brings us to what could be the most important change of the last year: in the board room. Bartomeu is out, and replacing him is Joan Laporta, who was president of the club from 2003 to 2010. Laporta is largely well-supported and serves as an image of the better times, as his presidency is often associated with the bright times of the late 2000s, including four league titles, two Champions League triumphs, the famous sextuple in 2009, and the beginning of the Pep Guardiola era. His previous tenure began similarly to this tenure, inheriting a club with aging talent and significant debt. He was previously able to save the club from the mounting debt by working with then-manager Frank Rijkaard to move on the aging talent and build around a new core, which included young starlets brought to Catalonia like Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, as well as a core of home-grown talent including Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta. Oh, and also this young Argentinian kid named Lionel Messi. He would not be president for the peak of this core’s success in the early 2010s, but the foundation he laid set up a decade of Barcelona success.

Seems to be a similar situation, right? Laporta inherits a club dealing with significant financial debt and an aging team, but the young core to build around is already there. Obviously, his previous tenure was not without difficulties, and this one will not be, but it should be reassuring knowing there is a competent leader at the highest level in the club.

So, is there any bad? Are we all just overreacting? Well, again, sort of. I do think the whole “collapse of Barcelona” talk is overblown, and their future is fairly well secured at the moment, especially if they begin trusting their academy again. However, the debt is still a significant issue, and this is paired with quite a few aging or poor-performing senior players that will be very hard to sell. Miralem Pjanić, Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Piqué will be difficult to earn a transfer fee for, and having to wait for their contracts to expire only prolongs the rebuilding process. The jury is still out regarding the success of the “Antoine Griezmann experiment”, and it could end up being a similarly expensive mistake to the Coutinho move. Because of this, it might be difficult for Barcelona to immediately make a big splash in the transfer market. Moves for Erling Håland or Lautaro Martínez, for instance, are probably out of the question in the short term. Should Messi leave, that would alleviate some of the financial concerns due to the gargantuan wage that Messi makes, but it obviously makes the team much worse.

This financial issue, paired with a potential Messi departure, means that things will likely become worse before they become better. There will be some struggle, and this is why Barcelona are not fully “fine”. This struggle leaves plenty of room for things to go horridly wrong and to knock the club off of their rebuilding path, and it is up to Laporta, Koeman, and whoever is responsible for leading the club to maintain a logical and orderly rebuild and not do what Bartomeu and previous leaders did when Neymar left. Panicking or making rash decisions will not work here. Things are going moderately well when it comes to building Barça’s next generation, and there is no reason to deviate from what appears to be working.

And there is the final concern: the unknown. Things seem to be going well now, but will it continue that way? Koeman seems to be the right guy for the job now, but are we really sure that he will work out? If he does not, will they pick the right successor? Will these young players all end up working out? Fallen giants like Milan seemed to have figured it out multiple times before realizing they were false dawns. Because of this, it will be hard to say Barcelona are fully “fine” until they build a successful team without Lionel Messi in it. That is the hardest part of supporting a rebuilding club; things can seemingly be going very well but can go wrong at any instance, and once things begin to go wrong, the rash and errant, ultimately destructive decisions begin to be made.

My view is I think Barcelona are fine-ish. I think Pedri and Fati and De Jong and others will be stars and form the future backbone for the club. I think Koeman is at least doing well enough to earn the trust of the board, even if their long-term goal is to bring Xavi in as manager. I think Joan Laporta at least has the background and familiarity with the sporting vision and internal politics of the club to get things back on track. I am concerned about the debt and think that it will hold them back for a few years, but as long as they do not panic and do something dumb, they will emerge from the other side ready and able to build a team that can contend for league and European honors.

Or I could be completely wrong about all of this. There is always a good chance of that.

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The Juventus-Ronaldo Project Has Failed

And it is time to acknowledge how far Juventus have fallen…

So Juventus are out of the Champions League. In the Round of 16 stage. Again.

Juve’s extra time away goals loss to FC Porto is the second time in as many years that the Bianconeri were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle in the Champions League, and it is also only the third time that a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to advance past the Champions League Round of 16 since the Portuguese signed with Real Madrid in 2009. Juventus have not advanced past the Quarterfinals stage since 2017, when they made it to the Final, and on all three occasions they have lost to teams (Ajax, Olympique Lyonnais, FC Porto) that, at least on paper, they should be beating quite easily. And every year, the defeats seem to be getting worse and more embarrassing.

Away from the Champions League, Juventus now finds themselves 10 points behind league leaders Inter after making hard work of winning the title last season. Their dominance of the Scudetto in Italy looks like it is coming to an end. While they are in the Final of the Coppa Italia, they have failed to win the competition, a competition that Juventus have dominated since 2014, the last two seasons, losing in the Final to Napoli last season and in the Quarterfinals to Atalanta in 2018-19.

It is quite simple; Juventus have fallen behind over the last three years, and the rest of Italy’s traditional powers have begun to catch up and overtake the Old Lady. It is incredibly damning to say that a club that signed Cristiano Ronaldo has gotten worse since his arrival, but this is where we are at with Juventus. They signed Ronaldo in 2018 to finally win the Champions League, but not only have they gotten further away from their ultimate goal, but their decade-long dominance of domestic Italian football is also seemingly coming to an end.

The Ronaldo project has colossally failed. And Juventus has no one but themselves to blame for its failure.

Now this failure is not directly because of Ronaldo’s performances. Ronaldo has been scoring goals at a hilariously absurd rate since moving to Turin. Despite having yet to win the Capocannoniere, awarded to the league’s top scorer, since moving to Juve, he has still scored an incredible 92 goals in 121 total appearances in all competitions, which is absurd for a player who is 36 with the amount of miles on the proverbial odometer as Ronaldo has. He is still incredibly good, and in there lies a problem.

You might be looking at me like I am insane right now. Ronaldo being too good is the problem? Sort of. Ronaldo’s talent is clear, but it has created a scenario where Juventus have become over-reliant on the Portuguese to save them. He is responsible for nearly half of his team’s league goals this season. He is the only one that can really do anything when a big moment is needed, and when teams effectively deal with the threat he provides, as Napoli did in the Coppa Italia Final last season, for example, then Juventus quite often struggle to score. They have runs where other players in the team can pick up some slack, with Paulo Dybala and Federico Chiesa probably being their main non-Ronaldo attacking threats, but quite often it is clear that Juventus has invested so heavily into Ronaldo that they are forcing him to carry the club on his back. None of this is Ronaldo’s fault, obviously, but it shows how Juventus have fallen as a team, and it shows the level of complacency the club has reached when it comes to investing in talent to bring into the team.

On that thread of investment, we are beginning to see the most serious problem with building a team around someone like Ronaldo and generally beginning to see the issues with Juventus’ investment over the last few years. Ronaldo was a very serious financial investment, as his €88 million transfer fee is piled on top of his alleged €31 million yearly net wage (net wage means that is his wage after taxes, so Juventus are actually paying him more than that). In the age of Financial Fair Play, that is an insane amount of money to put into just one player. Juve’s annual revenue pales in comparison to the Manchester City’s or PSG’s or Manchester United’s of the world, only being listed as the 10th richest club in the world in Deloitte’s 2021 Money League table, narrowly ahead of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, and Atlético Madrid. When you do not have colossal revenue and invest so much of that money into one player, it is hard to build a capable team and stay within FFP regulations.

That is not to say they have not tried, and it is worth critiquing their efforts to build around their newly-acquired superstar. They did make some good moves, with Matthijs de Ligt, Dejan Kulusevski, and Weston McKennie looking like future stars, but there are so many poor decisions that have only made an already bad financial situation even worse. The club was weighed down by several very costly contracts, and Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey remain as the peak examples of players costing the club significant wages while not consistently producing at the level they need to be. They needed to cut their losses in order to get Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Blaise Matuidi off of the wage bill, letting all three players leave the club for free so they can stop paying their exuberant wages. They were unable to make major permanent moves in this last summer window due to this financial difficulty, as well as the financial difficulty caused by the COVID Pandemic. They were only able to bring in Álvaro Morata, Weston McKennie, and Federico Chiesa on loan deals, and they failed to bring in their main transfer target, Lyon’s Houssem Aouar, when they could not convince OL to accept a loan for the midfielder. They had to manufacture some wild swap deal with equally desperate Barcelona just to get Miralem Pjanić’s wages off of the books. Yes, this mainly reflects poorly on the sporting staff at Juventus and the poor long-term planning that has taken place since signing Ronaldo, but they are clearly hamstrung by the financial investment that Ronaldo requires, and it seems to be nearly impossible to effectively build a team around a colossal superstar of Ronaldo’s level in the era of Financial Fair Play.

So where does the buck stop? You cannot blame the managers. The three Champions League failures came under three different managers, with Max Allegri losing to Ajax, Maurizio Sarri losing to Lyon, and now Andrea Pirlo losing to Porto. You cannot really blame Ronaldo because, despite his wage clearly holding Juventus back to a certain extent, he is still performing at an incredibly high level. Is this Juventus team good enough to meet the standard that Juventus should be held to? No, but that is not on the players, it should be on the people who brought them to the club. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici took a team that made the Champions League Final twice and were regular Italian champions and made them worse, seemingly out of complacency and arrogance rather than anything else. Signing Ronaldo was an incredible statement showing how far Juventus have come since Calciopoli, but they failed to put the team around him needed to win the Champions League. After Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio left the club, it was clear Juventus needed a massive investment into their midfield. Not only were the players that were brought in not good enough to fill that void, but they were signed on egregious wages that made them difficult to move on. Matthijs de Ligt is a phenomenal player, but there is a very clear difference in the Bianconeri defense when he is not in the team, as was the case against Porto. They have assembled a team that seemingly struggles to create chances at times, all looking to Ronaldo to save them.

The way the club handled the managerial situation is even more perplexing. Sacking Max Allegri is a fair enough decision. Allegri’s practicality has been a backbone of Juve’s recent success, but I understand a desire to bring in a more attacking manager with the team’s acquisition of a talent like Ronaldo. Sarri was a logical choice, but only giving him a year? What in the world did they think Sarri could do in just one season with a squad that was clearly very flawed? Yes, losing to Lyon was embarrassing, but did Agnelli and Paratici really expect Juve to go much further in the competition? Why would that not dictate a need for Sarri to be given more time to fully implement his vision on the team? Ok, maybe things were going wrong behind the scenes, maybe a change was necessary. There were a few names on the market for managers that would be a very good fit for Juventus, Mauricio Pochettino being the main one. Sacking Sarri was a little perplexing, but they could finally get it right with this next move.

But Andrea Pirlo? Really? Are you actually serious?

Pirlo is probably a wonderful person. He was a phenomenal player and he is undoubtedly a great football mind, but the man has zero years of managerial experience. He was hired as Juve’s U-23 coach, his first job in football management, in late July of 2020 and then hired as their first team manager nine days later. He literally earned his UEFA Pro License two months into the job. You did not have to do this, Juve. There is no reason in my mind that justifies this unless every single remotely qualified candidate turned them down, which would be baffling to me. Were they waiting to see if Pep Guardiola left Manchester City? Why? What is the point of throwing away a year of Ronaldo on the off chance someone leaves their job? None of this makes sense to me.

I also refuse to believe that Pirlo would have been considered for this position if his name was not Andrea Pirlo, if his name did not carry the incredible weight that it does within Juventus and throughout Italian football. Do not get me wrong, Pirlo could still become a great manager, but it is painfully clear that he was not ready for this. The whole movement of clubs hiring former players as managers has always been a bit ridiculous to me, but this is easily the most ridiculous of all of them. Just because they were a great player does not mean they will be a great manager. Pirlo is a brilliant football mind, but there is so much more that is required to be a top level manager than just being a good football mind, and these are skills that will not be met by just hiring a former player with very little experience. He has not shown the necessary game management and squad management skills needed to be successful at the highest level, and he is getting less out of this team than either Sarri or Allegri did. Juventus should also not be the place for a new guy to learn on the job. If Juventus needed a manager that was going to help them win now, as demonstrated by how short of a leash they gave Sarri, then hiring Pirlo is unbelievably insane and irresponsible. You are not only throwing a green manager into the deep end for no reason, but you are ruining his legacy with one of his former clubs for no reason.

Agnelli and Paratici had the golden opportunity of having Cristiano Ronaldo in their team and ruined it with their illogical decisions with player recruitment and managerial hiring. Juventus have not only gotten further away from their goal of winning the Champions League, but their grip on Italian football is now weakening. Yes, the financial implications of building a team around a player like Ronaldo is significant and likely makes the job much harder, but the arrogance of Juventus’ board and staff after years of dominance over Serie A has caused them to slip up at the most crucial moment. They could still end up winning the Scudetto this season, and they are still one of the best teams in Italy, but it is clear that Juventus have gotten worse over the last few years while the other major Italian powers, as well as the big teams around Europe, have gotten better. Juventus’ incredible business sense allowed them to sign a Ferrari-level player, but their complacency led to them putting that Ferrari engine in the body of a 40 year old Ford truck and still expecting it to run perfectly.

Ronaldo’s contract runs out at the end of next season. If things continue on this trajectory, what motivation does he have to stay? Why would he not leave on a free transfer and move to a club where he can win the Champions League again?

Why would he not try to leave the club this summer? What reason does he have to give this failing project one more season?

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Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

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

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

João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal

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

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

Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain

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

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

Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France

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

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

Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France

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

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

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

Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France

Yes, another French center back.

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

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

Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England

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

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

Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal

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

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

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

Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands

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

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

Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy

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

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

Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina

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

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

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

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

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Turning a Corner?

After a difficult start to the season, are Manchester United showing signs of life?

To say the season started poorly for Manchester United would be an understatement.

The Red Devils started the season with a stunning 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace and followed that up with a fairly fortunate 3-2 win against Brighton and a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham. There seemed to be a crisis in Manchester, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was firmly planted on the hot seat.

There were some good results, but they came with caveats. United got some wins, but you could always respond to the result with a “yeah, but…”. Yeah, United did beat Newcastle, but it took them a while to take the lead and pull away from a fairly mediocre Newcastle side. Yeah, they went to Paris and beat PSG, but that was such an awful performance from PSG, and there are so many issues with that team and within that club right now (enough to write a completely different article by itself), and it was a largely pedestrian performance from Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. But here stood the biggest test of the season: RB Leipzig, last season’s Champions League semifinalist and considered to be one of the most balanced and complete teams in Europe, led by the young star of football management in Julian Nagelsmann, who traveled to Old Trafford as favorites. Despite the loss of Timo Werner, the Red Bulls retained much of their talented core, including young budding stars Dayot Upamecano, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku.

And United beat the brakes off of them. A complete performance. A strong first half paired with an incredibly dominant second half, and this was not an accident. United were the better team from minute one, putting out arguably their best performance of the season and one of the best of Solskjær’s reign. And in this game, we finally got a demonstration of something people had been calling out for Ole to add to his managerial repertoire for a while. He made a tactical adjustment, making the first move and forcing the opponent to respond. He made actual genuine tactical adjustments.

The “no tactics, just vibes” manager, in both of United’s Champions League matches to be fair, made significant changes to the starting XI, formation, and overall tactical game plan, and in both matches, the changes worked perfectly. The three at the back used against PSG allowed the team to absorb the threat of Neymar and Mbappe while maintaining the width needed to break on the counter. Again, that win can also be pinned on a very poor PSG performance, but it was still a notable tactical decision that paid off. Against Leipzig, Ole saw a team that wants to attack on the counter with pace, utilizing a back three and attacking fullbacks to break forward quickly. United needed to be able to control the tempo of the match, and Ole decided to play with a midfield diamond in order to overload the center of the pitch and control the tempo and possession more often against a team that only really fielded two midfielders. Matić played as a holding midfielder sitting in front of the defense, while Pogba and Fred played as more box-to-box number eights and Donny van de Beek played behind the strikers. It worked wonders, as Leipzig were just not able to get anything going their way early on. Following Greenwood’s opener, Leipzig changed to a 4-2-3-1, but it was ultimately not enough to get back into the game. Nagelsmann himself admitted that he did not anticipate United playing with four in midfield, as that is not a formation they had used previously. Being unprepared for this team, Nagelsmann and Leipzig were already a step behind their opponents, and United punished them for it.

United had never really played with a midfield diamond before, that is correct. But if you remember our piece from earlier regarding United’s purchase of van de Beek, I highlighted the options and variety that United could now utilize. Many questioned why United signed van de Beek, saying he did not fill a need in this team. Well, now we saw the answer. Having a player not only of van de Beek’s individual quality, but also of his level of intelligence and tactical flexibility, allows United to deploy a midfield diamond, a much different look compared to their 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 previously utilized under Solskjær. This allows United to have a more balanced and solid midfield while not surrendering their attacking options, and van de Beek has the ability to realistically play in any of the positions in this midfield, though he would likely thrive more as a 10 or box-to-box eight, and provide a level of attacking creativity and work rate needed to make everything work. While it was not a scintillating performance from the Dutchman, who came off in the 68th minute, his presence in the midfield was important in making the formation work. United’s midfield this season has struggled to find the right balance that allowed their star players to make an impact, and they seem to have found that sense of balance here. With less of a defensive responsibility, Pogba was able to get forward and have an influence on the attack, assisting Mason Greenwood’s opening goal. Bruno Fernandes was able to come on in the second half and make an impact in attack without worrying about what was going on behind him. It worked, and it was important in throwing Leipzig off of their game plan. However, it would be unfair to say it was only the formation that had an impact and allowed United’s midfield to be this effective.

No, we must have an entire section to offer a special shoutout to a player that has gone under the radar quite a bit recently. Fred, the midfielder that Jose Mourinho initially did not want, has become one of United’s most influential players. He is not glamorous, he will not score spectacular goals or provide breath-taking assists, but he is important. He does the work that goes mostly unnoticed when United are playing well. He keeps things ticking over in midfield, winning tackles when needed and playing the safe and necessary passes needed to recycle possession or get the dynamic attacking players into good positions to counter. His presence provided a bit of balance and calmness to the midfield, providing someone able to do the work needed to give players like Pogba and Fernandes and Rashford the platform to succeed. This is not new either, he has been at this level for a while now. Back in December, when United’s resurgence first began, it was the midfield pairing of him and Scott McTominay that began to provide balance to a fragile midfield. Against Sevilla, in a match United fans will likely want to forget, he was easily the best United player on the pitch. Should United stay in this midfield diamond, or at least keep it in the tactical portfolio, having a player like Fred play in this role will help them maintain superiority in midfield, especially against teams like Leipzig, who sacrifice midfield possession for speed. His remarkable turnaround from when he arrived under Mourinho is a testament to his ability and determination as a footballer, and it is something that deserves more recognition than he has received. The victory over Leipzig only reinforced the skill and necessity of Fred in this team.

There is obviously more to talk about from the match, but it seems ancillary to those two points. Marcus Rashford’s historic hat trick was a remarkable achievement for a player and man that can seemingly do no wrong. Anthony Martial finding the back of the net, even if only from a penalty, could do wonders in restoring his confidence. Mason Greenwood scoring and playing well in this second striker role bodes well for his ongoing development. However, the real reasons that gave me hope for a United resurgence were stated previously. This match showed growth in tactical management from Ole and a depth in personnel and performance that United have lacked when compared to their top four counterparts.

But why is this a question, then? Why are we questioning whether United have truly shown signs of life? It was laid out in front of us against Leipzig, right? Well, that is true. But the unfortunate theme that has been a constant for United since Ole took over as caretaker manager is that we really do not know what the real United looks like. Under the Norwegian, United have had runs of brilliance and runs of mediocrity. For a few matches, they look like they are one or two pieces shy of being title contenders, but then, almost on a dime, they turn into a team that look like they are clinging onto their Top Six status for dear life. When Ole was caretaker manager, they went on that now famous 12 match unbeaten run in the league, but only won four matches from the beginning of March to the end of the season. The following season, they were inconsistent at best and awful at worst, but in the second half of the season, especially after the league returned from lockdown, they were arguably the best team on form in the league. Since then, they started this season awfully, but paired that poor start with two fantastic Champions League wins.

So which is the real United?

Well, no one really knows. But for United to put these doubts to bed, they need to kick on from these wins and show an actual run of consistency in form and performance that they have not been able to go on since Ole got the permanent job. Their next two league matches, at home against Arsenal and away to Everton, will be crucial for their season. They are about as close to being “must-win” matches as can be for matches in early November. As much as overall league placement is important, as both teams will likely rival United in the hunt for European places, these two matches are more about laying down a standard for what this United team should be, and what we all know they can be should they find the level of consistency they need.

It is all well and good getting that big, headline win. Spurs know all about that this season. But if you are not able to maintain that high level of performance consistently, your team will never truly be a contender for major honors. It is not about the statement win, it is about what happens after. Ole has done well to get to this point, but now he has to figure out what happens now. United have not awoken from unconsciousness, but there is a heartbeat.

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Super Bayern

How Hansi Flick’s Bavarian Revolution turned a season nearing disaster into one of complete European conquest…

Feature Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Bayern Munich are champions of Europe for the sixth time in their history. It was never really in doubt, was it?

Aside from a few scares against Lyon in the semifinal and a tense first half against PSG in the final, it seemed as if Bayern coasted to the Champions League title. They demolished Tottenham, Chelsea, and Barcelona on their way to the final, and looked fairly comfortable against PSG when they got there. They won the league by 13 points and demolished Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal Final. They cruised all the way to a European treble, only the second in Bayern’s storied history, but was there ever really a doubt?

Well, yes there was.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, Bayern’s title defense once looked like it was going off the rails. On November 2, 2019, Bayern were demolished 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bavarians were fourth, their manager, Niko Kovač, had just resigned, and it looked like their season was on the brink of collapse. We were only 10 matches into the league season, but this just felt different. Bayern were very unconvincing throughout the whole season, Leipzig and Gladbach looked like genuine title threats, and this Eintracht loss seemed to indicate that this would be the year that a team not named Bayern went home with the Meisterschale.

Appointed to replace Kovač was his assistant, Hans-Dieter “Hansi” Flick. The long-time Germany assistant arrived in Bavaria before the season, intended on acting as the number two to Kovač. When things were falling apart, he was thrusted in to act as an interim, righting the ship until Bayern could find a more permanent replacement. Flick was always well-regarded in Germany but lacked major first team managerial experience, and while no one opposed the move, he was working under the assumption that he would only be there temporarily while the club worked to find their next big-name manager. Flick impressed in his interim spell, and while Bayern did lose twice, they strung together enough positive results to get their season back on track, and, with a 4-0 win over Dortmund, showed they still had the quality to win the league. He was given the managerial job until the end of the season, seemingly to give the club more time to find a suitable replacement.

Those two games Bayern lost during Flick’s interim period would be the last two games they would lose the whole season. They would fail to win only once more, a 0-0 draw against Leipzig in February. They won every single other competitive match they played (I am not counting the friendly they lost to Nürnberg), and they averaged scoring about three goals per game during that run. When Kovač was sacked, they had scored 25 league goals through 10 games, and by the end of the season, they had reached 100 league goals. They became the first team to win all of their Champions League matches, a trend that started under Kovač but was accelerated under Flick. A eight-month run that can only be described as absurd has ended with Bayern winning everything under the sun. A season teetering on the brink of disaster has ended with maybe the best Bayern team of the last decade being crowned champions of Europe and completing their second-ever European treble. How did this transformation happen?

This Bavarian revolution revolves around Flick and the incredible changes he was able to make in the short time he has been manager at Bayern. Under previous regimes, there were always seeds of discontent in the Bayern changing room. Veteran players were consistently unhappy with the tactics, changes, and mentality of several previous managers. Specifically under Kovač, many inside and outside of the club were upset with the defensive, reactive style of football the Croatian had been utilizing. Many managers had under-utilized, or completely dropped, Thomas Müller within the team, and they were struggling to replace the departed Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Flick arrived in a tumultuous changing room and seemed to smooth things over. The veterans in the team seemed to lock in step with him, and the rest of the team followed suit. Manuel Neuer, David Alaba, and Jérôme Boateng enjoyed revitalizations in defense, and Thiago Alcântara has emerged as one of the best midfielders in the world, but the main key of this man-management turnaround was the un-shackling of Thomas Müller. The Bavarian-born Müller was taken from an afterthought and made the life-blood of the attack, returning to his Raumdeuter roots and being able to make a difference in all areas of the attack. While Robert Lewandowski got the (deserved) praise for his incredible goalscoring season, Müller glued everything together, with his positioning, intelligent runs, and creative ability on full display. Müller became the Bundesliga’s assist king for the season and broke the league’s single-season assist record, just one of the several records Bayern broke this season.

Flick also passed a significant amount of trust and responsibility onto non-veteran players this season, and they have repaid that trust with some incredible performances. Everyone by now knows the story of Alphonso Davies, the young Canadian who has gone on an incredible journey from Liberian refugee to young stud MLS winger to arguably the best left back in the world before he even turned 20. Davies is genuinely that good, marauding up and down the left side, terrifying opposition defenses while being able to cover his own position exceptionally well, which is truly remarkable for someone who was turned into a left back a few years ago. The “FC Bayern Road Runner”, as Thomas Müller affectionately called him, was so good in such a short amount of time that he displaced former club stalwart left back David Alaba, though the Austrian is currently thriving in a center back role. Further forward, Serge Gnabry has truly emerged as a world-class winger, firing in 12 goals and 10 assists in 31 league matches, as well as 9 goals in only 10 matches in the Champions League. His pace, ability on the ball, cleverness, and underrated ability to pass and shoot with both feet make him such an incredibly deadly attacking player. He has begun to fill the void left by Robben. Joshua Kimmich has emerged as one of the best utility players in the world, able to function incredibly well either as a right back, holding midfielder, or even as a center back if needed. He is a crucial cog in the Bavarian machine, able to link things together between defense, midfield, and attack. When combined, Flick has been able to get the whole team locked into his management and philosophy, creating a motivated and terrifying Bayern team.

Calling this a success story of man management does not give enough credit to Flick, however. He has put together a tactical philosophy that is able to get the best out of his team and play a fluid attacking style and high-press system that forces mistakes, creates plenty of chances, and scores plenty of goals. Flick was always regarded as an intelligent tactical mind in the Germany set-up, and he was able to put that to good use in this role. Bayern attack by utilizing the space in wide areas to create overloads and space for their attacking front four. This space created opportunities for their forwards, which mostly fell to the brutally lethal Robert Lewandowski, but they also found goals from Gnabry, Müller, and others. Defensively, their remaining back three of (usually) Alaba, Boateng, and either Kimmich or Benjamin Pavard were able to hold the line at the back when Davies ventured forward, and the inverse was true of Davies and the other two staying back when the right back ventured forward. Their two holding midfielders also did their fair share of defensive work. Their high press is also a crucial part of how they play, as Barcelona unfortunately learned the hard way. They use their front four to aggressively pursue opposition defenders when they play out of the back, initiating the press when the ball is ushered toward wide areas or toward the goalkeeper. This rapid, fierce pressure in these areas often led to mistakes, creating easy chances and goals. It was not by chance or fluke that Flick’s Bayern scored this ridiculous amount of goals in a short space of time; they are a team designed to play at a quick tempo and score frequently.

Flick also demonstrated at times, namely in the second half against PSG, that he can craft a team that can slow the game down and see out a result. He is able to utilize those center midfielders to slow the pace down by having them get their foot on the ball and slow down the build up play. They are not rapidly looking to fire passes into space in the wide areas, but looking to maintain control and play easier, more methodical passes. Their defensive block was able to limit the chances of the opposition and ensure that, even in close games, it would not be too nervy of a finish. This was done very successfully against the Parisians, as their fearsome front three of Neymar, Mbappé, and Di María hardly got many good looks in attack during that second half. All great teams can play in different ways when situations called for different methods, and all great teams are able to dictate the match to their opponent and force the opposition manager to adapt to their style of play. It only took Bayern about eight months to reach this point under Flick, and they are still able to get so much better.

Bayern being this successful was no accident, but it was also no guarantee. We have seen plenty of talented teams underachieve over the last several years; it really takes the right blend of talent and management for good teams to become great. Bayern’s season was on the brink of disaster back in November, but in only a few months, Hansi Flick has led a revolution, turning an underachieving team into conquerors. The Bavarians are deserved champions of Europe, and Flick has laid the groundwork for a dominant Bayern Munich team on the domestic and continental stages for years to come.

Oh, and this team is adding Leroy Sané next season…

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“Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”

How Olympique Lyonnais shocked the world, completed their biggest ever European win, and stand two games away from eternity…

Feature Image by jorono from Pixabay

Well…did not see this one coming, now did we?

Olympique Lyonnais 3, Manchester City 1. It has been several days, and I still cannot believe that scoreline every time I see it.

Les Gones are, somehow, through to the semifinal of the Champions League. A historic win, brought about by brilliant individual performances and solid management, helped them get here, and they have become one of the biggest positive stories in the football world in a year where we desperately could use a feel-good underdog story.

I wanted to write this because the prevailing narrative surrounding the match in many of places is “Lyon won because Man City got it wrong” or “the biggest story is Pep’s bad tactics”. Peter Drury even said after the match, while viewing the Lyon players celebrating, that “Bayern will be licking their chops”. Yes, Pep did get it massively wrong tactically, and that will not help the narrative that he overthinks big European matches. Yes, Lyon rode their luck a bit, mainly with Raheem Sterling missing an open goal, but there is not a team that has ever won a European Cup without riding their luck. I am here to give Lyon credit, because, in many ways, they got their game plan spot on. This is possibly OL’s biggest ever win as a club in their 70-year existence, and easily the biggest win since owner and club president Jean-Michel Aulas purchased the club in 1987, so let us actually talk about the story of the match.

Firstly, I have to start with a statement that, earlier this season, I would never thought I would have had to make: Rudi Garcia deserves a lot of credit. The much maligned (and often rightly so) OL manager had his game plan and tactics set from the beginning, and unlike his much-criticized counterpart, he got his plan spot on. Garcia planned from the beginning to set the team up defensively, using the quality in midfield and pace in the wide areas to hit City on the counter when they were committed forward. There was light pressure on City when they had the ball in their defensive third, but for the most part, he made sure the team was very organized and compact in midfield and in defense. Central to his game plan were the selection of Maxwel Cornet as the left wing back and Karl Toko-Ekambi and Memphis Depay as the two forwards. Through those three players, and to a lesser extent right wingback Léo Dubois, Lyon had their out ball, an outlet to relieve pressure on the defense and attack space vacated by City. It was through Cornet and Toko-Ekambi’s pace, as well as Depay’s shiftiness on the ball, that Lyon got many of their attacks, and eventually their first goal. City’s weakest part of their team is their defense, and Garcia knew he could make them uncomfortable by countering with pace and directness when their fullbacks were caught up the pitch, creating tough situations for their center backs. This was reflected in the performance, as both Eric García and the often fantastic Aymeric Laporte had very poor matches. He stuck with the same midfield three that got him to this point, and while Bruno Guimarães did not show the same quality he had before the season hiatus, he still joined a midfield three of him, Maxence Caqueret, and Houssem Aouar that were incredibly difficult to get past and all had the ability to make a key pass to release one of the three aforementioned attackers. OL fans have finally gotten to see the Bruno-Aouar-Caqueret midfield they wanted since Bruno’s arrival in January, though it is a shame that Aouar’s impending departure might mean this midfield trio will be short-lived. On top of a correct game plan, Garcia got his substitutions spot on as well. When needed, he brought on Thiago Mendes and Kenny Tete to reinforce a tiring defense and midfield, and the Moussa Dembélé sub obviously worked since he scored twice. Dembélé presented a different forward option from Depay; his ability to get into dangerous areas and ghost in behind defenses allowed him to score the two crucial goals that sent OL through. In every moment and at every turn, Garcia got his plan spot on.

Redemption is seemingly a theme of this Champions League run for Lyon, as Garcia is not the only target of fan ire that is performing under the pressure of the brightest lights. It was only months ago that Lyon players got into a scuffle with the club’s ultras over a banner telling center back Marcelo to leave the club. Now, Marcelo has been one of Lyon’s best players. He came up with massive tackles and big blocks when needed, and his ability to get into the heads of his opponents made him incredibly effective against City. He was a brick wall, back at the level of his best with Besiktas and Lyon a few years ago. Fernando Marçal was also fantastic, fitting into the role of a third center back very well. His aggressive interceptions helped break up attacks, and he fit in well with the defensive unit. Maxwel Cornet was one of the main heroes from the City match, scoring the first goal of the game. Cornet seemingly turns on another gear when he sees the blue City shirt, scoring four of Lyon’s seven ever goals against the Citizens. He worked tirelessly down the left hand side, being in the right place at the right time at every turn, including being there for his first goal. He put in maximum effort defensively as well, meaning he really covered the entirety of that left side in an exhausting performance. His pace caused City problems, and he was often there to catch Kyle Walker out of position. Many questioned the permanent acquisition of Karl Toko-Ekambi, and I still do not think it was the right decision to sign him and sell Martin Terrier and Amine Gouiri, but it was his pace on the counter that helped cause so many issues for the City defense. Many of the maligned OL players are now some of their best performers, another insane turnaround that not many saw coming.

The redemption stories in this team are great, but the story of Olympique Lyonnais is always the young players that come through their academy. It is so ingrained into the culture of the club that it is in their nickname, with Les Gones literally translating to “the kids”. This trend has continued, with Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret shining on the biggest stage for OL. Avid readers of this blog already know about Max, who announced himself to the world in Lyon’s match against Juventus. He was at his best again against City, with his energy and fearlessness helping him defensively, while his passing ability helped Lyon relieve pressure on their defense. Aouar is a much sought-after asset, with City being among the several clubs wanting to secure his signature. He demonstrated exactly why against the Citizens, being arguably the best player on the pitch in the biggest match he has played for his boyhood club. His remarkable confidence and ability on the ball, fearlessness in the tackle, and incredible fighting desire translated into a fantastic performance. He also demonstrated his incredible passing range, playing the inch-perfect ball to set up Dembélé’s first goal. His dribbling ability led to him winning several crucial fouls that helped relieve pressure on the defense. While he is not the most physical player, his intelligence and positional awareness allowed him to recover the ball several times. He was brilliant, demonstrating that his mind was not at all turned by any transfer speculation. If this was one of his final matches for OL, it will be one remembered for years to come. If he were to leave this transfer window, he leaves as a hero, regardless of whether Lyon go on to win the competition.

Which brings us to our final point, what happens now? Surely this is the end of their Cinderella story, right? Bayern Munich will destroy them in the semifinal, right? Well, maybe. Bayern are obviously the favorites in the semifinal, and their 8-2 demolition of Barcelona has cemented them as arguably the best attacking team remaining in the competition, but they are not infallible. Yes, their attack will cause Lyon’s defense issues, but their high defensive line can be exploited. Lyon’s more direct, counter-attacking style will likely do a better job of getting at that defense and exposing the high line than Barcelona did and, likely, better than City could. If Lyon are able to execute their game plan at the level they did against City, and if they are able to get the same level of excellent individual performances that they had against City, there is a chance they could cause Bayern quite a few issues. They also fit into the classic “nothing left to lose” stereotype. OL are quite literally playing with house money at this point, they have nothing to fear and nothing left to lose. There is no weight of expectation upon them, and those teams are often the most dangerous. I am not saying Lyon will win, I do still think Bayern will win the match, but there is a chance. I would not immediately dismiss OL’s chances.

After writing this article, I am still in disbelief that this match actually happened. This was a historic result for an institutional club in French football, a result in a tournament that has been an overall success for French football as a whole, and OL deserve the credit and celebration for this result. They have been one of the biggest feel-good stories in football this year, and if they were to go on and win the Champions League, it would be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, story in the history of the competition. They are going into the semifinal as massive underdogs, but…

…the one thing that we know about football is that you never truly know what is going to happen.

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Remember the name. You will be hearing it a lot more very soon…

Lyon’s Champions League Round of 16 triumph over Juventus took the football world by surprise. Very few people gave them any chance of moving on, and it seemed that the second leg was poised for another Cristiano Ronaldo heroic hat trick to send the Bianconero through. However, Lyon moved on by the skin of their teeth, through grit, fight, team defensive solidity, and a little bit of luck. This tenacity and fight seemed to be epitomized by one player, a kid making his European debut for his boyhood club.

Welcome to the big time, Maxence Caqueret. We welcome another in a long line of Lyon academy graduates to the spotlights of European football.

Born in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon, Caqueret came through Les Gones‘ famous academy, emerging very early on as a promising young talent. His insane work rate, ability in the tackle, and fighting desire, despite his small frame, helped elevate him to being among the brightest stars in the academy teams. He also demonstrated leadership qualities at an early age, eventually becoming the captain of many Lyon youth teams. It seemed to be a question of when, not if, the youngster would make his break in the first team.

Despite some barriers to entry and some controversial management of the youth team promotions, Caqueret finally got his chance in the first team this season. Despite limited chances, he shone as a bright light of a disappointing season for OL. The tenacity, fight, and tackling ability he was known for in the youth teams came through, winning tackles and intercepting passes at a rate higher than almost any midfielder in Ligue 1 during his brief run in the first team. He also demonstrated a fantastic range of passing and attacking intelligence, able to act as a bridge between defense and attack and fill multiple roles in the midfield, not just being a ball-winner. Consistent time in the first team seemed to be blocked by other players, however, as Lucas Tousart and Thiago Mendes still featured heavily, and the addition of Bruno Guimarães seemed to present another roadblock. Despite this, it was clear that Lyon had another academy gem on their hands, a secret really only known within France.

Then, the season was ended early due to the COVID pandemic. Tousart left the club for Hertha Berlin shortly after. Lyon still had to prepare for their Champions League match against Juventus, but the look of the midfield was unclear. Tousart had scored in the first leg against Juventus, so his absence would be an interesting twist in the tie. Garcia decided to take a risk, opting for the 20-year-old Caqueret to make his European debut, playing in a midfield alongside Guimarães and Houssem Aouar. The more experienced pairing of Thiago Mendes and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde were left on the bench, and it was a gamble that paid off.

Caqueret shone in the heart of the Lyon midfield, arguably being one of the team’s best performers. He was relentless defensively, hounding Pjanić and Rabiot in midfield and winning the ball back repeatedly. He was often going against the larger Rabiot, but his fearlessness shone through. Notably, late in the match, he would rise higher than Rabiot to win a header and draw a foul, showing a lack of fear in going body-to-body with the 6’4″ Rabiot. His technical ability was also on full display, using his passing and dribbling ability to get out of trouble and relieve the pressure on the Lyon defense. There were multiple moments where he had the composure to dribble around an opposing player or quickly change direction with a Juventus player bearing down on him to win the ball back. The most notable example of this was an instance in the second half when he received the ball at the top of the box with three Juventus players going after him. He quickly took a touch and made a move to beat all three players, finding himself in the space needed to take a shot at goal, which was deflected. This is a kid who is 20 years old and has played a little more than a dozen professional matches playing with the composure, maturity, and mental understanding of a veteran player with years of professional and European experience.

He was all over the pitch, contributing up front and defensively. It was a mind-blowing performance, one that launches the career of a young player into the stratosphere. He was technically brilliant, tactically on point the whole match, and physically gave his all for his boyhood club. He was so good that he stayed on for the whole match, with Aouar being the midfielder Rudi Garcia chose to withdraw. He was the embodiment of that Lyon performance in Turin, where they fought and clawed their way to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. He was my man of the match from that game, and clearly he was a player who caught the eye of several media members and other football fans watching to see what Ronaldo might do.

Football world, meet Maxence Caqueret. Learn his name now, because I guarantee this will not be the last time you read or hear it.

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Football is A Universal Language – A short story of how we became friends

UNC Chapel Hill Campus, by Jack Transou, February 2020

It has been almost 3 months since I have contributed to anything on this site. School has taken up most of my time and committing myself to write weekly articles, let alone daily ones, has been an uphill task. Jack has tanked the workload well has consistently contributed to this platform, and I am thankful that he has kept this blog somewhat alive. Thankfully, the semester has finally ended, and I can focus on writing about football again – oh well, so I hoped.

Football has been on a standstill for a while now, a long while. I was certain that leagues would have resumed by now. Yet, as each week passes, the pandemic only seems to be intensifying. Even worse, leagues are legitimately considering pulling the plug on this season’s campaign. The Dutch Eredivisie got cancelled and very recently, so has the French Ligue 1. Now I’ll go over why this is a pressing issue for other leagues in another article but I’ll say this much for now: Life without football feels so empty. I do not watch every United game, nor do I keep up to date with the latest rumours. Still, being unable to catch up on new highlights nor tune in to any football over the weekends has made me feel incomplete.

Nevertheless, that does not mean there is nothing to write on. I have been away for a while now and many issues that I wanted to raise remain unsaid. Top of that list (of unsaid things) has got to be how jack and myself met in UNC, Chapel Hill. So I am taking this opportunity to share the tale of our friendship, one that is grounded on our love for football, beer, and military history.

2018 was the first time I set foot in the United States. Living in America was a dream come true, and studying for an academic year was indeed something I was extremely excited about. However, I had to look for a football kaki (a buddy to watch matches with), and I found no one to catch it with during my first semester. Sure, I met a few people who were fans of the sport and followed European teams, but it was in early 2019 when I met Jack Transou – someone who was as passionate, if not more, about the sport as I was. I knew I found the right Football kaki.

It couldn’t be sheer coincidence that we were in 2 classes together that semester and we saw each other in lecture every single day. Instead of paying attention to our lectures, we were busy watching football matches. Jack will argue against this – he would probably say he paid attention to the lecturers AND watched the matches. Living in Singapore, I did not have the luxury of watching a lot of games when most games were late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. So, you can imagine how great it felt to conveniently watch games in the middle of the day.

If it weren’t during lectures, we’d hop over to Four Corners to catch Champions League matches. It was ritual for us to grab a bucket of beer and some cheese fries with bacon bits every game. By far the best experience I had was seeing my beloved Manchester United during their Champions League Round of 16 clash with PSG (or as Jack puts it, the Qatari overlords of Paris). United came from behind and won 3-1 in the away leg of that tantalizing fixture. Seeing Marcus Rashford score that Penalty is still unbelievable, considering how dreadful that United team was.

Jack once touted the idea of writing a football blog to me. I remember this happened when we were eating lunch at the bottom of Lenoir Dining Hall (something we routinely did after lecture every Tuesday and Thursday). I didn’t think it would ever materialize, but a few months later, SocckerKakis was born. Jack and I may be thousands of miles apart, but we remain connected through this blog. It is a platform for us to air our views but also an outlet for us to grow our unique friendship.

Champions League Round of 16 Preview Part 3 (3/10-3/11)

A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg matches…

Tuesday 3/10

RB Leipzig vs. Tottenham

None of this is really ideal for Spurs, is it?

But first, let’s talk about the Germans. Things are not entirely going great for them. Some dropped points in the league has probably handed Bayern the title, but Leipzig are still in a race to guarantee a spot in the Champions League for next season. They gave some rest to some key players, including Timo Werner, in their previous match against Wolfsburg, so they should come into the second leg with a near-full strength team. Werner is obviously the danger man in this team, with his goal in North London being the only difference between the two sides, but Christopher Nkunku will also be seen as a difference-making player in this Leipzig team. Nominated for the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month award this month, the Frenchman has dazzled this season with his turn of pace, ability on the ball, and knack to find a key pass. The Spurs defense, which has improved but is still not great under Mourinho, will have to work to limit his ability to pick a pass and find the forwards. Leipzig do not feel pressured to score, as Spurs need to score twice to overhaul the Germans’ away goals advantage, but come on, this is Leipzig we are talking about. The Red Bulls always play an attacking style, so they could be fancied to score in this match. Nagelsmann will just have to find a balance between looking for a second goal and preserving a lead, as he does not want control of this tie to run away from him.

Oh no, Spurs. Oh no, indeed. One point from their last nine available, as well as a bad FA Cup defeat to Norwich on penalties, is one thing entirely, but on top of all of that, January signing Steven Bergwijn is likely out for the season with a serious ankle injury. For those keeping score at home, that is now five of Spurs’ seven leading scorers either injured or, in Christian Eriksen’s case, no longer with the team. Not an ideal situation to be in when you are going into a Champions League second leg where you must score at least two goals to move on. Well, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, the pressure is on you. Spurs have found some form of defensive solidity with the move to use Eric Dier as a center back, but they are still far from a defensively solid team. Burnley’s near dominance, especially in the first half, highlighted the many issues with this Spurs team outside of their injured goalscorers. Not even mentioned among their issues at the beginning of this paragraph, but Jose Mourinho’s very public dispute with midfielder Tanguy Ndombele is not going to help out his team in this situation. Spurs will travel to the former East Germany as strong underdogs. Mourinho will have to tap into whatever European magic Mauricio Pochettino found in this team in order to have any hope of moving on. Their likely strategy will be a defensive and counter attacking set up, deploying the five-at-the-back formation they used against Burnley and relying on the pace of Lucas on the counter. Spurs have a mountain to climb here, and it is possible, given the relatively poor form of their opposition, that they can overcome this trial, but it is not likely.

Prediction: I think it is safe to say that neither of these teams will be favorites to lift the trophy come May, but Leipzig are definitely the better team on paper of the two. While I do admit that football is definitely not played on paper, and Spurs do have a chance here, I think this will not be a massive challenge for Nagelsmann’s team. Leipzig move on, Spurs’ season is over.

RB Leipzig 2-0 Tottenham

Valencia vs. Atalanta

Speaking of longshots, hola Valencia…

I mean, they lost the first leg 4-1. Yes, they got the away goal, but this is quite the mountain for los Ches to climb. Overall, their recent league form has been inconsistent following a strong 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid. A thumping at the hands of Real Sociedad was paired with a too-close-for-comfort win over a struggling Betis team and a draw to also struggling Alaves. Injuries have ravaged Albert Celades’ team, with them now being without forward Maxi Gomez until April. He joins center back Ezequiel Garay on the injury list, but, in good news for Celades, he will have Cristiano Piccini and Manu Vallejo both fit and available for selection. This still does not solve the biggest issue at the heart of the Valencia team, which is that they give up too many good chances to their opposition. While it is entirely possible that Valencia score one, maybe even two, goals in this match, it is hard to imagine them being able to keep Atalanta from scoring. They can take some comfort knowing they have a strong record at home in European competition, but this will not be a normal home match. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Spanish and UEFA authorities have ordered this match to be played behind closed doors. Valencia will not be able to be boosted by what was likely to be a red-hot, hostile atmosphere at the Estadio Mestalla. Seemingly everything has been working against Valencia going into this game. If they are to move on, they will have to put out a historic performance. In a pretty famous previous Champions League tie between an Italian and Spanish team, it was the Italian team, Roma, who overcame a 4-1 first leg defeat to move on to the next round on away goals against the Spanish team, Barcelona. The roles will have to be reversed here.

Atalanta are also being affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, as the Bergamasque side has not played since the beginning of the month. In that game, however, they scored seven goals, so it is fair to say that, on the field at least, they are in tip-top shape. It might be safe to assume that the virus has taken a toll on the team, however. Being located in Lombardy, the center of the virus epidemic in Italy, the government restrictions have probably affected the day-to-day activities of the club, players, and staff. It is not business as usual for Atalanta. Obviously, there are more important things than football, and this virus has had a massive impact on Italy and on the lives of millions around the world, but, for this specific blog, it is a fair assumption to make. Going into this game, Gian Piero Gasperini knows he has some breathing room, knowing Valencia must score three times and keep a clean sheet in order to move on, but, with the suspension of Serie A, he has no reason to not name a first-choice team. Rafael Toloi is the only injury concern in the team, but the Brazilian will probably be able to feature for la Dea in some manner. Star forward Duvan Zapata, who was on the bench for the first leg, should start the second leg after scoring a hat trick in the aforementioned seven-goal demolition of Lecce. Like Nagelsmann in the Leipzig-Spurs game, there is some sense of Gasperini needing to balance going for more goals with defending his lead, but with the sheer potency of this Atalanta team, it is very hard to believe that they will not score at least one more goal.

Prediction: It would be an incredible story for Valencia to move on, but I just do not see it. There have been several very famous Remontadas in previous Champions League history, but there is too much going against Valencia for this game to add another famous comeback. Valencia should score, but so should Atalanta. The Italians will move on easily.

Valencia 1-3 Atalanta

Wednesday 3/11

Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid

*Insert cheesy tagline about European nights at Anfield here*

Yes, Liverpool have lost a few games. I do not think anyone saw their loss to Watford coming, and, while we all know the disdain Jürgen Klopp holds for England’s cup competitions, it was still surprising the degree with which they lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup. Their win against Bournemouth, paired with the knowledge that their league title quest is almost complete, will do much to restore the Reds’ confidence, as will the reassurance of knowing that they will be playing at Anfield, where they have been comfortable regardless of the challenge they face, but this is not a guarantee. Atleti got under their skin in the first leg, and they will have to devise a way to get around the proverbial parked Colchonero bus that will be in front of them. Klopp will likely be relieved by the return of captain Jordan Henderson, who missed the last four games with an injury he picked up in the first leg of this tie. The Englishman has quietly become one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, and he is crucial for how that Liverpool midfield operates. With goalkeeper Alisson Becker still sidelined due to injury, they will have to rely on Adrian once again between the posts. The Spaniard has had some issues in previous games, and he may not face that many attacks from Atleti this game, but Liverpool need him to be secure when he faces challenge. Another Atleti goal could make this lead almost insurmountable, given the Spaniards’ defensive reputation.

I do not think Atleti anticipated being in this situation going into the second leg. Their win against Liverpool in the first leg was fairly improbable, and outside observers would think that big victory would help Atleti kick on in the league, right? Well…that is not quite the case. Following that win, they did add another big win in the league, a 3-1 triumph over top four rival Villarreal, but followed that up with two disappointing draws to Espanyol and Sevilla. Those two matches were microcosms of Atleti’s season, with their defense not always being good enough when the attack finds the goals, as their attack is not always good enough when the defense gives them the chance to win the game. The Liverpool game is different, though, and their league struggles may not be fully reflective of their ability to leave Anfield with a result. The basis of Atletico’s style, the very essence of what makes Cholismo what it is, is the idea that Atleti are the underdogs that must resist the attacks of a larger force. Atleti’s struggles under Diego Simeone, historically, have come from times when they were forced to play a more expansive style against a “smaller” team, while their best performances came when they embraced Cholismo playing against a “bigger” team. On top of this, Atleti, especially when they embrace that underdog mentality, become the anti-Liverpool. Liverpool were unable to create many clear cut chances in Madrid because Atleti robbed them of their most threatening aspect, the ability to press and win the ball high up the pitch, leading to uneven attacks where the pace and dynamism of their front three causes mayhem. Atleti scored a very early goal and demanded the Liverpool team get around a deep lying block. Knowing they have this early lead, Atleti will likely see what they can get early on in the game, but spend most of the game playing on the defensive and aiming to frustrate Liverpool. It has worked previously, and it can work again. If they concede, however, then they run the risk of losing control quickly.

Prediction: There is no guarantee here for Liverpool. This will be a very tough match for them. While Atleti have their own issues, they have shown their ability to formulate and execute the perfect gameplan to shut down a team like Liverpool. They have also gotten healthier since the first leg. This is a very intriguing match up in many ways, but weird things tend to happen at Anfield. The bounces tend to go Liverpool’s way. Call it witchcraft, luck, or “European nights at Anfield”, I think this is going to go Liverpool’s way.

Liverpool 2-0 Atletico Madrid

PSG vs. Borussia Dortmund

The battle of the European wunderkinds. Will PSG be able to cast aside their European skeletons in the closet, or will they suffer another humiliation on the continental stage?

PSG have safely won the league, there is no real reason to doubt that. Their goal was always the Champions League, however, and they are in a very difficult situation. The Parisians were incredibly disappointing in the first leg, with Neymar being the only player who really covered himself in any glory. They will not be benefitted by the amount of goals they have conceded recently. A total of 11 goals conceded in five matches against Lyon (twice), Nantes, Amiens, and Bordeaux is not exactly the form your defense needs to be in going into an important European match against a team with a very good attack. The availability of Thiago Silva is also a massive doubt. While it is possible he is fit enough to feature, they could likely have to rely on Abdou Diallo or youngster Tanguy Kouassi for this match. They will also be without Marco Verratti and Thomas Meunier, who miss out due to suspension. With off-pitch disputes between Thomas Tuchel and Kylian Mbappe, as well as questions about Tuchel’s future in Paris, also circulating through the media, this seems to have the makings of another Parisian European meltdown. Where this situation is different, however, is the form of their attack. Unlike their loss to Manchester United last season, their entire attack, including Neymar, is fit and able to take part. They are beginning to iron out some issues in their 4-2-4, and they are beginning to get the most out of both Mbappe and Neymar in the formation. The introduction of Pablo Sarabia into the team has also made a massive impact and provided more balance to a team that was often too attacking and exposed at the back. Dortmund’s defense, while improved, is not exactly stacked with talent, so PSG should fancy their chances to score, given the amount of firepower they have going forward. Disappointingly, as Valencia are not able to lean on the support from their home crowd, PSG will also be without the backing of a home crowd at the Parc des Princes, as the match has been ordered to be played behind closed doors due to the Coronavirus outbreak. While PSG have had some notable disappointments in Europe, they have also had some major successes, and the basis of some of those successful European nights was a hostile atmosphere at home. Atmosphere does make a difference, and playing this match behind closed doors, while probably necessary, is a disadvantage for PSG. They will have to hope for a worse performance from the Dortmund defense, especially from ex-PSG center back Dan-Axel Zagadou, and to outscore the Dortmund team.

The beginning of this paragraph will be the only mention I give to Erling Haland in the Dortmund section of this preview. Yes, he has been incredible, but that has been covered and has not been the driving story of BVB’s last few matches. Jadon Sancho, however, has been the omnipresent force that has driven Dortmund forward in the last month or so. He has probably been involved in a goal in every game in the last month, and the Englishman is undoubtedly enjoying his best season as a professional footballer, going into a summer where he will be the most wanted man in Europe. But that is for later, and right now, Sancho will be the key man for Dortmund if they want to move on to the quarterfinals. The story that Sancho is now covering up, having been the story covered up by Haland, is that now, the Dortmund defense may not be completely terrible. Having been a mess of errors earlier in the season, Dortmund have kept clean sheets in three of their last five matches. Their defense did enough in the first leg to keep out a potent Parisian attack, with ex-PSG man Zagadou being the star in that match and ever since. The towering center back has hardly put a foot wrong in Dortmund’s last few matches, and he could be playing himself into a Euros or Olympics appearance in the summer. He will be looked upon again to lead a defense in what is probably Dortmund’s most important match of the season. It is safe to assume that both teams will score, but Dortmund have to limit the damage that PSG can cause if they hope to move on.

Prediction: It is very hard to tell how this match will go. Going into this tie, I think we all had flashbacks of the Manchester City-Monaco tie a few years ago, and while the first leg was not the goalfest we all expected, it is clear both of these teams are still potent. There will be goals in this match, but it will come down to which defense I trust more. While Kouassi has been very impressive for PSG this season, I am blown away by Zagadou and the Dortmund defense as of late. They will not be perfect, but they will be enough to send the Germans into the quarterfinals and break Parisian hearts once again.

PSG 2-2 Borussia Dortmund