Tag Archives: La Liga

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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Best for all involved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on…

Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need to look out for.

Actual, real, legitimate title races

After an incredibly boring 2019-20 season with only one of the “top five” leagues being remotely competitive, we go into 2021 with three of those leagues having new teams at the top, with Lyon topping Ligue 1, AC Milan topping Serie A, and Atlético Madrid topping La Liga. Every league also has a competitive points margin. Four points separate first place Liverpool and fourth place Everton in the Premier League. Six points separate first place Atlético Madrid and third place Real Sociedad in La Liga. Five points separate first place Lyon and fourth place Rennes in Ligue 1. Two points separate first place Bayern and third place Leipzig in the Bundesliga. A bit more lengthy seven points separate first place Milan and third place Roma in Serie A. But still, these leagues are close, and with several teams having games in hand over the teams around them, it looks like it can get even closer. There is seemingly no one dominant team in any of the top five leagues, so there is no real clear title favorite in any of them, and the teams that have dominated these leagues over the last few years look to have a serious fight on their hands against the teams around them.

We still have quite a bit of football left to play, and the slog of late league seasons and cup competitions could take their toll on some teams, especially if the COVID Pandemic requires league matches, or even whole seasons, to be delayed, but it is still looking good for us to have some serious competition in the major European leagues in the second half of this season.

Euro 2020, but in 2021

I will admit, international football is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I know I probably enjoy it a bit more than most fans around the world. International competitions still attract plenty of interest, however, and this European Championship looked to be the biggest spectacle the competition has seen in recent years, with the competition being spread out over the entirety of the continent. However, due to COVID, it does not look like that will happen, or at least happen with fans in attendance. While that is a real shame and does take away some of what could have made this Euros great, it still looks set to be a great competition because, just like the domestic leagues, there does not seem to be one clear favorite.

Sure, France are the reigning world champions and probably the most talented team in the competition, but with some of the performances they put up in qualifying and some of their friendly performances in 2020, I am not so sure they should be favorites. While they are still very talented on paper, some of the key players from the World Cup team, including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Samuel Umtiti, and Antoine Griezmann, are not in good form. France has plenty of talent, but football is not a sport where you can just throw talent on the pitch and they will win. It also seems unclear whether manager Didier Deschamps is willing to trust that young talent, or even if he knows what formation and system suits his team the best. Belgium is another interesting case, with most of their “Golden Generation” beginning to either hit their peak or start to age out. They still have one of the best players in the world in Kevin De Bruyne, and they will be boosted by a more in-form Romelu Lukaku, but they do seem to be questionable defensively. Roberto Martínez has also not necessarily shown he has the managerial nous to get Belgium over the hump and finally win a major tournament.

Meanwhile, some of the “other” teams look pretty dang good. Italy seem to have quietly built one of the most balanced teams on the continent, England still have plenty of attacking talent even with questions around manager Gareth Southgate, and Spain look to be ushering in a promising young generation spearheaded by Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres. Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have talent needed to at least make some noise at the tournament, if not win the whole thing. It is a very interesting tournament, and it is very possible that we have a champion that is not expected.

A real shame that there will not be fans, though. I would have enjoyed watching England play Scotland at Wembley. That would have been some spectacle.

A potential summer transfer upheaval

This upcoming summer transfer window looks to be a very interesting one. The obvious story is the future of Lionel Messi, but there are a few big pieces that will be at play this summer.

Firstly, Real Madrid did not save all of that money from last summer for no reason. Los Blancos look to be major players in this transfer window, especially if they do not end up winning the title this season, as they need to usher out the previous generation and bring in new talent. Kylian Mbappé has long been a name connected with Real Madrid, and there is genuine momentum around Real Madrid making a move for the French phenom this summer. But has recent events at the club changed his mind about wanting a move away? With Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in Paris, PSG have seemingly never had a better chance at winning the Champions League. Would Mbappé want to stay in the capital and see that opportunity out? Or does his dream of playing for Real Madrid still remain? Beyond Mbappé, are there other moves that Real Madrid will make? Who leaves the club? Club captain Sergio Ramos is a notable player whose contract expires at the end of the season, and it does not look like a renewal agreement will be reached at this moment. Can the club afford to lose such a valuable player? Where does Ramos go? Who does Real Madrid bring in to replace him if he does leave? Mbappé is the most interesting moving part connected with Los Blancos, but he certainly is not the only one. It will be a busy summer for Real Madrid.

Moving from Mbappé to France in general, the recent catastrophically failed Téléfoot TV deal means French clubs are going to be losing a whole lot of money this year. With many French clubs, including major powers Lille and Marseille, already facing financial difficulty, this could mean an exodus of talent from Ligue 1 to other leagues. With Lyon and Lille in particular having quite talented teams, it is very possible those teams get picked apart in the summer as the talent moves to leagues across Europe. Ligue 1 could prove to be a fertile farming ground especially for mid-level clubs lacking the pull and finances of the top echelon of clubs in Europe, with the league boasting plenty of talented young players, outside of just the big name players, that will be available for reasonable prices. It is not just the Houssem Aouar’s or Renato Sanches’ or Eduardo Camavinga’s of the world, but players like Sven Botman, Youcef Atal, Mohamed Simakan, and Denis Bouanga will be names you hear connected with moves across the continent and could be the most successful moves from Ligue 1.

This window is also very interesting because there seems to be more key teams involved. With the leagues having more balance and parity this season, there will be teams going into the market this summer to maintain their high level or push beyond that to become true contenders. This is especially the case in England, where Liverpool and Manchester City will look to the market to maintain their high level, while Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, and Leicester will go into the market to continue closing the ever-closing gap between them and the top of the league. Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will also likely be very active, as will basically the entire top six or seven teams in Serie A. It will be very busy for everyone, as we are seemingly now in a world where the gap between the top and the chasers is nearly nonexistent.

Lionel Messi’s Future

Yeah, we will inevitably get to a decision point. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona contract, as you may know, runs out at the end of this season. In the summer of 2021, Lionel Messi will be a free agent. Will he stay, or will he go? Messi is free to negotiate with new clubs starting now, but he has said he has no plans to negotiate with other clubs until the end of the season out of respect for Barcelona. So we will really be waiting until the very end to find out the answer.

Does he stay? After all, he is Mr. Barcelona. He is their greatest ever player. He is so connected to that football club that it is hard to imagine one without the other. He is also their most important player right now, and while they are even struggling with Messi on the pitch this season, it is not impossible that things will only get worse should he leave Catalonia in the summer. With Barcelona presidential elections coming up in a few months, it is very possible that a new club president comes in and reverses much of the poor decision making and leadership that characterized Josep Bartomeu’s reign. Will Messi see the manager he wants? Potentially Xavi returning to the Camp Nou as manager? Can Barcelona get their finances right to be able to make the moves in the transfer window they need to make? Messi still has a few years left in him, enough time for one more run at the Champions League, time to exorcise the ghosts of Rome and Liverpool. He can still cap off his career as a winner with the club he has spent almost his whole adult life at.

Or does he go? Realistically, are Barcelona going to get themselves out of this mess in a few years? Will anything change in leadership at the top? Is keeping Messi even still in their best interests? The legend is getting older, it is possible it may be in all parties best interest to part ways, allowing Barcelona to build for the future around Ansu Fati and Pedri. Ronald Koeman’s tenure as manager has not gone well, but with Guardiola and Pochettino off the market, is there really a good alternative? Would Xavi even be a good choice? And there are plenty of options for Messi, plenty of clubs where he can make a run at the Champions League one last time. Manchester City and PSG are likely the two favorites to sign him should he leave, and both clubs would be Champions League contenders, or even favorites, instantly with the addition of Messi. He could also leave European football behind, returning to Newell’s Old Boys with the goal of helping them win the Copa Libertadores. He could go to MLS, or Japan, or somewhere else, somewhere less stressful and less burdensome and less of a wreck than Barcelona at the moment.

Where is Messi going to end up? I truly have no idea, but we do not have to wait long to find out.

There you have it. These are the major stories in the football world in 2021. These will be the ones that dominate the headlines over the next 12 months. And this concludes our 2021 preview. Thank you for your readership, and look out for more articles and content coming from us this year!

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Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

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

AC Milan

Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto?

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

Manchester United

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

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

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

Everton

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

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

Southampton

Here is your feel good story for this year.

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

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

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

Paris Saint-Germain

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

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

Bayer Leverkusen

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

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

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

Real Sociedad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

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

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

João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal

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

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

Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain

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

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

Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France

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

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

Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France

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

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

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

Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France

Yes, another French center back.

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

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

Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England

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

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

Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal

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

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

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

Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands

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

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

Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy

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

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

Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florian Wirtz, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

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

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

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

Ryan Gravenberch, Ajax/Netherlands

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

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

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

Sven Botman, LOSC Lille/Netherlands

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

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

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

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

Noni Madueke, PSV Eindhoven/England

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

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

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

Cody Gakpo, PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands

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

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

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

Viktor Tsygankov, Dynamo Kyiv/Ukraine

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

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

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

Unai Simón, Athletic Bilbao/Spain

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

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

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

Silas Wamangituka, VfB Stuttgart/DR Congo

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

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

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

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

Timothée Pembélé, Paris Saint-Germain/France

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

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

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

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

Youssoufa Moukoko, Borussia Dortmund/Germany/Cameroon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2020 In Review

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

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

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

Let us start with some of the easy ones first…

Player of the Year

Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich/Poland

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

Manager of the Year

Hansi Flick, Bayern Munich

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

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

Best Team of the Year

Bayern Munich

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

Ok, that is enough Bayern Munich love.

Young Player of the Year

Erling Håland, Borussia Dortmund/Norway

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

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

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

Biggest Surprise Team

AC Milan

Yeah, I did not expect this either.

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

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

2020’s Breakout Star

Theo Hernández, AC Milan/France

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

2020’s Breakout Young Star

Eduardo Camavinga, Stade Rennais/France

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

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

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

Best Transfer of 2020

Bruno Fernandes, Sporting Club to Manchester United, January 2020

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

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

Best Match of 2020

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

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

And then, the legend of Marcos Llorente was born.

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

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

Best Goal of 2020

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

I mean, just look at it.

Click the hyperlink above. Watch the goal.

Did you watch it yet? Good.

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

Best Moment of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

My Best XI in 2020

Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi

Kevin De Bruyne, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller

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

Manuel Neuer

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

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

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Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo…

Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain.

It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, but yet we end every season in disappointment as one of the teams we expect to win the league always does. We saw the start of the Premier League season and hope that the bright start for Everton or Leicester or Wolves could lead to us seeing a different champion come May. While that is probably a false dawn, the situation unfolding in Spain is certainly looking more promising.

It has been clear for all viewers that the quality of La Liga has declined from the peak it reached a decade ago, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly shadows of their former selves. That did not stop those two from winning the last two league titles despite being in “crisis”, but now it seems like the issues going on at both clubs are beginning to seriously hold them back. A few years of papering over the cracks have come back to haunt both teams, and each of their poor starts to the season (especially Barcelona’s) implies more significant issues within the teams.

Barcelona’s almost-divorce with Lionel Messi this past summer was the boiling point of years of tension between players and board, as well as the poor sporting and development plan established by former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. On the pitch, they have barely held it together, having embarrassingly fallen out of the Champions League against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in consecutive seasons. Off the pitch, the club fell into significant debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the club being unable to enact the significant on-pitch changes needed. They have sacked two managers in the last two years, having a very messy divorce with Ernesto Valverde and ditching his replacement, Quique Setién, for ex-Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman. This brings them to this season, where the departures of Nélson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez, and Arturo Vidal led to quite a shake-up in the first team. While this was good in giving chances to younger talent, including the prodigal Ansu Fati, it left them without a first choice striker, having to use Fati almost as a false nine. Their strong dependence on Messi over the last few seasons has caught up, as the exhausted Argentine has started this season quite poorly. Draws to Aláves and Sevilla and losses to Real Madrid and Getafe leave them in eighth, lacking much in the way of true cohesion as a team. It has not quite clicked for Koeman, being responsible for the worst league start for the Blaugrana in 25 years. This is not just growing pains under Koeman, this is the manifestation of years of mismanagement at all levels. It feels much more systemic, and it feels like something that is going to stop Barcelona from winning trophies this season, in what could be Messi’s final eight months in Catalonia.

And for Real Madrid, things are also not going well. No, there is not the massive structural issues plaguing the club as there is with Barcelona. They won the league last season with basically the exact same team. However, that team last season had quite a bit of issues, specifically in attack and chance creation, that have not been solved. Zinedine Zidane’s team won the league last season by simply not being as bad as Barcelona, able to use what was normally a strong defense to grind out enough results to finish top. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo world in Madrid, the team has become significantly more defensive than in the past. Many times, if Karim Benzema did not score, there would not be many places where Zidane could find goals in his team. That worked last season, they were able to do what they had to do. They were great after the restart of the season, treating it as almost a knockout cup competition and grinding out results. This season, they have not been able to maintain that. It seems that the bounces, the calls, the luck that went Real Madrid’s way last season, and helped them grind out those close results, has stopped going their way. While they have not had as bad of a start to the league season as Barcelona, there are still signs that things are not right. A draw to Real Sociedad, a shock 1-0 loss to newly-promoted Cádiz, and their most recent 4-1 thumping against Valencia shows that the cracks that Zidane successfully papered over the last two seasons are still there. Bad European results also imply significant issues, as a team of Real Madrid’s pedigree should not be losing to a COVID-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk team or needing to come from behind to scrape out a point against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I am not saying Real Madrid are in crisis or Zidane’s job is in as much peril as Koeman’s, and I do still think Real Madrid will definitely contend for the title this season, but it is clear this Los Blancos team is vulnerable.

And both sides have been vulnerable for the past few seasons. None of these issues are really new, but each team were able to just paper over the cracks the last few seasons and figure out what they had to do to win the league title. The team that won it would have been the team that was less bad between the two. Why is it not safe to assume that they will not do the same again this season?

Well, the last two seasons, there has not been a team good enough to challenge the Clasico duopoly. Atlético Madrid finished second and third the past two seasons, but they were significantly behind the league champion each time. It has been a bit of a struggle for the usual third horse in the title race the past few seasons. Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad have each presented themselves as teams that were talented enough to challenge for the title the past two seasons, but due to form, injuries, or some other reason, they were never able to be consistent enough throughout the season to break into that top three. There just has not been a team good enough to contend with the two struggling giants, but this season, it is a different story.

The subheading of this blog implies a potential “year of Cholo”, so you know which team I am going to talk about. But Atléti are not the only team in this equation. Real Sociedad, as of right now, are top of La Liga and are the league’s highest-scoring side. La Real were one of the most enjoyable teams to watch last season, but many thought the departure of Martin Ødegaard would make them worse. While Ødegaard was immensely important for that team, they have seemingly survived without him, largely in part due to the contributions of the newly-arrived David Silva, the ever-reliable Portu, a budding superstar in Mikel Oyarzabal, and an incredibly reliable crop of academy graduates that are growing into underrated role players in the team. Villarreal are currently second, and while they have some issues to iron out with new manager Unai Emery, they are still a very talented team that could hang around the top of the table throughout the season. Sevilla was a team described last season as being a goalscorer away from being league title contenders, and while they have not had the best start to this season, they are still a quite talented team. If Julen Lopetegui can turn around their form, they are a team that could be in the fight at the top of the table. There are several teams outside the Claisco duo that have gotten stronger this season, making it a more interesting fight.

But there is one standing above the rest of the challengers. I truly believe this could be the year for Atlético Madrid to return to the top of the league. The oft-maligned Diego Simeone has had a rough last few years in Madrid, and there was legitimate concern that he was facing the sack during the first half of last season, when Atléti were struggling and at risk of falling out of the European places. A long unbeaten run, started after the league restart last season and carried into this season, has Atlético Madrid looking like genuine title contenders and, interestingly, looking significantly different from a typical Atlético team. While they have the league’s best defensive record so far, which is typical for a Cholo Simeone team, they are also the league’s second-highest scorers, scoring 17 goals through seven matches. It is easy to credit this to the free transfer signing of Luis Suárez, and in a way, that is correct, but it does not tell the whole story. As a team, in structure, formation, and pattern of play, they are more fluid and more attacking than the typical Simeone teams that came before them, and that makes them terrifying.

It revolves around Suárez, but it is not all his doing. On paper, Suárez is easily an upgrade on the rapidly aging Diego Costa and good-but-inconsistent Álvaro Morata, but how the Uruguayan fits into this team is what forced Simeone to crank up the attacking ability of the team. Due to Suárez’s specific traits as a player, as well as his age and declining pace, Atléti cannot attack in the same way they would normally, and Simeone acknowledged this when Suárez was brought into the team. Normally, they are able to play in that famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) low block, forcing the ball onto the wings, pressing the ball when it gets to the wings, and using a long ball for a forward to chase down in order to launch a counterattack. They are not able to do that with Suárez, and, as Simeone has pointed out, Atléti need to start their attacks closer to the Uruguayan in order for him to be fully involved and able to use his best traits as a player. This has caused Simeone to rethink his line ups, choosing now to include multiple attacking players in order for Suárez to play off of several forwards when in attack. These players, usually two of João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco, are able to combine with Suárez in attacking moves, creating a more fluid and less predictable pattern of build-up play and causing significantly more issues for opposition defenses than past Simeone teams have done.

This has been big for Suárez’s ability to bed into this Atlético Madrid team quickly, but it has also been a massive step in the development of João Félix. Now constantly in positions where he is not isolated and able to be involved in attacks, we are seeing the prodigal player we all expected to see when the young Portuguese departed Benfica for the Spanish capital. With seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season, Félix has instantly become arguably Atléti‘s most important player not named Jan Oblak, a player that is playing with incredible amounts of confidence and is involved in nearly every attack. If Félix is able to play at a high level throughout the season, then it provides Simeone with the dynamic, game-changing player that can get you something from nothing or be the reason you win a match, a player they have lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. And the amazing thing is they probably have three more of that level of player already in the team with Suárez, Llorente, and Oblak. Atlético Madrid are a team that has often been plagued with not being able to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in the team, as they are often trying to shoehorn talented footballers into a Cholismo system requiring more in grit than in goalscoring. If Simeone is able to strike the balance between having a defensively solid team and one that can score goals at a more accelerated rate, then he may have created the best team in Spain.

I will admit this could be a massive overreaction. It could just be a poor start to the season. However, the reason I am writing this about La Liga and not the Premier League is because it does feel genuinely like more than just a bad start. In England, we had teams like Leicester and Wolves get off to hot starts to the season, but there is no reason to seriously believe that Manchester City and Liverpool will not be the two main title contenders come the end of the season. I have no sizable reasons to be confident in Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the sole title contenders. The issues at both clubs are too significant and have lingered for too long to be written off as a poor start. With the quality teams surrounding them, especially Atlético Madrid, it feels like we are looking at the scenario many people have longed for: a major league where the “Super League” club did not win the title. While the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 feel predictable, La Liga feels wide open, and I am very excited to see how it all plays out.

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La Liga Week in Review

Another twist in the title race…

Welcome to La Liga Week in Review, where we review everything that happened in the top flight of Spanish football in the last week. We name our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned after a week of matches.

It was a significant week in Spain, with important results at the top and bottom of the table, so let us take a look.

Player of the Week

Jaime Mata, Getafe (1 goal in 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid, 2 goals in 2-1 win over Real Sociedad)

The veteran Spanish striker scored three goals this week, including two incredibly important goals against European place rival Sociedad, that secured important results for Getafe in their chase for a top six finish. Their draw against Valladolid was not great, but the last minute win over Real Sociedad was massive. His winning goal against Sociedad may be the highlight of his week, while exemplifying Mata’s qualities as a player and Getafe’s qualities as a team. He took advantage of a lull in focus from the Basque team when Getafe won a throw in, making a ghosting run past Sociedad center back Aritz Elustondo. His strike partner Jorge Molina noticed it, throwing the ball directly into the path of Mata’s run. He still had quite a bit to do, but he managed to use his strength to hold off Elustondo and get toward the goal, using his wit and finishing ability to sneak the ball between goalkeeper Álex Remiro and the post, scoring a massive game winning goal for his team. A scrappy goal from a tenacious player and a hard-working team, it paints a perfect picture of Mata as a player and Getafe as a team. If José Bordalás’ team wants to be in Europe next season, they will need more performances like this from Mata.

Honorable Mentions: Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)

Winners of the Week

1.) Villarreal

The Yellow Submarine continue their rise up the table. A 2-2 draw against a quite unlucky Sevilla team, paired with a more controlling and confident 2-0 win against Valencia, has put Villarreal sixth in the table, securely in the Europa League places, with a four point lead over Real Sociedad in seventh. Quite possibly being the team that has had the most success since the restart, Villarreal have profited off of the poor form of other teams in the top six race to move from the outside-looking-in position they started in to well within the European hunt. Their form is largely thanks to one small Spanish midfield wizard that we will talk more about later, but this is really a team that is clicking at the right time. With matches against Real Sociedad and Getafe remaining, Villarreal’s fate is seemingly in their own hands. If they keep this great run of form going, their remaining matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid also gives Javier Calleja’s team the chance to play kingmaker at the top of the table.

2.) Real Madrid

Real Madrid took care of their business and Barcelona did not, leaving los Blancos top of the league and in pole position in the title race. While their latest wins, 2-0 over Mallorca and 1-0 over Espanyol, were not pretty, they continue the Real Madrid trend from earlier in the season of gritty wins when they need to win. Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos have been nothing short of phenomenal since the restart of the season, but they are also finding production from elsewhere. Players like Eden Hazard, Vinícius, and Casemiro have also been major difference makers in the team. While they are clearly not at the level they were a few years ago, Zinedine Zidane has built a team that is effective and difficult to beat, and now that they have pole position in the title race, it will be hard to knock them off the podium.

And if you have not seen Benzema’s assist for Casemiro’s goal against Espanyol, go find it on YouTube or Twitter. Goodness. What a player…

3.) Atlético Madrid

I will not shy away from what I wrote previously: I was very nervous for Atlético Madrid when the league restarted. Atléti, without question, needed to qualify for the Champions League, and their form prior to the restart did not give me confidence that they would be able to do that. A drab 1-1 draw away to Athletic Bilbao in their first game back only heightened my worries, and with the quality of the teams around them, I was afraid that los Colchoneros would fail to make the Champions League, likely resulting in the sacking of manager Diego Simeone. Since that draw at San Mamés, Atléti are unbeaten and undrawn, and they go into their match against Barcelona coming off of their best performance since the season restarted, a strong 2-1 win over Alavés. While it is clear that Simeone is still experimenting to find the best combination of players in his team, especially in attack, he has been getting strong performances from some key players, and good enough performances as a team to string together wins. This, combined with the teams around them going through very rough runs of form, has allowed Atléti to cement their top four status, and I feel much more confident in their ability to secure Champions League football for next season. Marcos Llorente continues to be a revelation for Atléti, and the usage of him in an advanced position as a wide/central attacking midfielder was a stroke of genius from Simeone. Llorente was again the difference-maker in their wins against Levante and Alavés, and he will be crucial to his team for the remainder of the season.

Losers of the Week

1.) Valencia

Valencia are a team that, despite their size as a club and the talent and resources they have at their disposal, are prone to moments of insanity. This happened earlier this season, when the board basically refused to back then manager Marcelino, who was coming off of winning the Copa del Rey. Eventually, Marcelino was sacked, despite protestations from the players, and was replaced by Albert Celades. Celades somewhat steadied the ship, but Valencia still struggled for consistency. Their defeat to Atalanta in the Champions League, combined with winning just once since the league restarted, put significant pressure on Celades, and he began to lose favor with the players. The insanity was kicking in again. Following a dismal 2-0 defeat to Villarreal in the Derbi de la Comunitat, Celades was sacked. The extent to which he lost the dressing room came out after the loss, when it was revealed that he got into a bust-up in training with striker Maxi Gómez. Celades wanted to drop Gómez from the team, but significant pressure from the players, including from club captain Dani Parejo, led to him reversing his decision. This story comes after center back Mouctar Diakhaby had to deny reports that significant tension within the club has strained his mental health.

Long story short, none of this is good for Valencia. Celades was not a great manager, but this internal feuding is not good for the long-term health of the club, let alone their hopes of being in Europe next season. Two bad losses in the last week, the aforementioned derby loss and a 1-0 defeat to Eibar, has left los Che in a difficult position in the European race. They are still in it, and only one point behind Real Sociedad in the Europa League qualifiers spot, but Villarreal and Getafe are pulling further away from them in the top six. To make matters worse, they are set to lose key center back Ezequiel Garay on a free transfer, as he and the club did not agree to a new contract. Yeah, things are not going well.

2.) Barcelona

Things may not be as disastrous as in Valencia, but the title race has taken a quite sour turn for Barcelona. The Catalans looked poor in their 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, bailed out by a scrappy and lucky goal by Ivan Rakitić, but they could not secure the three points against Celta Vigo. A great free kick from Iago Aspas in the 90th minute snatched the points away from Barcelona, inflicting a major blow in their hopes for the title. As a result of that match and Real Madrid’s win against Espanyol, Barcelona have lost the top spot to los Blancos. With a two point gap to the top, and Real Madrid’s tiebreaker advantage over them, Barcelona cannot afford to mess up again. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig continue to shine, but there is not enough production from senior players not named Lionel Messi. Suárez did score twice against Celta, but he has generally looked unfit and off the pace since the restart, possibly still suffering from his injury issues. The defense, outside of some solid performances from Clément Lenglet, has not been good enough, and the midfield lacks any dynamism or energy outside of Puig. Messi really has to do everything. While there is still definitely a title race, it feels pretty secure in Real Madrid’s hands. Barcelona have to hope that they slip up while remaining perfect through a difficult run of games. It is a tall order, but any team with Messi on it cannot be counted out.

3.) Espanyol

Espanyol have joined Valencia in the manager sacking party. Following a run of three straight losses and having only won once since the league resumed play, the Catalan club sacked manager Abelardo Fernández following their 1-0 loss to Real Betis. Taking his place is Francisco Rufete, their sporting director, becoming the fourth manager hired by Espanyol this season. Their poor form since the restart has found them in a very significant hole, still bottom of the table and ten points from safety. Espanyol spent over €40 million on transfers in the January window, and despite that investment, they have remained in the relegation zone, being stuck at or near the bottom of the table. With only six matches remaining, it looks like, barring an unforeseen miracle, Espanyol will be relegated this season.

What we Learned

1.) The title is officially Real Madrid’s to lose

With Barcelona’s dropped points against Sevilla and Celta Vigo, Real Madrid are now firmly in the driver’s seat in the title race. They have looked the more impressive side since the restart, and with only six matches remaining, they know that they are in the home stretch. With an easier run in of matches compared to their Clásico rivals, Zidane knows that his team can afford to not be completely perfect and still be in position to win the league title. Also as a benefit, Real Madrid hold the tiebreaker advantage over Barcelona. In Spain, ties in points in the league table are not decided by goal difference, but by a separate tiebreaker system, which prioritizes head-to-head results. Since the first Clásico was a draw and the second was won by Real Madrid, los Blancos own the tiebreaker, so in the event that both teams finish level on points, Real Madrid would win the league.

While I do not expect both teams to be perfect between now and the end of the season, that inherently still benefits Real Madrid. Barcelona must be perfect from now on, and if they slip up, then that will likely seal the title for Real Madrid. The race is clearly not over, and there are still matches for both teams that will be a test for their title hopes, Real Madrid are in pole position. It will take significant help from other teams for Barcelona to win the league now.

2.) Top Four is officially Atlético Madrid’s to lose

In a similar sense to Real Madrid, Atléti have taken advantage of the mistakes of teams around them to catapult themselves up the table, going from narrowly hanging onto the top six to third place since the resumption of the season. While they have been far from perfect, they have been able to scrape and claw their way to tight victories, in the traditional Atlético Madrid way, and have greatly benefitted from the teams around them struggling. They now find themselves with a six point gap between themselves and fifth, which, with six matches remaining, is starting to look more and more comfortable. They have an easy-ish run-in to finish the season, with matches against Getafe and Real Sociedad still sticking out, and while they have not pulled away from Sevilla, I feel confident in saying it looks like those are the two teams that will be in the Champions League next season, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid. There is still a chance for a slip up, but Atléti’s fast start to the resumed season has potentially saved their season and Diego Simeone’s job.

3.) In case you did not get the message before, Santi Cazorla has still got it…

Before you read on, go find a video of Cazorla’s assist for Gerard Moreno’s goal against Valencia.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait…

Watch it?

What a pass. What a touch. What a player. Taking a long kick from the goalkeeper in his stride, playing one calculated touch to control the ball and send it directly into the path of Moreno to fire into the goal. None of that is easy, and Santi made it look effortless.

This small moment is a microcosm of the joy of Cazorla’s revival. He has gone from being told that he may never play football again to being able to star for his boyhood club. Cazorla has been a massive influence in Villarreal’s success in the last two seasons and has been their best player this season, especially since the resumption of the league. Two assists in his last two games, including that wonderful pass to Moreno that you just watched, have helped to provide crucial wins for the Yellow Submarine in their hunt for European football. 12 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season is remarkable, especially given his age and everything he went through. His contract with Villarreal is up at the end of the season, and there is no guarantee that he will not retire then, so we need to appreciate a player as technically gifted and wonderful as Cazorla while we still can.

4.) Relegation might already be decided

In my league resumption piece, I talked about the relegation race teetering on the edge of being already decided, but still having teams with enough quality to give a serious push for survival. Since then, the bottom three has remain basically unchanged, and those three clubs continue to dig themselves deeper into the hole, while clubs around the bottom three have begun to pull away. Espanyol’s transfer spending in January seemingly has not worked, and the sacking of manager Abelardo Fernández might be the nail in the coffin for them. Leganés continue to suffer from incredible bad luck and misfortune, really starting right around Martin Braithwaite’s departure to Barcelona, and it looks as though survival for them is almost impossible. Mallorca continue to show some fight, as a quite attacking team despite their small status, but they still find themselves with a significant gap between them and safety. With six matches remaining, it looks as though we have our three relegated teams already. I do not see things getting better for Espanyol and Leganés, and the gap is too big for Mallorca to reasonably overcome in that short amount of time.