Tag Archives: Premier League

On Everton’s Addition of Joshua King

The most 11th hour signing of the window…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Chelsea Sacked Frank Lampard

And where they go from here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Fikayo Tomori’s Move to AC Milan

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The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

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On Fikayo Tomori’s Move to AC Milan

Are you sure, Chelsea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

Bit of a damp squib of a match… Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation. Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking […]

The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season… Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then. On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight […]

The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

Bit of a damp squib of a match…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Battle of Anfield Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction:

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

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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 […]

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I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

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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 […]

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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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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 […]

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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?

LATEST POSTS

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

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

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

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

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

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

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

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

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

João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal

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

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

Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain

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

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

Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France

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

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

Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France

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

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

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

Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France

Yes, another French center back.

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

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

Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England

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

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

Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal

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

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

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

Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands

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

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

Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy

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

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

Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florian Wirtz, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

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

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

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

Ryan Gravenberch, Ajax/Netherlands

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

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

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

Sven Botman, LOSC Lille/Netherlands

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

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

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

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

Noni Madueke, PSV Eindhoven/England

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

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

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

Cody Gakpo, PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands

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

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

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

Viktor Tsygankov, Dynamo Kyiv/Ukraine

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

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

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

Unai Simón, Athletic Bilbao/Spain

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

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

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

Silas Wamangituka, VfB Stuttgart/DR Congo

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

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

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

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

Timothée Pembélé, Paris Saint-Germain/France

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

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

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

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

Youssoufa Moukoko, Borussia Dortmund/Germany/Cameroon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2020 In Review

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

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

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

Let us start with some of the easy ones first…

Player of the Year

Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich/Poland

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

Manager of the Year

Hansi Flick, Bayern Munich

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

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

Best Team of the Year

Bayern Munich

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

Ok, that is enough Bayern Munich love.

Young Player of the Year

Erling Håland, Borussia Dortmund/Norway

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

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

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

Biggest Surprise Team

AC Milan

Yeah, I did not expect this either.

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

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

2020’s Breakout Star

Theo Hernández, AC Milan/France

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

2020’s Breakout Young Star

Eduardo Camavinga, Stade Rennais/France

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

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

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

Best Transfer of 2020

Bruno Fernandes, Sporting Club to Manchester United, January 2020

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

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

Best Match of 2020

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

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

And then, the legend of Marcos Llorente was born.

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

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

Best Goal of 2020

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

I mean, just look at it.

Click the hyperlink above. Watch the goal.

Did you watch it yet? Good.

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

Best Moment of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

My Best XI in 2020

Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi

Kevin De Bruyne, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller

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

Manuel Neuer

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

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

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