Tag Archives: Transfers

The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars: Part 2

Because who does not like an exciting future…

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

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

Pedro Gonçalves, Sporting CP/Portugal

So, we all know Bruno Fernandes, right?

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

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

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

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

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund/United States

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

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

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

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

Romain Faivre, Stade Brestois/France/Algeria

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

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

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

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

Aurélien Tchouaméni, AS Monaco/France/Cameroon

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

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

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

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

Joško Gvardiol, Dinamo Zagreb/RB Leipzig/Croatia

The perfect example of scouting on display.

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

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

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

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

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

Mohamed Simakan, RC Strasbourg Alsace/RB Leipzig/France

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

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

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

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

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

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On Everton’s Addition of Joshua King

The most 11th hour signing of the window…

Among the interesting stories from a quiet Transfer Deadline Day, the player who seemed to be involved in the biggest tug-of-war saga was Bournemouth striker Joshua King. The 29 year old Norwegian was a fixture of the Cherries team during their time in the Premier League, and 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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I grew up in an era when the Singapore National Team featured several naturalized players. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme was introduced in 1993 by the Table Tennis Association, and the Football Association of Singapore adopted it in 2000. Itimi Dickson, Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Qiu Li, Mirko Grabovac, Egmar Gonçalves, and Mustafić Fahrudin are […]

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

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 […]

On Liverpool’s Signing of Ozan Kabak

And Ben Davies, but mainly Ozan Kabak…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 […]

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On Martin Ødegaard’s Move to Arsenal

Out of the blue…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike most Cambodian internationals, Thierry, while ethnically Khmer, was born in France and even represented the French U-16 team. Don’t let that misguide you, though, Thierry is a patriotic Cambodian and is proud to don the national team jersey every single time. For those of you unfamiliar with Thierry, he plays as a defensive midfielder and he is one of the best Southeast Asian DMs today. I have always wanted to know more about Thierry, and I had the privilege to talk to him a few weeks ago. This is his story.

Humble Beginnings

Thierry was born in Villepinte, which is a commune located in the north-east suburbs of Paris, to Cambodian parents. Thierry’s parents had fled Cambodia during the 1970s just before Pol Pot took control of the state. However, while he was born a French citizen, Thierry’s heart always belonged to Cambodia. He was brought up in a traditional Cambodian household, learning Khmer, eating Cambodian cuisine, and celebrating traditional Cambodian holidays.

Nevertheless, it was in France where Thierry developed his passion for the beautiful game. Like many of us, Theirry grew up with football, and he often played it with his friends. Ever since he was young, he had always been an ardent Manchester United fan (good man) and he idolized David Beckham. While he may have played football casually before he reached his teenage years, that was about to change as he became a teen. At age 14, Thierry signed with the academy of renowned French club RC Strasbourg [who now play in Ligue 1]. It was during his time at the academy when Thierry honed his craft as a footballer, and the experience motivated him to try and become a professional player.

Thierry left the Strasbourg Academy and sought for a professional career elsewhere in France. However, the dream to play at the highest level in France failed to materialize, and Thierry played in the lower divisions in France, turning out for reputable teams like FC Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and FCM Aubervilliers. However, Thierry wanted more – to become a professional player had been his dream for years, and he knew he would look back with regret if he never tried his hardest to become one.

In 2012, Thierry, motivated by his passion to play football professionally without having to work part-time, decided to move to Cambodia to carve out a professional career for himself. It was only the second time Thierry had been in Cambodia (he had been in Cambodia in 2007 with his family). Thierry went to Cambodia as part of a team of foreign players with Cambodian ancestry and heritage. This team went for trials, and a few players managed to earn contracts with Cambodian clubs. Thierry was one such player, and Phnom Penh Crown came in for the defensive midfield general. It would mark the start of a 4-year association with the club.

Living the Dream with Phnom Penh Crown FC , Misfortune with Krabi FC & Almost Playing in Singapore

The transition from football in France to Cambodia was an interesting one for Thierry.

“The environment and the infrastructure were [completely different]. However, I know I didn’t expect the conditions in Cambodia to be the same in France. I wasn’t sad and or anything. I was doing my best to enjoy my work. The only thing I [sort of] faced a challenge with, is the weather. Even now, it is very hot. For me, I like the cold weather. So, when I came here, it was very hot for me at first and it didn’t help that matches were played at 3pm. So, it was very difficult. Now thankfully, few teams have flood lights so matches can be played at 6pm.”

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

During his 4-year stint with Phnom Penh Crown, Thierry would go on to win the C-League title on two occasions. It was also during his time at Phnom Penh when Thierry met his wife in 2013. In 2016, Thierry would end his stint with Phnom Penh on what could be best described as not in the best of terms. It is something that he still is unhappy about – the manner in which he departed the club. Thailand would be his next destination, with Krabi FC his new team [then playing in the 2016 Thai Division 1 League]. A Brazilian coach at Phnom Penh helped Thierry get into contact with Krabi, and the Thai outfit signed him up on a three-year deal.

“Football in Thailand was good. They have good pitches and you’re surrounded by good players. I loved the football there.”

However, that spell would end sooner than expected, as after 6 months, the Thai club replaced their head coach. Unfortunately, Thierry wasn’t in the new coach’s plans, and he would return to Cambodia via a loan to Électricité du Cambodge FC for a few months.

Interestingly, before the move to Krabi transpired, Thierry had an offer from a Singaporean club in 2016. Who was this club? Let the man tell you himself:

“I almost signed for Tampines Rovers. I did not sign with them because I was a big fan of football in Thailand and I really wanted to play there instead.”

I won’t lie. When Thierry revealed this to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was also wondering about what could have been. Surely, it would have been a real coup for the Stags to sign a player of Thierry’s quality.

When asked about whether that was a possibility in the distant future, he had this to say:

“I’m interested to play anywhere so long as I am happy and comfortable with it.”

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

Raising his Game to the Next Level – Stints with Terengganu, Sukhothai & Perak

Fortunately, Thierry found an escape from his ordeal with Krabi, as Terengganu FC came knocking on his door. Playing for Terengganu is something that Thierry looks back with fond memories.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The experience in Malaysia was very very good. I really enjoyed my football and the life I lived there. I really admired the players, the staff, the coaches, and the fans. Everything was very good. One moment that I remember is when I played in the Malaysia Cup with Terengganu in 2018. My daughter was also born in Terengganu in 2019 so it has a special place in my heart.”

After a 2-year spell with the Turtles, an offer from Thailand came beckoning again in 2020. This time, Thai league 1 side Sukothai came in with an offer. Unfortunately, his time in Thailand would be marred with yet another issue. Thierry mutually terminated his contract with the club after 3 months into his one-year deal with them. An issue developed between his agent and the coaches which resulted in his decision to leave the country.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Thierry had different offers on the table, but after a brilliant spell with Terengganu, he had his heart set on a return to Malaysia. This time, Perak became his new home. However, Thierry couldn’t feature much for the Bos Gaurus because the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“It was very difficult. Being home for 3 months with no training; no football. I was with my family thankfully because I had friends [other teammates] who had no family around them like I did.”

However, Thierry’s fine performances at defensive midfield helped Perak finish 4th in the Malaysia Super League. His impressive performances did not go unnoticed, and a slew of clubs came in with offers for the Cambodian talisman. However, Thierry decided to return to Cambodia instead, signing for Visakha FC.

The Current Visakha Project

To those unfamiliar with Cambodian football, Visakha FC are a relatively new club that have made some serious strides in becoming a real force to contend with. The club was formed in 2016, and in 2020, they won their first accolade, the Hun Sen Cup [think of it as the Cambodian F.A. Cup]. The club have some serious financial backing and through their injections, are trying to revolutionize Cambodian football. Some of the stalwarts playing alongside Thierry this season include Afghan international and former FC St. Pauli II player Mustafa Zazai and Cambodian international and ex-PKNP forward Keo Sokpheng.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Another reason why Thierry wanted to come back was because Visakha offered him a multi-year contract. Besides the prospect of being part of the Visakha project in the long-run and helping it grow, Thierry also wanted the job security. At 29, Thierry is still far away from retirement, but he is already thinking ahead and looking at post-playing possibilities.

“If I go abroad to play, I always only sign a one-year contract and I need that stability now. It is sort of a gamble. I chose Visakha because they are the best club in Cambodia right now – they are the best club in terms of team, management, and infrastructure. Really, everything is the best.”

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

Besides his accolades at the club level, Thierry is also an accomplished international footballer for Cambodia. Once upon a time, however, Thierry was on track to represent France. He had played for the French Under-16 team in the past. While opportunities to represent France at the youth level became limited due to huge number of talented French players, his youth caps illustrate the quality that Thierry brings to the table.

Fast forward a few years, while with Phnom Penh, Thierry got called up to the Cambodian Under-23 team in 2013. While it was proud achievement for Thierry, his dream was still to represent the national senior team one day. He didn’t have to wait for long because in 2014, Thierry’s dream materialized into reality.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The best day ever. I enjoyed every [national team] training before that match. It was a dream for me to represent my country. I was lucky to get the chance to be the captain of the team. It was a big honour for me. I am very proud because I worked very hard for this, and it is sort of like a reward.”

The biggest moment of his footballing career came not long after when Thierry captained Cambodia against the footballing titans of Asia themselves, the Japanese national team in 2015. Playing against Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo. It will forever be a precious memory for Thierry. That same year, Thierry also scored his first international goal against Macau. He had been plagued with injuries in 2014, and that goal (especially at home in front of 60,000 passionate Cambodian fans) was another magical moment he recalls. Thierry does believe that the Cambodian national team has greatly progressed since his debut in 2014, but he notes how there is room for much more improvement.

“I wish that more Cambodian footballers move abroad and step out of their comfort zone. I do feel that the C-League is improving, but footballers need to go overseas and test themselves to become better. Going overseas will really challenge you. You need to take that risk.”

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

“I think there are many barriers. The Language, the food, and the distance from the family are some reasons why Cambodians don’t try to go overseas. To young Cambodian players, I would tell them to sacrifice everything for their own development. They need to make sure that they work hard and eat properly. They need to train extra and really push themselves. The coach can’t always spoon feed you or keep an eye on you. Right now, some players think after reaching the national team, they don’t have to push anymore.”

Thierry has also overcome many personal struggles in his journey thus far. Often only showcasing the positive things that have happened, many do not know how much he struggled with his injuries and finding clubs to play for.

“When I was at Phnom Penh Crown, I was out of contract for 3 months and I was really stressed about finding a team. Luckily, I managed to find one. I do think that had I stayed with Phnom Penh Crown, I might have not left Cambodia. I struggled a lot for 3 months. I was lucky to have my wife and family who really believed in me and gave me the strength to fight harder.”

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

There are a number of people that Thierry believes that played a big part in his journey in Cambodia. His parents and wife had immensely supported the player, especially when he was struggling. One other person that played a big part is Anthony Aymard, the ex-Tanjong Pagar defender, who helped Thierry a lot. They are still in regular contact with each other.

Interestingly, while he has a massive social media following, there is no big team that handles his socials. It is all ran by the man himself – Thierry (with the help of his wife, at times).

What’s next for Thierry? Well besides playing an active role in helping Vaisakha attain new heights, Thierry also wants to mentor young Cambodian footballers. He believes many young Cambodian talents lack the necessary skills required for overseas football. Besides issues with language, Thierry wants to help equip players with the necessary knowledge on transfers, contracts, and marketing themselves.

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In part 1, I looked at Darren Teh’s beginnings as a footballer and the professional journey he embarked on. Since signing with Geylang in 2017, Darren Teh has largely been a mainstay in the Eagles backline. In this second part, I will look at his professional career thus far, his national team call-up, and his thoughts on fatherhood and his post-playing career.

The Loyal Eagle

For Darren, his second year with the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) Football team gave him the confidence to pursue a professional career after he completed his National Service. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Darren was very much a raw footballer – with no international or S.League experience and only two years with the NFA under his belt. Winning the treble with SAFSA, therefore, helped open doors for him.

In 2017, at 20 years old, Darren was about to finish his NS and sought for a professional club to transform his footballing aspirations into reality. One of his NFA coaches, Muhammad Effendi Bin Rahmat, was the Assistant Head coach at Warriors and invited Darren to link up with the Prime League squad. However, Darren didn’t feel like Warriors were the best fit for him and was in search for a move to another club. It was then when Umar Akhbar (who was his former NFA team-mate) called Darren and asked if he’d be interested in trying out for Geylang’s Prime League squad. Feeling like he had nothing to lose, Darren went for the trials.

Photo Credits: Geylang International FC

Back in 2017, Noor Ali (who is now the current first team head coach) was the assistant head coach of the first team squad and the Prime League head coach at the time. During his trial, Darren played with confidence, and he did remarkably well. Noor Ali signed him up, and Darren’s professional career was about to begin sooner than he thought.

Many people often assume that Darren started his professional football journey by slugging it out in the Prime League before he got promoted to the senior team. However, that is a major misconception. Darren only played one solitary game with the Prime League squad before lady luck came to his side. Head coach Hasrin Jailani decided, together with his coaching staff, that they wanted to promote two Prime League players into the senior side. While Darren was lucky that the management provided him an opportunity, make no mistake – Darren earned it. If anything, it speaks volumes about Darren’s work ethic and natural ability.

“It was a good call [end of the day] to go to Geylang. I thought I’d be playing Prime League football first but I managed to earn a spot in the S.League team. I remember back then, the S.League team was pretty strong. It was about a year after they dissolved the Lions XI team so Geytlang signed a number of players. We had Gabriel Quak, Safirul Sulaiman, Faritz Hameed, Isa Halim, Syazwan Buhari and Shafiq Ghani.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

A few weeks before his ORD date, Noor Ali rang Darren up and informed him that he had been selected as part of the Geylang team that was scheduled to play against Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in a friendly. Darren remembered driving into Johor for the match and staying in the KSL resort. Shortly after the match, Darren was signed up to a S.League contract.

Darren’s full debut came against Brunei DPMM at Bedok Stadium – a Brunei side that had the fearsome forward duo of Billy Mehmet and Rafael Ramazotti. Faritz Hameed’s injury meant that Darren had an opportunity to shine and shine he did. Darren was a constant presence during the match and his side came out victorious in a 2-0 win over the Bruneian team.

Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League: Geylang International FC vs Brunei DPMM FC (20 April 2017) Credits: Singapore Premier League

However, despite doing well against the DPMM, Darren rarely featured after that and found himself on the bench. It wasn’t until Hasrin Jailani’s sacking mid-season and Noor Ali’s appointment that Darren found chances aplenty. The right-back practically played every single game. Besides providing him opportunities and regular game time, Darren also admires Noor Ali as a coach.

“To me, he is a fantastic coach. Really, he is fantastic. It’s not because he gave me the exposure or what. But honestly, he is really one of the better coaches that I have actually [worked together with].”

Noor Ali, however, left for a extended coaching stint with J2 Team, Matsumoto Yamaga FC, at the start of 2018. As part of the arrangement, Yamaga coach Hirotaka Usui replaced Noor Ali and took reign of the Geylang coaching duties. While Darren fared well under the Japanese, it’s when Noor Ali returned to the fold that he really progressed. This season, Darren continued his fine development and even managed to score his first professional goal.

Representing Singapore: U-23 and National Team Adevntures

His fine performances in his debut season with the Eagles did not go unnoticed, and quite deservedly, he was called up to the Singapore U-23 side that played friendly matches in anticipation of the SEA Games. Matches against Myanmar and India marked the start of Darren’s international exposure, and after getting a taste of it, Darren relished the opportunity for more.

As part of the SEA Games preparation, then-head coach Richard Tardy selected Darren for a training camp that was to be held in Perth. Despite a stellar debut season with the Eagles, Darren failed to make the cut for the final SEA Games squad.

“It was one of my regrets so far – not making it for the SEA Games team. In Perth, it was really cold at the time and it was [constantly] raining. I also have sinus and it was really hard for me to cope with the weather. I actually started in one of the friendly games but I did really badly in that game. So we had two games and I [performed poorly] for the camp overall. The camp was also used as a final selection for the SEA Games and I was actually dropped out of the squad. I made the squad all the way till the last cut – I was one of the last 5 to get dropped. I was really sad at that point in time. I still remember collecting the SEA Games red blazer (that Singaporean athletes wear for the Olympics and Asian as well as SEA Games) and I had to pass Ammirul Emmran my blazer. I still remember receiving the text message that I got dropped and I really felt [devastated].”

Even though it was a crushing blow to a young Darren, it did not stop him from pursuing his ambitions to represent Singapore.

In 2019, Darren finally earned the call-up he had long been waiting for as he was selected for the Singapore national team for matches against Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While most Singaporeans mark their debuts against other regional or lesser ranked national teams, Darren made his debut as a substitute against Jordan and later on his first full start against Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia in a World Cup Qualification match.

With 2 caps already to his name, it is only a matter of time before Darren adds more to that tally. If his performances during the 2020 SPL Season were anything to go by, Darren would surely feature for the Lions once again.

Future Aspirations and Thoughts on Fatherhood

Like all Singaporean players, Darren aspires to play abroad, and it is a goal he wants to achieve before he retires. He recounts how Baihakki Khaizan was sharing the importance of moving abroad and getting the much needed exposure with other players during his time with the national team. However, Darren also realizes that he needs to rack up more national team caps before foreign clubs would come knocking at his door. Thankfully, Darren has already made the first step, which is to make his debut for the national team, but making more appearances for Singapore is the next step for Darren to secure a move overseas.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Besides becoming a regular Singapore international, Darren also hopes to do well in the AFC Cup next season after Geylang International secured a spot by finishing as the third-best Singaporean side. Doing well in the competition would also be a good platform for Darren to take his game to the next level. However, while a move abroad is something that Darren is aiming for, he is not keen on moving to another team in Singapore.

“I’ve been with Geylang for 4 years. I feel that I have an identity with Geylang. The only time I will leave is when I have more reasons to leave than stay and I don’t have any reasons to leave Geylang. Honestly, besides Lion City [Sailors] and their money, I think all the clubs are almost the same. On any day, anyone could win.”

Besides having aspirations on the pitch, Darren also has many goals he wants to achieve off the pitch. At the top of the list: being a great father to his son. As a young dad, I was intrigued to find out more about how Darren juggled his various responsibilities and his thoughts on fatherhood.

“Bering a dad itself, it wasn’t something that I expected at a young age. Yet, it has been an exciting journey. Before becoming a dad, I was really just like a happy-go-lucky person – if I can play football, I am satisfied. I was pretty comfortable. Then when I had my son, Kylian – I took it from Mbappé by the way. My wife decided on the girl’s name and I decided on a boy’s name. So when the gender was revealed, I decided on Kylian because it sounded good and I did not want a common name.

“Kylian’s arrival really changed me as a person. I wanted to scale greater heights and it also explains why I took up another career as a financial manager because I know that I cannot play football forever. That being said, I also ensured my footballing levels were really high. I was more focused in each game and before the game I always think of winning it for him. That gave me an extra motivation.”

However, it has not been an easy ride for Darren to juggle his various commitments.

“I felt like I neglected Kylian. At the same time I feel like I’m at an age where I can hustle for work and carve out a career for myself. Trainings are usually in the evening and by the time they are over, Kylian is already asleep. It’s only usually during the afternoon when I come home for my afternoon naps that I do spend time with him during the weekdays. During the weekends, I make it a point to bring him out and spend time with him.”

To end off, I think it was rather interesting that Darren decided to pick up a career as a financial manager while also playing football. So, naturally I couldn’t help but probe.

“I did do my diploma and I had to clock in 200 hours of coaching as part of internship requirements. During that whole process, I won’t deny that I did enjoy seeing my players progress and develop. But, deep down I didn’t feel the drive to coach younger kids. If I ever do become a coach, I want to do it at the highest level but I also know that to get there I need to climb there slowly [and start off with the younger age groups]. So, I do enjoy playing but for me personally, I don’t see myself as a coach during my post-playing career. I would contribute back to football by doing some coaching when I eventually retire but I don’t see it as a career.”

Darren Teh’s journey as a professional player thus far is a reminder to Singaporeans that football can be a viable career in Singapore. More often than not, we discourage young players from pursuing a professional footballing career. Yes, while I agree that there have been countless instances of players getting underpaid or delayed salaries in the past, I think initiatives need to be undertaken so that footballers can get the education they need to pursue post-footballing playing careers. Darren’s decision to engage in another job right now and learn a new trait is a lesson for other footballers to reflect upon. Coaching opportunities at the highest level in Singapore are far and few, and unless players invest their time to gain new skills, they’d end up juggling multiple coaching gigs.

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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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On Dominik Szoboszlai’s Move to RB Leipzig

Keeping it in the family…

Yesterday, RB Leipzig announced the signing of Hungarian international and wunderkind sensation Dominik Szoboszlai from sister club RB Salzburg in Austria. The youngster will join Leipzig in January on a four and a half year deal after the club activated his €25 million release clause. The move is a coup for the new Bundesliga giants, and a disappointment for the clubs also pursuing the Hungarian’s signature.

Szoboszlai is the first big domino to fall of the January transfer window for 2021. January is usually a time where very few big name deals get done, as it is difficult to convince teams to sell their players mid-season while also being difficult to incorporate new players into an existing team during the middle of the season. Despite that, last January saw several massive deals go down, with Bruno Fernandes moving to Manchester United from Sporting Club, Christian Eriksen moving to Inter Milan from Tottenham, and Erling Håland moving to Borussia Dortmund from RB Salzburg being among the biggest of the bunch. Szoboszlai is the first big move in this window, one that was expected due to the Hungarian’s relatively cheap release clause.

What does this move mean for Szoboszlai? For Leipzig? What kind of player are die Roten Bullen getting? Will it make a difference in their pursuit of their first ever Bundesliga title? What does this mean for the other clubs who were pursuing this high-profile player? Let us discuss…

Whatever you make of the morality and sporting ethics behind the Red Bull system and the relationship between Leipzig and Salzburg, you cannot doubt their ability to produce star talents, with Szoboszlai being the next on that list. His move to Leipzig makes quite a bit of sense for him. Not only is he moving to a (relatively) bigger club on a bigger stage, entering a team fixed in a title fight and in the knockout stages of the Champions League, he is taking the next step down the pipeline that has produced a litany of quality players, including his new teammates Marcel Sabitzer, Dayot Upamecano, Konrad Laimer, and Amadou Haidara. Szoboszlai is a brilliant player who is already assembling a highlight reel of brilliant goals and moments, and this move to the Bundesliga will put him on a bigger stage, under brighter lights, and able to demonstrate his talent and ability to the world. The highlight reel player will now have more cameras on him.

He has picked out the ideal team to join footballing-wise. Leipzig are a dynamic attacking team, managed by possibly the brightest young star in football management in Julian Nagelsmann. They are a team that, quite simply, scores plenty of goals and plays an attractive brand of football, ideal for a dynamic and dangerous player like Szoboszlai. Systemically, while Nagelsmann has moved away from the traditional Red Bull 4-2-2-2, the mantra of quick, attacking football still exists. Even without the traditional Red Bull formation, the youngster still fits in well for Leipzig. For Salzburg, Szoboszlai often played on the left side in the Red Bull 4-2-2-2, drifting inside onto his stronger right foot. For Hungary, he plays as a creative number 10 in the middle of the pitch. This experience works ideally for Leipzig and Nagelsmann, who utilize a combination of a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1, both having an ideal space open for the Hungarian. In their 3-4-2-1, which is their most-used formation, their front three usually is composed of two more creative players behind a “pivot”, either a target-man striker, like Yussuf Poulsen or Alexander Sørloth, or another creative player acting as a false nine. The 4-2-3-1 is a similar idea, with three creative attacking midfielders playing behind a “pivot”, which is, again, either a target-man striker or a false nine midfielder. Szoboszlai will fit in with the two creative midfielders in the 3-4-2-1, which were usually some combination of Dani Olmo, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara, and Christopher Nkunku. Szoboszlai is able to play on the left side of that pairing, which puts him in a similar role to where he played for Salzburg. In the 4-2-3-1, he is able to fit into the middle or left side of the attacking three, which is, again, similar to where he played for Salzburg and Hungary. He seems to fit into the team like a glove.

There will be some slight tactical adjusting. Playing off of one target man as compared to a strike partnership at Salzburg, his utilization in build up will be more different, much more central than at Salzburg and less of cutting inside on his right foot. He also has to work with an overlapping wing back, with Angeliño bombing up the left side much more than the fullbacks at Salzburg would. These are small differences, and I still believe that Szoboszlai will fit in well tactically, but these are small things that will be around Szoboszlai on the pitch, slight differences that he will have to get to terms with immediately.

From a Leipzig perspective, the biggest concern about Szoboszlai is his consistency. Some have described him as a player who is equally likely to make a brilliant, match-defining moment as he is to go completely missing in a match. I saw another person describe him as someone good for two to three moments a match, then nothing else for the remainder of the 90 minutes. Usually, some of these claims are blown out of proportion, and people tend to throw around “lack of effort” to explain star players struggling, but to be fair, there are some instances where Szoboszlai has gone missing and, for instance, has not put in his share of the defensive duty. These are not damning traits for a player, however, and it is something that can be removed from the game of a young player as he develops and matures. In moving to Leipzig, he is now in a team surrounded by a higher level of talent to work off of during a match. He also has a significant amount of competition for his place, meaning his star power alone is not enough to keep him in the team. He is now working with an experienced manager in Nagelsmann who can nurture him from an inconsistent but talented young player to a true top talent. He needs to buy in, though, and while I have seen no signs that he will not do so, these concerns are still relevant.

Tactically, despite some issues, a move for Szoboszlai seems to work perfectly. He is able to play on the left and drift in toward the middle of the pitch as the other Leipzig creative players are able to do, and he can offer a level of aggression and one-on-one attacking ability that the likes of Forsberg and Nkunku cannot. He also poses a significant attacking threat by himself, as his ability to score from distance will draw the attention of defenders and help create opportunities for his teammates. It is safe to say that players moving within the Red Bull family are not going to be left out at sea by moving into a completely different tactical set up, but even with the changes Nagelsmann has made since his arrival, Szoboszlai still fits in perfectly with what the young German manager wants to do.

Despite Leipzig winning the race for the youngster, Szoboszlai was a very sought-after player, so I will spare a quick thought for the teams that lost out in the race for the Hungarian’s signature. There were seemingly three other main contenders in this duel: Milan, Real Madrid, and Arsenal. Milan tried and failed to sign Szoboszlai last summer, while Real Madrid and Arsenal were at least enquiring about a possible deal. With the Hungarian now off the market and seemingly no major competition with Leipzig for the deal, it does show a lot about the priorities of the other clubs involved.

Milan likely sensed that they missed their chance last summer, as the top priority of the club since then has been agreeing contract extensions with key players, including current attacking midfielder Hakan Çalhanoglu, who would have likely been replaced by Szoboszlai had a transfer been agreed. While not as talented as Szoboszlai, the Turkish international has been fantastic for Pioli’s Milan, being a key contributor in a Rossoneri team that could at least find their way back into the Champions League next season, if not win a Scudetto this season. It is a miss for Milan, but their self-control is understandable. Things are finally going well for the club after years of financial and sporting turmoil. They do not want to rock the boat before they make it back to the Champions League and receive the much-needed financial windfall that comes with it.

Real Madrid were likely never serious contenders. Most top young talents are inevitably linked with clubs of the gargantuan size as Los Blancos, but this was never a deal that was going to happen. The club has invested in Martin Ødegaard to be the creative midfielder for the future, and the board likely have still held back all transfer funds for deals next summer, when Kylian Mbappé and Eduardo Camavinga, among others, could become available. No doubt that Real Madrid are in need of some creativity and goalscoring threat, but this was never a deal they would have seriously considered.

And then we come to Arsenal. There probably is not a major club on the planet that could have used a player of Szoboszlai’s caliber more than Arsenal. Desperately in need of some form of creative dynamism, anything to make the incessant crossing stop, a move for the Hungarian would have made perfect sense for Arsenal, especially given the relatively cheap price tag. The move did not materialize, obviously, and it seems that both sides did have their hesitations. For Szoboszlai, it does not seem controversial to think that a move to league title-contending and Champions League-constant Leipzig made much more sense than a move to a horrendously struggling Arsenal team. While he would start and be among the star players in both teams, it makes more sense for a young player to go to the better situation, which definitely is not Arsenal, in order for their progression and growth to not be hindered. On the other side, there were reports that Arsenal had doubts over the player’s defensive work rates. Again, these concerns are not unfair, but it did seem like Arsenal may have taken too much interest in those concerns and possibly turned down the exact player they need to fix their attacking woes. Whatever the case may be, it never seemed like Arsenal were truly in the running. Moving forward, should Arsenal remain in the Premier League next season (which they probably will but you never know), they will likely try for a serious move in the summer for a creative player, with Lyon’s Houssem Aouar likely being their dream target. With several major contracts expiring in the summer, including Mesut Özil’s much-discussed contract, Arsenal should feel more liberated financially, able to make a major move to improve the team, should a major move be available for them.

So how will this move work out? Personally, I am a big fan of Szoboszlai as a player. I like his confidence, a trait that is very important for a player in his position. He never looks afraid to take on a defender or play a risky pass or take a shot from distance, and that confidence will be important for him to hit the ground running at Leipzig. Working with a manager as talented as Julian Nagelsmann will allow the player to grow and mature into a consistent talent. He slots into that Leipzig team perfectly, being the ideal eventual replacement for aging club stalwart Emil Forsberg and an ideal piece that can rotate into the team alongside the likes of Forsberg, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku. Will he have the impact for Leipzig that his former Salzburg teammate Erling Håland is having for Dortmund? Probably not, but it is at least worth remembering that Szoboszlai was considered one of the two diamonds of that Salzburg team alongside Håland, and he has a considerable amount of natural talent. It is possible that he blossoms into a superstar in the Bundesliga, but I do not think it will be to the degree and immediacy of Håland’s rise.

Regardless, this deal makes Leipzig much better at little cost to them. Having already lost Timo Werner and potentially losing Dayot Upamecano this summer, it seems like the window for Leipzig to win the Bundesliga is beginning to close. Making a move like this could be the difference between Leipzig winning their first ever Meisterschale and losing out to Bayern Munich once again. Leipzig are already a very good team, they probably did not need to sign Szoboszlai, but it is a move that makes them much better and could be the tipping point in their season. It is very rare in this post-Neymar-to-PSG transfer market that you get the opportunity to sign a potentially world class talent for a cut rate fee, and when you find chances like that, you take them without thinking. Leipzig did just that with this move.

And they benefitted from their ability to keep him in the family…

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