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Wolverhampton Wanderers: The Best of The Rest

Prior to the start of this season, many predicted that Wolves would, at best, finish mid-table. This season was supposed to be one of consolidation for the newly promoted side as they aimed to break their cycle of relegation and promotion. Wolves have the unfortunate reputation of being a “yo-yo club.” A club that is stuck in soccer purgatory.

Historically, Wolves have been too good for the Championship, but have not been good enough to consistently remain in the Premier League. However, it is my prediction that Wolves have broken this cycle and the West-Midlands club will play in England’s top division for many years to come. In this week’s post we shall be analyzing all the factors behind Wolves’ rise back to relevancy.

Wolves are 7th in the league, but have no real chance of moving up into 6th position. The top 6 in England are considered amongst the elite sides of Europe and Wolves are just a tier below them. However, Wolves are certainly the best side outside of the top 6. Within the space of two weeks, Wolves have derailed Manchester United’s season. The West-Midlands side beat United in the Quarter-Finals of the F.A cup and dealt a hammer blow to United’s top four aspirations by defeating them 2-1 at home. In both games, Wolves were the better side and I, like many, have been so impressed with how the West-Midlands side have been playing this season.

Ownership

Wolves are owned by the conglomerate and investment company, Fosun International. The Chinese investment group purchased Wolves for $60 million dollars in the summer of 2016. Wolves’ chairman, Jeff Shi, said he was inspired by Manchester City’s ascension to the top of English soccer and believes that Wolves can follow a similar trajectory to the Manchester club. By acquiring a historically significant club, Shin believes that Wolves can become one of the elite sides in European soccer.

The owners have demonstrated their ambitions and have not been shy when it comes to spending money on new players. When they were in the Championship, Wolves signed players that were once regulars in the Champions League. The signing of Ruben Neves shows the financial power that Wolves now possess. Neves was courted by Europe’s elite sides and many people were shocked when he decided to move to England’s second division. Wolves spent $27 million-dollars on the talented midfielder which represented an astronomical transfer fee for a Championship side. Championship managers criticized the club as they felt that Wolves were, essentially, financially doping their way to the Premier League.

Wolves’ ownership has also drawn criticism for their close relationship with “super-agent” Jorge Mendes. The Portuguese soccer agent represents some of the world’s biggest stars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, and his association with Wolves has seen many of his clients join the club. Mendes’ ties to the club are criticized as many rival managers feel that he is directing his clients to the West-Midlands club. Nuno Esprito Santo, the club’s manager, and marquee players Ruben Neves, Rui Patricio, Raul Jimenez and Joao Moutinho are all clients of Mendes’.

The issue that people have with Mendes’ involvement at Wolves stems from the fact that Wolves’ owners have shares in Mendes’ agency; GestiFute. Some have suggested that this relationship gives Wolves the advantage of signing players that are represented by Mendes. Leeds owner and chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, has claimed that the relationship is “unfair and illegal.” However, an investigation by the English F.A. found no irregularities in Mendes’ involvement with the club. The club have been robust in the defense of their recruitment practices as Managing director Laurie Dalrymple said: “we are completely comfortable; in the way we recruit players, the strategy we deploy to do that and the system we build around how we finance it.”

Wolves have been incredibly intelligent when it has come to their recruitment. Instead of making the mistakes of signing household names they have managed to acquire exciting young talents, such as Neves and Jota, and have also signed experienced professionals; such as Moutinho and Boly. This combination of youth and experience has improved Wolves’ squad greatly.

The Manager

The first 12 months under Shi’s stewardship were not successful. The problem with businessmen running soccer clubs is that they often lack the relevant experience needed to form a successful side. They may have the business acumen required to run a modern soccer club, but they often lack the knowledge of soccer which is needed to guide the playing side of the team. There was a managerial merry-go-round before the club appointed Nuno Espirito Santo and he was the club’s 7th managerial appointment since 2012.

Admittedly, most of these did not take place under Shi, but it highlights the culture that was once at the club. A high turnover of managers inhibits the club’s ability to implement a long-term plan for improvement. The constant changing of mangers meant that Wolves were stagnating. There was no basis from which the club could progress. Wolves needed stability, so progress could take place, and in Nuno the club has found their stabilizing force.

Hiring Nuno was a coup for the West-Midlands side as he joined the club after managing Valencia. Wolves were in the Championship when Nuno arrived and his appointment was not received well within England. Many Wolves fans questioned the appointment of Nuno as he had no experience of English soccer. Fast forward a year and a half, those dissenters no longer exists.

During his first year at Wolves, Nuno’s side dominated the Championship as the statistics below show.

Goals scored: 1st

Goals Conceded: 2nd

Home Wins: 1st

Away Wins: 1st

Shots on Target: 3rd

Goal Conversion: 1st

Total passes: 2nd

Successful passes: 2nd

Assists: 1st

Clean Sheets: 1st

Nuno’s playing philosophy

Nuno’s philosophy stems from his long-playing career. He spent the entirety of his career as a backup goalkeeper and owes a lot of his playing philosophy to Jose Mourinho. Nuno was the backup goalkeeper when Mourinho led FC Porto to a remarkable Champions League title and has spoken openly about his admiration for the “special one.”  The type of soccer that Mourinho favors is a counter-attacking style of play and this is also what Nuno prefers.

Nuno favors the 5-3-2 formation as it enables his playing philosophy to take place on the pitch. Wolves do not aim to dominate the game with possession but are set-up to counter-attack with blistering pace.

When defending, Wolves do not press within the opposition’s half. They adopt a pressing style which is conservative and takes place within their own half. By inviting pressure onto themselves, Wolves hope that the opposition will lose their defensive shape by sending too many players into the attack. Wolves aim to counter-attack with pace and utilize the spaces that have been left behind by the opposition. If Wolves were a basketball team, you would say that they are a team that aims to score in transition.

This style of play means that Wolves’ full-backs and strikers must be exceptionally fast so they can take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities. They must be technically proficient on the ball as counter-attacks are most devastating when the opposition does not have enough time to regain their defensive shape. Anything that slows down the counter-attack, such as poor passes and bad touches, must be avoided.

Nuno’s system means that his midfielders must be fantastic passers of the ball. Counter-attacking opportunities are lost in the blink of an eye, so Nuno’s midfielders must be able to move the ball, vertically up the pitch, with pace. By transitioning the ball quickly, Nuno’s midfielders play a key role in generating the momentum of his side’s counter-attacks.

How the formation works: Defense

This is Wolves’ usual defensive shape

The whole team drops back into their own half of the pitch and this allows Wolves to maximize the number of players they have in defensive areas. This congests Wolves’ half of the pitch meaning that Nuno’s system limits the space in which the opposition can play within. As Wolves play a counter-attacking style of soccer, they have to invite pressure onto themselves in order to create the spaces for their own attacks. By maximizing the number of their players in defensive positions, Wolves aims to ensure that the invitation of this pressure does not lead to them conceding goals.

How the formation works: offense

When counterattacking, this is the shape that Wolves typically find themselves in

Wolves’ full-backs are incredibly important to their attacking style. The full-backs sprint forward to stretch the defense of the opposition; which creates space for the strikers to work within. Nuno allows Moutinho and Dendoncker to join the attack, but insists that Neves remains fixed in his position. From this position, Neves acts as a backwards passing option, if no vertical passes are open. Also, Neves’ positioning ensures that there are always 4 Wolves players that are able to defend against counter-attacks that are launched by the opposition.

Nuno has drilled his side so well that they are able to transition between these two formations with ease. As there is no real positional flexibility, every player knows what is required of them.

Key players This season

The following players have been particularly important for Wolves this season.

Willy Boly (Centre-back)

The Frenchman arrived from FC Porto when Wolves were in the Championship and the commanding centre-back has thrived within the Premier League. His performances this season has seen him tipped for a move to one of the Premier League’s top 6 clubs.

Boly has been a monster at the back for Wolves this season and has dominated many of the leagues’ most potent strikers. He averages 2.3 tackles per game, 2 interceptions per game, 1 block per game and a staggering 4.8 clearances per game. Standing at 6 foot 5 inches, the towering centre-back is a formidable defender and has become a fan favorite.

Ruben Neves (Central-defensive-midfielder)

The talented youngster made my 2018/2019 Premiere League team of the season, which can be found on this blog, and he is integral to the way in which Wolves play.  Operating as a fixed central-defensive-midfielder, Neves protects the back-line whilst also linking the defense with the attack. He passes the ball vertically, up-field, with great pace and his ability to transition his side from defense into a counter-attack is a major factor behind Wolves’ successes this year.

The talented youngster made my 2018/2019 Premiere League team of the season, which can be found on this blog, and he is integral to the way in which Wolves play.  Operating as a fixed central-defensive-midfielder, Neves protects the back-line whilst also linking the defense with the attack. He transitions his side from defense to a counter-attack by passing the ball quickly up-field and his contributions are a major factor behind Wolves’ successes this year.

Raul Jimenez (Striker)

In Jimenez, Wolves have a striker that has been scoring goals and finishing his chances with great efficiency. The Mexican international is perfect for Nuno’s system, as he is great on the ball and has the agility needed to participate in devastating counter-attacks. Offensively, Jimenez averages 2.8 shots per game, 1.2 key passes per game and 0.9 dribbles per game. With his 16 goals and 7 assists, the Mexican has become a fan favorite at the West-Midlands club.

Jimenez is currently on loan from Benfica and, due to his performances this season, has been linked with a transfer to various clubs across Europe. According to reports, Wolves have first-refusal of the Mexican international and are believed to be preparing a club record $40 million dollar bid for the striker.

The West-Midlands club find themselves in an incredible position right now and deserve all the plaudits they are receiving. They have a great manager, incredible squad and are clearly on the rise. Wolves’ ownership group want to transform the club into an elite side and have made all the right decisions so far. From revolutionizing their recruitment strategies to changing the structure of their club; Wolves’ ownership group are on the right path to achieving their goals.

Wolves will remain a tier below the Premier League’s top 6 for the foreseeable future. However, if they continue progressing in the manner in which they have; who knows where this incredible journey could end up.

Manager’s Corner: Maurizio Sarri

This season I have been inundated with messages asking me to explain what is meant by the term “Sarriball”. The term has been used to describe the playing philosophy of Maurizi Sarri; who is the current manager of Chelsea FC. So, this week’s Manager’s Corner will focus on the playing philosophy of Maurizio Sarri.

Sarri claims that he has never heard of the term Sarriball before. According to the Italian, Sarriball is a term created by the English Media and is used to simplify his playing philosophy. Regardless, Sarriball has become a point of contention amongst Chelsea fans. The season started so well for the London club and soccer fans across the world were in awe of Sarriball. Sarri’s side were playing such beautiful soccer and it was exciting to watch. Oh, how things can change in the space of a few months.

Maurizio Sarri came to the English Premier League with a strange reputation. When he was named as Chelsea’s manager, many pundits criticized the move as Sarri does not have the greatest track record as a manager. Sarri has been a manager for over 28 years and he is yet to have won a trophy. Many felt that Sarri would not command the respect of Chelsea’s squad as he is not a proven winner.

However, many soccer “hipsters” felt completely opposite about the move. These commentators saw how Sarri’s Napoli side almost dethroned the Italian giants Juventus in Serie A. Juventus have won 7 league titles in a row, but Sarri’s Napoli side took the title challenge down to the wire. Within this 7-year period, no team has threatened Juventus’ domination more than Sarri’s Napoli side. The brand of soccer that Sarri’s team played received widespread praise from soccer fans around the world. When he was announced as the manager of Chelsea, many were excited to see his playing philosophy tested in England. The prospect of seeing Sarriball at the biggest stage in European soccer, with some of the world’s greatest players, captured my imagination.

Sarri’s playing philosophy is incredibly important to him. He believes that nothing should cause the team to move away from his principles. Regardless of the opposition, Sarri feels that his team must remain loyal to their identity. The identity being Sarriball.

As Sarri has been a manager for over 28 years, he has developed his philosophy by learning from some of the game’s greatest manager’s. The essence of Sarriball is to keep possession by passing the ball, which disrupts the defensive shape of the opposition, thus creating space for the team to attack within.

Sarri favors the 4-3-3 formation

Defense

Like most modern managers, Sarri demands that his defenders are exceptional on the ball. In past generations, defenders operated with modus operandi of “if in doubt, kick it out.” However, Sarri expects his defenders to be able to transition the ball to the midfielders and strikers along the ground. By passing in this manner, Sarri aims to ensure that his side retains possession over the ball. A key aspect of Sarriball is domination by possession and the defenders play a major role in allowing this to happen.

When defending, Sarri aims to close the spaces in which the opposition can play within. As a result, Sarri adopts a pressing style of defense. Sarri’s pressing style differs to Klopp’s as Sarri urges his players to pressurize the ball-carrier of the opposition; whilst also covering the passing lanes that are open to the ball-carrier. By pressing the ball-carrier and the passing lanes, Sarri aims to pressurize the ball-carrier into making a mistake which would lead to his side retaining possession of the ball.

Full-backs have become one of the most important positions in modern soccer. As we saw when we analayzed Guardiola’s tactics, full-backs can create space for their team by pushing forward and stretching the defense of the opposition. Sarriball adopts a similar tactic as Sarri urges his full-backs to push forward when in attack.

One of the nuances of Sarriball is that Sarri allows one full-back more attacking freedom than the other. This depends on which side of the pitch Sarri’s best attacker is on. If the attacker is on the left-hand side, Sarri allows his left full-back to push forward to create space for the attacker. By pushing forward, the full-back can drag the opposition’s defenders away from the attacker. Thus, creating space for the forward player to play within. Sarriball dictates that when one full-back pushes forward, the other full-back hangs back to protect against of a counter-attack.

As you can see below, the left winger comes slightly inside which allows the left full-back space to push up. As a result, the centre-backs shift slightly left and the right-back has come into a central position.

The Midfield

Sarri sets up his midfield into a staggered formation and each player facilitates a different role. The central-defensive-midfielder plays the most important role in Sarriball as he is the fulcrum that enables the team to play. The central-defensive-midfielder connects the defense with the offense and his role is to quickly pass the ball, vertically upfield, to allow the team to quickly transition into attack. When defending, the central-defensive-midfielder is free to form triangles with his defenders to ensure that the team keep possession of the ball.

Though Chelsea have the best central-defensive-midfielder in the world, Sarri does not play him in this position. Sarri favors Jorginho, who arrived at Stamford Bridge with Sarri, for this role. Jorginho played this role for Sarri during his tenure at Napoli and his selection in this position, instead of N’golo Kante, has drawn huge criticisms from fans and pundits alike.

The other two midfielders play a contrasting role with one another. One of the remaining centre-midfielders plays as a shuttling midfielder. A shuttling midfielder is a term used to describe a box-to-box midfielder. Essentially, these midfielders tirelessly run-up and down the pitch depending on what the team is doing.

In attack, the shuttling midfielder joins the attack by making runs into the box or by simply acting as a passing option for the attackers. In defense, the shuttling midfielder has a duality of purpose. The first one is to press the opposition and the second one is to sprint back when defending. The image below shows the typical shape that Sarri’s defenses find themselves in when defending counterattacks .

As you can see below, the shuttling midfielder’s positioning is further back than the attacking midfielder; indicating that his role is to aid the defense during counterattacks.

The other centre-midfielder plays a similar role to the shuttling midfielder, but is encouraged to join the attack. Sarri’s style of play favors attacking down the left-hand side and the extra midfielder is encouraged to join the attack on the left. This aims to create an overload down that side of the field which creates even more space for the attacker to play within.

Strikers

Within Sarriball, strikers are free to interchange with one another as Sarri does not place any restrictions upon his attackers. Sarri expects his strikers to play with imagination and confuse defenses with constant movement. Within Sarriball, strikers are expected to interchange with one another, thus making defenders unable to regularly mark the attacker as they are unsure of their positioning.

This constant movement aims to disrupt the defensive shape of the opposition which creates space for the striker to play with in. Though Sarri does not have a set place for attack, Sarriball demands a specific type of striker. Sarri has drawn widespread criticism for not uitlizing Giroud on a regular bases, but the French World Cup winner does not fit the philosophy of Sarriball. Sarri prefers attackers that are quick and can play within tight spaces. Therefore, traditional striker struggle to play within Sarri’s system.

Though Sarriball has become filled with negative connotations, it will always remind me of the beautiful soccer that was being played by Napoli. Chelsea’s Sarriball nightmare looks destined to come to an end. However, it will be a shame to see a soccer visionary leave the Premier League.

The Rise and Rise of Virgil van Dijk

When Liverpool spent just under $100 million dollars on the Dutchman in 2018 the fee was a point of contention throughout the world of soccer. This astronomical transfer fee now seems like an absolute bargain. Van Dijk has transformed Liverpool’s defense and has emerged as one of the best defenders in soccer. Arguably, Van Dijk has overtaken Salah as Liverpool’s most important player and it would not be a surprise if we see van Dijk given the captain’s armband soon.

Currently, van Dijk is the favorite to be named The Premier League’s Player of The Year, which is remarkable given that the award is usually reserved for attacking players. The last time a defender won the award was in the 2011-2012 season. In the era of attacking soccer, in which offence takes precedence over defense, the fact that van Dijk is being recognized as one of the best players in the Premier League is a testament to his performances.

The most impressive aspect of van Dijk’s game is that he is the example of the complete defender. Van Dijk has the warrior instincts of Nemanja Vidic and has the passing range of Gerard Piqué. The Dutchman is, essentially, two players in one and his impact upon this Liverpool side cannot be underestimated.

Previous Liverpool sides were renowned for their weak defenses and were often criticized for not addressing their defensive frailties. The most successful British manager, Sir Alex Fergurson, once stated that “attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.” This was ignored by the Merseyside club. When Liverpool last challenged for the title, under Brendan Rogers, it was their porous defense that ended their chances of winning the title.

However, van Dijk is proving to be the missing link that Liverpool always needed. Van Dijk is having his best season as a professional. There are some characteristics that cannot be truly captured by statistics, but can be clearly seen whilst watching Liverpool play. Henderson might be the club captain, but make no mistake; van Dijk is the leader on the pitch.

Van Dijk has brought a calmness to Liverpool’s defense that has been absent since the days of Sami Hyypiä and Jamie Carragher. This calmness is also accompanied by a steeliness which has completely eradicated criticisms that used to be levelled at previous Liverpool teams. Their defense is no longer weak and porous. Liverpool’s defense has been so outstanding that they have conceded the fewest amount of goals in the Premier League this season. Even less than Manchester City who has spent over $250 million dollars on their defense.

Statistically, van Dijk has been a monster this year. He boasts an impressive successful tackle percentage of 72% and has won 78.3% of his duels. As I have said before, van Dijk is the complete defender and his passing statistics are outrageous for a centre back. Van Dijk has an 89.6% passing accuracy completing 2213 of his 2470 passes.

Van Dijk is not a sideways passer as he plays a vital role in initiating Liverpool’s offence. Given the blistering nature of Liverpool’s attack, van Dijk enables the team to transition from defense into an attack at a frightening pace. It is the reason why Liverpool have been able to steamroll over teams this season. Not only do Liverpool dominate possession, but van Dijk’s ability to play the ball forward enables them to be so devastating in attack. Van Dijk’s recent assist for Mane’s unbelievable goal against Bayern Munich, in the Champions League, perfectly demonstrates van Dijk’s mastery over the ball.

Van Dijk’s defensive numbers are extremely impressive and rank amongst the best in the Premier League. The Dutchman averages 0.9 tackles per game, 1.1 interceptions per game, 0.5 blocks per game and a staggering 5.1 clearances per game. His defensive prowess is reflected by these statistics and further demonstrates what a force he has been on the defensive end of the pitch.

After last season, many feared that this year’s title race would be boring. Many fans and pundits expected Manchester City to dominate it once more. However, Liverpool is standing at the top of the table and this has been one of the most exciting title races that one can remember. Pressure is growing on Klopp to deliver a trophy and many Liverpool fans are hoping that their team can win the league for the first time in almost 29 years.

Even if Liverpool fail to win any silverware this year, they can take solace in the knowledge that they have the caliber of defender needed to be challenging for soccer’s biggest trophies for years to come.

Summer Spending: Manchester United

Manchester United’s revival under Solskjaer has been incredible. However, many of the issues that he inherited from Mourinho remains. If United are serious in their attempts to reach the summit of soccer once more, then there are a variety of signings that they need to make to rejuvenate their squad. The most significant is within the defence and the midfield.

Manchester United’s defence has improved tremendously under Solskjaer guidance. Players that had regressed under Mourinho have now emerged as key figures under the new regime. There have been notable defensive performances for United since the turn of the year with Lindelof and Smalling forming a pretty good partnership.

However, against the top teams within the Premier Leauge, Manchester United have still relied on their goalkeeper, David de Gea, to have unbelievable performances to keep them in the game. Though Smalling and Lindelof have formed a good partnership, United need to buy a world class centre-back to challenge for the highest honors. Lindelof is a potential future captain for United and, since Solksjaer has taken over, has cemented himself as United’s first choice centre-back. Smalling and Jones are good reserves to have but, as Liverpool have shown with van Dijk, introducing a world class centre-back into the club can drastically change the fortunes of the team.

There are several players that Manchester United can pursue. However, most elite centre-backs are already at Europe’s biggest clubs. Varane, Marquinhos and de Light, with his pending transfer to Barcelona, means that United are faced with a dilemma. Either pursue Napoli’s Koulibaily, in a deal that will cost over $100 million dollars, or sign a defender that is a tier lower than world class, but has the potential to become one of the best defenders in the world.

There are a few defenders that fall under this category and will be much cheaper than Koulibaily. From Leicester’s Harry Maguire to Inter Milan’s Skriniar; there is no defender that Manchester United cannot afford. Whoever Manchester United decide to sign must complement Lindelof’s game so they can form a strong partnership. Lindelof needs a no-nonsense warrior next to him. In the biggest games, Lindelof has the tendency to be nervous on the ball and is prone to making mistakes. Having that calming influence next to him would do him, and United, the world of good. Liverpool has shown how the fortunes of a club can change with the addition of a world-class defender and United should follow their example.

Aside from the centre-back there are two other positions in which United need to strengthen; the centre of the midfield and the right-hand side of the attack. In an ideal world, United would sign two centre midfielders that can slot into the first team straight away.

Given that United will be operating on some sort of a budget, the most pressing signing they need to make is buying someone to replace Matic. Nemanja Matic is approaching the twilight of his career and his replacement is vital to the progression of the football club. Matic is the consummate professional and should be kept at the club to remain as a leader in the dressing room. A leader that provides the youngsters, within the squad, with an example of how professionals should conduct themselves.

If Solksjaer gets the job then United’s style of play is clear. Indeed, it resembles that of Sir Alex Ferguson’s; defend well and counter-attack at blistering pace. Therefore, the central-defensive-midfielder is a vital cog in this system. The midfielder protects the defence and initiates the counter-attack.

United have never replaced Michael Carrick and the hierarchy at the club need to break the bank to bring in some real quality into this position. If United want to play attacking football, at a blistering pace, they need a central-defensive-midfielder who’s first thought is to pass the ball forward, as opposed to sideways which is a criticism often levelled at Matic.

United possess forward players with frightening pace. Players like Martial and Rashford provide a downfield threat that can be extremely potent as many teams now defend with such a high line. Therefore, the central-defensive-midfielder needs to have an exceptional passing range to be able to take advantage of this threat.

As a result, United’s central-defensive-midfielder needs to be press resistant. Someone who is comfortable on the ball and passes the ball quickly. This enables the team to quickly transition into a counter-attack.

On the defensive side, the central-defensive-midfielder needs to be a fixed central-defensive-midfielder; as opposed to a screening central-defensive-midfielder like Kante. The way Pogba and Herrera plays means that United needs somebody with extreme discipline that can sit in front of the back four.

United should look to the Premiere League for their central-defensive-midfielder. There is no other league in the world that matches the Premier League, in-terms of the pace that the game is played at, and there is a fair few central-defensive-midfielders that have thrived within the league. Reuben Neves would be the player with the highest ceiling that United could sign, Leicester’s Ndidi would offer a cheaper alternative; whilst West Ham’s Declan Rice has all the capabilities to fulfil the role.

The other attacking signing is relatively straightforward. Manchester United have no attacking threat down the right-hand side. When Mata plays he just cuts back into the middle of the park and Lingard is far more effective in a central position.

Rashford has shown this season that he should be the starting striker moving forward. Therefore, United need to sign a right-sided winger that will hug the touchline and stretch the opposition’s back four. Someone with an eye for goal, blistering pace and can play balls into the box. For me, there is only one player that United should go for at this position. That is Jadon Sancho.

Manager’s Corner: Marcelo Bielsa

This week in Manager’s Corner we analyze the philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa, the manager at Leeds United. As a student of the game, I have always been fascinated by Bielsa’s playing philosophy. His tactical framework has inspired the world’s greatest managers. Take Pochettino, who Bielsa managed at different stages throughout the Argentinians playing career, who claimed that “we are a generation of coaches that were his disciples.”

Marcelo Bielsa might be the most important coach that you have never heard of.

This is a bizarre assertion when one looks deeper into Bielsa’s managerial career. Bielsa has never won a title in Europe and is remembered by the average soccer fan for Argentina’s dismal display at the 2002 World Cup. Bielsa has not been a serial winner throughout his career. Plenty of managers have won far more honors than Bielsa, but few have had a greater impact on the modern game than he has had.

Pep Guardiola, who is considered the best manager in the world, stated that “it doesn’t matter how many titles he has had in his career…for me, he is the best coach in the world.” Diego Simeone has already pledged his allegiance to the school of Bielsa by stating that “I have the influence of several coaches…Bielsa taught me the most.” This impact has even reached the MLS with Colorado Rapids’ head coach, Anthony Hudson, stating that he has “fallen in love” with how Bielsa works. Bielsa’s influence is felt throughout the game.

Bielsa has had a philosophical impact upon the game. Many elite managers utilize the teachings of Marcelo as the foundations of their own playing styles. Underpinning Bielsa’s footballing philosophy illustrates the dichotomy that presents the modern-day manager. Usually, managers implement systems that are possession based or ones that call for a direct, counterattacking style of play. Bielsa and his disciples have fused these two together.

The hallmark of Bielsa’s play can be characterized by possession with purpose. Possession based systems call for sideways passes to entice the opposition to falsely press the ball carrier. This false press opens up spaces within the opposition which the team can then exploit. Bielsa favors keeping possession with the ball whilst playing with the intensity that is present in a counterattacking system.

These tendencies are visible within many systems that have been inspired by Marcelo Bielsa. The foundations of Guardiola’s and Pochettino’s tactics are characterized by possession with purpose. They impose their will on the opposition by dominating the ball, but do so in a manner where they are constantly looking for the opportunity to create chances. Of course, Guardiola and Pochettino have formulated their own philosophies. However, the impact of Bielsa is clear to see.

Bielsa’s tactics shows how he can dominate with possession whilst attacking at a high tempo.

Bielsa utilizes a 3-3-1-3 formation which contains 3 centre-backs, a midfielder that acts as a screening central-defensive-midfielder, 2 marauding wing-backs and a central-attacking-midfielder that operates within the hole just behind the front three. The front contains two wide players that stretch the backline to create space for the lead striker.

Of course, Bielsa is flexible in the way that he sets up his team, but he always aims to have one more centre-back than the opposition has strikers. By having one spare defender, Bielsa’s team can press high as they always have the safety of one defender hanging back. This also allows Bielsa’s teams to attack with numbers for the same reason, the extra centre-back acts as a comfort blanket for the team in both attack and defense.

The defensive tactic of the team is characterized by pressing. There is no distinct defensive and attacking bloc. By pressing with a high line, Bielsa restricts the ability that the opposition has in creating an attack. This is because the defensive high line reduces the space in which the opposition can play within.

As Bielsa merges a high tempo with a possession based system, players within his team require elite athleticism and exceptional technical abilities. Bielsa often plays a midfielder in the center-back position. This allows the team to pass out from the back as midfielders, usually, have greater passing capabilities than defenders. It is also worth noting that the goalkeeper plays an important part in initiating the offence by playing the ball out to the defenders. Just like Ederson does for Manchester City.

In attack, the two wingers of the front three play as wide as possible to stretch the defense of the opposition. This creates space for the wing-backs to exploit which causes overloads down the opposition’s flanks. The central-attacking-midfielder plays in the middle space that is created by this overload. This space is created as the opposition lose their defensive shape by sending central players wide to try and negate the overload. The central-attacking-midfielder interacts with the other attacking elements within the side by passing in triangles. This aims to further disrupt the defensive shape of the opposition whilst utilizing the extra man that is created by the formation; a tactic evident in Man City’s and Spurs’ styles of play.

As this system is possession with purpose, there is an emphasis of moving the ball forward and transitioning up the pitch with blistering pace. As a result, recycling possession sideways for long periods of time, which is the hallmark of possession based systems, is avoided. Attackers within the system are expected to be able to fulfil each other’s roles and can swap positions with one another. Here we can see how Total Football has inspired Bielsa’s playing philosophy.

Bielsa’s revolution at Leeds is well underway. For years, he has been widely respected within the world of soccer and his genius is now getting the mainstream appreciation that it deserves. Though he will not be remembered as the coach with the most titles, he will be remembered for the impact that he has had on the modern game.

There have been coaches that have helped change soccer and Marcelo Bielsa is a name that is, certainly, on that small list. Rinus Michels gave us Total Football and Johan Cruyff gave us Tiki-Taka; Bielsa has joined those soccer legends by creating his possession with purpose system.

The Mastery of Lionel Messi

Messi is soccer in its purest form. Now before Ronaldo fans start contacting me asking why Ronaldo is not included in this tribute, there are a variety of reasons why. Ronaldo has an unbelievable goal scoring recorded. Truly, one of the greatest to have ever played the game and I am lucky to have watched him play live a fair few times. However, Messi makes me fall in love with the game every time I watch him play.

There was a time where Messi scored 91 goals in a calendar year and I thought he would never be able to top that level of performance again. Though he hasn’t reached that goal scoring output since; Messi’s game has gone to a whole new level. Consistently, Messi has scored over 40 goals a season for Barcelona but it is his overall play that makes him the player he is today.

One could easily argue that Messi is one of the greatest passers of all time. There have been numerous matches I have watched where Messi would play a pass that I couldn’t even see on the tv screen before he played it. He plays intricate through balls and long sweeping passes that only a master-passer could play.

His finishing, passing range and dribbling abilities rival the best to have ever played the game. It is so rare to find a player that is elite in every single one of those attributes and it isn’t an overreaction to say that Messi can easily be regarded as the best in all those categories. The eye-test and statistics clearly indicate this to be true. Just look at some of Messi’s statistics this past year.

Messi ended 2018 having scored 51 goals and provided 26 assists in 54 appearances for club and country. Messi has now scored 50+ goals in eight of the last nine years and has directly contributed to 47.6% of Barcelona’s goals in 2018.

These next statistics are just as ludicrous:

Europe’s top five leagues in 2018-19:

Most goals – Messi

Most assists – Messi

Most dribbles – Messi

Most chances created – Messi

Most free-kicks scored – Messi

Most key passes per 90 mins – Messi

Most goals from outside the box – Messi

Statistically, Messi has been unbelievable this season. In 44 games, he has scored 41 goals and has 17 assists. He leads La Liga in both categories. His wider offensive output is bordering on the ludicrous as he averages 5.3 shots per game, 3.1 key passes per game, 3.8 dribbles per game and has a pass accuracy of 83%. Certain soccer players can impose their will upon a game and Messi certainly does that. Has there been a more dominant force in soccer? I think not.

Messi’s game has constantly evolved. Moving from a winger to a false 9, to a striker and now a playmaker that retrieves the ball deep so he can act as the focal point of all of Barcelona’s attacks; Messi has thrived in all sorts of positions. It has been a joy to watch Messi evolve as a player. The complete player. It has been an honor to watch him play and it will be a sad, sad day when he decides to retire. There are things he does on the pitch where I just find myself saying “wow.”

Pep Guardiola once said that “don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him” and we have been lucky to have been able to watch true greatness.

Tactical analysis: The Gegenpress

In this week’s Tactics Explained we delve into the Gegenpress, a pressing style rejuvenated under Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp. He made the pressing style famous during his time at Borussia Dortmund. At some point, Klopp’s playing style will undergo major analysis when he is the manager chosen in my Manager’s Corner segment. However, the Gegenpress has started to make headlines in the United Kingdom again and I have received numerous messages asking to explain the pressing style.

Initially, when Klopp started his career at Liverpool he was inundated with questions about his revered Gegenpress. Klopp saw it as a sign that the English media and wider soccer fan had forgotten their soccer heritage as the pressing style dominated the English game in the 1980s.

Different systems have demanded a high octane pressing style and the Gegenpress is a variation of such systems. The trend of pressing within soccer can be attributed to the Ajax and the Dutch national teams of the 1970s. These teams have inspired different pressing systems across the world of soccer. Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and Unai Emery have all developed their own styles of pressing. Klopp is, undoubtedly, the king of the Gegenpress.

Within this blog, we have covered pressing a fair few times and that is reflective of the importance it now plays within the modern game. Pressing installs a mentality within the soccer player that defense must also be aggressive. The demands of pressing requires a player to have unrivalled athleticism and a high playing IQ. If one player fails to properly press with the correct positional integrity then the whole system fails.

At the core of any pressing system is to limit the options that the opposition has whilst on the ball. Intense pressure, coming from multiple positions, increases the likelihood that the ball-carrier will make a mistake. This leads to the pressing team winning back possession. Pressing the ball-carrier and pressing the passing lanes further restricts what the ball-carrier can do with the ball, thus creating a potent system.

If you had to simplify Gegenpressing into one sentence it would be; to win the ball back as soon as it has been lost. The theory holds that opposition is most vulnerable when they have won possession of the ball. This is because the side that has won the ball back would often be out of their original defensive shape.

The Gegenpress is the reason why Klopp has garnered the reputation of being an aggressive manager that plays soccer at 100kmph. The reason why Klopp has this reputation is because the Gegenpress can only work when played at a ferocious pace. To increase the likelihood of recovering the ball from the opposition, the pressing team must have the athleticism to press as a collective. This is to maximize the amount of pressure that the opposition’s ball-carrier feels, thus increasing the likelihood of winning the ball back. The pressing team must press at an electrifying pace.

Klopp’s utilization of the Gegenpress has brought him widespread adulation across the world of soccer. After all these years, the fundamentals of pressing are still causing havoc upon the soccer field.

Awards Prediction: La Liga’s 2018/2019 Team of The Season

In this week’s post, I shall be making my predictions for the 2018/2019 La Liga team of the season. This season has thrown up a variety of surprises and has proven to be the breakthrough season for many young stars within Spain’s top division. The formation will be a conventional 4-3-3 which is widely utilized within the league. The statistical data that forms part of the rationale behind player selections were up-to-date at the time of writing this post.

Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)

Jan Oblak has been nothing short of sensational this season and has continued to reinforce his reputation of being one of the world’s best keepers. Oblak faced stiff competition for his place within the side. It was between him and ter Stegen of Barcelona, but Oblak has been a huge factor behind Atletico Madrid’s success within La Liga.

The Slovenian international has outperformed ter stegen this season and has kept 15 clean sheets to ter Stegen’s 11. He has also conceded 5 fewer goals than ter Stegen this season. Oblak’s clean sheet percentage is at a lofty 53.6% and his save percentage is as high as 78.3%. Oblak deserves his selection in this team of the year.

Right-Back: Óscar de Marcos (Atletico Bilbao)

The right-back from Atletico Bilbao faced competition from Daniel Carvajal for his place in the team. However, the veteran has had a great season. De Marcos has played more games in the league than Carvajal and has had a greater amount of productivity.

The right-back has outperformed Carvajal in all statistics other than goals scored; where they have both scored one goal. De Marcos averages more tackles per games, 2.1 to 1.5, more clearances per game, 2 to 0.9 and even averages more dribbles per game, 1.1 to 0.9, than Carvajal. Carvajal might be the most well-known right-back in the league, but de Marcos has been the best right-back this season.

Centre-Back: Marc Bartra (Real Betis)

Marc Bartra has flourished at Real Betis this season and has seemed to finally found his home in soccer. After spells at Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, the 28-year-old is starting to deliver on his exceptional talents.

As is expected of a Spanish international, Bartra is proficient with the ball at his feet, but his overall defense has improved greatly. His defensive output has been great this season. Bartra averages 2.7 tackles a game, 1.8 interceptions per game, 0.7 blocks per game, 1 dribble per game and a staggering 4.2 clearances per game. Bartra’s passing capabilities have been on show this season as he has averaged 4.8 long balls per game and has an impressive 88.8% passing accuracy. Without him, Betis would not be in the position they are now.

Centre-Back: Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)

Diego Godin will be leaving Atletico Madrid for Inter Milan next season, but he had to remind us one more time why he is one of the best centre-backs in the world. Usually, as players get older their performances start to wane. However, Godin has continued to perform at an elite level. Though playing in La Liga certainly has helped his ageing as a player, he has remained an elite.

As his athleticism has decreased, his defensive IQ has continued to excel. He has been instrumental in Atletico Madrid’s proud defensive record of conceding the least goals in the league. Averaging 1.8 tackles per game, 1.2 interceptions per game, 0.3 blocks per game and 3.9 clearances per game; Godin will be leaving Atletico Madrid as a club legend. It certainly will be strange to see an Atleti team without Godin marshalling the backline.

Left-Back: Jordi Alba (Barcelona)

Jordi Alba has re-affirmed himself as one of the best left-backs in the world this season. Alba has been in vintage form, often acting like a left-winger with the attacking positions that he finds himself in. The energy that he provides down Barcelona’s left hand-side enables the team to transition into attack with electrifying pace. Jordi Alba is the prime example of the modern full-back; being solid in defense whilst contributing to the attack.

Alba’s defensive work has seen him average 1.3 tackles per game, 1.8 interceptions per game, 0.8 dribbles per game and 1.6 clearances per game. His attacking output has seen him score 1 goal, make 1.3 key passes per game and he has 7 assists to his name. When you couple all this productivity with his 86.8% pass completion; it becomes clear that he has been the best left-back in La Liga this season.

Central-Defensive-Midfielder: Sergio Busquets (BARCELONA)

This selection might seem the most controversial in the list, but when you dig deeper into the analytics it becomes clear that Busquets is the best central-defensive-midfielder in La Liga. Rodrigo of Atletico Madrid has had an exceptional season and might be the man to replace Busquets in future Spanish sides.

However, this season Busquets has reminded us why he is one of the best midfielders of his generation. In typical fashion, Busquets has been great at breaking up play, with 2.6 tackles per game and 1.6 interceptions per game, and has been masterful over the ball with a 90% pass completion rate. Busquets will leave large shoes to fill in Barcelona and the Spanish national team, but for now the 30-year-old is still impressing us with his command over the position of central-defensive-midfielder.

Central Midfielder: Giovani Lo Celso (Real Betis)

The young midfielder has been a key factor behind Betis’ success this season. He arrived on-loan from PSG this summer, but do not be surprised if the young starlet is picked up by one of Europe’s elite sides. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Spurs are all rumored to be making a move for the youngster. His defensive record for a forward-thinking player is admirable. With 1.8 tackles per game and 0.6 interceptions per game. This shows that he is not a defensive liability.

This becomes even more impressive when you acknowledge his attacking capabilities. His passing numbers illustrates how comfortable he is with the ball as he averages 1.2 long balls per game, 0.8 key passes per game; whilst having an 83.2% pass completion rate. His offensive numbers are exceptional for such a young player as he averages 1.7 shots per game, 2 dribbles per game and has 5 goals, plus 2 assists, to his name. Lo Celso is the definition of an all-around midfielder.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: Daniel Parejo (Valencia)

The final midfield position goes to Daniel Parejo whose performances for Valencia and the Spanish national side has drawn widespread adulation. He has been in fine form this season and his inclusion into the La Liga team of the season is a testament to how much he has improved as a player. As with Lo Celso’s selection, I have chosen Parejo due to his ability to affect the game in a variety of ways.

His defensive work has seen him average 2.1 tackles per game, 0.7 clearances per game and 1.2 interceptions per game. Offensively, Parejo has also been a key contributor to Valencia this season. Parejo averages 1.3 shots per game, 0.9 dribbles per game and 2.5 key passes per game. The midfielder also contributed with 7 goals and 3 assists this season. His superior passing abilities saw him average 2.1 crosses per game and 5.3 long balls per game; all whilst having a 85.1% pass completion rate. Parejo has had one of his best seasons in a Valencia shirt and is a worthy addition into this team of the season.

Right Wing-Lionel Messi (BarcelOna)

Does this man need any introduction? The Argentinian magician has been in fine form this season. Honestly, I find myself running out of superlatives to describe his genius. I’m going to keep this segment short before it becomes a love letter to the world’s greatest player so here is the argument as to why Messi is in my team.

He leads the league in goals scored, with 29 even though he’s only played 24 games, and leads the league in assists with 12. His average of key passes per game stands at an incredible 3.1 which is significantly higher than Parejo who is ranked second in the league with 2.5 key passes per game. Messi is also second in the league in dribbles per game with 3.8 and has a pass completion rate of 82.4%. I think this will be the least controversial selection in this starting eleven. Simply, the best!

Left Wing: Pablo Sarabia (Sevilla)

Though Pablo Sarabia mainly plays as an attacking midfielder, I had to fit him into the team somehow. Sarabia has had a breakthrough season at Sevilla and has been tipped for a big-money summer move with many of Europe’s biggest clubs citing their interest in the attacking midfielder. Early in the season, it seemed that Sevilla was going to mount an unlikely title challenge and a large part of that was due to Sarabia.

The attacking midfielder’s defensive numbers are nothing to brag about, but he has been a huge threat within the offensive third of the pitch. Sarabia averages 1.9 key passes per game, 0.7 dribbles per game and 2.1 shots per game. The talented attacking midfielder has 9 assist and 9 goals to his name, which is an exceptional return from Sarabia. The attacking midfielder is a fantastic passer of the ball as he has averaged 1.9 key passes per game, 1.3 crosses per game and 1.3 long balls per game; all at a pass completion rate of 79.9%. Sarabia’s contributions to Valencia means that he had to be included in this team of the season.

Striker: Luis Suárez (BARCELONA)

Within the Spanish media, there has been intense speculation surrounding the future of Suárez. As the Uruguayan is approaching the twilight of his career, discussions have begun to identify potential replacements for the striker at the Catalan club. Regardless, Suárez has had another superb season at the club. Though his powers are waning, that hasn’t stopped him from contributing to Barcelona’s league success.

Suárez is a proven goal scorer as he sits behind Messi in the top scorer’s table with 18 league goals. He also ranks 6th in the league for assists with 6 assists to his name. Suárez is proving that he still plays an integral part in this Barcelona side. Averaging 3.3 shots per game and 1.4 key passes per game means that Suárez is still an attacking force in soccer. If Barcelona decide to move on from the striker, he can take solace in knowing that he has left the club having made a real contribution in his final season.

Summer Spending: Arsenal

Unai Emery has exceeded all expectations this season at Arsenal. Even the most diehard Arsenal fan could not have predicted that they would be challenging for a top-four position. Crazily, Arsenal could even finish above Spurs, in third place, which would be an unbelievable achievement for the Gunners.

Most people expected that there would be a transition period at the club following Arsène Wenger’s resignation. Given the length of Wenger’s tenure at the club, which lasted over 20 years, there was the assumption that Emery would need 2-3 transfer windows to rejuvenate the squad into on that could challenge at the top of the table. However, Emery has proven that his reputation of being an elite coach is well deserved as his side are battling for a Champions League place for next season.

Arsenal have two of the most elite strikers in Europe in Aubameyang and Lacazaette. Aubameyang has scored 17 goals in the league, which is one behind top scorer Aguero, and Lacazette stands in 8th place with 12. Arsenal has 2 thirds of their attacking line complete. One position in which they can improve is by purchasing a right-winger. They currently have no player which provides the team with an attacking outline down the right-hand side. With a legitimate threat on the right, Arsenal would be able to stretch the opponent’s defense even more thus creating space for the other attackers to penetrate.

There are numerous players that can fill that position. Ismaila Sarr of Rennes and Nicolas Pépé of Lille have all been linked to a summer transfer to Arsenal. With Aubameyang cutting in from the left and Lacazette stretching the backline of the opposition’s defense from a central position; if Arsenal were to add an electrifying right-winger they’d have one of the most explosive attacks in all of soccer.

Perhaps Wenger’s biggest criticism during his time with Arsenal is that he never solidified his backline. When he first joined the club, he inherited George Graham’s team which had defensive icons, such as Tony Adams, already at the club. As time went by, Wenger never addressed the defensive issues that the team had. He never replaced Petite, he never replaced Patrick Viera and this led to many pundits saying that Arsenal were a “soft” team that could not defend.

The most important acquisitions that Arsenal can make is across there backline.

I believe that Leno has proven that he is good enough to play as the number one goal-keeper at Arsenal. Given that Emery wants to play from the back, Leno is exceptional with his feet and can initiate Arsenal’s attacks. He has stepped up his performances between the sticks, with his recent heroics against Manchester United highlighting his talents as a shot-stopper. However, Arsenal needs to make at least three defensive signings.

Firstly, Arsenal needs to sign a world-class centre back that can partner Sokratis. The Greek defender has won fans over with his passionate displays, but Arsenal need to find the right man to play alongside him. Laurent Koscielny is ageing and has become injury prone. Arsenal must find a player to replace the Frenchman. Rumors have started to intensify that Arsenal will target Walter Kannemann, of Brazilian club Grêmio, to fill this void.

The next defensive signing that Arsenal should make is providing cover for Héctor Bellerin at right-back. Bellerin ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and will be out for a significant period next season. Currently, Arsenal plays a combination of Lichtsteiner and Maitland-Niles at right-back which has proven to be extremely inconsistent. Lichsteiner is out of contract at the end of the season and Maitland-Niles is more suited to a position in the centre of the midfield. Arsenal must sign a right-back who can fill Bellerin’s void whilst also providing the right-back with real competition for his place in the side once he returns.

Sir Alex Ferguson once stated that “attack wins you games, defense wins you titles” and if Arsenal wants to return to the pinnacle of English soccer then their defense will need revamping. Be warned, Arsenal is only a few players away from becoming a force once more.

Have Italy Unearthed Their Next Superstar?

Italian football has given rise to some of the game’s best strikers. From Ballon d’Or winner Roberto Baggio to Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero; the Azzurri have had a knack of producing strikers for the big occasion. It seems that Italy has found another in Moise Kean.

The Azzurri faced huge humiliation when they did not reach the 2018 World Cup, but this failure has seen a vast amount of changes within the national team. Manager Roberto Mancini has turned to youth in a bid to rejuvenate the once ageing squad and Italy has found a striker that can reach the top of the game.

Moise Kean, 19, is an exciting prospect that has shown he has an immense amount of talent. Kean has already broken a few records within his fledgling career.

Kean was the first player born in the 2000s to make an appearance in one of Europe’s five major leagues and he is the first player born in the 2000s to score a goal in one of Europe’s five major leagues. Also, he was the first player born in the 2000s to play in the UEFA Champions League. Already, Kean has created history within the first few games that he has played for club and country.

After spells within Asti and Torino’s youth systems, Kean was signed by Juventus. This angered many at Torino as they lamented seeing such a talent move to their cross-city rivals. Kean made his debut against Pescara as an 84th-minute substitute and scored his first goal in an away victory against Bologna. Kean then spent the 2017-2018 season on loan at Hellas Verona where he squared 4 goals in 20 appearances.

This season has proven to be a difficult one for Kean as he has faced limited opportunities at Juventus to make an impact. With the likes of Ronaldo, Dybala and Mandžukić at the club, Kean has found it difficult to break into the starting eleven. However, with Juventus seeming to prioritize the Champions League above all other competitions, Kean is starting to get some playing time. Prior to Juventus’ 3-0 victory against Atlético Madrid, Kean was given the opportunity to play against Udinese. A chance that he took with both hands.

Kean put on a display that caused many in the world of soccer to take notice. The youngster was a handful all game. He terrorized the defenders and frightened them with his blistering pace. The powerful striker scored two goals in the game and even won his side a penalty. His first goal came from a excellent cross by Sandro and Kean, who made a lung-busting run into the 6-yard box, smashed the ball into the top corner.

Kean’s second goal was a product of his own hard work as he pressed the defender and dispossessed him. Now Kean had the space in front of him to demonstrate his raw pace. Nobody could catch him. In the blink of an eye, he was in Udinese’s box. Kean showed extreme composure by scoring with the outside of his right foot and beating the keeper at his near post. The penalty that he won mimicked his goal. He was tenacious in his pressing and forced the defender into a mistake which, ultimately, caused the defender to lose control of the ball. The defender then made a rash challenge and brought Kean him down for a penalty.

This performance against Udinese highlighted the areas in-which Kean excels as a player. His pace is electrifying. When watching him run at defenders with the ball, or even when he is pressing the opposition when Juventus were defending, reminded me of a young Didier Drogba.

Strictly speaking, Kean is still growing and his physique will continue to change, but he was able to shrug defenders off the ball with ease. He really reminds me of Lukaku, especially when he was at Anderlecht and Everton, but Kean is far superior with the ball at his feet. His passing was crisp and his first touch was faultless. When coupling this alongside with his raw pace, his tenacity whilst pressing in defense and his attacking instinct; the Azzurri have a gem on their hands.

The young striker also put on a show whilst playing for Italy against Finland. Once more, his attributes were on display for all to see. His dribbling style was so direct that it put the Finnish defense under real pressure. Kean displayed real intelligence in the move leading up to his goal as he made an incisive run cutting in from the right-hand-side to exploit the space that had appeared between Finland’s left back and centre-back. The youngster demonstrated clinical finishing as he took his chance first time; without hesitation.

Moise Keane has all the attributes needed to thrive within modern soccer. He is athletic, has electrifying pace and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Of course, there are aspects of his game that he can improve but the upside that he has is tremendous. With Juventus prioritizing the Champions League this season one would expect that Keane will get even more playing time as Allegri rotates his starting line-ups. Keane is also well positioned to being the starting number 9 within the near future, as Ronaldo and Mandzukic are both players that are approaching the twilight of their careers.

The attacking talent also has the chance to become a central component of Italy’s national team. The Azzurri have started bleeding in more youngsters into their team and Kean is one of the players earmarked to have a big future for the national side.

Within recent years, Italy has had exciting attacking talents which have not lived up to the hype that surrounded them. The hope is that Moise Kean will be the one player that maximizes his talents for club and country. He has all the tools needed to do so.

Manager’s Corner: Pep Guardiola

Manager’s corner is a new addition to the blog where we examine the philosophies of the world’s greatest coaches.

We begin with Pep Guardiola, who is regarded as the best manager in the world. The Spaniard is said to have managed the greatest club side to have ever played the game. His Barcelona side dominated Spanish and Europe soccer; whilst playing a style of soccer that mesmerized the world. Drawing inspiration from many different tactical systems, Guardiola has developed his own philosophy.

Being a serial winner, Guardiola has won all the titles that his teams have played in. He has won league titles in three different countries and has lifted the Champions League multiple times. Incredibly, Guardiola has won 28 trophies as a manager and is only 10 behind the legendary Sir Alex Fergurson’s tally.

Guardiola has been remarkably open about the coaches who have inspired his own tactical framework. For example, there are elements of Total Football in his playing style as he expects positional flexibility from the players in his side. There is also elements of Marcelo Bielsa’s possession-based system that is played at an extremely high tempo. Indeed, his time at Barcelona also saw him adopt the characteristics of Tika-Taka into his own playing style. Being a student of the game has enabled Guardiola to utilize the benefits of multiple systems and he has combined them all into his own philosophy.

His philosophy demands that his team dominates the ball and utilizes possessions to create space. By inviting defenders to press his team and by shifting the ball across the pitch, Guardiola aims to create space between the defenders of the opposition thus allowing attackers room to work within.

Full-backs play a significant role in Guardiola’s system as they create space. This was clear at Barcelona with Jordi Alba, who excelled in his role, and with the fact that Guardiola has spent, whilst at Manchester City, just under $170 million dollars on full-backs alone.

Most managers view the pitch as central space- half space and wide areas.

As you can see below, Guardiola’s spacing on the pitch is far more complex than the above diagram.

Guardiola favors to invert his fullbacks, into central positions, which ensures that there is an overload of his players when compared to the opposition. The full-backs inverting causes the opposition to do the same with their own full-backs. This creates space for Guardiola’s wingers up the field and creates one-on-one scenarios for his team. By having his wide mean so far up the pitch, the defense of the opposition is stretched further thus creating even more space for Guardiola’s team.

LB/RB shows how the full-backs come inside into a central position.

By inverting his wingers in such a manner, Guardiola creates an overload which means that there is always a free man for his player to pass to. This aids ball retention as it reduces the need to play risky passes. As there is always a free man available, Guardiola’s players can pass in triangles up the pitch. When pressed, the free player can move into a position to complete the triangle. Guardiola’s entire system maximizes their ability to retain possession of the ball whilst also creating space.

Guardiola’s system has two components that work together. Possession creates space whilst space enables possession. Both are equally important for his system to work. As we have unpacked Guardiola’s system you can see the elements from different managers that have inspired him.

For example, the overloads that he creates across the pitch mimics much of what Marcelo Bielsa tries to achieve. Bielsa’s system ensures that there is always one more defender than the opposition has a striker and that there is one more attacker than the opposition has defender. Guardiola achieves this through his overloads that create the free man.

By inverting his wingers Guardiola demands that his players can play in multiple positions and have positional flexibility. Accompany this acknowledgement with the way his team relentlessly press the opposition when defending; then you can see the impact that Total Football has had on his tactical philosophy. We have explored Total Football in an earlier piece.

Pep Guardiola’s system of play has given rise to some of the greatest soccer teams this world has ever seen. Manchester City is starting to truly dominate the English Premier League and Guardiola’s relentless playing philosophy enables this. Pep Guardiola is a soccer genius like few have seen before. There are some people who have fundamentally changed soccer. These are Rinus Michels, Marcelo Bielsa and Johan Cruyff. It might be time to add Guardiola to that list.

AWARDS PREDICTION: PREMIERE LEAUGE’S 2018/2019 TEAM OF THE SEASON

This week I have predicted the 2018/2019 Premier League team of the season. I expect that many of you may disagree with my selections as there are a few surprises in my team. The formation that I have decided to use is the standard 4-3-3 as it is the most used formation in the league.

Goalkeeper: David de Gea (Manchester United)

This the position where I had to do the most research because there are at least three viable selections. The standard of goalkeeping has improved greatly in the Premier League, but three players are head and shoulders above the rest. Those are de Gea of Manchester United, Ederson of Manchester City and Alisson Becker of Liverpool. All three have had great seasons and have made notable contributions to their team’s successes. However, I had to go with David de Gea of Manchester United. In my eyes, he is still the best goalkeeper in the world. All three have had great seasons and have made notable contributions to their team’s successes. However, I had to go with David de Gea of Manchester United. In my eyes, he is still the best goalkeeper in the world.

All three have had exceptional seasons, but Alisson and Ederson benefited from playing behind two of the league’s best defenses. Manchester United do not have the caliber of defender that the other two teams have. Try comparing Smalling with van Dijk or Laporte, you simply cannot. Though Alisson and Ederson have more clean sheets than de Gea, 17 and 15 to de Gea’s 7, a large part of that is due to the defensive capabilities of their respective team.

For example, de Gea has had to make the third most saves in the league. His number of 104 saves is far greater than Alisson’s, who has made 64 saves, and much higher than Ederson’s who has made 47. De Gea has had to do far more work than any other goalkeeper in the top 6 of the league. No other keeper has had the season defining moments that de Gea has had. From saving over 10 shots in one half against Spurs to his recent display against Watford, no other goalkeeper contributes more to their team than de Gea. Manchester United need to sign him to a long-term contract.

Right-Back: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)

Again, this selection was an extremely difficult one to make as Crystal Palace’s Wan-Bissaka has been exceptional. Kyle Walker of Manchester City can also feel hard done by not getting a place in my team of the season, but Alexander-Arnold has been amazing this season. The right-back has built the case that he is the best full-back in world soccer which is crazy given the fact that he is only 20 years old.

The right-back position plays a crucial role in Klopp’s system and this will be examined in Klopp’s Manager’s Corner segment which comes out next week. The significance of this means that Alexander-Arnold must make contributions on the defensive and offensive sides of the pitch. Alexander-Arnold has excelled with whatever demand Klopp has asked of him.

On the defensive end, Alexander-Arnold has averaged 2.1 tackles per game, 1.2 interceptions per game and 2 clearances per game. The young right-back has left his mark on matches as he has scored 1 goal and has 6 assists to his name. When adding into consideration his offensive numbers, which sees him average 1 shot per game, 1.5 key passes per game and 0.5 dribbles per game; you can see why Alexander-Arnold is the prime example of the modern full-back. His offensive and defensive contributions have seen him become the best right-back in the league.

Centre-back: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

This is selection will generate the least amount of controversy as the centre-back has been a monster this season. When he made his big-money move to Liverpool, from Southampton, many questioned the transfer fee involved. Many saw paying just under $100 million dollars for a defender not yet considered elite was a huge risk. However, he has proven to be worth every cent. In American sports, pundits often speak of transformational talents that can change the fate of a franchise. Well, van Dijk is having this effect in Liverpool as he has transformed the club’s fortunes.

When watching van Dijk play, you feel that you are watching an elite defender and the advanced metrics back this up. Having contributed with 3 goals and 1 assist from centre-back, it is his defensive numbers that are exceptional. The defender averages 1 tackle per game, 1.2 interceptions per game and a staggering 5.3 clearances per game. When coupled with his pass completion rate of 89.6%, you can see why many pundits have labelled him as a complete defender. Van Dijk is under consideration for the player of the season award and he walks into this team.

Centre-back: Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)

FIFA lovers all around the world have known of Laporte’s talents. He was one of the first player’s that everyone signed in their managerial careers, as he would grow into one of the best centre-backs on the game. His growth as a player is illustrating a similar trend as the 24-year-old is becoming one of the elite defenders in Europe. His game makes a mockery of his young age as he has the positional sense and composure of a veteran. After his big money move from Athletic Bilbao, the Frenchman has seen his game grow to new heights under the guidance of Pep Guardiola.

Laporte is everything that you would expect from a Guardiola favorite. He has supreme technical abilities and is at ease with the ball at his feet. Currently, he has 2 goals to his name, but it is his defensive work which is enhancing his reputation. He averages 1.1 tackles per game, 1.8 interceptions per game and averages a staggering 3.1 clearances per game. He has been a monster at the back.

Guardiola’s philosophy has already been dissected in my Manager’s Corner segment and Laporte is the perfect centre-back to play in Guardiola’s system. His defensive work and his ability to pass the ball, as his 92.8% passing completion rate indicates, means that Laporte is an all-around defender.

Left-back: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)

Another Liverpool defender has made it into this team of the season, but Andrew Robertson deserves his place. He is a key part of Klopp’s system and he has enhanced his reputation in the world of soccer. PSG are rumored to be tabling a $50 million dollar bid for the Scotsman, but it will need a far greater fee than that to prize him away from the Merseyside. Robertson joined Liverpool from Hull City in a deal just under $10 million dollars and if Liverpool were to sell the left-back they would make a massive return on their investment.

Robertson is best known for his marauding runs down Liverpool’s left-hand side which is enabled by his incredible fitness levels. This allows him to make an impact on both the defensive and offensive segments of the pitch. For example, Robertson has not scored a goal in the league this season, but he does have 9 assists to his name.

Coupled with his average of 1.4 key passes a game and his 82.2% pass completion rate; you can see why Robertson is a threat on the offensive side of the pitch. His defensive numbers rank amongst some of the best in the league as he averages 2.4 tackles per game, 0.9 interceptions per game and 1.4 clearances per game. The young Scotsman’s game has gone to new heights this season and he is the best left-back in the league.

Central-Defensive-Midfielder Ruben Neves (Wolves)

Kante is the best central-defensive-midfielder in the world. Which makes it even crazier that Chelsea continue to play him out of position. If he were playing in his usual position, I am almost certain that he would have made my team of the season. Having said that, Ruben Neves of Wolves has been incredible this season.

The youngster made an interesting move when he first signed for Wolves as they were in the Championship when he arrived, which is a division below the Premier League. He may be a Wolves player now, but he is going to go to bigger and better things soon. Manchester City are rumored to be tabling an offer in excess of $80 million dollars for the Portuguese international.

Neves is the modern central-defensive-midfielder that every team wants. Neves is exceptional on the ball as he has a pass completion rate of 80.5% and averages 0.8 key passes per game. His defensive work is also admirable as he averages 2.2 tackles per game, 2.3 interceptions per game and 1 clearance per game. When coupled with his 3 goals and 2 assists, one can see why he is earmarked as a player that can become the best central-defensive-midfielder in the world. Neves has had a stellar season this year and higher honors certainly await the young starlet.

Centre-Midfielder: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

When Mourinho was the manager of Manchester United, nobody could have predicted that Poga would end up in the team of the season. However, the arrival of Solskjaer has seen the Frenchman’s fortunes change. He has started to remind us why he is one of the best midfielders in world soccer. Much was expected of him when he arrived from Juventus for a then world-record fee of $116.4 million dollars. However, he is starting to deliver the results that a player with his ability can produce.

One of the best aspects of Pogba’s game is his passing range. From 5 yard passes to 50 yard passes, and everything in between, Pogba is one of the best passers in the game. He averages 1.5 key passes per game and 4.8 long balls per game; all with a pass completion rate of 83.3%. Pogba is Manchester United’s talisman and is one of the most productive players at the club. The midfielder has 11 goals and 9 assists to his name meaning that he is having one of the most prolific seasons in his career.

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Pogba’s game is the contributions he makes on the defensive end of the pitch. By averaging 1.4 tackles per game, 0.5 interceptions per game and 1 clearance per game; Pogba has shown that he is a complete midfielder. Pogba has all the skills needed to become the best midfielder in the world and it is no surprise that Real Madrid are rumored to be interested in the French World Cup winner.

Centre-Midfielder: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)

The Danish midfielder has cemented his reputation of being one of the best midfielders in the Premier League and he has been a key component in Spur’s successes these past few seasons. Previously, Eriksen would display glimpses of his prodigious talents, but he has brought a level of consistency to his game that was once missing. The Dane has drawn the interests from Europe’s major clubs. It is rumored that PSG and Real Madrid are tabling offers in excess of $100 million dollars for the midfielder. He would be worth every cent.

As usual, his offensive numbers are incredible as he has become a midfielder that dominates the flow of a game. Eriksen has only scored 5 goals in the league this season, but his 10 assists mean that he is second in the assist charts; just behind Eden Hazard. By averaging 2 shots per game, 2 key passes per game and 0.4 dribbles per game; Eriksen has continued to enhance his reputation of being an incredible offensive force.

Having said that, his defensive numbers have improved greatly this season and he now impacts both sides of the game. Eriksen averages 1.2 tackles per game, 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.2 defensive dribbles per game; meaning that Eriksen has become much more than just a midfielder that can attack.  Eriksen is one of the best midfielders in world soccer and Spurs face a real battle to retain his services this summer.

Right-Wing: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

This next selection is another no brainer. Raheem Sterling has been in fine form this season and has taken another step towards becoming a world class player. We have already taken an in-depth look into Sterling’s progression this season and have praised him for bouncing back from a disappointing World Cup. He has become a key component in Manchester City’s starting lineup and he is deserving of all the plaudits he has received this season.

Offensively, Sterling is having the best season of his career. Sterling is one of the best goal-scorers in the league. He has scored 15 goals this season which puts him in 6th position in the goal-scoring charts. Also, Sterling ranks 7th in the league for assists as he has 9 assists to his name. Sterling has become an all-around attacker and his contributions have been key to Manchester City’s fortunes this season.

Sterling has become a handful for opposition defenders as he averages 2.2 shots per game, 2.1 key passes per game and 2.5 dribbles per game. Another way in which Sterling has improved is in his ability on the ball. He now has a pass completion rate of 86.1% and has silenced the critics that once said he was wasteful on the ball. The sky is the limit for Sterling and I cannot wait to see how his career continues to progress.

Left-Wing: Sadio Mane (Liverpool)

After Liverpool’s incredible season last year, who would have thought that Mane would be in the team of the season over Salah? I certainly did not. However, the Senegalese attacker has been the talisman for Liverpool this season. Salah has been incredibly inconsistent this year and Mane has stepped up to provide Liverpool with the attacking threat they have needed to excel. Mane has been exceptional all season and has made consistent contributions to the Merseyside club. The only consistency that used to be in Mane’s game was his inconsistency. However, Mane has taken his game to a new level.

Mane is having the best season of his career and he has become one of the most feared attackers in the Premier League. His blistering pace makes him perfect for Klopp’s system and his attacking output has propelled him into the conversation for the player of the season award. Though he only has one assist to his name, Mane has scored 17 goals this season which is the joint second most in the league. Mane averages 2.4 shots per game, 1.1 key passes per game and 1.5 dribbles per game. The Senegalese attacker is a handful for all defenders. Though his defensive numbers are nothing to write home about, his offensive contributions have propelled him into my team of the season.

Striker: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)

When Guardiola first took over at Manchester City it seemed like Aguero’s time at the club was coming to an end. After periods outside of the starting eleven, Aguero has come back with a vengeance. He is now one of the first names on the team sheet and the Argentinian is having a superb season. Shockingly, Aguero has only made one team of the season before; even though he is regarded as one of the best strikers to have ever played in the league.

In typical Aguero fashion, the Argentinian has been deadly in front goal as he tops the goal-scoring charts with 19 goals. Aguero has always been a natural goal-scorer, but he has also contributed with 7 assists. The Argentinian’s attacking output has been a major factor behind Manchester City’s successes this season as he averages 3.6 shots per game, 1 key pass per game and 1.3 dribbles per game.

Aguero has been a handful for every side that he has played against. As with all Manchester City players, Aguero has a great pass completion rate which stands at 84.4%. Aguero is approaching the end of his time with Manchester City. He has always spoken of his desire to return to Argentina so he can see out his playing career at his boyhood club Independiente. When he calls time on his career at Manchester City he will leave England as a legend. He is already the top goal-scorer in the history of Manchester City and might leave these shores as the greatest foreign player to have played in the Premier League. He is deserving of his place in this side.

Continuity is Revolutionizing English Soccer

The home of soccer has long been a laughing stock on the international stage. Continual failures at international tournaments have caused the English national team to be the brunt of countless jokes throughout the world of soccer. I had reservations about England’s prospects at the world cup in Russia however, the summer turned into the best summer of my life.

Around the world, images of supporters watching England matches circulated; showing thousands of fans all gleefully throwing their pints in the air with every English goal. All whilst chanting “it’s coming home” and singing Gareth Southgate’s name as the savior of English soccer. Alas, it was not England’s turn to become world champions once more. However, the world is on notice; the English revolution is gathering pace.

The English Football Association, the F.A., have implemented numerous changes to the national team’s structure and the benefits of this move are starting to show. England has always produced exceptional soccer players. The “Golden Generation” that failed at the South Africa World Cup of 2010, which had players such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerard and Rio Ferdinand, shows that talent alone is not enough to win a title .

During his punditry for BT Sport, Rio Ferdinand was asked why the Golden Generation failed; to which he responded that club rivalry “overshadowed things…it killed that England team, that generation.” Sometimes talent is not everything when it comes to forming a team. England’s top players spent all their professional lives competing against one another for trophies. There was no foundation in which a team could grow.

The F.A has sought to remedy this. It is noted that players in successful national teams enjoy the company of one another. The most recent world cup showed that the French national team had a togetherness that enabled them to overcome adversary and emerge victorious at the Russian World Cup. The F.A have taken the approach of treating the national team as if it were a club side and have coined the phrase “Club England.”

The idea is that by bringing players through the national team’s youth system, as an academy would, then the relationships would form between players. These social relations would then translate onto the pitch. There is now a long list of English first-team players that have played alongside one another in the junior ranks of England. The hope is that this continuity will translate into success on the pitch as players have a sense of familiarity when they play together.

This continuity is what gave Gareth Southgate the task of managing the English national team. Originally, his appointment was met with widespread hysteria from England fans. His managerial career at the club level was shambolic and many feared that he lacked the charisma needed to revolutionize the English national team.

However, he has proven to be a shrewd appointment by the F.A. Many of the youngsters breaking into the national team were previously managed by Southgate; whilst he was managing the youth teams within the national setup. This has a variety of benefits. Southgate could spot future England players when they were 14/15 years old and the F.A have worked closely with these players to ensure that they continue their progression into becoming professionals.

Southgate created a mandate where he wants all representatives of the English national team to play in the same manner, with the same formation. The hope is that this would make transitioning into the first team a whole lot easier as the player in question would already be familiar with the team’s playing style. The F.A copied the German F.A who introduced a similar tactic in the years prior to their World Cup triumph in Brazil.

Partnerships on the pitch take time to develop. Knowing the passing range of a teammate or the types of attacking runs they like to make takes time to learn. England’s Golden Generation had all the talent they needed to win, but they did not have the cohesion needed to thrive as a team. The benefits of the moves introduced by the F.A and Southgate is starting to translate into success on the pitch.

The F.A and Gareth Southgate deserve a lot of credit for drastically changing the structure of English soccer and giving the fan base hope for the future. The definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing repeatedly, expecting things to change. The F.A and Southgate have changed tactics by introducing the model of continuity into English soccer and the benefits are starting to show.

Summer Spending: Manchester City

When analyzing Manchester City’s squad, it is not immediately obviouswhat they need to add to improve. They are regarded as one of the best teams to have ever played in English soccer, so to improve upon that is going to be extremely difficult. Having said that, when one thinks about City’s squad inmore detail there are a few positions in which the Manchester club can improve.

Left-back

The first addition to the squad that City should make is bringing in another left-back. In Guardiola’s playing philosophy, his full-backs are an integral part of his team. When attacking, Guardiola inverts his full-backs to create overloads within the midfield which then allows for his team to create space. If you want an in-depth analysis of how this takes place, visit the Manager’s Corner where we analyzed Guardiola’s playing philosophy. Guardiola has spent over $250 million dollars on his defense and he needs to spend a few more dollars on a new left-back.

Benjamin Mendy was signed by Guardiola for over $50 million dollars and was seen as the ideal player that can play in Guardiola’s system. He is comfortable on the ball and has the fitness levels needed to negotiate the demands that Guardiola places on his players. This season, Mendy started exceptionally well. In the 13 games that he played, Mendy contributed with 6 assists and was starting to become a real attacking threat from full-back. By averaging 1.3 key passes per game and 0.7 dribbles per game, with a pass completion rate of 85.7%, Mendy was starting to thrive in Guardiola’s system.

However, injuries have plagued Mendy’s City career. In just two seasons, Mendy has suffered 6 injuries which has seen him miss a staggering 78 games.

Due to Mendy’s injuries, Guardiola has been playing a mixture of players at left-back and has even played Fabian Delph, a centre-midfielder, in the position. Though Mendy is only 24, there is no guarantee that he will overcome these injuries. Manchester City should invest in a new left-back. There are a few players that fit the demands of Guardiola’s system and if I were Manchester City I would target Leicester’s Ben Chilwell.

The young full-back is only 22 years old and has already made his debut for the English national side. Chilwell has all the skills that Guardiola looks for in a full-back. His average of 1.2 key passes per game and 1.3 dribbles per game, with a pass completion rate of 80.2%, means that he is well suited to play Guardiola’s system. His defensive numbers are amongst the highest in the league as he averages 1.3 tackles per game, 1 interception per game and 3.3 clearances per game. Guardiola needs to address his issue at left-back and Chilwell is the player that Manchester City should target.

Central-defensive-midfielder

Fernandinho is one of the most important players at Manchester City. The Brazilian central-defensive-midfielder enables Guardiola’s system to work. Without going into huge amounts of detail, Fernandinho plays as a fixed central-defensive-midfielder that provides cover for the inverted full-backs. The Brazilian also protects the centre-backs and acts as the free-man when Manchester City initiate their offense by passing out from the back.

Having said that, Fernandinho is approaching the twilight of his career and has suffered a few injuries in recent seasons. At 33, he is well past his prime and City should start to think about replacing the Brazilian. There are a few midfielders that have a similar skill set to Fernandinho and if I were City I would sign Ruben Neves.

Neves plays in a similar style to Fernandinho, as a fixed central-defensive-midfielder, and has all the abilities needed of a player who plays in Guardiola’s system. Though his pass completion rate is inferior to Fernandinho’s, 80.9% to Fernandinho’s 88.4%, the rest of his numbers are superior to the Brazilian’s.

Defensively, Neves has a greater output than Fernandinho as he averages more tackles per game, 2.1 to 1.7, and more interceptions per game, 2.3 to 1.7, than the Brazilian. Neves has also shown this season that he can make real contributions to the team’s offense. With 4 goals and 2 assists to his name, with his average of 2 shots per game and 0.8 key passes per game, Neves has proven that he is a complete midfielder. He would excel in Guardiola’s system and Manchester City should sign him as Fernandinho’s long-term replacement.

Manchester City are so good that it is hard to see them dramatically improving. However, the two positions that have been highlighted are areas in which Guardiola can improve his team.

Tactical Analysis : Total Football

Total Football is a tactical theorem which has laid the foundations of the modern game. The style of play is a result of an amalgamation of different tactical philosophies that first emerged at Ajax in 1915. There have been various iterations of Total Football, all of which have been extremely successful.

In the 1970s Total Football was brought to the attention of the soccer world as the Dutch national team and Ajax both excelled under this style of play. Manager Rinus Michels and player Johan Cruyff enabled these two teams to excel. These two teams are cited as the prime examples of Total Football. Arguably, no philosophy has had a greater impact upon the modern game than Total Football.

But what is Total Football?

Total Football is the philosophy of position-less soccer. Essentially, all outfield players are not fixed within their position. All players can play in all of the positions across the pitch. The only player with a truly fixed position is the goalkeeper. The aim of Total Football is to create a system that is flexible and can adapt to any situation that arises in the game.

At any time, a defender can find himself being an attacker and, inversely, an attacker can find himself in a defensive position. The positional rotations would be vertical down the flanks whilst the spine of the side remained relatively consistent. This created attacking patterns aimed to deceive the opposition. The onus is on the player to have the technical abilities to cope with any situation that they find themselves within.

As a result, Total Football places immense demands upon the players within the system. Total Football began the trend of prioritizing both the athleticism and technical capabilities of the player. One must be athletic enough to fulfil the demands of the system whilst also having exceptional positional sense, mastery over passing techniques and impeccable first touch. Many have said that Total Football is soccer in its’ purest form and without it, the modern game would not be what it is today. From Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka to Gegenpressing ; Total Football has inspired the great soccer philosophies of the modern age.

Is it Just Idealistic?

The common criticisms of soccer philosophies that aim to play the game in a “beautiful way” is that they do not bring extended success. Total Football has been criticized in this manner too. However, such assertions are misguided and show a distinct lack of appreciation for the history of the game.

Ajax was the most famous club side to utilize Total Football and they did so from 1971 to 1973. Within this period, Ajax recorded a perfect home record with 46 wins and no losses. They also won two league titles, the KNVB Cup, the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. The Dutch national side reached the 1974 World Cup Final, which they lost to West Germany, by exploiting the advantages of Total Football.

There are other examples where sides have been successful when using Total Football, such as Burnley who won the English title using the system and the famous La Máquina side of River Plate that dominated Argentinian soccer, which demonstrates that the philosophy brought its disciples great success.

How it worked

Total Football can be broken down into two key components which are; the exploitation of space and positional flexibility.

The exploitation of space hinged upon the athleticism of the players within the system. Though Total Football placed an emphasis on the technical superiority of the player, without the players being supreme athletes the system would not work. The exploitation of space is the idea that the players should make the pitch as big as possible. This was achieved by defenders spreading across the pitch and wingers hugging the touchline, whilst in attack. This maximized how much space the team created within the pitch.

Whilst defending, the players press the opposition relentlessly to close the spaces within the pitch; thus, making the pitch smaller. The press was not in anticipation of a pass, i.e. into passing lanes, but the system sought to press the ball directly in a bid to cause an error. When accompanying this with a defensive high line, it gave the team the advantage of being able to start the press quickly within the oppositions half. By pressing closer to the oppositions box, you increase the likelihood of winning the ball back closer to the opposition’s goal. This allows the team to launch devastating counterattacks.

The formation of choice by those who utilized Total Football was 4-3-3, whilst attacking, with one of the attackers moving back into a 4-4-2 when defending. This enabled the team to combat against sides that set up in a 4-4-2 formation which was very much the tactic of choice.

Though positional switching was not something that was entirely new; the way Total Football allowed for positional switching was. For example, horizontal switching was widely practiced. Wingers would often come inside to the midfield to act as a temporary centre-midfielder or a full-back would move inside to fulfil a similar role as a central-defender.

However, Total Football hinges upon the idea of complete positional rotation and flexibility. Though the spine of the side remained relatively rigid, those on the flanks were free to vertically rotate in a bid to create attacking patterns that proved a nightmare to negotiate. The defensive pressing of the side enabled the attacking aspect to remain flexible as all players knew the way they were expected to press.

Total Football has helped shape many elite coach’s playing philosophies. Most soccer teams now adopt some sort of defensive press whilst having a degree of flexibility within attack. Total Football is the river from which the streams of modern football have been created. Total Football is why soccer is called the beautiful game.

tottenham hotspur’s Year of Reckoning

Spurs’ next season is the most important one in the club’s history. The 2019/2020 season is going to shape the future of the North London club and it is extremely important that Pochettino’s side wins some silverware. These past few seasons, Spurs have been the bridesmaid but never the bride and this needs to change. Spurs have had numerous opportunities to win silverware but have always fallen at the last hurdle. The North London club have been strengthening their position within English soccer and are now regarded as an elite side. However, Spurs now have to capitalize on the foundations that they have built or they risk ruining all the amazing work they have done over the past 5 years.

The Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Next season will dictate Pochettino’s future at the club.

Pochettino is considered as one of the game’s elite managers and he has worked wonders at Spurs. He has garnered the reputation of being able to develop young players into elite level performers and his Spurs career is littered with numerous examples of the Argentinian’s ability to develop talent. For example, Pochettino has moulded Dele Alli into one of Europe’s most productive attackers. He signed the young Englishman for roughly $5 million dollars and now the 22-year old is valued at over $100 million dollars. There are not many managers in the world who can develop players as well as Pochettino.

However, Spurs have become over-reliant upon Pochettino’s ability to develop young players and risk losing the Argentinian due to a lack of investment into the club’s playing eleven. Typically, Spurs sign young players who have tremendous upside and are predicted to have a significant resale value. This recruitment model has been successful in getting Spurs into the position they find themselves in now, but how does the club expect to challenge with the heavyweights of European soccer with this current model?

Spurs’ starting eleven is so good that only world-class players can improve it and Spurs’ recruitment style will not allow for such transfers to take place. How does the club expect to improve when they cannot bring in players that will immediately make them better?

The North London club have been conservative within the transfer market and their transfer strategy has been largely influenced by their other projects. Spurs have committed to building a new stadium that will cost the club, roughly, $1 billion dollars. As a result, much of Spurs’ finances are geared towards building the stadium rather than buying new players. Indeed, Spurs are expected to transition into their new venue much in the way that Arsenal did when they moved from Highbury to the Emirates. This means that the club will prioritize paying off their new stadium over spending major money on new acquisitions.

Essentially, Pochettino will have even less money to spend in the transfer market; which is incredible given that Spurs generated record levels of club revenue, $495 million dollars, last year. The club has already started to tighten their finances as they have not signed a single player in the past two transfer windows.

Pochettino is already working miracles with his squad; which begs the question. How do Spurs expect to improve? During Pochettino’s tenure at the club, Spurs have been significantly outspent by their rivals. Incredibly, Spurs have a net spend of only $38 million dollars. As you can see below, all of Spurs’ rivals have a higher net spend than the North London club.

The current Spurs side have found their ceiling and the club need to sign some difference makers if they are to win some silverware. Pochettino is an ambitious coach and Spurs must show that they are a club that matches the Argentinian’s ambitions. Currently, they are not doing so. Spurs would be foolish to waste these years with Pochettino and Daniel Levy, the club’s chairman, needs to give Pochettino some funds so he can compete for the highest honors.

When the manager positions were open at Real Madrid and Manchester United, Pochettino was heavily linked with the vacancies. Though the interests in the Argentinian was serious, I never thought that he would leave Spurs for either of those clubs. Well, not yet anyway.

I was always of the belief that Pochettino wanted to spend, at least, one more season at the club. The prospect of managing an elite side in a new billion-dollar stadium captured the imagination of the Argentinian. With Zinedine Zidane and Ole Gunnar Solskjær filling those vacancies, Spurs have retained their manager for at least one more season. However, if Spurs fail to win any silverware next year or fail to make any major additions to their squad; then I believe that next season will be Pochettino’s last season with the club.

There is no guarantee that Zidane and Solskjær will succeed at their respective clubs, meaning that their roles may become available again. Indeed, there are other managerial positions, across Europe, that might become available by the end of next season. The manager of PSG, Thomas Tuchel, is under huge pressure after his side’s shock defeat to Manchester United in the Champions League. Another poor showing in the Champions League next season may see him lose his job. Also, Niko Kovač’s position at Bayern Munich is anything but secure and he might lose his job by the end of next season.

Conceivably, 4 managerial positions at some of Europe’s most elite and historic clubs may be available by the end of next season. If Spurs continue to show a lack of ambition in the transfer market and Pochettino is unable to win some silverware with the club then the Argentinian’s head may be turned by these vacancies.

The Players

I am a huge fan of the NFL and I have been watching debates surrounding the Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Dak Prescott. The quarterback is almost due for a contract renewal and the Cowboy’s have made it clear that they hope Prescott will take a “hometown discount.” Essentially, the Cowboy’s hope that Prescott will accept a contract below his market value and this situation reminds me of Spurs’ wage structure.

Spurs target young players that can be signed to the club on relatively low wages and this is how the North London club assembled their current roster. However, many of these players have now become world-class performers. Spurs have shown a reluctance to sign players to massive wages as they prioritize the integrity of their wage structure. Harry Kane is the only player who is signed to a contract, of $250,000 dollars per week, that is worthy of an elite player. Many of Spurs’ marquee players are approaching the end of their contracts and will be demanding an improved deal to stay at the club. These players know that the elite sides in Europe will be queuing up to sign them as free-agents.

Due to the stadium move, Spurs do not have the financial capabilities to overhaul their wage structure. Elite players want to be paid like elite players and Spurs’ wage structure prevents this from happening. As a result, Spurs will face an uphill battle to keep their star players beyond next season.

Spurs face a huge season next year and how they fare has the ability to drastically change their future. Given that next season is their first season in their new stadium; I do not foresee any major departures from the club. However, if three changes do not take place then I can see a mass exodus take place at the club.

If the club does not

  1. Win any silverware
  2. Change their wage structure to pay their elite players a salary that is closer to their market value
  3. Give Pochettino funds to improve his squad

Then this iteration of Spurs will be over. Their marquee players will leave and Pochettino will move to a club that matches his ambitions. The issue with Spurs is that their manager and players are in high demand. The 2019/2020 season is the year of reckoning for Spurs and if they are to keep hold of their players and Pochettino; then they must have an unbelievable season next year.

The Growth of Raheem Sterling

When England were winning the hearts of a nation at the 2018 Russian World Cup, there was one player who polarized the fan base. That player was Raheem Sterling. Whilst the performances of the Three Lions brought unity, there was division over Sterling’s value in the side. Many felt that he was careless in possession, missed far too many chances and made no impact upon the games in which he played.

Prior to the tournament, many saw Sterling as a key member of England’s squad as he was entering the tournament after having his best season in his career to date. However, his performance at the World Cup did not reflect the form he experienced during the domestic season.

This season, Sterling has silenced all his critics.

The young winger has been in exceptional form for club and country this season. Raheem Sterling came through the academy systems within the United Kingdom and was already a well-known player before he made his debut for Liverpool. When he burst onto the scene, he was already an attacking force. His blistering pace immediately made him a nightmare for Premier League defenses. He formed one-third of the attacking trio that almost propelled Liverpool to their first ever Premier League title and their first league title in over 20 years.

Sterling’s talent has long been admired within England, but since moving to Manchester City, he has taken his game to a whole new level. In all competitions, he has been nothing short of incredible. Because he’s played first-team soccer since the age of 17, one forgets that he is still a young man. He is only 24 and is yet to enter his prime as a player. He has performed at such a high level this season that he is certainly a candidate for player of the year.

Sterling’s career has gone from strength to strength and there are a variety of reasons behind this. One of the reasons is that he has matured as an individual. As is the case with most young soccer players that are millionaires as a teenager; he made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Sure, Sterling has always been a decent performer, but when he was younger he was making the news for his off-field antics instead of his displays for Liverpool. This is no longer the case. Stories of a young Raheem partying after losses to the early hours of the morning have been replaced by ones which highlights Sterling’s community work. Sterling is now a role model and an example of the consummate professional.

This maturation has also taken place on the pitch for Raheem. When he was younger, Sterling played as if his feet were running too fast for his mind. He looked rushed on the ball and made the wrong decisions at the most crucial of times. However, as he has matured he has developed a clinical nature to his finishing and now makes the correct decision when presented with a variety of options.

His productivity shows how his career is on an upward trajectory. The following goals and assists statistics show this to be true.

2015/2016- 47 Games 11 Goals and 10 Assists

2016/2017- 46 Games 9 Goals and 19 Assists

2017/2018- 46 Games 23 Goals and 17 Assists

This season so far, Sterling has scored 25 goals and has 12 assists to his name. With so much soccer left in the season, Sterling has enough time to reach 30 goals and 20 assists. Truly remarkable numbers. His attacking numbers have been excellent this season as he currently averages 2.1 shots per game and 2.5 dribbles per game; highlighting how much of a handful he’s become.

The thing that has been most impressive about Sterling’s improvement is that it has occurred across his whole game. His distribution of the ball has gone to another level as he averages 2 key passes per game and has a pass completion rate of 86.1%. This is a remarkable return for a player that was chastised in the summer for being wasteful in possession. His defensive output has also improved this season as his defensive numbers resemble that of a full-back of a mid-table team. Which is crazy given that he is an attacker. He averages 0.9 tackles per game and 0.6 interceptions per games; further highlighting his all-around improvement.

Of course, Sterling deserves the lion share of praise for this development as a player. It was him who decided to mature as an individual and focus purely on becoming the best player he can be. However, one must also give Guardiola credit for challenging Sterling to improve. Sterling has become one of the first names on the team sheet for both club and country. He has silenced those critics who were so vocal last summer and he continues to his upward trajectory towards becoming a world-class player.

Three American Youngsters Making Waves in germany

Within European soccer, few Americans have made a real impact within the game. Players like Brad Friedel, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have shown that American talent can thrive within the elite leagues within Europe. The following list highlights the next potential American soccer stars that are causing a real stir in the world of soccer.

Christian Pulisic should take the number one spot. However, due to his transfer to Chelsea, I wanted to highlight players that are not already household names. Pulisic has the highest ceiling of any American player currently playing within Europe and it is only a matter of time till he becomes an elite player.

American soccer is undergoing a revolution right now which is seeing more prospects developing their game in Europe. These are just three that have really caught my eye this season.

Timothy Weah (19): PSG/Celtic

First on the list is 19-year-old Timothy Weah, son of former FIFA World Player of The Year George Weah. Like his father, Timothy Weah is a striker who has blistering pace and can conjure a goal from nowhere.

Currently, Weah is on loan at Celtic, from PSG, and has made a real name for himself in Scottish football. Celtic’s wish to make the deal permanent has swiftly been rejected by PSG as they recognise that Weah can be the ideal candidate to replace the ageing Cavani. Having already made his debut for the USMNT; many hope that Weah can become the striker that American soccer has been craving for.

Like many modern soccer players, it is hard to identify which position is Weah’s strongest. He excels in the number 9 role, but his wing play demonstrates a level of maturity that one would not expect from a 19-year-old.  Weah has proven that he has an eye for goal as he scored for PSG, on his debut, and has already scored 2 goals for Celtic. Not only can Weah do the hardest thing in soccer, putting the ball in the back of the net, but he has the pace, trickery and dribbling ability that allows him to eviscerate defenders; especially in one-on-one scenarios.

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Weah’s game is his ability to create chances for his team. From wide positions, he can swing in crosses at a great pace, which are almost impossible to defend, and has the touch needed to play intricate passes in tight spaces. He currently has a passing accuracy of 81% which is impressive given the offensive positions that he finds himself in. Weah averages 3 shots per goal scored and as his exposure to first-team soccer increases; his overall game is going to improve. This kid has tremendous upside and after Pulisic, he is America’s next hope of having a world-class soccer player.

Weston McKennie (20): FC Schalke 04

20-year-old Weston Mckennie is a midfielder who plays for German club FC Schalke 04. Born in Texas, Mckennie turned down opportunities to play at the collegiate level, at the University of Virginia, and even rejected a Homegrown Player contract with Dallas.

The talented midfielder joined FC Schalke in August 2016 and spent only one year in the academy before being promoted into the senior squad. FC Schalke has a rich history of producing exceptional soccer players. The club’s youth academy, known as Knappenschmiede, has given rise to some of the world’s greatest players. Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Julien Draxler all speak highly of their time at FC Schalke. Now you can add Weston Mckennie to the list of exciting youngsters whose careers began at the German club.

His prodigious talent has seen him become a key component of Schalke’s squad and his versatility as a player has given him more exposure to first-team soccer. Predominately deployed as a central-defensive-midfielder, McKennie’s skill set makes him more suited to play as a box-to-box midfielder.

When his team are pressing the opposition, McKennie has the soccer IQ needed to not make a positional mistake. For a player so young, McKennie has exceptional passing capabilities. Not only is his passing range perfect for the modern game, but he also has an accuracy rate of 83%. Coupled alongside his ability to play key passes, which stands at 1.5 per game, it’s easy to see why McKennie has been utilized across the midfield. From playing as a double pivot or a screening central-defensive-midfielder, McKennie can excel across the midfield. He has the attributes needed to have a successful career at the highest levels.

Josh Sargent (19): Werder Bremin

The 19-year-old currently plays for Werder Bremen and has already made his debut for the USMNT. Sargent has shown in his short career so far that he can become an elite striker. The kind of striker that can consistently score you 20+ goals per season. A transfer to one of Europe’s elite clubs is on the cards for Sargent, especially if he continues the trajectory that he is currently on.

He has made such an impression at the club that he has been compared to legendary striker Claudio Pizzaro. Whilst Pizzaro represents former glories for Werder Bremen there is a growing belief that Sargent can help usher in a new period of success for the German giants. Though Sargent is not a regular starter, or a permanent fixture in match-day squads, there is a growing acceptance that this will change sooner rather than later.

Due to the limited game time that Sargent has received, it is difficult to imagine just how good can be. What is for certain is that he has the skills needed to reach the very top. Within Sergeant’s game, there are glimpses of supreme talent, but there is also a naiveness in his play; which is to be expected of a 19-year-old experiencing first team football for the first time.

There are qualities within Sargent’s game that makes a mockery of his young age. When thinking of elite goal-scorers they often split into two types. The striker who have worked tirelessly to improve their finishing, such as Harry Kane and Robert Lewandoski, or those who are instinctive finishers; such as Mario Icardi and Sergio Aguero. Sargent is more of the latter and his incredible start to his career demonstrates this.

Whilst playing for Werder Bremen’s under 23 side he scored 7 goals in 12 games. For the first team, he has scored 2 goals in 9 appearances. For the USMNT he has 2 goals in 6 game. There is plenty of room for growth in all aspects of Sargent’s game. However, within a short space of time, Sargent is developing a reputation for himself as a clinical striker.

Why Manchester United Need a director of Football

Given that Manchester United are, technically, without a permanent manager, you would have assumed that filling the vacancy would be priority number one. However, many of Manchester United’s current issues stem from not having a director of football. An individual that is in charge with all things relating to the soccer-side of the business that is Manchester United.

Ed Woodward is the current executive vice-chairman of Manchester United and oversees all soccer-relating matters at the club. There is no doubt that Ed Woodward is one of the greatest business-minded individuals currently in European soccer. He has been instrumental in seeing Manchester United’s value as club sore. Even if the team has not been dominating the game as it once did. However, there have been numerous soccer-related decisions that Ed Woodward has gotten wrong.

Woodward has hired the past three managers, which have proven to be the wrong appointments, and has been questionable in the transfer market. Ed Woodward favors the marquee signing, as the recent deal to sign Alexis Sanchez demonstrates, over the type of player that Manchester United needs. Remember, last season Woodward refused to buy Mourinho another centre-back, even though one was badly needed, but said he’d give funds if the superstar Varane became available. This type of recruitment is not going to bring back success to Manchester United.

The Glaziers are not going to replace Woodward as he is proving to be an incredible asset in growing Manchester United’s value and has generated millions-upon-millions of dollars for the American owners. Introducing a director of football would enable Ed Woodward to focus on the business aspects of the club; whilst the playing concerns, such as recruitment and the youth academy, can be taken care of by a soccer-minded individual. Ed Woodward has a background in finance, not soccer. United need an individual who is soccer-minded to be in charge with the playing side of the club.

A few names have been cited as potential candidates for the position. Former United legend Edwin Van der Sar has fulfilled a similar role at high-flying Ajax and would be a shrewd appointment by the club. Manchester United’s haphazard approach to recruitment, both players and managerial, would be remedied by the appointment of a director of football. United’s biggest problem, post-Sir Alex Fergurson, is that there has not been a clear strategy in how they are trying to develop the squad and to move the club forward. The hiring of a director of football would go a long way in fixing many of the issues that have been crippling Manchester United.

Tactics Explained: The Regista

Tactics Explained is a new addition to the blog where we shall be analyzing some of soccer’s most revered tactical theories. This week, we shall be discussing the Regista.

Remember when there was nothing more hipster than Pep Guardiola’s False-9? Well, there is another term that that is equally as edgy as the False-9 and that is the Regista. I have been contacted by many readers who have asked me to explain the position and we will dive into the history of the role. The Regista is a deep-lying playmaker that controls the tempo of the offense by playing long-passes to the attackers who are in advanced positions. There have been various iterations of the Regista throughout the history of soccer and we shall analyze the evolution of the deep-lying playmaker.

The origins of the regista.

Vittorio Pozzo, who managed the Italian national side from 1929 to 1958, created the Regista. Pozzo owes much of his playing philosophy to English soccer and he particularly admired Manchester United’s, Charlie Roberts. Roberts won the league with Manchester United, in 1908 and 1911, and his playing style inspired Pozzo to create the Regista. Roberts was famed for having an impact upon the offense of the team, as he would play long passes which would split the opposition’s defense, whilst being in a defensive position.

Whilst managing the Italian national team, Pozzo utilized midfielder Luisito Monti as a deep-lying playmaker. Monti’s role was to initiate the offense by playing long passes, to his team’s strikers, from deep positions. Pozzo’s system, which utilized Monti in such a manner, inspired the next generations of Italian coaches to implement the Regista within their own sides.

The creation of the Regista is one of the most important tactical developments within soccer. The Regista shows that offensive and defensive tactics do not have to be a contradictory dichotomy. The Italians showed how the relationship between the offense and defense of the team can be re-conceptualized in a holistic manner.

Traditional tactics within soccer saw the offense and defense of the side as two separate entities. However, the Regista shows how the defense can enable the offense. The Regista can have an offensive impact from a defensive position and this had a radical affect upon tactics within soccer.

The offense and defense of the team were no longer seen as two distinct blocks, but are now seen as interacting parts of an overall system. The reason why I say that this is one of the most important tactical developments with soccer is because many of the greatest playing philosophies view the game in this holistic manner.

The creation of the Regista started the trend of managers creating systems where the defense and offense of the side enabled one another. We have analyzed a variety of these systems, you can find them on this blog, ranging from Guardiola to Bielsa and the Regista has enabled the creation of these new playing philosophies. From launching the offense from defensive areas to starting the sides defensive pressing from offensive positions; the creation of the Regista was the catalyst that rejuvenated tactics within soccer.

Andrea Pirlo

Any discussion about the Regista cannot take place without mentioning Andrea Pirlo. The Italian midfielder was one of the greatest players of his generation. He had superior technical abilities and had the best passing range of any player that I can remember. Pirlo played the Regista role throughout his career. Due to his superior capabilities, many managers built their sides around the Italian and the different sides in which he played all shared similar characteristics. The managers who utilized Pirlo as the Regista placed two narrow, screening, centre-midfielders in front of him

These midfielders allowed Pirlo more time on the ball, to be able to pick out passes, which allowed him to orchestrate the offense and dictate the tempo of the game. From the position highlighted above, Pirlo would play long passes up-field to his full-backs that have advanced forward. Therefore, the Regista is often compared to a quarterback. As a quarterback would pass downfield whilst in the pocket, the Regista would do the same.

The most common mistake that people make is that they confuse a central-defensive-midfielder with a Regista. Remember, a Regista is a creative force that makes a mockery of the player’s deep-lying position. They control the tempo of the game whilst being an offensive force.

This was one of my favorite requests to research as I got to watch lots of highlights of Andrea Pirlo. If anybody wants to request an analysis of the False-9, so I have an excuse to watch Messi highlights, that would be great!

Summer Spending: AFC Bournemouth

Summer Spending is a new addition to the blog. As we approach the end of the season, the deficiencies within each squad are becoming clearer and we will analyze the moves that each team needs to make to improve.

AFC Bournemouth is one of my favorite teams to watch in the Premier League. Under the guidance of Eddie Howe, Bournemouth play an attractive brand of soccer that brings widespread adulation from soccer fans in the United Kingdom. Bournemouth play a possession-based game plan whilst adopting a high press in-order to retrieve the ball back from the opposition.

The high-press begins with the attackers pressing the opposition’s defenders and the rest of the team follow suit. The club finds themselves just outside the top half of the table which is remarkable given their relatively small transfer budget. To continue their progression, Bournemouth needs to retain their star players. However, players such as Nathan Aké and David Brooks have attracted the attention of the elite clubs in England with Manchester United reportedly preparing a summer mover for Brooks.

Without question, Bournemouth must reinforce their wing positions as they are key components to Howe’s system. Bournemouth utilizes fast wingers that can transition into attack quickly and provide service to the strikers in the form of assists. Ryan Fraser’s career has gone to new heights and his productivity is remarkable. With 6 goals and 10 assists, Fraser’s relentless work rate has seen him become one of the first names on the team sheet.

However, when he is not playing the team’s attacking ability is greatly hampered. Fraser is the leading assist maker at the club and is also the third highest scorer. Given that wingers in Howe’s system require to have the highest levels of fitness; Bournemouth need to purchase at least one more winger that can provide rotational support for the squad. The high-octane offense and relentless defensive pressing means that Howe is forced to stretch his small squad to its limits.

The other acquisitions that Bournemouth need to make are in their defense. Nathan Aké is an outstanding defender and can easily play for a team that is challenging for trophies. For Bournemouth to take the next step in their progression they need to provide Aké with a partner that helps sure up the team’s porous defense. The club has a -13-goal difference and despite their relatively high standing in the league, statistically, they have the fourth worst defense in the league. They have only conceded one less goal, 56, than Huddersfield Town who sit at the bottom of the table. If they are to climb up the table they are going to need to add real quality to their backline. The club can have terrible defensive performances, such as losing to Spurs 5-0, and will need to eradicate such defensive deficiencies if they are to move up the table.

AFC Bournemouth have the nucleus needed to become a team that can challenge for a place in the Europa League, but there are still areas in which the team can improve. All in all, Howe is doing an exceptional job at the club and has turned Bournemouth into a legitimate mid-tier club.

Europe’s Most Exciting Teenagers

Matthijs de Ligt (19)

Matthijs de Ligt plays as a central defender for Ajax and the Dutch national team. At the age of 19 de Light has already achieved so much for Ajax. The youngster has all the capabilities of being the best defender in world soccer. At the age of 19, de Light was made captain for Ajax an honour that is usually reserved for more experienced players.

A product of the legendary Ajax Youth Academy, de Light has cemented himself as a fans favourite. Fantastic on the ball whilst boasting an understanding of defending that defies his age; de Light can go down as one of the legends of his generation. The teenager was awarded the 2018 Golden Boy Award, given to the most promising player in Europe under the age of 21, and his talents have attracted Europe’s major clubs. Completing 90.1% of his passes while averaging 1.3 tackles per game and interceptions per game; it is not surprising that reports have emerged that Barcelona are preparing a $91 million dollar bid for the sought-after defender.

The defender is a supreme talent and has a variety of skills that cannot be taught. He has the game needed to reach the top and is already a leader. Being awarded the captaincy at such a young age is almost unheard of. De Light is entrusted with the responsibility of representing Ajax who are one of soccer’s most revered club sides. His playing style is widely talked about, but more attention needs to be given to his mentality and maturity. De Light’s game and mind-set makes a mockery of his age.

Many in the Netherlands wish to see him stay in Ajax for a couple more seasons. However, it seems likely that de Light will be joining fellow Ajax star, de Jong, at Barcelona this summer.

Jadon Sancho (19)

Jadon Sancho is the brightest English prospect of the last 20 years. As is the nature of the English media, exciting young players are often overhyped. However, Sancho is worthy of all the plaudits he has received. The fast and creative winger took the bold choice to leave Manchester City, and more importantly Pep Guardiola, in the search of first-team opportunities.

Sancho was sold to Borussia Dortmund in a deal near to $11 million dollars. This has proved to be a bargain. Sancho’s talent was no secret in England. However, nobody predicted that Sancho would have had the season that he has had. He has made a real impact at Dortmund. Sancho’s rise has been so impressive that rumours have begun to surface that Manchester United will be making a $160 million dollar bid for the starlet this summer.

The English talent has been very productive this season. He has scored 9 goals and has 13 assists to his name. Sancho also averages 3.2 dribbles per games, 1.8 key passes per game; with an admirable pass completion rate of 84.2% demonstrates what an all-round talent Sancho is.

The hopes of English soccer rests on Sancho’s young shoulders.

Vinícius Júnior (18)

Vinícius José Paixão de Oliveira Júnior is the starlet who has made a real impact at Real Madrid. Vinícius began his career in Brazil, at Flamengo, and was purchased by Real Madrid for $51 million dollars. The transfer created huge debates amongst casual soccer fans; with many ridiculing Real Madrid for paying such a hefty fee for a little-known player. However, within soccer circles many saw this move as a no brainer as Vinicius’ talent can see him reach the heights of the soccer world. In his first season at Real Madrid, he has become a key player within the squad.

His attacking flair and exceptional ball control causes immense excitement amongst spectators. As his plays more games, you can expect to see Vinicius’ productivity to improve, but he has made a real contribution to Real Madrid this season. He has scored 4 goals and has assists to his name. His attacking output has been great as he averages 2.1 dribbles per game, 1 key pass per game and 2.3 shots per game. The youngster has a decent pass completion rate of 80%, but his decision making whilst in possession of the ball does need to improve.

The Brazilian has made a great start to his career and one hopes that he will build upon his exceptional first season for the Los Blancos.

João Félix (19)

João Félix Sequeira is a Portuguese starlet that plays for Benfica. Félix is the most exciting Portuguese prospect since Ronaldo and can play in a variety of attacking positions. A mazy dribbler, instinctive finisher and precise passer; Felix has been compared to a young Lionel Messi. Felix has made an incredible impact at Benfica and is being touted as the next teenager to make a move to one of Europe’s elite soccer clubs. According to reports, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United are all interested in signing the young talent.

In 18 league matches, Felix has contributed 10 goals and 4 assists meaning that he is one of the most productive teenagers in European soccer. His attacking output is great for a player so young. Felix averages 2.2 shots per game, 1.1 key dribbles per game, 1.1 key passes per game and has a pass completion rate 80%. The youngster needs to work on the defensive side of his game, as he averages under 1 tackle per game with 0.6, but his attacking flair is evident.

Felix almost gave up soccer as he was released by his first club, FC Porto, for being too small. However, his Father persuaded him to continue playing and it will not be long before we see Felix’s talent at one of Europe’s elite.

Kai Havertz (19)

Kai Havertz is a midfielder who plays for Bayer Leverkusen and the German national team. Havertz has already played over 50 times for Leverkusen and his talents have made him a must watch in the Bundesliga. Havertz is best utilized as an attacking midfielder. The starlet became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 league caps and Bayern Munich have already made enquiries into signing the midfielder.

His vision, passing ability and dribbling capabilities are what makes him the player he is. With much of modern soccer being played within a system that calls for defenders to press the attacker, to cause the opposition to make a mistake, Havertz is press resistant. He keeps the flow of the attack moving to ensure that momentum of the attack is not lost. He picks the right pass, not the flashy one. From 5 yards to 50 yards; Havertz range knows no limits.

Havert’s all-around game is evident within his contributions to his team. His defensive work needs to improve, but he has shown that he can make a defensive contribution. Currently, he averages 0.7 tackle per game, 0.6 interceptions per game and 0.3 clearances per game. His size and athleticism means that he can significantly improve upon these numbers. His attacking numbers are far superior to these defensive ones. He has 13 goals and 6 assists to his name. The starlet also averages 2.5 shots per game, 1.1 key passes per game and 1.4 dribbles per game. Havertz is also a great passer of the ball as he has a pass completion rate of 85.6%.

Evidently, Havertz can become an all-around midfielder rather than just an attacking one. Earmarked as the new Ozil, it seems that German soccer has unearthed another gem.