Barcelona’s Griezmann Signing Makes No Damn Sense

Listen, Antoine, it’s not you. You’re great. You won a World Cup, you helped keep Atlético Madrid in the European elite for years, and you once placed third in Ballon d’Or voting, which given the competition was basically like winning the Humans Only division. But observers of FC Barcelona know better than most that sometimes a great forward can be a bad signing, and that’s why for all your accolades, for all the hoopla around a transfer saga that lasted for two excruciating years plus however long your LeBron knockoff La Decisión video dragged on, haters keep pointing out the obvious: nothing about Griezmann to Barcelona makes sense.

Like all things Barça these days, this is really about Lionel Messi.

For the last few years, Barcelona has had—whisper it softly—a little bit of a Messi problem. It’s not that he’s stopped being the greatest player of all time; if anything his impossible goal production rate last season suggests he’s only getting stronger in his thirties, like Serena Williams or hangovers. The issue is how the team shapes itself around his greatness.

Ever since Luis Suárez’s arrival bumped him out to the right wing, Messi’s been creeping back inside behind his striker, throwing the 4-3-3 off balance. In 2015/16 he attempted 27% of his open play passes in the attacking half from the right wing and 24% from the central fifth of the pitch; by 2018/19 that had flipped to 22% from the wing and 27% in the middle. Instead of receiving on the touchline and dribbling inside to release the ball, Ernesto Valverde-era Messi plays pretty much permanent hookie in the right halfspace, width be damned.

Messi’s drift has had knock-on effects across the squad, as Valverde has looked for ways to spread his attack by rotating workhorse midfielders like Paulinho and Arturo Vidal to the front line or stretching Sergi Roberto to his breaking point up and down the right flank. It’s also changed the way the other forwards operate. Suárez plays a little farther left than he used to, sometimes slipping outside the centre backs to open a channel for Messi.

When Ousmane Dembélé starts, the two-footed winger is as likely to line up outside Messi to the right as he is on the left wing, where an overlapping Jordi Alba is Messi’s preferred target. As for Philippe Coutinho, he’s suffered carrying the ball into Barça’s clogged middle without the skill to combine in tight spaces. It’s hard out there for all these €120+ million attackers just trying to fit in.

Speaking of! You know who else really likes that right half-space where Messi hangs out? That’d be one golden-curled, fuzzy-lipped Antoine Griezmann, whose pass sonars show a taste for exactly the kind of left-footed diagonal pass into the box that’s been Messi’s bread and butter for the last five years or so.

In the viz below, shard length represents open play pass count and lighter colours mean a longer average pass length. Red = a completed pass on the second viz. If Griez were to play for Barcelona the way he did for Atleti last season, he and Messi would literally step on one another’s toes while looking to curl the same balls to Alba or Suárez at the far post.

That’s not the only way Griezmann’s skillset is redundant for his new club. Of his 15 goals for Atlético Madrid last season, three came from direct free kicks, three from penalties, and only seven were scored from open play, slightly underperforming his 8.46 open play xG.

Considering they’re about as likely to erect a monument to Luis Figo at the Camp Nou as to take Messi off free kicks or—for better or worse—penalties, Griezmann’s scoring comes with a cap. Sure, Atleti's attack was mediocre last year and sure, playing alongside Messi tends to boost teammates’ numbers, but you’ve got to muster quite a bit more than seven goals to live up to a €120 million price tag.

Griezmann’s release clause isn’t his fault, but by paying it Josep Bartomeu and co. put themselves in the precarious position of shelling out the most ever paid for a player over 25 years old on a guy who’ll turn 29 this season.

That’s a problem for one of the most popular defences of the Griezmann signing, that we should think of him more as an understudy than a complement to Messi. Given Messi’s greater versatility and fairly light injury history, there’s no guarantee Griez—whose game depends more heavily on athleticism—will outlast him. Even if he does, he’d be a different type of forward, less comfortable in possession and less, you know, just preposterously good at everything.

Again, caveats about Diego Simeone’s defence-first style apply, but this is not the profile of a guy who’s going to orchestrate your whole attack. Griezmann last year took and created quality chances at a rate somewhere below your average La Liga attacking midfielder.

He didn’t shoot much from dangerous positions, barely took on defenders, and whatever pressing work he put in didn’t do much to help Atlético Madrid’s vaunted defensive structure recover the ball. After years at a club where a pass completion rate in the mid seventies was no issue, the case that Griezmann’s just going to waltz into Barcelona and play like some long lost La Masia product remains highly speculative.

Under both Simeone in Madrid and Didier Deschamps for France, Griez has excelled in free-flowing, quick-strike attacks that may be Barça’s future but are far from its current ideal. Take a second to scan the longest half dozen Atleti possessions that ended in a Griezmann shot last season—you’ve got what, maybe one or two that looks anything like Barcelona’s patterned attack?

The hope, of course, is that Griezmann will adapt to the players around him, and he’s talented enough that you wouldn’t want to bet against him. But the last decade of big money Barcelona signings shows how hard it is to predict who’ll mesh with Messi—or maybe how little attention the board has paid to on-field needs while chasing transfer hype. Griezmann could be the next David Villa and rediscover himself on the wing (where he got his start with Real Sociedad), or he could be the next Coutinho, a star signing that looks good on paper but makes you want to hurl heavy objects through your TV during the Champions League knockouts.

The fact that Griezmann will never occupy centre backs like Suárez or beat defenders and lay in crosses like Dembélé makes it hard to figure how he fits into Barcelona’s best eleven at the start of this season, but the sheer gravitational pull of the signing pretty much obligates Valverde to figure it out. Will we see a return to the false nine with Dembélé-Messi-Griezmann? A narrow Griez-Suárez-Messi trio with fullbacks providing width? Maybe a top-heavy 4-2-3-1 with Messi at the ten and Frenkie de Jong pulling the strings from a double pivot? Oh and by the way what the hell happens to Griezmann if this whole Neymar thing actually goes through? Literally no one knows! And the La Liga season is already underway! This should be, for the club that just spent a whole armoured convoy of cash on a player with no obvious position, perhaps a source of mild concern!

If anything’s getting culés through these uncertain times, it’s YouTube highlights of preseason games in which Griezmann has looked very much like the player the club hoped it was buying. With Suárez back in the lineup, Griez has started on the left wing and sparked a couple of nice goals in the last Napoli friendly with wandering moves that took him all the way to the other side of Suárez, into his favorite right channel.

But he also lined up on the left for the first half an hour or so in Barça’s first league match of the season, a 0-1 loss at Athletic in which their only chance of note was an opposing player literally passing the ball to Luis Suárez. After Suárez went down Griezmann moved up front and they created little else. The team will fare better when Messi returns, of course, but it might be at the expense of poor Antoine.

The unlikely MLS success story of the Philadelphia Union

The Union have quickly become the team in MLS that other teams should emulate. They've got the second best expected goal difference (xGD) per game. Though, in fairness,, the gap between them and LAFC in first is the same as the gap between them and the Columbus Crew, who currently sit 17th in MLS. But, in further fairness,their budget isn't in the same stratosphere as LAFC, to say nothing of the teams they rank above likeAtlanta, Toronto, NYCFC, and the LA Galaxy. It's easy to look at the success Atlanta and LAFC have had and say that if teams would just spend money they'd be better (and owners should spend more money), but in MLS, in large part because of the restrictive salary cap, teams can be competitive on a smaller budget if they prioritize youth development, make intelligent tactical choices, and recruit with the needs of their system in mind. It would be incorrect to characterize the Union as the surprise of the season. The Earthquakes have gone from the worst team in MLS to a top 5 team, and LAFC is having arguably the best MLS season ever, but the Union were not supposed to be on top of the Eastern Conference two thirds of the way through the season. They entered the year with a new Sporting Director, Ernst Tanner; a lame-duck coach, Jim Curtin; and middling expectations.  Tanner was brought in to replace Earnie Stewart, who became the General Manager of the United States Men’s National Team following their failure to qualify for the World Cup. Previously the academy director at Red Bull Salzburg, Tanner, had received plaudits as the man responsible for bringing Roberto Firmino to Hoffenheim and Naby Keita to Salzburg. Under Earnie Stewart, the Union had a reputation of being a possession team. With Tanner’s arrival the expectation was that the Union would start high-pressing more and valuing possession less, a philosophy very similar to what current Red Bull Salzburg manager, Jesse Marsch, adhered to while he was at the New York Red Bulls.  The Union are absolutely high pressing more; their passes per defensive action have dropped from 11.15 last year to 8.78 this year, fifth best in the league. Interestingly, the increase in pressing hasn’t made the team particularly susceptible at the back. It speaks very well of Philadelphia’s implementation that despite being more aggressive, the team  is currently second in MLS at limiting clear shots by their opponent. With the ball, the team has remained one of the most patient teams in MLS. The speculation that they would value possession less under Tanner hasn’t come to fruition on the field. The team is actually possessing the ball more (53% this year, 50% last year). The press has increased the amount of transition opportunities, and the Union have taken advantage of that. They’re taking 12% more shots counter attacking or high press situations than they did last year, but they’ve also shown an ability to win the ball back, enjoying sustained periods of possession.  The changes haven’t just been tactical. While Stewart was the GM and for the entirety of Curtin’s tenure, the Union generally lined up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. This year the team has almost exclusively lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond. While much of the credit will go to Tanner for bringing a style of play that the Union have obviously benefited from, Curtin deserves praise as well for being open to the change and implementing it effectively on the field. Off the field, the Union were one of the earliest teams to prioritize youth development. In 2013 the Union created a private high school, YSC Academy, for their academy players to attend. Due to MLS’ Byzantine rules for recruiting academy players (Each team has an exclusive area where only they can sign players to homegrown contracts, but large swaths of the country don’t fall into any team’s exclusive area), the school has provided a large competitive advantage, recruiting players who live in talent-rich areas that don’t fall in an existing MLS team’s exclusive territory. The Union have used their residency program and YSC Academy to attract talented players from all over the country to Philadelphia.  Recent rumors suggest that MLS might do away with the homegrown territories rule and allow teams to freely recruit within the country. The Union are well positioned to be one of the teams to benefit from that rule change given the infrastructure they’ve already established and their willingness to put academy graduates on the field. This season 16% of the Union’s available minutes have gone to players on homegrown contracts. Additionally, they’re in the top 3 in the league in terms of the number of academy graduates that have seen the field and total minutes played by homegrowns. While a number of academy graduates have seen the field, only two have become regular starters for the team: Brenden Aaronson and Auston Trusty.  Trusty, alongside fellow academy graduate Mark McKenzie, became a regular starter at center back last season. This season Trusty has primarily played next to Jack Elliot but regardless of his partner, he’s been the more active defender in the pairing. He’s not particularly strong in the air, but he reads the game well and is athletic enough to act on what he sees. Aaronson, who saw time early in the season because Marco Fabian was injured, hasn’t given up his place in the starting lineup. Initially, he primarily played at the tip of the diamond, but Curtin has preferred a healthy Marco Fabian or Jamiro Monteiro at that spot in recent months. Consequently, Aaronson has been utilized as a shuttler opposite either Monteiro or Alejandro Bedoya. Due in part to this deeper role, he hasn’t been a notable goal threat, but he’s done a lot of defensive work and shown some promise as a dribbler. While the academy is starting to bear fruit, Union fans have long clamored for the team to make more noise in the transfer market. It would be easy to point to the signing of Fabian as a statement of intent that set the tone for the season, but between injury problems and an early season red card suspension, Fabian has played only a third of the available minutes.  While the Fabian signing has not yet met expectations, Tanner has brought some flair to the Union’s recruitment that was previously lacking. He’s brought in players from second and third division in Germany, a striker from the Chilean league, and a midfielder from Ligue 1. Every player has been at least a spot starter, and none of them have performed significantly below expectations when on the field.  The least heralded player Tanner brought in has been the most important. Kai Wagner, purchased from the Wurzburger Kickers in the 3.Liga, has been one of the best left backs in MLS. The Union’s system is a great example of how much responsibility can be put on the fullback in the modern game. Not only is Wagner responsible for tracking the opposing teams right winger, but he is also typically the only player providing width on the left when the Union are in possession. He’s excelled on the defensive side of the ball, and hasn’t been a liability in possession. Wagner is the kind of low risk-high upside acquisition that budget conscientious MLS teams should make more often. There is no threat of looming relegation; they can take risks and generally avoid serious consequences.  What they can’t do is try to compete with the bigger spenders on a level playing field. The Union have exceeded expectations by investing in areas of the team that are generally neglected by other MLS clubs. The problem Philadelphia will eventually face is similar to the one that Oakland A’s faced once the Yankees and Red Sox started pouring money into analytics. The competitive advantages small market teams find go away in a hurry once richer clubs start valuing them. LAFC is already implementing a similar model with a much larger budget, and because success breeds imitation other clubs are sure to follow. That inevitable shift will be great for the league, but likely bad for the Union. Their window is now, before everybody else figures out exactly how they’re winning.

Can Bayer Leverkusen build on last season’s second half success?

The most appropriate way of analyzing the 2018–19 season for Bayer Leverkusen is to break it into two halves: what occurred before and after the hiring of Peter Bosz.

The first half of the season under Heiko Herrlich was nothing more than a disappointment, placing ninth with agoal differential of -3. Given the high end attacking talent that existed on the squad with the likes of Leon Bailey, Kai Havertz, and Kevin Volland, only ranking middle of the pack in goals scored was not what many had expected, especially since the 2017-18 season was a rather positive one.

What came after, with Peter Bosz’s appointment, was dramatically different with both results and overall playing style moving in a more positive direction. Leverkusen went from a mediocre side to one that arguably played like the 2nd best team in the Bundesliga, an amazing jump in performance given the mid-season managerial change. For Bosz, the success he had last season helped wash away the bitter taste from his failed stint as Dortmund manager in 2017–18. The most important accomplishment for Leverkusen was that all the success they had in 2019 helped them sneak into the top 4 by season’s end and qualify for the Champions League, something that’s crucial to the club on a number of fronts.

With the majority of their squad returning, along with some interesting additions via the transfer market, Bayer Leverkusen look to once again possess a squad that should be one of the better sides in the Bundesliga.


It’s very hard to come up with a narrative other than Leverkusen being roughly average during the first half of the season, which is a major reason why Herrlich lost his job. Their middling goal differential is one sign of Leverkusen's uninspiring performance, but peak behind the curtains and you’ll see further illustration of that. They were only around even in shot differential, with slightly better than average shots for and worse than average shots against, and things didn't get particularly better when accounting for shot quality via expected goals as it showed a similar pattern.

The fact that Leverkusen's attack was slightly better than their defense made sense given the high level of attacking talent in the fold, but in the grand scheme of things, that didn't matter because the end result was a mediocre side and that's not good enough for a club that's been a relative mainstay in the Champions League over the past seven seasons. The switch to Bosz mid-season saw Leverkusen's performance shoot up substantially. They controlled just over 57% of shot attempts, a solid share of shots and something you would come to expect from a CL level side. Expected goals tells an even stronger story, with Leverkusen having an expected goal difference per game of 0.99 that only Bayern Munich bested during the second half of the season. Another major difference between Herrlich and Bosz was the level of aggressiveness in winning the ball back. During the first half of the season, Leverkusen under Herrlich were one of the more passive teams in the Bundesliga both in how high up they won the ball and unremarkable in how many passes they allowed the opponent to have before committing a defensive action. While it wasn't surprising to see that change under Bosz given how Ajax and Dortmund played under his watch, it still remains striking to see how much more aggressive Leverkusen became in hunting the ball back and not giving the opposition time to build from the back. Put it all together, and what you have here is the type of uptick in performance in-season that is quite rare to see. It's not out of the ordinary to see a team start slow through the first half of the season and have better metrics as the season goes along, but it’s something entirely different to jump from having the true talent level of a mid-table outfit to becoming a top two or three side. Of course seeing that it's the Bundesliga, you're still dealing with the juggernaut known as Bayern Munich who were ridiculously dominant even during a down year, but it shouldn't go unnoticed just how impressive Bayer Leverkusen were in 2019.

The Bosz Effect

Given how hard it can be for managers to implement a coherent play style mid-season, especially when trying to play more proactive than reactive football, it was impressive just how much Leverkusen were able to adapt to his methods and reach some of the peaks they did. For sure, they had their stumbles in the second half of the season, but the process was by and large a major success. Given how Leverkusen build out of the back, there was a clear plan for how they were going to progress play. Often times, Wendell would tuck in from the left as a third center back with the double pivot not too far ahead of them. While this was going on, there would be an emphasis on maintaining proper spacing in terms of width and not having too many players situated in one area. When the advanced central midfielders would drop back, it would help create overloads that would allow for one touch combinations, a staple of Leverkusen's attack.

For how much Leverkusen dominated possession, they were extremely good at being able to either create counter attacking shots, and win the ball back high up the pitch, turning those moments into dangerous attacks. Under Bosz, Leverkusen ranked 2nd in counter attacking shots and 1st in shots from possessions that were won within 5 seconds of a defensive action in the opposition half. They were also strong in winning second balls and immediately transitioning the ball forward. Given the amount of compactness in how they were situated to regain possession, along with the cumulative passing talent on the squad, it made sense that they would be one of the better teams at turning defense into attack.

Perhaps the biggest things that Bosz did was turn Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz into players who spent a lot of their minutes operating as free roaming number 8’s (Havertz did eventually migrate into more of a right sided attacker towards the end of the season). They were given license to drop back to help with buildup, make runs deep into the opposition area + penalty box, and dictate play when needed through quick combinations. They developed a good sense for knowing when one would roam high up the pitch with the other dropping back to cover. Brandt’s ability to carry the ball in central areas had greater impact than when he was operating in the wide areas, seeing as his passing options out wide were considerably more restricted. Playing as an 8, he was able to utilize his ball carrying abilities as part of Leverkusen’s transition from patient buildup into controlled chaos. As good as his exploits on the ball were, Brandt could also be just as delightful working without it. His interpretation of space and knowing where to be to maintain proper spacing, and not eliminating passing options for others was strong. While Brandt was an intriguing player during his days as a full time winger, he arguably hit a new level of performance during the second half of 2018–19.

Bosz's appointment also did wonders for Leon Bailey, who was much better in 2019 vs 2018. I've long been a big fan of Bailey, particularly because he's the rare young winger who combines functional athleticism at an elite level with strong on-ball skills. Among Bayer Leverkusen players who played at least 900 league minutes, Bailey ranked 4th in open play xG assisted, 3rd in open play chances created, and 4th in open play passes into the box. In addition, he's also a credible crosser as he ranked 2nd on Leverkusen in completed crosses with 1.96 per 90 minutes at a 40% completion rate. The bar to being a valuable player for a winger playing on his natural side is probably higher versus functioning as an inverted winger, but Bailey has the all-around skillset needed to succeed at a star level.


Bayer Leverkusen’s business to this point has been rather efficient, as it tends to be for Bundesliga clubs. The departure of Julian Brandt was significant given the value he provided last season, along with him amazingly still being only 23 years old despite having logged regular minutes since the 2014–15 season, so there might’ve been the chance of him still getting better with another season under Bosz. It also didn’t help that he was snatched up by Borussia Dortmund, a club that Leverkusen will be competing with for Champions League positioning for this upcoming season.

It’s hard to pick holes with what Leverkusen did. In having to make up for the departed Brandt, they were part of the pillaging of Hoffenheim and got both Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri, talented midfielders in their own right for just under £40m combined. Given Daley Sinkgraven's injury history, they didn't have to pay much to get him from Ajax and he should function as squad depth. What will dictate a fair amount of their season is just how much Demirbay can replace what Brandt brought to the table, and if he could replicate what he did for Hoffenheim last season, then there's the chance that Leverkusen come close to not missing a beat.

Another intriguing get by Leverkusen was snatching up Moussa Diaby from PSG. Diaby is an interesting prospect: he was a notable player at youth levels in France with him winning the Titi d’Or in 2016 for most promising male talent in the PSG academy, but was at risk of being another example of PSG’s inability to utilize their impressive academy. Then last season happened, where Diaby was one of several academy kids to get some game time in Ligue 1. For a 19 year old in his first season in a big 5 league, putting up a scoring contribution (goals + assists) per 90 rate of 0.57 with expected goals + assists numbers that weren’t too far behind was pretty impressive.

Despite the strong work in 1260 league minutes last season, I do have some reservations about Diaby’s ceiling as a prospect. Playing on a super team that has a ridiculous talent advantage over the rest of the league will help in inflating your statistical production. With PSG, Diaby functioned a lot of times as an off-ball runner on the left side who was tasked with keeping the pitch stretched and taking advantage of space behind the backline to run in and create cut-backs in the box. Diaby's off-ball work was excellent for someone his age, and that should be celebrated. His on-ball work has more questions: he's extremely left-footed, his touch and ability to cleanly receive the ball in the inside channels was erratic, and he was prone to not having great awareness and missing out on runners making runs into dangerous areas, merely recycling the ball to a nearby teammate. It's also hard to know how much Diaby will get to do what made him successful last season, which is stretch the opposition and make runs into the wide areas of the penalty box.

2019-20 Outlook

It would be fun to say that this Bayer Leverkusen side comes into 2019-20 as a dark horse given their collective squad talent and how strong they were in 2019, but it's just hard to go there so long as Bayern Munich exists. Even with things not going their way for large portions of the season, they still won the Bundesliga title and were statistically by far the best team in the league. Though the current iteration of Bayern would not compare favorably to some of the previous ones from the 2010s, they still possess the most talented squad in the league and should once again finish at the top so long as a total meltdown doesn't occur. With all that out of the way, there's a lot to be excited for with the upcoming 2019-20 season for Bayer Leverkusen. We get a full season of Peter Bosz at the helm, and see if the club can pick things right up from where they were last season in terms of performance. Their summer signings were smart and should help in a meaningful way. With Bailey and Havertz, there's the potential that this is the year that either or both make the leap into true stardom. If one does it, then qualifying for the Champions League should be well within their reach. If both become stars in the same season, then the idea of Leverkusen running Bayern relatively close as the 2nd best team in Germany becomes more feasible. Set some free time during the season to watching Bayer Leverkusen. For good or for bad, they're always a fascinating side, and 2019-20 could feature a lot more good than bad.

Three Serie A midfielders who could make the leap with new clubs in 2019-20

A year ago, Serie A's transfer window closed on August 17. It was as hectic as ever, with all the clubs engaged in the search for the last few signings to complete the team or in finding a destination for those players considered surplus to requirements. This year the closing date of the Italian football market has been postponed by two weeks and, as usual, mid-August has returned to a period of holiday and procrastination for sporting directors, in view of the last deals to be completed before September. In the current holiday climate, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to devote my column to three not so well known midfielders who have already changed teams during the summer as we wait to see what their first season on a new club will bring.

Niccolò Barella (Cagliari to Inter Milan)

The topic of who is the strongest young Italian footballer is widely discussed, and Nicolò Barella's profile merits inclusion in the debate. Manager Antonio Conte and Inter are obviously convinced of his qualities, especially if it is true that the club has invested in him a sum that could reach 50 million euros, bonuses included. If the bonuses are realized, Barella will become the second most expensive player in the history of the club after fellow summer signing Romelu Lukaku. Of the three midfielders presented in this column, Barella is the one on which there are the highest expectations, even though he is coming off the least convincing season of the three. In a mediocre (to be generous) Cagliari season he played the first half of league games in his usual role as the left sided number 8 in Rolando Maran's 4-3-1-2 but at the end of January, he was moved behind the strikers because of Lucas Castro's injury. Those who expected from him a more decisive offensive contribution in a role closer to the opponent's goal were disappointed. Barella scored only one goal in the season, which also happened by pure chance (a lucky free-kick against Atalanta) and he failed to be an effective source of play, creating just a limited amount of chances. The 21-year-old shot the ball 52 times, showing a preference for shots from outside the box reflected in an open play xG per shot of just 0.044. He was also remarkably aggressively with his passes, collecting an abysmal 3.1 turnovers every 90 minutes, but his creative contribution remained almost unnoticed if we look at numbers (0.08 xG assisted and 1.0 open play key passes per 90). Even after splitting his metrics between the two halves of the season in which he played two different roles, his statistical peak is in winning fouls. Surely there was an improvement in xG assisted, but nothing suggests he should be a full-time offensive midfielder or even the main creative option of a team. During pre-season friendlies Antonio Conte moved him back in his natural role, fielding him as the left sided number 8 in his typical 3-5-2, with Brozovic in the middle and new signing Stefano Sensi on the right. His two midfield teammates have carried out build-up (Brozovic) and creative (Sensi) duties with Barella much more focused on attacking spaces and the box off the ball. Even if Barella is adept at carrying the ball in spaces and starting transitions with his trademarks runs, an important aspect of his game that didn’t consistently emerge last season is his ability to run behind defenses and to blitz inside the box surprising defenders. With two midfielders more focused on moving the ball with the passing game he will have much more freedom and probably have a more relevant offensive production. What will not change is his role and contribution in the defensive phase, in which he is naturally able to recover the ball and, despite his build, surprisingly effective in individual duels. No other midfielders won more duels than Barella (480) in the last two seasons combined and his last season averages in tackles and interceptions per 90 remain remarkable even when possession-adjusted. Conte will surely appreciate his defensive contribution and make good use of him when pressing high up the pitch. Playing for a bigger club like Inter would be beneficial for Barella’s career and it should finally liberate him from the tactical misconception that is often associated with those midfielders who can do almost anything well. That is to say, to be loaded with too many responsibilities and duties on the pitch and therefore to risk falling into a state of mediocrity without one's own strengths emerging.

Ismael Bennacer (Empoli to AC Milan)

Despite being relegated to Serie B last season, Empoli once again proved to be the ideal springboard for young midfielders, regardless of who he is sitting on the bench. After Piotr Zielinski (Napoli), Matias Vecino (Inter) and Leandro Paredes (PSG) rose in Maurizio Sarri and Marco Giampaolo’s systems, in 2018/2019 it was Ismael Bennacer, Rade Krunic and Hamed Traore’s turn to shine at Empoli under now Genoa coach Aurelio Andreazzoli.  After Empoli's relegation all of them were able to secure a transfer to a top team during the summer. The first two will continue to be teammates at AC Milan, and the third was purchased by the Juventus and loaned out to Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo straight away. Other than being the player of the three who commanded the highest price (€16 million), the Algerian international is probably the most interesting midfielder of the lot. Bennacer is an atypical, maybe even unique holding midfielder, who does not limit himself to playing simple passes but has a wealth of surprisingly varied solutions to progress the ball up the pitch. After spending the 2016-17 on loan playing in Ligue 1 for Tours, Empoli purchased him from Arsenal for a fee of just €1 million in the summer of 2017. Bennacer immediately broke in Empoli starting XI and after playing 39 games in a successful Serie B campaign that saw the Tuscan side winning the championship and getting promoted, he retained his role as a starter in the Serie A, playing 3171 minutes in the 2018-19 campaign and emerging as one of the most interesting midfield prospects in the league. The 21-year-old has really good technique and is particularly skilled on the ball. His abilities with the ball at his feet, coupled with a natural ability to predict opponents’ defensive moves, make him an elusive player, particularly good at winning individual duels in a key zone of the pitch and at beating the opposing pressure. You usually don’t expect the holding midfielder of a relegated the team to complete 1.7 dribbles per 90 and to do it in critical zones like in front of the box. In the graph above you can see Bennacer’s successful dribbles in red, failed in yellow. When carrying the ball Bennacer can turn or change direction with speed, leaving the opponent unable to challenge for possession and getting himself in position to pass the ball into more dangerous zones. So even if his approach can seem perilous, the reward is usually worth the risk. The Algerian is comfortable playing the ball short, yet is average pass length was quite long (23.5) and his long-game is good considering he completed 5.6 long ball per 90 with a 67% success rate. As Emanuele Mongiardo stated on his analysis for l’Ultimo Uomo, it will be interesting to see how Giampaolo will exploit his ability to play long diagonal balls towards the flank, considering that his teams usually prefer to play short and without much width. In a team that should be more ball-dominant than Empoli, it will also interesting to see how he will increase his influence in the last third and in chance creation (he assisted just 0.06 xG per 90 last season). Physically Bennacer might not be imposing but has above-average balance and he is remarkably strong pound-for-pound considering he is listed at 175 cm of height and 70 kg of weight. These qualities make him a great ball-winning midfielder too: in his first-ever Serie A season he accumulated 4.6 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also being the player with the highest number of recoveries in the league (312). The new AC Milan midfielder is quite aggressive when pressuring the ball carrier and good at anticipating the game. He had a pretty decent 67% rate in tackles per dribbled past, but sometimes he is too impatient when trying to win back possession and this could expose his team considering he is expected to be the last man standing in front of the defensive line. To watch a midfielder with such a distinctive playing style is always a pleasure for the eyes. AC Milan have invested a relatively small amount of money considering the upside of the former number 10 of Empoli and Giampaolo is ready to give him the keys to the midfield. Personally, It will be exciting to watch Bennacer further develop his game.

Ruslan Malinovskiy (Genk to Atalanta)

To prepare Atalanta for their first-ever participation in the Champions League and in an attempt to repeat last season's achievements in the league and the Coppa Italia, Gian Piero Gasperini asked the club for a roster including 16/17 footballers who could compete for a place in the starting eleven. A request that meant buying at least a central defender (Martin Skrtel), a striker (Luis Muriel) and a creative midfielder also able to add 5 to 10 goals a season. The latter profile matched with the characteristics of Ruslan Malinovskiy, a midfielder who grew up in the academy of Shakthar. The Ukrainian international was acquired from Genk for €13.5 million plus a percentage of the future resale. An exciting purchase, Malinowsky has been deployed this preseason Gasperini both as an offensive midfielder, as a replacement for Gomez in Atalanta’s 3-4-1-2, and as a central midfielder. At the start of his career, Malinovskiy was often deployed in between the lines, but at Genk, he was moved to the middle of the pitch. The new role, however, did not limit his scoring contribution, given that in 2018/19 he scored 16 goals in total, including 5 penalty kicks. With his deadly left foot, he is indeed an obvious choice for free kicks and dead balls in general. During the preseason he even attempted to score directly from corner kicks on a couple of occasions. In addition to having an excellent medium and long passing game, his past as a trequartista and his character mean that he is not scared of taking risky decisions in midfield (he turns the ball over 2.1 times per 90 minutes). He often looks to play killer balls for the attackers (16 assists in all competitions last season) and in his attempts to dribble his direct opponent, in which he often succeeds, allowing him to generate numerical superiority. He is extremely creative for a central midfielder (last season he played side by side with Sander Berge in Genk’s 4-2-3-1) as his 0.22 xG assisted per 90 demonstrate. The 10.5 deep progressions and 2.4 successful dribbles per 90 he notched in the Belgian league are elite values that he was even able to top in last season's Europa League campaign (11.2 deep progressions and 2.7 dribbles p90 in 640 minutes played). At the same time, however, the Ukrainian can put into play that aggressiveness that is common to all the midfielders of Atalanta, which make him also surprisingly good in the defensive phase. It is difficult to overcome him when he fights for possession and therefore, he seems perfectly suited to play in Gasperini’s man-oriented pressing system which requires players to be particularly reliable in defensive duels. Despite several European teams trying to sign him, Malinovskiy has come quite cheap and he seems to be a safe bet for the club which has decided to rely on him to take another step in its journey to the elite of Italian football. Not only he is a player who adds depth to the roster and capable of carrying out, if necessary, the creative responsibilities in the last third of Gomez and Ilicic, but after an initial phase in which he will adapt to the requirements of a new team and a new league he could become a unique tactical weapon for Gasperini, who couldn’t count on a midfielder with these characteristics in the past few seasons. If Malinovskiy, 26, is able to match the statistical output of last season while making the jump to Serie A, he would be one of the best signings of the summer.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Chelsea, Brighton and Newcastle Begin Life Under New Managers

Are there early signs that things are changing under the new bosses? There is no greater fool’s game than trying to predict the fortunes of a football club based on one league fixture, and this applies doubly for teams with new managers. When clubs make managerial changes during the season, there is often an emphasis on getting instant results, but for coaches employed over the summer, the feeling tends towards letting them build something more concrete. As such, Frank Lampard, Graham Potter and Steve Bruce will have to wait a little while before I or anyone else could credibly claim they’re doing a good or bad job. Nonetheless, one match does offer clues as to how they will approach things going forward, what ideas from previous jobs they will take with them to their new clubs. As such, let’s take a look at what little we’ve already learned about the new men in charge at these three Premier League sides.


Anyone who watched Chelsea last season could see, both in a positive and negative sense, Maurizio Sarri trying to implement his very strict ideas of possession football to players who had mostly worked in completely different styles. Jorginho came in as the key signing at the base of the midfield to dictate this short passing style. The aim was to produce some really intricate football that at times saw rapid movements towards the goal, but this was only partially successful. At their worst, Sarri’s Chelsea were a passive tiki taka side that moved the ball sideways a lot and struggled to offer much incision, even if things were often better than that caricature paints them. For Lampard, the job is less about building a strong footballing philosophy between the lines than moving away from such a rigid one. The real identity he wants to promote is off the pitch, a culture at the club where young players are given first team opportunities and everyone is pulling in the same direction. This would differentiate himself from his predecessors after Sarri and Antonio Conte’s first team set ups seemed completely cut off from everything else happening at Chelsea. The Englishman has a squad made up of a mishmash of players who suited Sarri’s style, players who performed better under Conte’s deep defending, and players who were out on loan doing something completely different. And so, if he’s going to put the players before the philosophy as he seems to intend to do, the style is going to be a bit less distinct. “Chaotic” was probably the word best used to describe Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat to Manchester United. Lampard’s side played a straightforward 4-2-3-1 shape and looked like the plan was to press aggressively against United, but they had no clear structure in terms of how to do it. Pressing systems aren’t exactly the easiest thing to coach. It took Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool a full two years and numerous personnel upgrades before they stopped conceding too many goals to basic errors, owing in part to the individuals but also a system that often left them exposed. It felt like some of this was at play with Chelsea today. As seen in the pressure frequency heatmap below, they pressed a lot but not with any kind of obvious pattern or plan. Zouma in particular was horribly exposed by this, and no one could really claim that the centre back had anything other than a bad game. But he certainly wasn’t helped by what was happening in front of him, with Chelsea throwing players forward without much in the way of structure. The good news is that N’Golo Kante is to return, and he is surely the best player in the world at being a one man fix for a side’s poor defensive structure. This should ideally tide Chelsea over until everyone can get to grips with how to press in a cohesive manner. In terms of the midfielders who did start, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic feel like a less than ideal partnership. Jorginho himself was seen as the avatar of Sarriball, and questions have been raised over whether he can even play in a double pivot embracing a faster style of football. Looking at his passes during the game, it doesn’t look like anything has changed for him, with a high volume of the kind of stuff that frustrated Chelsea fans last year, the sideways balls around the halfway line, still making up most of his work. This actually looks more prominent than in his performance at Old Trafford last April, where we saw him completing passes in more varied areas. The plan for Lampard seems to be to have Mason Mount leading the press as a number ten (which he did to reasonable effect, putting up the most pressures of any Chelsea player) behind Kante as the destroyer and either Jorginho or Kovacic as the more creative midfielder. Neither could really say they won the audition here. The main issue presented in this game was a lack of compactness and Lampard will have to do plenty of work on the training field to get to what he wants. But there’s no reason to panic, and the idea of this Chelsea team is still solid. We’ll have to check in later in the season to see if he’s capable of coaching this side.


Unlike Lampard’s Chelsea, we have a much clearer idea of how Graham Potter would like Brighton to play football. The 3-0 scoreline certainly flattered the Seagulls at Watford, with expected goals putting it as a fairly close encounter that Watford shaded (though it should be noted that that doesn’t account for the own goal, and Brighton would have likely had a very high xG chance had Doucoure not put the ball in his own net). There were plenty of reasons beyond the scoreline for Brighton to be positive, though. They were tactically the better side, creating chances from a clear structure of how they wanted to play while Watford focused more on individual quality. The passmap tells much of the story of Brighton’s game: retain possession in deep areas with lots of short passing, then wait for space in the opposition half and launch a fast counter. They didn’t worry too much about forcing the issue, either, with the pressure map showing that the defensive work was mostly done in their own half. Potter has a fairly specific style, so it’s a good sign that we’re already seeing the core principles at play in game one. Better news still is that none of the new signings started, so there is ideally still value to be added. It seems like 3-4-3 is the preferred system for now, and while the attacking band still hasn’t settled, what seems probable is a first choice combination of Pascal Gross just behind new signings Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay. We still don’t know if Maupay and particularly Trossard are good enough for the Premier League, but it’s a front three that would provide a good range of qualities, with Gross’ creative passing threat meeting Trossard’s dribbling and Maupay’s mobile forward play. The very, very early signs are positive for Potter’s Brighton.


From a manager who has a very particular style to, well, Steve Bruce. If Bruce succeeds at St. James’ Park, it won’t be because he’s imparted his clear footballing philosophy onto the players. He doesn’t have one. It’ll be because he gets the most out of the players at the club with a fairly straightforward approach. He’s inherited strong defensive foundations from his predecessor Rafa Benitez and would be best advised not to mess with that side of things too much. Thus most of the changes might come from the new attacking signings offering some different qualities. Joelinton was the one new arrival to start against Arsenal and he made a positive impact. In last season’s home fixtures against top six sides, Newcastle started both Salomon Rondon and Joselu at different times. Benitez always liked his strikers to contribute without the ball, but Joelinton may have the pair beat on this front. The Brazilian made 41 pressures against Arsenal, more than either Joselu or Rondon managed in any home game against top six clubs last year. He also managed 131 touches, the most of any Newcastle player this weekend. When you’re playing against a clearly superior opponent and register just 39% possession, you do not typically expect your striker to have the most touches of the ball. Add in that his 8 aerial wins were the most of any Newcastle player and you have a genuine all round performance. There are still questions over whether Joelinton can consistently generate enough good shots to be value for money at £40m, but Newcastle have a number nine who offers a lot outside of scoring goals. The other big new attacking signing, Allan Saint-Maximin, only got a brief substitute appearance so we can’t conclude much there. In the past, Saint-Maximin has been an extremely high volume dribbler (4.88 per 90 last season) who struggles to turn this into shots or chance creation. While the hope is obviously that he develops his game beyond this, he can still be of some use as the limited player he is right now. Newcastle were often very, very deep last season under Benitez, and being able to get up the pitch more easily could actually help defensively. Kenedy (now back at Chelsea) offered this kind of dribbling quality to get Newcastle forward at times, but Saint-Maximin is arguably an even better option for this. The Frenchman will almost certainly frustrate at times with his quality once he gets to the byline, but just having someone who can dribble the ball up there will be of use in Tyneside.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

La Liga 2019-20 Storylines, Part 2

Yesterday we looked at the top of the table, today it time for everybody else.

Can Getafe replicate last season’s success?

Getafe were undoubtedly the surprise story of last season (Alavés ran them close until dropping off badly down the final stretch). With one of the league’s lowest budgets and just two years removed from promotion, they put together a sustained push for Champions League qualification that was only ended on the final day of the campaign. Their fifth-place finish was nevertheless the highest in the club’s (relatively brief) history. There haven’t been any major departures so far this summer (defender Djené Dakonam is the most likely to now attract interest), and the incomings all look suited to the well-organised, mid-block-press and break approach that has become their hallmark under Pepe Bordalás. They have added to their collection of worked-my-way-up-through-the-divisions-the-hard-way strikers with the signing of Enric Gallego from Huesca, picked up former midfielder Faycal Fajr, and brought in Marc Cucurella from Barcelona after a solid loan spell at Eibar. The main doubt is just how well their squad will hold up to the joint stresses of league and European action. That might make eighth to 12th a more realistic aim than sixth and up.

How far will Real Sociedad’s young project take them?

Real Sociedad had the youngest squad in La Liga last season (with an average, minutes weighted, age of 25.3, down from 26.3 the season before) and appear to have doubled down on that strategy this summer by bringing in some more interesting talents: goalkeeper Alex Remiro (from Athletic Club), defender Mobido Sagnon (from Lens, and undoubtedly the rawest of the new arrivals), midfielder Martin Odegaard (on loan from Real Madrid) and striker Alexander Isak (from Borussia Dortmund). Add that to three members of the Spain squad who won the European Under-21 Championship in Italy, including last season’s standout Mikel Oyarzabal; two solid central defenders in their mid-20s in Aritz Elustondo and Diego Llorente; and a smattering of more experienced heads; and they have the makings of a very good team with plenty of performance and value upside. La Real’s underlying numbers jumped around all over the place last season. Even on the 10-match average plot, there are a number of clearly visible ups and downs in their xG and xGC. But the end result was a pretty much even goal difference -- both actual and expected -- and a ninth-place finish. Pre-season seems to have gone well, and there is confidence within the group that they will be capable of challenging for European qualification. They are unlikely to get off to an especially good start. Both of their first-choice central defenders are suspended for their opener away at Valencia, and that is the first of four away engagements across their opening five fixtures due to ongoing work at their Anoeta stadium. But if they can build up some momentum thereafter, they could be one to watch.

Will Nabil Fekir transform Real Betis?

There is something slightly romantic about Nabil Fekir’s move to Real Betis, about a player who just a summer ago was close to joining one of the biggest teams in Europe now turning up at a middling, albeit well-supported, team in Spain. It seems like a move from a bygone age. “He felt it was necessary to take a risk on a new project after the frustration he felt after the failed move to Liverpool,” Lyon’s former head scout Gerard Bonneau told El Pais. “He always maintained that rebel spirit, and his cycle in Lyon had ended.” Will it prove to be a transformative transfer for Betis? It could well be. When he’s on the pitch, Fekir is a very good player. The question, the one that perhaps deterred more prestigious suitors, is to what degree his knees are likely to hold up. He has accumulated solid minutes over the last three seasons, but there are always niggling doubts related to the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in 2015. Betis will also have to provide him with a good supporting cast if they hope to make a push for European qualification in a crowded field that is also likely to include Athletic Club, Eibar and Espanyol in addition to the teams already mentioned. They were middle of the road last season, finishing 10th with the ninth-best xGD in the division. They’ve since sold Pau López, Júnior Firpo and Giovani Lo Celso. They are still expected to make some moves before the window closes, but in general terms their squad probably looks slightly weaker at this stage. But add a goal-getting striker (it seems to just be matter of time before they get the Borja Iglesias deal over the line) to the mix and everything could well fall into place.

How far will Celta Vigo and Villarreal rise?

Neither Celta Vigo nor Villarreal expected to find themselves in relegation troubles last season, but that is exactly what happened. Villarreal spent nearly a third of the season in the drop zone only to eventually recover to 14th, while Celta ended the campaign fourth from bottom, just four points clear of relegated Girona in 18th. Celta have repatriated former youth-team players Denis Suárez and Santi Mina to give Iago Aspas some much needed attacking support. If they can improve defensively (something they did towards the end of last season after Fran Escribá came in as head coach), they should be fancied to enjoy a more comfortable campaign this time around. Villarreal might even be able to break the top 10. Pablo Fornals will be missed, but the signing of Raúl Albiol clearly raises the competence level in defence, while André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (on loan from Fulham) adds legs to their midfield. Villarreal had underlying numbers more consistent with a mid-table team than a relegation fighter last season and can be expected to convert that into a better finish in 2019-20.

Can the promoted teams compete?

Last season, two of the three promoted teams went straight back down and all of them finished in the bottom five. But that hasn’t been the general pattern in recent years. Eleven of the last 15 promoted teams have avoided an immediate demotion back to the second tier. Four of those even managed to finish in the top 10. It does, though, look likely that this year’s batch will struggle. Partly because of their own quality level, partly because other teams who finished towards the bottom of the table last season (such as Celta and Villarreal) have strengthened. Of last season’s top-flight teams, it is Real Valladolid who look most vulnerable (Alavés and Levante are other potential candidates). They had the third-worst underlying numbers and seem determined to do things on the cheap, relying primarily on loans from elsewhere. The departure of Fernando Calero to Espanyol has weakened their defence. And so if the new teams have anyone penciled in as a side they might finish above, it is Valladolid. Of the three, Mallorca and Osasuna look most likely to have a chance of doing so. Mallorca coach Vicente Moreno did impressive work at Gimnástic, and has now led Mallorca to two consecutive promotions. Owner Robert Sarver has a questionable record as an NBA owner with the Phoenix Suns, but things have gone pretty well at Mallorca so far. They do, though, probably need a couple more late-window signings to have a fighting chance. Champions Osasuna have done some decent business this summer -- completing a permanent deal for Rubén García, a key attacking contributor during their promotion campaign, was vital -- and if they can get results at their atmospheric El Sadar stadium (where they only dropped four points last season) that will give them an opportunity to compete. Granada have been hamstrung by having their budget reduced by La Liga following irregularities in payments to their forward Adrian Ramos last season. They had the best defensive record in the Segunda, with central defender José Martínez a standout performer, and if they can keep things tight, they might just manage to sneak survival. But Yangel Herrera aside, their signings are unconvincing.

At Sevilla, Julen Lopetegui makes his last stand

Life comes at you fast. There’s no man in football at this moment better placed to back up that cliche than Julen Lopetegui. On the eve of his first World Cup game as Spain manager, he was sacked after word leaked out that he had agreed to become the new Real Madrid manager. After he emerged from the plane home from Russia looking forlorn, unshaven and altogether glum, he said it was one of the worst days of his life. Fast forward four months and Lopetegui was again on the receiving end of his marching orders. If success really is a succession of failures handled well then the Basque manager is about to hit pay dirt.

As for Monchi, Sevilla’s once and, now, again sporting director, his return is already off to a dubious start, and it has nothing to do with football. In his first press conference back he said that sequels can sometimes be better than the original before saying The Godfather 2 was better than The Godfather 1. We’ll let the folks over at MoviesBomb dissect that one but it was typically affable from the former keeper and current high priest of the transfer world.

He has backed Lopetegui to the hilt. After whittling down a list of 25 candidates, he found his man, another former goalkeeper, who really wasn’t given enough time at Real Madrid and lost his job for Spain despite leading them into the last summer’s tournament as the favourites.

“They stole 50 goals from my son,” José Antonio Lopetegui, Lopetegui’s father, said after the club sold Ronaldo and didn’t replace him. And the truth is, Lopetegui started that season just fine. Real Madrid were sitting just behind Barcelona, Sevilla, and a Valencia team marooned at the wrong end of the table, on expected goal difference when he was sacked; this is despite allowing 3.06 expected goals against in his last game, a 5-1 hiding to Barcelona. They would eventually tumble much further down the table with Santiago Solari and eventually Zinedine Zidane at the helm as it became clear that the manager perhaps was never the issue. Lopetegui had his ideas clear and, subjectively speaking, correct when he tried to implement a possession-based game at the Bernabeu.

They converted 14 goals from their 15 xG in to start the season, but were faced with Barcelona’s beyond clinical 28 goals from 19.17 xG. They dished out some beatings too with a 3-0 against Roma in the Champions League group stages (with Monchi as the Italians’ sporting director, which might have left a lasting impression) standing out as possibly the zenith of his short spell in the capital. Expectations were simply too high for him at Real Madrid and time was always at a premium. But now, at Sevilla, those expectations have shrunk and the egos have too so he has a chance to mould this team into his very own thing. Monchi has given him a three-year deal, which is longer than the two-year contracts offered to Unai Emery and Jorge Sampaoli and the one-year deals offered to Juande Ramos and Marcelino before them.

He could have as many as seven new starters in his team to start the season. Sevilla have signed 12 players this summer and changed the characteristics of the squad from a physical and fast one into a still physical but more technical and diverse collection of players. His defence looks very different to that of Pablo Machín, who arrived last summer before being sacked in the middle of the season. He played with a 3-5-2 and while Lopetegui has dappled before in such shapes, he will play primarily in a 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1 if the situation requires it. And he has the players to do that. Lopetegui has no problem switching formation during a game and switching style depending on opponents.

A new-look defence for Sevilla

One of the most significant signings Sevilla have made is 20-year-old Jules Kounde from Bourdeaux. “I have plenty of faith in him, I have seen him many times and he is an ideal central defender to play in the way Lopetegui wants,” Monchi said about the €25 million defender. Sevilla are set to defend from the front and that typically means plenty of hoofed balls under pressure in their direction and requires a blend of physical assuredness and technique once they are asked to bring it out from the back; Kounde offers both. 

With Diego Carlos, another new signing at €15 million from Nantes, a more experienced and powerful defender beside him, they can carry out the tasks necessary to play Lopetegui’s style of football.

Kounde’s 1.17 possession adjusted tackles per 90 minutes is low but his 7.37 unpressured long balls suggest he is confident in his passing range and willing to be part of the attacking set-up. Kounde’s over-confidence has been something mentioned as a potential negative but Lopetegui won’t mind that in the slightest. Kounde’s closing speed and positional awareness make him an ideal defender for a team that might be vulnerable on the break.

Sergio Reguilon broke onto the scene at Madrid when it was clear Marcelo was unable and, at times, unwilling to defend to an acceptable level. He was deemed surplus under Zinedine Zidane when he came back and Lopetegui snapped him up as he looks set to take another step in his fairly rapid development as an elite two-way full-back. He has the physical capacity to do it all from the left and Lopetegui will be asking him to provide everything he can muster on that side of the field to draw defences out and link with his more advanced teammates.

“For me he is the best coach I have ever had but unfortunately he didn’t have that little bit of luck when he was with us,” Dani Carvajal, apropos of almost nothing, said about Lopetegui. "And until I come across someone who for me is better than him, I’ll keep saying it.” Coaching will be key for Lopetegui and with Kounde and Reguilon, they will be given every chance to expand their technique and tactical awareness in the coming months.


As far as Lopetegui’s midfield went at Real Madrid, he had some issues. With no replacement for Casemiro until Marcos Llorente emerged just before the bell tolled, he went with Toni Kroos as the last man in the middle before the German explicitly stated “I’m not Casemiro” and knocked that experiment on the head. Against Athletic Bilbao, specifically, he started Kroos in that position and Real Madrid struggled to gain any sense of control before needing an Isco equaliser to save them as it finished 1-1. Fernando was brought in to play in that role but Lopetegui has shown in the past that he will change his team based on how aggressive his opponent is when fighting for possession. Ibrahim Amadou is also available and Lopetegui has options, who won’t dissent, when picked as the lone man at the base of midfield.

Lopetegui’s overhaul of Sevilla’s midfield should see just one remnant from past managers; Ever Banega. And the Argentine should be the rhythm-setter in Sevilla’s new-look midfield. Joan Jordan is the kind of player who can unlock a defence for Lopetegui and he could play in a more advanced role than both Fernando and Banega. He is a dribbling, passing, energetic player with box-to-box qualities. The Spaniard can add something in attack and defence. 

His remit will consist mostly of aiding the attack but with his lanky frame, he can be tricky to maneuver around too. His range of passing is excellent and Lopetegui is fishing in the right ponds with Jose Luis Mendilibar’s Eibar being the most press-happy team in LaLiga last season. Joan Jordan, at 25, and with two years under Mendilibar, he will absorb his new coach’s system immediately and could be one of the most impactful signings of the summer. 


Lopetegui will need a player to operate in the free role Isco was adept at playing in his system. Isco flourished when given this role by Lopetegui and we might look back on his career and see those games for Spain when he was allowed to roam as his very best.

They have already lost Pablo Sarabia to PSG. He and Messi were the only two players with over 0.20 xG scored and assisted per 90 last season. Between Wissam Ben Yedder, whose future is still up in the air, and Sarabia, they found each other 11 times for goals last year. There was no combination more lethal in LaLiga last season. Even the Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi machine could only match that number.

Julen’s father, might be screaming how they “stole 0.20 xG scored and assisted per 90 from my son” if his Sevilla project fails, but they have added key pieces to help their new manager's vision.

Lopetegui might end up rotating his front three, but there is one non-negotiable role; the player doing that drifting, creative Isco job. That’s going to be Oliver Torres. 


Too much of a maverick to ever succeed under Diego Simeone, Torres’ 4.84 pressure regains and 9.09 deep progressions make him perfectly impish enough to be key under Lopetegui. He will be forced to both press when Sevilla lose the ball and advance attacks in closed quarters when they have it. 

The additions of Luke de Jong and Moanes Dabbur suggest Lopetegui is trying to add different styles of strikers to lead the line. At times, like he did with Isco in what was his best game for Spain when they beat Italy 3-0, Torres might have to play a false nine role. At Madrid, Benzema was set for a massive season under Lopetegui as a more associative striker but Raul de Tomas, as a more conventional number nine, couldn’t be convinced to stay. Mariano Diaz arrived after a phone call from Lopetegui convinced him and he started well before the goals dried up and the pressure got too much for everyone at the club. All of which is to say the idea of having both a classic striker, and one who does more of the linking work around is a long time part of Lopetegui’s philosophy, even during the moments when that philosophy has crashed and burned.

Lopetegui’s mix and match strike plan will be complemented by Lucas Ocampos offering width and that ability to take advantage of one-on-ones, Sevilla will have an array of tools to slice open defences. On Marseille last season he was quite comfortable taking the ball in the final third and making runs into the penalty area, dragging apart defences as he goes.


Ever Banega said “there’s nothing new in what they’re asking us to do” after he orchestrated a preseason win over Hoffenheim. There’s a chance they start the season with an entirely new defence, midfield and attack though. Lopetegui’s ideas haven’t changed since his failure with Real Madrid but Monchi, Sevilla fans and Lopetegui himself will be hoping his luck has. 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Mason Mount, Player Profile

Mason Mount started in the attacking midfield role for Chelsea in their opening Premier League match, away to Manchester United. That’s quite the vote of confidence for a 20 year-old with no Premier League experience under his belt. So, what kind of player exactly is Mason Mount?

Last year, on loan to Derby, under then Derby now Chelsea, manager Frank Lampard, Mount split his time between attacking midfield, where he spent just over 1000 minutes, and the left side of center midfield where he spent 1773 minutes. This makes a quick look at his outputs tricky. On the whole he definitely doesn’t pop on the midfield radar.


He also doesn’t appear as much above average on the attacking midfielder, though it’s a little more encouraging.

Despite those radars, there are reasons to think that Mount might have a strong future. His nine goals from midfield are encouraging, and fairly reflect his underlying expected goals. While there are a lot of speculative attempts on his shot chart, there are also a good number of efforts with his feet from front and central.

Defensively, his pressure map is also fairly impressive. The fact that he only has an average number of pressures on the midfield radar is actually encouraging given that he spent a third of his time at attacking midfield. And the pressure map picks up the range of his defensive activity.

As his career progresses if Mount can either consistently put up the rangy defensive numbers from the attacking midfield spot, or replicate his ability to get into the box if he’s consistently deployed deeper, then there really will be a solid framework to build on.

There is, however, reason to be concerned about his passing ability. He demonstrated neither a particular facility for generating shots for his teammates, nor stood out for moving the ball up the field. His xG assisted for Derby last season was 0.13 per match, fourth on the team. That’s not bad, but it’s not the kind of number that you see in the Championship that makes you think super star in the making. The story of his deep progressions is similar, he was sixth on the team (for players that played more than 1000 minutes). There are all sorts of tactical reasons that this might be the case, but it remains that he has yet to demonstrate at even a Championship level that he is a particularly creative passer. Now he’s being handed the reins at Chelsea. It should be no surprise then that on Sunday he completed exactly one open play pass to striker Tammy Abraham (completed passes are red).

There are definitely things to like about Mount’s game. There are areas where he can legitimately grow and become the kind of star player that every supporter hopes their homegrown talent can blossom into. But, for him to truly become an influential player at the top of the table he’ll have to show some passing ability that he hasn’t yet. If he can add that into the mix then he really might turn into something special.

La Liga 2019-20 Storylines, Part 1

The new campaign gets underway in Spain this weekend. Here are some storylines to follow in La Liga during the 2019-20 season.

Messi and Griezmann: will it work?

Antoine Griezmann started off on the back foot in the Barcelona dressing room. Reports suggest that senior figures, including Lionel Messi, didn’t take kindly to Griezmann’s La Decisión video series (somewhat ironically produced by Gerard Piqué’s production company) in the summer of 2018, which eventually resulted in him announcing his decision to remain at Atlético Madrid. Off-field tensions aside, it is what happens out on the pitch that will be the most fascinating thing about Griezmann’s arrival at Barcelona (for his release clause of €120 million, although Atlético are pushing to receive more). He is used to being the central figure of the Atlético attack -- he was involved at one point or another in moves that led to 0.71 expected goals (xG) per 90 last season on a team who averaged just 1.03 -- and is now being dumped into a team with its own clear and established leader. In terms of usage rate -- which attempts to measure the percentage of a team’s attacks that end, whether positively or negatively, at the feet of a particular player -- Messi has topped La Liga in each of the last two seasons, with nearly a 19% share of Barcelona’s attacks in 2017-18, and over 21% in 2018-19. Every player who has joined the Barcelona forward line since Messi became its star has had to defer to him in some way or another, and it is likely to be no different for Griezmann. He’ll either struggle to adapt or maybe, having been the primary focus of opposing defences for so long, he’ll relish the extra space a more varied set of threats will provide him with. At Atlético, Griezmann was facilitator, provider and finisher; perhaps with Luis Suárez starting to wind down a little -- he took just less than half a shot less per match last season, and did so from marginally worse positions; only five La Liga players who played at least 600 minutes and averaged at least one shot per match across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns saw their xG per 90 figure drop more than his 0.16xG per 90 decrease from season to season -- he will become more of a pure goalscorer at Barcelona.

Zinedine Zidane vs. Florentino Pérez, and Real Madrid’s Midfield

I like the business that Real Madrid did early this summer. Eder Militão, Ferland Mendy and Luka Jovic are three young players with the potential to resolve problem areas. Eden Hazard is the sort of guy you can fit into a variety of attacking functions and have him perform. They just looked to be a central midfielder away from an expensive but impressive rebuild. From the beginning, reports have suggested that Paul Pogba is the man Zinedine Zidane wants, but that president Florentino Pérez is less convinced. That isn’t the only thing they’ve butted heads over: it wasn’t hard to see an underlying motive in Zidane’s poor treatment of Gareth Bale, a Pérez favourite. The Premier League market has now closed, and given that Manchester United didn’t sign a direct replacement for Pogba, we can probably safely assume that isn’t a deal Madrid will now get over the line. Donny van de Beek seems set to arrive from Ajax, but it isn’t yet certain that will happen this summer. Madrid’s starting midfield for their league opener away to Celta Vigo will most probably be Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. It was the cornerstone of the club’s three consecutive Champions League triumphs, but as age continues to slow Modric, it is becoming increasingly sieve-like -- the Champions League round-of-16 defeat to Ajax made that patently clear. Meanwhile, Madrid now seem to be making a concerted push towards signing Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain. You can find a way of fitting both him and Hazard into the front line and making it work, but the midfield is in greater need of reinforcement right now. Without a refresh there, Madrid will again struggle to match Barcelona -- champions in four of the last five seasons.

How quickly will Atlético Madrid gel?

Settling in as a new signing at Atlético Madrid is never an easy task. Long is the list of players who wilted under ‘El Profe’ Ortega’s gruelling physical workouts or having survived that ordeal, were never quite able to meet the tactical demands of coach Diego Simeone. And this season, there are not only one or two seeking to integrate but a whole host of new arrivals brought in to cover the departures of a number of first-team regulars. Four of the eight players who saw most minutes for Atlético last season have left: Griezmann Rodrigo Hernández, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis. Juanfran and Lucas Hernandez, both in the top 15 in terms of game time, have also moved on. In have come, in order of transfer fee, João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier, Felipe and Renan Lodi. Héctor Herrera has joined from Porto on a free transfer. All in all, Atlético have spent nearly €250 million and recouped over €300 million this summer. It is a huge amount of turnover for a top-of-the-table club. The expectation would be that it will take some time for Atlético to get up to speed, but they’ve looked far from disjointed during pre-season. Félix, the 19-year-old, €126-million centrepiece of their rebuild, has looked very sharp indeed. And there is talk from the players of a switch to a more attacking style of play, perhaps based around a 4-3-3 formation. That is something we’ve heard before (most recently following the arrivals of Hernández and Thomas Lemar last summer); will it actually come to fruition? This would usually be the juncture at which I’d point out that Atlético’s underlying numbers last season indicated they weren’t quite as strong as their eventual league finish of second might suggest. They did, after all, only have the league’s fifth-best expected goal difference (xGD). But Atlético seem to be one of those teams who are doing something that helps them consistently beat the model: they’ve done so by over 20 goals in each of the last two seasons. It would clearly be foolish to write Atlético off, but if any season is to be the one in which a team from outside the established top three is able to leapfrog them, you’d think this would be it.

Can Valencia break the top-three monopoly?

Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid have locked down the top three finishing positions in Spain in each of the last seven seasons. But there could certainly be a decent argument made for Valencia breaking that hegemony this time around. By defeating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final in May, they became the first team outside of that trio to win a domestic trophy since 2010, and they have a settled squad with potential for improvement. That stability was seriously threatened a couple of weeks back when sporting director Mateu Alemany came very close to resigning in frustration at the refusal of owner Peter Lim to sign off on some of his deals. Had he done so, coach Marcelino would probably have gone with him. As it is, things have been smoothed over for now, although who knows how long that will hold. On the pitch, things look promising. Valencia had the third best underlying numbers in La Liga last season, with the best defence and the fourth-best attack. If Marcelino’s side can turn five or six of the league-high 16 draws they were involved in last season into victories, can manage to get something approaching a full season out of Goncalo Guedes (that is starting to become somewhat of a perennial if), and if new signing Maxi Gómez provides that little something different in attack they were missing at times last season, they could easily finish in the top three. It is, of course, pretty easy to play that game the other way: if Dani Parejo gets injured, if Guedes again struggles with his fitness, if Jasper Cliessen proves to be a downgrade on last season’s goalkeeper Neto... We’ll just have to see how things shake out.

Will Monchi’s Sevilla reshuffle bear fruit?

Sevilla’s business this summer has made it perfectly clear that Monchi has little respect for the work done by the two men who filled his sporting director role during his time at Roma. He has neglected to sign any of three loanees the club had options on, has loaned out two of last summer’s signings and has sold off Quincy Promes for a near €5-million loss. In their place, he has brought in 11 new faces at a combined cost of over €120 million. There is also a new man in the Sevilla dugout: Julen Lopetegui. By the underlying numbers, Sevilla were actually the second-best team in Spain last season. As I’ve said before, I think Pablo Machín was unfortunate to lose his job in March given the imbalances within the squad. The raft of new arrivals, which includes some profiles they were lacking last season, has improved depth, and I like some of their pickups, especially Joan Jordán. But I’m unconvinced their starting XI will necessarily be that much stronger, particularly without Pablo Sarabia (fifth in the league in terms of xG contribution (xG + xGA) last season), now of Paris Saint-Germain. Stay tuned for stories from the rest of the league coming tomorrow.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association.

Crystal Palace: 2019-20 Season Preview

Crystal Palace have a good news, bad news situation going on. The good news is that they’ve been pretty good, probably even better than their point totals the last couple of seasons suggest. That bad news is that they’re likely to get worse, maybe quickly. First, the positives. In his almost two full seasons, Roy Hodgson has this team playing pretty well. Two seasons ago he took over with them sitting bottom (although with considerably evidence they were a better team than their record), navigated them to midtable, survived an injury crisis and installed a slightly unorthodox system involving an extremely narrow midfield four with two converted wingers, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend as forwards. He followed that up with a fairly unremarkable season, one which again saw Palace put up decent numbers despite Christian Benteke struggling at forward, relying on Michy Batshuayi to come in on loan and provide just enough goals for the team to coast comfortably home. On the whole, the teams numbers aren’t going to get anybody dreaming of greatness, but they sure should keep a side safe from any real risk of relegation. The bottom line is that despite a defensive blip towards the end of last season, things have been generally moving in the right direction. The bad news is that this team is old. Very old. The young star they managed to hold onto, Zaha, is going to be 27. Their sole actual young talent, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is now Manchester United’s right back of the future. The list of even plausibly young talented players in the squad consists of Max Meyer. Tat’s it. And their incoming transfers are James McCarthy, and Gary Cahill, which is the opposite of young talent. Even if the squad is fine right now, it won’t be in a year or two. Crystal Palace are in desperate need of a rebuild, the kind which involves spending money on young players who might develop into the pillars of a Premier League team for years to come. Unfortunately, that money doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Spending now, on players who can keep the team competitive would surely be less expensive than flailing around throwing money at whatever players happen to be available if and when a relegation fight does occur. With Zaha staying, there should be enough talent hanging around Selhurst Park to ensure that Palace survive another season, but it’s not a slam dunk. Zaha is asked to do an awful lot of attacking work. He needs to both move the ball up the field, create shots for himself, and set up teammates. He’s extremely adept at dropping deeper, and carrying the ball into the final third. He’s also totally able to either bring the ball into the box himself. Or feed it to a teammate (yellow passes indicate an incomplete pass) Zaha’s game, however, is so tailored to attacking the box from the side, that it makes his shot chart…challenging. Ten goals are great, but when you’re shooting almost exclusively from these angles, that return is unlikely to continue. And that’s a problem for Palace because they need Zaha’s goals. Christian Benteke is the sides only proven striker. And he’s spent the last two years working extremely hard to un-prove himself. He’s 28 with a significant injury history, and he’s been in and out of the lineup over the last two seasons both because he can’t stay healthy and because his form has been, let’s call it imprecise. Over the last two years Benteke has been king of the can’t shoot straight club. His underlying numbers are fine, good even. His expected goals from over the last two seasons in somewhat limited minutes total to just over 11. He’s actually found the back of the net three times. Last season his shot chart looked like this. Now, due to limited playing time, he’s only taken a total of 85 shots over the two years combined. It’s certainly possible that Benteke is just in a shooting slump, and continued minutes should see the pendulum swing back towards normal. On the other hand, maybe he’s just cooked. Each of the last two seasons Hodgson has turned away from Benteke and looked for other solutions, this year he won’t have much choice but to hope that the big man finally finds his form again. The Benteke issue is just emblematic of the larger structural problem with Palace. There’s not a whole lot of upside to be found, but the downside risks are starting to mount. A good Benteke season doesn’t really take Palace anywhere above the midtable range, but a bad one might put them on the brink. A healthy Zaha season keeps the competitive, but not much more, were he to miss significant time the team might not be able to survive it. A more carefully constructed team would mix upside and downside. Sure maybe the striker struggles, but Aaron Wan-Bissaka has a breakout year and makes a giant leap forwards. Some players get old and drop off, others step into the breach. That’s not Crystal Palace’s team now. There veteran mix of players are all quite competent but they aren’t going to suddenly become stars. They might, however, start to get old and decline. Running a team in the bottom half of the Premier League is hard work. It’s like being on a treadmill constantly pulling a side towards the relegation battle. It’s hard to keep improving young players on the quad. The best ones get snapped up by the bigger, richer clubs, and if your lucky enough (and willing to commit the wages) to keep one or two, players like Zaha still involve constant battles to keep around. Meanwhile the stalwart pros responsible for your success continue to get older and all need to be replaced. Crystal Palace are on the Premier League treadmill. The last two seasons saw them unexpectedly make some strides forward. But, by standing still they’re being dragged inexorably backwards towards that relegation battle. It may not happen this year, but without a lot of work it’s going to keep getting closer. The team is old and not getting any better. It probably won’t kill them this year, but before long it will be too late to stop the trend.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Brighton and Hove Albion: 2019-20 Season Preview

Can a different style of football get more out of these players?

On the 17th April 2017, Brighton and Hove Albion were promoted to the Premier League.

The club knew that the side needed strengthening, and set about to make some interesting moves. Pascal Gross, Mat Ryan, Davy Pröpper and José Izquierdo came in amongst others and had a big impact, Gross especially. The team struck the right blend between manager Chris Hughton’s compact style with two banks of four and a sprinkling of quality in the final third. Brighton finished a hard fought 15th, hitting the magic 40 point number exactly.

Like any club heading into a second Premier League season, they wanted to further cement their place in the top flight, and so money was spent. First choice striker Glenn Murray was 34 years old, so Florin Andone and Jürgen Locadia were brought in to challenge him upfront. Right back Bruno was 37(!), so Bernardo arrived as his heir apparent. The team was heavily reliant on Gross for creativity, so Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Yves Bissouma arrived. Jahanbakhsh would also offer a goal threat from out wide, while Bissouma would improve the team’s ball progression from deeper areas while displacing the uninspiring Dale Stephens. It all seemed like it was well thought out, with clear long term thinking. Brighton could push on and perhaps may not even have to worry about relegation if these players hit the ground running.

Cut to twelve months later. Murray has turned 35 and played more football than Andone and Locadia put together. Bruno still put in 1200 minutes. Record signing Jahanbakhsh managed 12 starts all year, no goals or assists. Bissouma has done ok, but still played less than Stephens or Propper in midfield. The team finished four points worse off than the previous year, barely scraping survival. Hughton was sacked straight after the season ended. What happened?

Well, in a sense, nothing happened. In Brighton’s first Premier League season, they were a side with generally poor numbers save for a brief spell in the second half of the season where they looked solid. In 2018/19, largely the same thing happened again. The numbers were a shade worse, putting up an expected goal difference per game of -0.45 rather than -0.40, but nothing so dramatic as to suggest anything had seriously changed.


The biggest story seemed to be that Hughton had a clear idea of how he wanted to do things while the recruitment team had another. For Hughton, the number one priority seemed to be keeping a good defensive shape, and so that meant players who understood what he wanted and would follow the instructions, sticking with the guys he trusted. The recruitment team seemed to take the view that the club should be moving to a more expansive style to progress in the top flight, winning the ball higher up the pitch and playing some more aesthetically pleasing stuff. When you’re the manager, you get to win the battle. And so, in the way Hughton drew it up, Brighton were not an aggressive side in trying to win the ball back. Their passes per defensive action, the number of passes you allow the opposition to make before an attempt to regain possession, was the second largest of any team in the league. They were happy to sit back, get into a good shape, and soak up pressure.


When they had the ball, it was also a fairly traditional English style of play. Brighton relied on crosses to get the ball into the box more than any other side bar Huddersfield.

Whether this was the right or wrong approach by Hughton is up for debate. Perhaps Brighton would have been extremely porous without the centre backs receiving such a level of protection. Perhaps the players brought in last summer simply weren’t good enough. What can’t be argued, though, is that there was far too much disconnect between Hughton and the recruitment people. Thus it was imperative that chairman Tony Bloom and new technical director Dan Ashworth get everyone on the same page. It seems as though they took the view that Hughton was the problem rather than the players, and the former Republic of Ireland international was dismissed in favour of someone who could bring a more progressive style of football.

Enter Graham Potter.

Just about the only thing Hughton and Potter have in common as managers is their country of birth. The headlines around Potter are usually about some fairly outside the box approaches to man management, but the stuff he gets his teams to do on the pitch is usually interesting as well. Looking at his Swansea team of last season shows some interesting ideas. On one hand, they had the fourth highest average possession, at 57%. And yet they had the third highest passes per defensive action in the division. Swansea were extremely comfortable at retaining the ball when they had it, but were very relaxed about trying to win it back when they didn’t. In the modern game, possession football and high pressing tend to go hand in hand, but not with Potter.


Looking at their defensive activity map, this is the least active side I can remember seeing. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw. Potter has his players press relatively hard in both penalty areas, and almost nowhere else.


And any highlight reel shows you that they were capable of playing some pretty slick stuff out from the back when they had it. This approach isn’t too different to what Potter did at Östersunds, a team similar to Brighton in that they have a significant resource disadvantage to the bigger sides in the Allsvenskan, so it’s hard to imagine he won’t go for this style at the Amex.



Swansea were a better side than you probably think last season, with an xG difference per game of +0.25, the fifth best in the division. It’s not that hard to imagine an alternate reality where everything goes their way and they luck into a promotion. There was nothing to suggest Potter wasn’t the manager people thought he was after the miracles he was involved with at Östersunds.

There are reasons why it might be harder to translate his philosophy to the South coast of England than it was to South Wales. Though it had waned in recent years, possession football was at the core of Swansea’s identity dating back to their time moving up the divisions with Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. At Brighton, he’ll be implementing them largely from scratch. Many of the Premier League era signings are comfortable in a different style of football, yes, but arguably more of a pressing game. The core of Hughton’s first choice eleven are largely untested at this kind of football. As such, signings are key.

First up is Adam Webster at centre back, arriving from Bristol City for £20 million. Potter likes to switch between two and three centre back systems, and incumbents Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have strong qualities but are not renowned for their work with the ball at their feet, so it made sense to add another option here. By comparison, Webster has some rather extreme ideas about how to play football. Let’s take a look at some passing sonars. Here are Dunk and Duffy’s (Dunk is on the left, Duffy on the right).

Fairly standard stuff we’d expect from a traditional style centre back pairing. Both are more active on their own sides and neither is really getting involved higher up the pitch. Now here’s Webster’s from last season, admittedly a division down.


If you didn’t know, it would not be at all obvious that this is the sonar of a centre back. The guy has no fear in pushing up the pitch and getting involved in attacking play. And he doesn’t seem to be much of a calming influence at the back, either. All of his passing seems to be high risk, focused on starting attacks. There’s a fun Twitter video of Webster dribbling up the pitch with total belief in his own ability, uninterested in keeping it tight and safe. His passing accuracy of just 76% is a testament more than anything else to how much he takes risks. He’s going to change the way Brighton play. Whether he’s a good enough defender at Premier League level is something we’re going to find out.

Elsewhere, Leandro Trossard is another of the raft of players coming over to England from the Belgian top flight. He’s a dribbly winger who adds goals and assists and will hope to offer what Jahanbakhsh failed to deliver on last season, but it’s difficult to predict how someone will adjust to the Premier League straight from Belgium.

Neal Maupay felt like one of the most obvious Championship players ready to move up to the Premier League. Along with his goal threat, Maupay offers speed in behind and a good ability to press from the front, though who knows if Potter will use that tool. His numbers look good, though not dramatically better than Andone in La Liga, and that was obviously a harder league than the Championship. But he does seem to offer more all round play, and it should help fade Murray out of the side, regardless.


There were times when Aaron Mooy felt like the only person trying to actually play some football in those Huddersfield teams. As such, it’s hard to read too much into his performances in the last two seasons, but if this move comes off, Brighton should get a decent creative passer in midfield who also puts a shift in creatively. As a loan, it’s hard to criticise the move too much.

The shift in approach for Brighton’s business this summer compared to last is dramatic. Trossard is the only player to arrive from a club outside of England, whereas all but one of the club’s first team outfield signings last time came from other shores. One can’t ignore the influence of Ashworth here, arriving from his role as The FA’s director of elite development. If it were up to me, I would have probably looked more towards Spain, Italy, France and Germany, but none of these signings feel totally without logic, and it does seem like there’s a much clearer understanding between those bought and what the manager wants to do with the squad.

I have no personal ties to Brighton, the club or the city, but I find myself really wanting this to work. Potter might be the most interesting English manager to emerge in a long time, and the league as a whole would benefit from him successfully coaching his style of play here. As much as we didn’t see it last season, I do think the players signed in past windows are capable of producing much more, and that it’s time to move away from some of Hughton’s trusted lieutenants. The signings are solid, but it’s not a drastic overhaul, so it really feels like the season will live or die on Potter’s ability to get more out of those on the fringes of the squad last season. It might fail. They might get horribly exposed and finish the season in 20th. But I feel positive about this. Brighton could surprise and do better than most expect this year.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association