Juve Legend Antonio Conte Could Be The Man That Ends Glory Run He Started

It always looked like it was going to be a huge summer in Italy when it was announced that both Inter Milan and Serie A champions Juventus were on the lookout for new head coaches.

In a bit of a Shakespearean twist Inter swooped for the man that started the glorious revival at Juve, Antonio Conte.

Conte is a legend in Turin. He won multiple Serie A titles there as a player as well as a Coppa Italia, a Uefa Cup and a Champions League.

Years later he would return to the club. At that time La Vecchia Signora were struggling to find any sort of form that would see them challenge for a Scudetto, never mind win one. They hadn’t won a major championship since the Calciopoli scandal and even though they were back in the top flight, they couldn’t regain the dominance that had their rivals quaking in their boots during the early 2000s.

In the 2010/11 season, Juve finished seventh and a full twenty-four points behind first placed AC Milan.

Antonio had impressed at Bari and it was decided that he had the leadership skills required to get Juventus challenging again.

In his first season in charge, Conte did more than just challenge. Juventus would go unbeaten for the full term and take the title away from Milan. That was in 2012 and The Old Lady haven’t relinquished their crown since, winning eight Serie A championships in a row. Conte would win the first three of them. It was he who would bring back the passion and that all important winning mentality. He had a team structure that worked and he brought with him a discipline that team could thrive under.

The job took a toll on Conte and his reign also took a toll on his players and it was for the best that he bowed out when he did. That Juve squad could have broken down had he remained in charge for another season. Max Allegri came in and kept the club progressing.

In the resulting years as Juventus would carry on winning in Italy, Antonio Conte would impress as Italy manager just losing out at the quarter-final stage to world champs Germany on penalties at Euro 2016.

He would then takeover at Chelsea and win the Premier League in his first season there, succeeding over top managers Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Conte would spend two seasons in London, winning the FA Cup in his second year.

Now the fifty year old boss is back in Italy and he’s at another sleeping giant. This time, Antonio wants to knock Juventus off the perch that he had put them on!

Not an easy task. Juventus have an array of world class stars to call upon. That includes the phenomenal Cristiano Ronaldo. They still have a group of experienced pros that helped start that golden era with Conte like Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.

In the summer Juve decided to hit the reshresh button just as they did when Conte left. This time Allegri departed and he was replaced with eccentric coach Maurizio Sarri.

Sarri is a different breed from Conte and Allegri. Conte is more reactionary and willing to change his tactics if it means his team have more chance of success. Maurizio has only won one serious trophy in his management career.

But that trophy came in the summer as he helped Chelsea to the Europa League. He looked absolutely delighted with his medal that night and that could have him craving for more nights like that.

It seemed an odd appointment. He doesn’t have that winning mentality and that tactical discipline that Conte and Allegri had at the Juventus Stadium. He also often seemed a bit of a Juve hater when he was at Napoli. Plus history tends to suggest that he needs a years gracing period before we see clubs truly benefiting from his coaching beliefs.

But the Juve hierarchy did hit that reset button, they clearly want to see a change on the park that sees a different type of football on display.

Antonio Conte has arrived at the San Siro and instantly started to make The Nerazzurri look better, dare I say they actually look like title challengers.

As always Conte wants to see a solid defensive spine to build upon his foundations.

He has a very capable keeper in Samir Handanovic. In front of him Conte once again prefers to play with a three and it’s a smart three too. The experienced Diego Godin has arrived from Atletico Madrid and he’s already a Conte foot-soldier. Martin Skriniar has the potential to be one of the world’s top centre-halves. Plus you’ve got Stefan de Vrij, the Dutch centre-back is great at passing the ball out of defence and that’s something Conte always seems to have from one of his defenders.

Interestingly though, while Inter have had a decent showing in defence this term there’s room for improvement and Sarri’s Juventus possess a better defensive record.

In attack, Conte’s Inter have actually been more impressive. Only Atalanta in Serie A have scored more than Inter Milan during this campaign.

Conte made Romelu Lukaku his number one target in the summer and Inter splashed out around £73m on the Belgian striker (Source Sky Sports).

Lukaku has already praised his relationship with his new boss:

‘My rapport with Conte is very strong, as he is a coach who really helps me,’

‘At the age of 26, I want a coach like this, who helps me every day and gives me motivation.’

Via Daily Mail

Lukaku has already made good on his return, scoring seven league goals in his first ten appearances. He has been partnered ably by Lautaro Martinez, the twenty-two year old has added five goals to his team’s cause.

While Inter on average take less shots per game than Juve, they have taken more chances!

The Nerazzurri currently lead the table by two points but Juventus have a game in hand.

Conte is without doubt a very talented and successful manager. He has the tools needed to win this championship, we all know that. If it were a Shakespearean play then it would make complete sense that Antonio would arrive back in Italy and destroy the dynasty that he helped to create.

But the successful monster he helped build may not be ready to relinquish it’s throne. Juve still look strong under Sarri and they haven’t needed the same time to adapt to his style, which doesn’t seem to be as set in stone as it once did!

Juventus drew first blood when they went to the San Siro earlier this month and beat Inter with a late Gonzalo Higuain goal (The Guardian).

This is shaping up to be an almighty title race in Serie A.

Can Antonio Conte awaken yet another sleeping giant to destroy his once beloved Juve? Or will Maurizio Sarri charm the Old Lady and finally succeed to a top flight championship?

I can’t wait to find out!

The Granit Xhaka Jeering Makes Me Feel Uneasy But I Understand it

I have never been a big fan of Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka. I don’t think he offers enough discipline when protecting his team’s backline and his mistakes always seem to cost his club.

That being said, I did think he looked to have improved last season especially when playing alongside Lucas Torreira.

Alas he has once again struggled this term and at times this season Arsenal have really disappointed in the Premier League.

Last night, The Gunners threw away a two goal lead before drawing with Crystal Palace at the Emirates (BBC Match Report).

A section of the Arsenal fanbase have lost confidence in Spanish boss Unai Emery and Xhaka has become a target of their frustration.

Now Emery hasn’t helped matters by making the Swiss midfielder one of his captains. The Gooner faithful are used to the likes of Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas wearing the armband with distinction and giving standout displays.

They’ve voiced their concerns about Granit for a while and to see him get the captain’s armband would have angered quite a few. To then see him underperforming just gives them more ammo to attack him with.

Emery should have been smarter and given the captaincy to a young warrior like Matteo Guendouzi or an established fans favourite like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Getting back to last night…

Arsenal throw away their lead and Unai decides to haul off Xhaka on the hour mark and bring on youngster Bukayo Saka. The substitution was met with Arsenal fans jeering their captain and celebrating the fact he was leaving the field of play.

On his part Xhaka responded by sarcastically geeing up the crowd and cupping his hand to his ear. He then stormed up the tunnel.

After the game Unai Emery stated he wasn’t impressed by Granit’s reaction:

“He was wrong, he was wrong,”

“But I think now [we] stay calm and also speak with him, speak inside around that. His reaction was wrong. We are here because we have supporters. In football we are the workers inside [the pitch] but we play for them. We need to have respect for them when they are applauding us and also when they are criticising us.”

Via The Guardian

I think Emery is right to have a wee pop at Xhaka but I also think the Spaniard has to have a go at the home support too. He needs to protect his player as much as possible and ask the fans to back the midfielder.

I get supporters pay a huge whack to get into football stadia these days but that doesn’t mean that they should be so vocal when criticising their own players during a game.

Granit Xhaka didn’t drop those two points, the Arsenal side including the management team threw away that two goal advantage. Wait till full-time and boo them and criticise individuals on social media, don’t abuse them just be critical of their performance.

There was still about thirty minutes to play at the Emirates last night and that reaction to the substitution would’ve just added a toxic pressure to those that remained on the pitch. We know this current crop at Arsenal are mentally fragile, booing the captain and his reaction just helped in creating even more insecurity.

I’ve said before that I’d play Torreira and Guendouzi in the holding midfield roles and have Dani Ceballos in there helping out too. Give Granit a rest and a chance to regain his composure.

Unai Emery has to take on the responsibility of protecting his players and sometimes that means taking them out of the team, for the good of the side as well as the player himself.

That being said, supporters need to understand that players are constantly out there giving their all. They don’t go out to deliberately make mistakes or mess things up.

Personally I get why the fans were/are so frustrated, they’ve seen it all before with Granit Xhaka but this time I think they went too far with the jeering.

Four Midfielders That Manchester United Should Be Scouting

Manchester United ended their four game winless Premier League streak with an away win at Norwich City this evening (BBC Match Report).

That victory has seen United move back into the top half of the league table but what it isn’t done is paper over the cracks within Man United’s squad.

They need more players in January and they need midfielders in particular. The club haven’t replaced Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, who both left the club in the last twelve months.

If they want to continue to climb the table they need a bigger, more competitive squad.

Here’s four midfielders that would improve Man Utd’s chances, if they were to arrive in January:

Wilfred Ndidi – Leicester City

If Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to strengthen his engine room and bring in a defensive midfielder that can protect his backline, then he should be looking at Wilfred Ndidi.

No midfielder has made more tackles in the Premier League than Wilfred this season and he also makes more interceptions too. The Nigerian has plenty of top flight experience in England.

United have a pretty fragile midfield and Nemanja Matic seems to be in decline. Inter Milan have been linked with the Serbian and if he were to leave, Ndidi would be a perfect replacement!

Kai Havertz – Bayer Leverkusen

Twenty year old Havertz is a free scoring midfielder at Bayer Leverkusen and that obviously draws comparisons to Leverkusen legend Michael Ballack.

Last season Kai scored seventeen times in the Bundesliga and he’s already grabbed two this term. United haven’t got the best scoring record this term, scoring thirteen times in ten league outings. They could do with more players chipping in and Havertz could be that guy.

The midfielder has great instincts when it comes to making runs into the box and he’s also good with both feet. He has the pace to beat defences, the control to hold onto the ball and the ability to remain cool under pressure when finishing off chances. The German international is also very tidy on the ball and has an 86% for his passing completion. A great young talent that The Sun have already linked with a move to Manchester United.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – Lazio

This complete midfielder has been linked with Man United for over a year now. The Lazio man is a player that can pop up with goals and create them too.

Sergej is very strong in the air and he’s a midfielder that can battle for the ball, he’s averaging 2.3 tackles per Serie A game so far this season (Stats – Whoscored). It’s believed that Lazio will want around €100m if they are to part company with Milinkovic-Savic.

Four Four Two have stated that Chelsea have sent scouts out to look at the talented twenty-four year old, so if United want him to boss their engine-room then they should up their pursuit in January!

Denis Zakaria – Borussia Monchengladbach

If Solskjaer is looking for a box-to-box midfielder to come in and compete or even dethrone Paul Pogba at the Theatre of Dreams then Zakaria could be the man.

With Pogba being continually linked with a move to Real Madrid, January could be the ideal time to bring in his replacement and allow that player to learn from Pogba until the summer.

Demand for Denis is reportedly high, with the Daily Mail suggesting that both United and Tottenham Hotspur chasing the players signature. Denis Zakaria looks to be the blueprint of a Premier League star. He’s tall, athletic, likes a tackle and he can keep the ball moving forward too.

Rangers Hitman Alfredo Morelos Is More Than Just A Streetfighter

I’m never one for comparisons or debates on who is better. We’ve seen it a lot recently in Scotland with supporters and pundits discussing who is the more accomplished striker: Alfredo Morelos or Odsonne Edouard?

Personally I like watching both strikers and I appreciate having the duo doing their stuff in The Scottish Premiership.

This week former Celtic forward Charlie Nicholas stated that Edouard lacked a street fighting quality Alfredo possessed:

“What Morelos has got is that bit of streetfighter in him that Edouard lacks in his game.”

Via Scottish Sun

It’s this sort of comment that disappoints me and I think it reflects badly on both players. I don’t doubt Edouard could mix it up if he really needed to.

I also think there’s a lot more to Morelos’ game than just that of a raw striker that bullies opponents.

Yes the Colombian doesn’t mind mixing it with centre-backs and he’ll put his boot in from time to time but he does more for his team than just batter opposing defenders.

The twenty-three year old is a prolific marksman. He has already banged in fifteen goals in twenty appearances this season. Some say he doesn’t score in the bigger games (He hasn’t scored against Celtic) but he’s grabbed ten Europa League strikes for Rangers in eleven outings this season. Very important ones too!

He also scores a variety of different types of goals. Alfredo doesn’t let misses get to him and he can remain cool under pressure.

He proved that last night with his superb goal against FC Porto. Left-back Borna Barisic did well going down the flank and picking out a great cross into the box. Morelos expertly peeled off his marker and then controlled the cross before driving the ball beyond the onrushing Porto goalkeeper. It really was a terrific finish. It all happened just when his team needed him to step up and find a goal!

The Colombian international has constantly worked on his game since arriving in Glasgow a few summers ago.

His build up play has vastly improved, he works hard and he’s a constant option for teammates. Alfredo also makes runs to wide positions freeing up space for fellow Gers attackers. He can also create for others, he’s made five assists for teammates this season.

The forward has also calmed down this year. There’s no doubt that his disciplinary record was woeful last term. But you can see that Morelos has more focus to his game and isn’t lashing out as much. He’s still fiery and he loves a moan but you don’t want to take that right out of his game as he feeds on that passion (Much like Barry Ferguson did at Ibrox before him)!

It’s important that he has a manager that believes in him and that will make him better. He has that in Steven Gerrard, who absolutely adores him:

“Tonight you saw his importance to me and Rangers. Tonight, he again showed the reason why we have to keep him here.

“For us to be successful moving forward, he’s a key component.”

Via The Daily Record

I actually think Alfredo Morelos is a lot smarter than people give him credit for. He makes great runs off the ball and those runs lead to him finding space at the right time to score goals. Last night instead of getting goaded into a battle with veteran defender Pepe, Morelos stuck closer to Spaniard Ivan Marcano and he gave the centre-half a torrid time.

Morelos isn’t the finished article. He can still make sloppy passes and he can work more on his first touch but as I’ve already said he’s a player that is willing to work hard to improve his game. It’s that intelligence and fortitude he has that shows us that we shouldn’t box him up as just a warrior or a streetfighter, he can be so much more than that and already is more than that at Rangers!

Frank Lampard Is Already Working Wonders At Chelsea

Frank Lampard was always going to get time to prove himself at Chelsea.

As a player he helped the club win major honours and he’s the club’s all-time leading goalscorer. Being a Blues legend was always going to be looked on favourably by the Stamford Bridge crowd.

He also walked into the Chelsea hot-seat knowing he couldn’t purchase any new players as the London giants were serving a transfer ban (Source BBC).

Some of the more pessimistic of the support may have raised their eyebrows as their young Chelsea team lost 4-0 to Manchester United in the opening weekend of the Premier League. But in the most part fans were still happy to wait and see what Lampard could do as Chelsea’s boss.

They haven’t had to wait long to see how things will work and work well under Frank.

We are now in late October and The Blues currently sit in fourth place in England’s top flight and they also lead their Champions League group. Last night they produced a great performance to beat Ajax in the Champions League (Guardian Match Report).

Now things weren’t exactly bad under former manager Maurizio Sarri. The Italian coach took Chelsea to the Europa League title and they finished third in the league.

The problem was that the Italian struggled to endear himself to the home support as his tactics were odd, yet he stuck to them throughout the season no matter if they were working or not. So when Serie A champions Juventus came along to take Sarri’s services no one at Chelsea was really there to fight off their advances.

Chelsea brought in an inexperienced boss in Frank Lampard but he’s a hungry and very ambitious young gaffer. He knows the club inside out and that got fans excited.

He has brought Jody Morris with him and that’s a another great move because the former Chelsea midfielder had worked a lot previously with the young talent in The Blues academy.

Chelsea have had a great youth set-up for a few years now but instead of progressing these young talents into their first team, their previous managers would use Roman Abramovich’s millions to buy already established stars.

As already stated Lampard hasn’t had that opportunity and he actually lost experienced players like David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Eden Hazard. Lampard has combated those departures by bringing youth through and it has worked wonders.

Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are all under twenty-three and have spent time away on loan deals. Lampard has given all three a chance this term and they’re now mainstays in his first eleven. They’ve done extremely well and have received call-ups into Gareth Southgate’s England squad.

Mount looks to be a player right out of Lampard’s book. Has an eye for goal, is energetic and makes very smart forward runs.

Striker Abraham has been given the Blues number nine jersey and he’s led the line excellently thus far. Tammy’s the Premier League’s joint top scorer with eight strikes to his name and he has scored his first European goal.

Tomori has come in and really helped the backline. The twenty-one year old centre-back has come in, been composed and consistent. He passes the ball out of defence and wins a good percentage of aerial battles.

It’s hard to look back and see any other Chelsea boss giving these kids a sustained chance in the first team.

These players have re-energised Stamford Bridge. They aren’t bit part players they are the stars that are difference makers in big games!

To show how much things have changed at Chelsea under Lampard, look at Callum Hudson-Odoi’s situation.

Hudson-Odoi could be the best youngster Chelsea have. Yet it seemed his future lay away from The Bridge. No matter how much Chelsea struggled last term Callum was never given a prolonged stay in the Chelsea starting line-up. Maurizio Sarri just wouldn’t use him more than as a bit part player.

That clearly frustrated that youngster and he requested to leave. German cracks Bayern Munich actively made him their number one target and really pushed for him (From Sky Sports). Chelsea’s hierarchy remained resilient and refused to sell.

Lampard then arrives and he gives youth their chance to shine. Hudson-Odoi comes back from a bad injury and immediately commits his future at Chelsea by signing a new contract (via The Telegraph). He did that because he saw a pathway into the Chelsea team, it wasn’t about money. He then gets fit and Frank puts him into the team. Hudson-Odoi repays the faith shown in him by producing three assists in his first three league games of the season!

That message is huge for the academy and they’ll now have young players ready to fight tooth and nail to prove they can star in the Chelsea first team.

It has also revitalised the whole first-team squad.

Senior players like Willian and N’Golo Kante have once again impressed. Club captain Cesar Azpilicueta had an iffy start to the current campaign but the experienced Spaniard is back to being his dependable best. Central midfielder Jorginho has been in sparkling form, the Italian is playing better under Lampard than he was last term under his mentor Sarri.

Other fringe players are understanding they need to make the most of any opportunities. New boy Christian Pulisic is still finding his feet in English football but he has shown glimpses of great touches and ability. In his last three substitute appearances, he’s created two assists and helped change games. The US international is now knocking on his bosses door asking for a starting place. Hitman Michy Batshuayi has scored twice in his last two games (only twenty-five minutes).

Chelsea have won their last six games in a row.

It’s not just that run that’s been impressive it’s how they’ve gone about their business too. They press opponents, are very energetic, like to attack teams and still remain disciplined (they’ve kept three clean sheets in that winning run). The fans are enjoying football again at Stamford Bridge.

As is Lampard who was very happy with the team’s performance in Amsterdam:

“I think we’re allowed to be excited tonight. That’s the blueprint. There are no excuses for us now. That’s the standard and we can’t drop it.”

Via BBC Sport

That feel good factor is all down to Frank Lampard and his determination to do things his way. He’s giving youngsters their chance and he’s also giving senior players the added responsibility to keep things going.

If Chelsea can remain patient then they could be in for a special era at the club. They might not win silverware this season and they might not finish within touching distance of Manchester City or Liverpool but they will grow and get stronger and could be challenging for major trophies within the next two years!

Erik Ten Hag Should Top Any Potential Arsenal Managerial Shortlist

After watching his side lose to Premier League newcomers Sheffield United, Arsenal boss Unai Emery must have known people would be discussing his future at The Emirates.

The Spaniard’s job was up for debate in September when they threw away a two goal lead to draw with bottom of the table side Watford. Yet The Gunners bounced back and had gotten themselves back into third spot and just a point off last season’s champs Manchester City as they headed into last weekend’s fixtures.

But alas inconsistency has been Arsenal’s unwanted bedfellow in recent years and it reared it’s ugly head again at Bramall Lane last night as a Lys Mousset goal was enough to give the home side the victory (BBC Match Report).

The latest loss has left Arsenal fans wondering if Emery is the right man to lead their club. The Scottish Sun are reporting that former Gooner and current City assistant Mikel Arteta is the bookies favourite to replace Unai, if the North London giants decided to ditch the former PSG and Sevilla gaffer.

Patrick Veira, Brendan Rodgers, Nuno Espirito Santo and Max Allegri have also been mentioned as possible candidates if they Gunners’ hot-seat were to become vacant!

Personally, I still believe Emery deserves to get the rest of this season before a judgement is made regarding his future but if he were to be sacked before then I’d earmark current Ajax boss Erik ten Hag as age ideal man to come in and change things at The Emirates.

The forty-nine year old coach has been sensational since arriving in Amsterdam in the December of 2017. He currently boasts a winning percentage of 74.73% in ninety-one games.

Last season he guided his Ajax side to the Eredivisie title and a KNVB Cup.

The Dutch boss also watched on as his young squad shone in the Champions League. They were unbeaten during the group stage, drawing twice with Bayern Munich. Things got even better in the knock-out stages as they saw off holders Real Madrid by beating the La Liga giants 4-1 at the Bernabeu. The de Godenzonen would then beat Juventus complete with Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-finals before eventually losing to Tottenham Hotspur on away goals in the semi-final stage.

Ten Hag has recently stated that his side are hungry to grow and get even better:

“I think, two things, first is that last season was last season. We have to forget that because we live in the future, we live for now and we have to perform and this team is a different team.”

“We are building a new team and developing a new team. Now we have to step up and become better. Sometimes you fall down but you also have to step up again and be better, develop. That’s only possible when you play out of your philosophy. Attitude to be better every day.”

Via The Mirror

Ajax and Ten Hag won a lot of admirers because of their consistently good and entertaining football.

Youngsters like Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong became household names and won huge moves on the back of Erik giving them time to shine in the first team.

Other talented stars like David Neres and Hakim Ziyech have remained in Amsterdam and are still shining brightly in Red and White. Neres was part of the Brazil squad that secured the Copa America title in the summer.

As well as having talented youngsters to get the best from, Ten Hag also has a core of experienced players to help ground the hunger talent. Dusan Tadic was superb last season as was Daley Blind, both were mid-card performers in the Premier League but showed their worth at Ajax last term. 

They may have lost De Jong and De Ligt in the summer but Ajax haven’t been phased with their absence. They are leading The Netherlands top flight and have recorded comprehensive victories over Valencia and Lille in UEFA’s elite Champions League competition.

In Emery, Arsenal may have played it a bit safe and gone for a man that’s kind of cut from the same cloth as former boss Arsene Wenger. They look too hesitant at times away from home and they struggle to overcome adversity when it arrives. I think most areas of the pitch have improved but they still look a tad fragile at the back.

I think it’s that lack of stepping away from Wenger’s tentative side that concerns Arsenal fans. They want to see their side remain strong at the back and really attack teams. They don’t get that enough under Emery,

Erik ten Hag seems to get the best out of his young squad. They are tough to beat and they have a keen eye for goals. Arsenal have a lot of good young talent and that squad could be ready made for the Dutchman, as long as they improve the backline. Ten Hag also likes to play an offensive 4-3-3 formation with an attacking central midfielder dictating things. His fullbacks provide width and that would suit the likes of Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin. The midfield don’t drop too deep and that could comfort Gooner supporters. That can also see the wide-men move in more centrally and that could get more from Nicholas Pepe and Pierre Emerick-Aubamyang

If Arsenal do change their manager, then they need to make a bold statement and bring in someone that can turn things around and I believe that man should be Erik ten Hag.

Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk Deserves The Ballon d’Or

I don’t like calling a 30-man list a shortlist but alas I don’t run the Ballon d’Or award.

Yesterday we got France Football magazine’s 30-man ‘shortlist’ of the game’s top players in the last year (You can view the list on BBC Sport).

The usual names of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are once again topping the list. We’ve also got some top young stars in Frankie De Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Kyllian Mbappe in there.

After their success in winning the 2019 Champions League, Liverpool have seven players in the running and it’s one of those Reds stars that deserves the gong in my opinion.

I’m pulling for Virgil van Dijk to get the top individual player award.

People will always highlight the attacking superstars that score the goals. I get why Ronaldo and Messi have dominated the award scene for the last decade. They’ve been superb and super consistent. They scored countless goals and won their clubs various major trophies. They were head and shoulders above everyone else.

They still enjoyed great seasons last term, Messi grabbed a whopping 51 goals in 50 games for Barcelona and Cristiano scored twenty-eight times in his debut year at Juventus.

Yet I still think Van Dijk was a superior performer in the last eighteen months.

Since arriving at Anfield in the winter of 2017, he’s been marvellous at the back and he is the defensive foundation that has seen The Reds reach two Champions League finals (winning one) and challenge Manchester City for the Premier League crown!

In the big games, Van Dijk steps forward and meets every challenge. He has an abundance of pace, makes great challenges, wins the ball in the air and has the defensive brain to lead the backline. Liverpool’s defence is now one of the best in the world. Even Dejan Lovren looks good beside Virgil!

No defender has won the Ballon d’Or since 2006, when Italian legend Fabio Cannavaro took the title. The only other defenders to win the illustrious award in it’s sixty-three year history were Germans Franz Beckenbauer (twice) and Mattias Sammer.

While I’m all for applauding great striking feats and wonderful goalscorers, I also think we need to appreciate that there’s an art to defending and at times a defender can come along and be a game changer like any star striker!

Virgil van Dijk is an artist and his ability in that last eighteen months has been phenomenal.

In August, the Dutchman won UEFA’s men’s player of the year award and his boss Jurgen Klopp then stated:

“It’s big. It’s really rare for a defender. It’s such important information for football, such an important sign for football. Yes, we all love goals – we want to score them and see them – but more and more and more people get excited about defending.” 

“Virg is an exceptional defender, in the moment 100 per cent the best defender in the world, so he deserves that prize absolutely.”

Via The Standard

Props to Chris Sutton who called Van Dijk the best in the world in September 2018 and was laughed at by fellow pundits Michael Owen and Robbie Savage.

Owen stated a centre-half can’t be classed as the best player in the world. I don’t really get that logic. People will state you need to score goals to win games but you also need to not concede them at the other end either.

I think Van Dijk has been the world’s standout player in the last year and probably the most consistent, especially in the games that matter the most. He’s a difference maker and unlike Messi and Ronaldo, Virgil won the Champions League in 2019.

Let me know in the comments section who you think deserves the Ballon d’Or award this year!

Picture Blog: Elland Road – Leeds United

This weekend I found myself in Yorkshire. I love Leeds as a city but I had never made the jaunt to Elland Road (Home of Leeds United) before this visit and it was great to get there on Sunday.

This Could Be The Right Time For Naby Keita To Shine At Liverpool

Naby Keita’s Liverpool career hasn’t evolved as many had expected when he finally completed his £52.75m move from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2018.

The Guinean international was seen as being a box-to-box midfielder that would give The Reds more drive from the middle of the park.

Yet it was very much a stop and start maiden campaign for Naby at Anfield. While he did figure in thirty-three games for Liverpool and helped them to a Champions League title and a runners-up finish in the Premier League, he only made twenty starts in those two huge competitions. He also only scored three goals and created just one assist!

That’s not what was expected from a player who seemed to dictate things in the Bundesliga.

By the end of his debut campaign, Keita was struggling to break into Jurgen Klopp’s starting eleven. The likes of James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum were all ahead of Naby in the midfield pecking order.

Many regular readers of this blog will know that I always call for patience when it comes to new signings. I often don’t go out and overly judge a player during their first year at a club, especially if they’re changing leagues and countries.

At times last year the Guinean definitely seemed to struggle to get to grips with the pace that comes with the English game. He was also walking into a team that knew their system inside out and that can be daunting to a newcomer as there’s great pressure to walk in and be right up to speed straight away. If that wasn’t enough pressure the player was also handed the number eight shirt, you know the one that club legend Steven Gerrard had made his own for so many years!

Keita has also had injury issues to deal with. Muscular problems, knocks and a groin injury hampered his campaign last season. Then just as this term was kicking off, he would be out again with another muscle injury (Via Liverpoolfc.com). That kept him out until late September.

Naby Keita has recently returned to the fold for this season. He played a minute against Salzburg in the Champions Legaue and an hour against MK Dons in the League Cup.

The midfielder stepped up his return by getting eight minutes under his belt against Manchester United yesterday.

It was a tight 1-1 game (BBC Match Report) and one that Liverpool struggled to get much out of. But Keita did come on and help swing things back in his side’s favour. He made 26 passes at Old Trafford and recorded an 84.6% success rate, not bad at all for a player coming on cold (Stats – Whoscored).

Liverpool’s midfield were a bit sloppy and not as urgent as they needed to be. Keita along with fellow substitutes Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana helped give the team a boost when they really needed it. Naby found Andy Robertson on the left and the Scottish full-back then delivered a great ball into the box and Lallana tapped home the equaliser. The subs moved to be a turning point for The Reds.

Jurgen Klopp said after the game that the three subs changed the game:

“Then Naby was on, helped as well, fresh legs, being there, passing safe and then not always doing the obvious things, moving higher and passing the ball and that’s how the goal happened. We can pass the ball to Robbo and he has to run sideways and not make the ball or you can pass it exactly in that way and he can make the cross that we can score the goal. We were better with the three boys coming on, that helped a lot and I’m happy about that of course, especially about the fact that Adam scored this goal, a very important one.”

Source LiverpoolFC.com

All great managers know that rotation could be key to a trophy laden season. Klopp knows that too. It’s important to see just when a regular starter might be on the verge of declining and need a rest. For me, that could be the case with Henderson and Wijnaldum. If that’s true, then Naby Keita has to be ready to come in and give the team the energy needed to win midfield battles.

Liverpool have been great this season but at times, like yesterday, they will find teams harder to break down and in those situations Keita could flourish. He seems comfortable playing slightly further forward and he’ll make passes that continue to probe the opposition.

Now that Naby Keita is more used to his surroundings he can maybe become the player that Liverpool were expecting him to be. It really could be a turning point for the African and it might come at a time when The Reds really need a wee bit more inspiration from their engine room!

Manchester United Would Be Smart If They Brought In Mario Mandžukić

Manchester United let Romelu Lukaku leave for Inter Milan in the summer and inexplicably The Red Devils didn’t replace the proven goalscorer.

That has left United lacking in their attacking department. They’ve not been helped by Anthony Martial missing a chunk of this term due to an injury and Marcus Rashford suffering from a distinct lack of form in front of goal.

It was reported in the summer that Man United were in deep discussions with Serie A champions Juventus about bringing in Croatian international hitman Mario Mandžukić. Ultimately though a deal couldn’t be done.

Talksport claim that United could now get their man in the January transfer window.

It would be a move that would make a lot of sense for the Premier League giants.

As I’ve already stated, United need more numbers in terms of strikers within their squad. If you include teenager Mason Greenwood, then they’ve only got three recognised strikers!

Then there’s the fact that the three that they do have are all very young. Martial is the oldest at just twenty-three. None of those current United forwards have scored more than eleven goals in one league campaign!

At thirty-three years of age, Mandžukić would certainly give United an experienced man that can lead the line. The Croat has reached a World Cup final with his international team and he’s shone for big European teams like Juve, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.

He’s also a type of player that would give Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad a different dynamic. United are currently sitting in twelfth spot in England’s top flight and when things don’t work, Solskjaer has no Plan B in attack.

Mario would give the Old Trafford side a warrior up-front!

He’s a battler and a nuisance to opposition defences. He wins the ball in the air and links up well with those playing in and around him. He can batter defences, free up space and all that will probably generate opportunities to the likes of Martial and Rashford.

Before last summer’s World Cup final, Luka Modric heaped praise on his towering teammate:

“He is very important for us because of his character and desire to fight,”

“He motivates all his teammates with his attitude. We are happy he scored the goal that took us through to the final.”

Via Football-Italia

In his career his all-,round play has let the likes of Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben, Paolo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo flourish alongside him. His presence could give a similar boost to United’s youngsters.

While he’s not an overly prolific striker, Mandžukić does still regularly score double figures for the season. He’s a consistent performer and that’s really what Man United need at the moment.

There’s no real point paying over the odds in January and lets face it most teams won’t sell their best players mid-season. Mario Mandžukić would be a short-term, cheap fix that could really boost Manchester United’s attacking options and get more from their fragile young forwards.

It’s a deal that really would make a lot of sense if they can finally get him to Old Trafford!