Why Atletico Madrid should go all out for the Champions League | The Boot Room

My piece for the Bootroom on Atletico’s Time Going to An End

Why Atletico Madrid should go all out for the Champions League | The Boot Room

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. The progress Los Rojiblancos have built up in the last few seasons has seemingly ground to a halt in 2016/17.

Diego Simeone’s introduction as manager in 2011 culminated in an impressive rise for Atletico Madrid. The team that has Barcelona and Real Madrid looking over their shoulders domestically, and European clubs hoping to avoid them at all costs, is no longer an immovable object. Some of that is down to the struggles of a change in style this season coupled with a lack of form of key players. The fact that La Liga has been extremely competitive this season is another reason.

Atletico are currently six points off the pace in La Liga and have played one game more than the league leaders, Real Madrid. They are in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey and the Round of 16 in the Champions League. This has become the norm for Atletico under Simeone, but the club might be on the tail end of a good run.

Rumours and speculation continue to surround Simeone and the club’s star man, Antoine Griezmann, as time goes on. The future doesn’t seem particularly set in stone, especially after ESPNFC reported on the shortening of Simeone’s contract and Griezmann’s comments about playing club football with his good friend Paul Pogba. The club, players and otherwise, would surely have been affected by those actions.

Simeone has forged this team into perennial contenders and this may just be an off year. If the club comes up empty for a second season running, after five seasons with a trophy, then the two big names may head to greener pastures. They may do so even in the event they do grab silverware and there would be no better trophy to leave with than the Champions League.

Atletico has little chance of reeling in Real Madrid at this stage unless there is a monumental collapse. The Copa del Rey will add some gloss but leave an even deeper sense of missed opportunities elsewhere. It’s in the Champions League that Simeone and his side have unfinished business.

While Atletico stumbled early on in La Liga they were perfect until it no longer mattered in the group stages. The home win over Bayern Munich was typical of this side and a reminder of the approach that resulted in two trips to the Champions League finals in the last three seasons. Teams will still fear facing Atletico during a two-legged tie and the road to Cardiff begins with familiar opponents in Bayer Leverkusen. Griezmann is rounding into form with three goals in three games to start the year after a barren spell in December.

There is no clear favourite in the competition currently, though Real Madrid will likely get the nod given their recent streak. It is still unknown how Zinedine Zidane will react to any period of real adversity, and that period will come at some point this season. The other big guns, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have faced their own struggles this season and Atletico will feel confident enough given their performances against that duo already this season. It’s hard not to see them stifling the likes of Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City as well.

If Simeone decides its best to hold off on plans to introduce a more fluid, forward-minded Atletico to grab the silverware that has eluded him he must do so quickly. Atletico can gain some steam with a decent schedule in the league coming up, along with Eibar in the Copa del Rey. Should they get knocked out of the Copa then the quest for Champions League glory increases tenfold. Jan Oblak, a key part of the club’s defensive fortitude, could return in time for the tie against Leverkusen.

Atletico will be heading to a new stadium next season, per ESPNFC, and there would be no better way to celebrate that than with a Champions League trophy in hand. They might be without their two biggest stars, Simeone and Griezmann, but arguably the biggest trophy available would convince them to stay. Third times the charm Atletico.

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Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first? | The Boot Room

Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first? | The Boot Room

My piece for The Boot Room on what the rest of the season holds after a fascinating first half of 2016/17

 

The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.

Teams in Spain, Germany, France and Italy will go off on their various holidays to refresh themselves while the Premier League hogs the festive spotlight. One can’t help but look out for the only source of quality football during that period with some sort of joy, amusement or, if you’re an Arsenal fan, apprehension. With a glut of games beginning on Boxing day through to the New Year, there’s a good chance we’ll see a surprise or two in the world’s most entertaining league.

Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.

There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth’s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.

While most of Europe’s leagues have a familiar look there’s no telling what will happen when the remaining leagues restart in January.

The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.

Another team that has eyebrows raised are proving the motto of their majority owner. Red Bull Leipzig might not have adhered to the traditional ownership expected in Germany but that is one reason they have been so successful. The newly promoted club sprouted wings to quickly rise up the divisions and sit second in the league right behind Bayern Munich. That, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s inconsistent domestic form, has the traditionalists in Germany breathing into a paper bag despite the challenge to Bayern’s hegemony. The other heavyweights in the league, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, are in eight and eleventh respectively while Wolfsburg languish in 13th place. As is the case in France, the defending champions have a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and their main challengers currently have no European commitments. Bayern’s talent and Ancelotti’s experience mean the Bavarians will still likely come out on top and they made sure to put their opponents in their place with a 3-0 win in final round of the year.
While things in Germany and France vary from what was expected there’s definitely a familiar look in Italy and Spain.

Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.

Cesare Prandelli took charge of Valencia at the end of September but has been unable to stop the club’s free-fall. Los Che stand 17th in the league after only one win in their last nine games. Relegation is a strong possibility. At the top half of the table eyes may roll seeing the familiar names of Real Madrid and Barcelona occupying the top two spots. It hasn’t been all easy for either side though, as Madrid have yet to look particularly dominant while Barcelona have suffered some shock results, notably a loss to Alaves at home. Atletico Madrid’s luck seems to have run out as they trail the leaders by 11 points in sixth place with Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad above them and Athletic Bilbao right behind.

Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.

There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.

Emery and Ancelotti were targeted by PSG and Bayern to improve their clubs chances in Europe but that wasn’t expected to come at the expense of domestic success. Questions may continue to be asked of Emery as he tries to steer an extremely ambitious club but Ancelotti has the experience to see his side over the line. Whether they meet expectations in Europe as well remains to be seen. In England, Jurgen Klopp has benefited from a full preseason with his side and no European distractions. There are still kinks to iron out but Liverpool look well-placed to challenge at the top. Ditto for Antonio Conte and league-leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are coming to terms with work that’s needed to fix their new teams but you would bet on both Manchester clubs to be in the running at the end. Real Madrid’s impressive streak certainly bodes well for Zinedine Zidane’s current and future prospects in the hottest seat of them all. Whether he can avoid the drop-off the team had the last time they went to the Club World Cup remains to be seen.

The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.

Soccer in 2017 to be dominated by virtual reality and the continued rise of analytics – ESPN FC

Soccer in 2017 to be dominated by virtual reality and the continued rise of analytics – ESPN FC

I haven’t done a post like this in a while hoping to get back to doing it regularly. If’ you’ve read Soccernomics you know about Simon Kuper. There’s definitely some interesting thoughts in there. I can see the rise in analytics continuing but I don’t know about managers becoming less vital or Western Europe losing it’s dominance. If the latter happens it won’t be for a while yet.

Is Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil more important to Arsenal? | The Boot Room

Is Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil more important to Arsenal? | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on which of Arsenal’s two superstars is more important. 

Arsenal’s two superstars have been the subject of much debate as the Gunners continue their fine start to the 2016/17 season.

Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have been key to Arsenal’s recent revival and much of their good form this season. The duo arrived in consecutive summers when their former employers sought high-quality, and highly expensive, additions from two of their rivals. Arsenal were the benefactors from those moves and two FA Cups have since arrived to end the club’s trophy drought. Success in other competitions has been non-existent but the strong start this season has increased expectations.

A major cause for that is the ever-improving on-field relationship between the two stars. Sanchez’s deployment as a full-time striker for the Gunners has led to a partnership between him and Ozil reminiscent of the days of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

Arsene Wenger has received credit in some corners for a long overdue move to place the Chilean livewire at the head of Arsenal’s attack. That decision has led to an increase in productivity and quality from both stars, as they play closer together in the central of the park with skills that complement each other well.

Both players are well on their way to their best tallies for the club, with Ozil’s nine goals and five assists bettered by Sanchez’s 13 goals and eight assists in all competitions. Both have produced match-winning performances and moments so far and its no wonder Arsenal fans are biting their nails over any bit of negative news about the duo.

The Telegraph reported at the beginning of the season that the Gunners were set to enter contract talks with both players. There has been little sign of progression where those talks are concerned and time is of essence with Sanchez and Ozil’s contracts due to expire in 2018. If either side fail to reach an agreement, or if Arsenal fail to land a major trophy once the season ends, then the possibility of one or both players leaving becomes very real.

If Arsenal were to lose either player it would come as a massive blow to the club’s reputation and chance for further progression.

Sanchez and Ozil are both in their prime and are key players for club and country. While the German is arguably the best player in his position and Sanchez is still coming to terms with the regularity of his new role, Arsenal need Sanchez more.

When comparing the two and what they bring to the club, Sanchez hits more marks. The Chilean’s form so far this season suggests that Arsenal’s wait for a long-term heir to Thierry Henry has ended. Sanchez provides much of the same power, pace and drive as the Frenchman and has showcased his clinical touch as well. One could argue that Ozil’s presence behind him is why he has been so effective in this role but there’s nothing to compare unlike the differences between Sanchez and Olivier Giroud up front. Arsenal have a few players who could play in Ozil’s position while arguably providing similar statistics but none can match Sanchez’s talents. Ozil is standing in the way of a few players, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere among them, who could eventually move on if they find a better opportunity elsewhere.

A look at the statistics favour the Chilean as well.

In their time at the club, considering only games in the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup, Sanchez has 53 goals and 30 assists in 109 games. Ozil has 29 goals and 47 goals in 137 games. Both players had their injury spells and runs of poor form but these statistics showcase two points. Sanchez is a much more productive player who has also spent the majority of his time behind the striker as Ozil has. The Chilean is also much more durable than his teammate, having played only 29 games less than his teammate, about half a season, despite joining a full year later. Ozil has shown signs of increased durability but Sanchez is already ahead in that game as shown by his quick return from injury during the November international break.

Neither player is bigger than the club, and if Wenger really wants to stick to his guns then both may leave. That would be a mistake.

In a perfect world both players would stay and do so in such a way that won’t upset the balance Wenger wants in his dressing room. Sanchez may not yet be considered a world-class striker like his teammate in attacking midfield but those strikers are hard to find, or are beyond Wenger’s taste as far as cost, while are many quality attacking midfielders around. His redeployment centrally has led to the increased dynamism in Arsenal’s attack. There certainly won’t be a replica of Ozil, but Arsenal can surely find a player of the requisite quality to replace the German.

If it comes down to a choice, then it is Sanchez who provides a much bigger need for the club in the short and long-term.

All statistics courtesy of ESPNFC

Brendan Rodgers, the beauty of 3-4-2-1 and its potency as a tactical weapon | Jonathan Wilson | Football | The Guardian

Brendan Rodgers, the beauty of 3-4-2-1 and its potency as a tactical weapon | Jonathan Wilson | Football | The Guardian

Some tactical talk from two of my favorite tactical writers. I don’t think 3 at the back will ever become a regular thing in the Premier League but it is interesting that mostly big teams have used it in recent times. That will likely be the tactical trend of the year, in the Premier League at least, especially if Chelsea continue to have such success.

Chelsea’s three-man defence the most intriguing tactical decision of the year

Barcelona Can End The Year On A High

The last international break of the season is complete and it comes at great time for Barcelona.

The fixture list at the beginning of the season saw the Blaugrana endure a few hiccups but the toughest tests were successfully negotiated. And by a few hiccups I mean a shock loss to newly promoted Alaves, at home, and another loss, somewhat less shocking this time, against bogey team Celta Vigo.

Regardless, Luis Enrique’s side sit second in the table only two points behind an even less impressive Real Madrid side. Barcelona have negotiated tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Celta, Valencia and Sevilla already this season. They dropped points in only one of those games. Their two toughest away games, against Madrid and Atletico, are all that remain but visits to Real Sociedad and Villarreal should be treated with caution. While injuries remain a concern the likes of Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba are on the verge of a return and there is now enough depth to cover for Andres Iniesta in midfield.

Barcelona’s first fixture upon their return sees them host Malaga and that game presents a great chance for Paco Alcacer to finally open his account with Luis Suarez out suspended. The remaining La Liga games in the year see the Blaugrana face Sociedad(away), Real Madrid(home) Osasuna(away) Espanyol(home). Barcelona should expect maximum points from all those encounters including the Madrid game. A home and away tie against Hercules in the Copa del Rey and Champions League matches against Celtic(away) and Borussia Mochengladbach(home) complete the calendar year.

Provided there are no further major injury worries or extreme drops in form among players then Barcelona will expect to be top of league entering 2017. There are still issues for the Enrique to fix defensively and a lack of control sometimes in games that can be attributed to no Xavi and an off-form Busquets. That’s why you have MSN though, and especially Messi on his current form.

Enrique will make sure his side is focused for every game until the end of the year and that should put Barcelona in a good position when 2017 begins.

What is the most important position on a football pitch? – ESPN FC

What is the most important position on a football pitch? – ESPN FC

There’s no right answer here. Well, maybe not. I can understand the author’s arguments at the end about goalkeepers but a very strong argument could be made for any one of those positions considered.  If I had to pick one it would be central midfield. They are at the heart of everything and, from my personal view, if you lose the midfield battle you generally lose the game.

Can regional leagues bring Champions League success to smaller clubs – ESPN FC

Can regional leagues bring Champions League success to smaller clubs – ESPN FC

There would be a lot of kinks to work out for this to come to fruition but you can see the benefits. Especially if there is a Super League in the future. It would be interesting to see all the proposed teams in regular competition with each other. I wouldn’t want to see their respective domestic leagues take a big hit as a result and I doubt those leagues would either. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to do this league without it being the primary source of qualification for European competition but again the domestic leagues can’t be fully left out.

It seems like this would only  really come about if the gap between the super clubs and every one else widens as expected given the recent changes in Champions League. We shall see

Is Jorge Sampaoli the Man to Replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona? | Bleacher Report

Is Jorge Sampaoli the Man to Replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona? | Bleacher Report

It’s probably a bit too early to be thinking about this but it’s definitely intriguing. You could see Enrique moving on or taking a break after this season and if he does there aren’t many options that come to mind right away.  Possibly Unai Emery or Paco Jemez. If Sampaoli continues to get Sevilla to perform as they have so far he wouldn’t be an easy target at all though.