Jurriën Timber 2021/22 – Scout Report

Jurriën Timber 2021/22 – Scout Report

The famous and well-renowned Ajax academy has been home to some of the world’s greatest footballing talents throughout the years and still stands as an example of a club possessing a classy and productive working model in player development.

The Dutch giants are not only known for developing their academy products and providing them with the opportunity in the first team but they are also renowned for creating a successful business model when allowing those talents to depart and also bringing in new players from the academy.

A player well versed and moulded in the Ajax strategy, currently taken the Dutch Eredivisie by storm is 20-year-old £27m-rated centre back, Jurrien Timber.

The wonderkid has rightfully earned Erik ten Hag’s trust and confidence with his stunning performances and maturity as well as his composure, vision and defensive understanding that fits perfectly with Ajax’s strategy.

His impressive displays has granted him a regular berth in Ajax’s starting XI which he has grabbed the opportunity with open arms, becoming one of the finest and most trustworthy cogs in Ten Hag’s well-oiled machine.

While they have always been successful in attack, this term their defensive performance has been exceptional. At the time of writing, Ajax have only conceded 13 goals goals in 27 games, a remarkable record underlying the importance and sheer resilience of their defensive players.

Reports are already emerging regarding much interest in his services with Chelsea and Tottenham previously rumoured to be keen on signing him.

With the way Timber has been developing at club and international level, there’s no reason why he can’t make the steady transition to Premier League-level football in the near future.

Who is Jurrien Timber?

Born in Utrecht, Netherlands. Timber and his twin brother Quinten Timber, who is also a footballer plying his trade at FC Utrecht, are of Aruban and Curaçaoan descent. Their mother Marilyn is from Aruba and their father is from Curaçao, both part of the ABC Islands in the Dutch Caribbean.

After impressing scouts for his hometown club, the 20-year-old was snapped up Feyenoord. However, Ajax’s famed history of developing and nurturing young talent was too great for him to ignore, so he joined the club at the age of 13 for the formative years of his footballing education.

Timber has only just recently emerged as the hot prospect everyone is raving about.

After making his debut in the last league game before lockdown, he returned from the enforced break with an even more important role in the first-team squad. The following summer, he was part of the Dutch team at the delayed EURO 2020.

Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, was impressed with what the youngster showed on his debut. “He has proven himself, and I will take that into the new season,” Ten Hag had said after the season abandonment was confirmed. 

The Ajax boss was true to his word and the 2020-21 campaign proved a true breakout year for Jurrien Timber. He took every chance that came his way enroute to making 20 appearances in Eredivisie, with 16 coming from the start. He added another five appearances in the Europa League as he gained some continental experience, never once looking out of his depth, a testament to his strength of character.  

On the international scene, he has appeared for Netherlands age group teams, from U15s to U21s. Timber has even made his international debut for Netherlands.

The 5 foot 10 defender has won six caps for his country at the age of just 20. Therefore, he is well on his way to matching his esteemed colleagues at the international level, in de Ligt and Van Dijk.

What’s so special about Timber?

Ajax are currently the best performing team in Eredivisie with just 13 goals conceded all campaign so far, displaying high awareness, composure and consistency. The team’s well-measured actions and anticipation skills result in a high success rate in almost every aspect. 

Ten Hag’s men are proficient in winning their challenges clearly, despite actually having the highest challenge intensity (duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession) in the league.

Timber has contributed immeasurably to Ajax’s defensive success this season, where he has been rewarded with an impressive SofaScore rating of 7.40 from his performances in the Eredivisie.

Despite the lack of experience, the youngster possesses impressive composure in defence which puts him ahead pf his peers despite his lack of physicality and height. His technique and confidence on the ball allow him to dive into challenges and escape pressure through dribbling which helps the team in retaining possession.

His composure results in winning over 70% of his defensive duels this season, which puts him considerably alongside more experienced stalwarts in Ten Hag’s side such as Lisandro Martinez.

What makes him successful defensively, though, is his positional sense. Timber’s ability to read the game helps him in anticipating the oppositions’ movement and move into spaces so he can pressurise his opponents and block their attacking efforts.

The Dutch wonderkid has won 69% of his ground duels so far this campaign, as well as averaging 2.1 tackles per game and 1.5 interceptions highlighting his impressive defensive resilience and ability when halting his opponent’s progress with the ball.

The key qualities that have led to his valuable contribution are his concentration and work ethic. The 20-year-old is constantly aware of his surroundings and it is difficult to catch him out of position and unprepared.

Timber’s defensive work is often forthright and aggressive in his dueling. His positioning during final third attacks often puts him in good stead to press onto forwards immediately. When he has free reign to attack opposition ball-holders, he’s capable of timing his challenges from behind and finding the right space to reach through to nick the ball well.

As you watch him closely, you’ll find that this element of his defensive dueling is his calling card when battling against opposition attackers.

However, it’s all a different matter when Timber is tasked with marking someone.

When pressing from behind against a direct opponent, Timber is at fault for not establishing the sort of technique that can back up his constant aggression. He pushes into his opponent square-on, and will continue to jab towards the ball but without much care or effectiveness, so sharp turns and layoffs past him can easily catch him flat-footed.

It’s area of his game he will need to work on to become much more efficient and well-rounded on a consistent level like his compatriots de Ligt or Virgil van Dijk.

What favours him in many defensive situations though, is his ground coverage and physicality. At below 6ft and not being particularly stocky, Timber doesn’t appear to be much of a force, but it’s something he uses well to suffocate duels he’s engaged in. His height is a reason why he isn’t first to contest every aerial ball, but yet he’s managed to win 64% of his aerial duels. He’s proved himself to be capable of winning duels in plenty of mismatches thanks to his body-to-body strength on the ground.

Going forward, Ajax prefer to build up from the back, starting from circulating the ball laterally between Timber and Martínez. The team usually move into a more advanced position with the centre-backs right behind the central line and the full-backs often going past it to overload the opposition half and provide width. The team’s main strategy is to use high pass frequency and a lot of movement to bypass the opposition pressing structures and advance the ball to the final third.

Ten Hag’s men average over 600 passes per game and possess the highest pass completion rate in the whole division, underlying the players’ strong positional sense and connection.

Timber’s reliability and partnership with Martínez are key in possession. Due to his confidence on the ball and work under pressure, he is used for retaining possession and building up from the back by combining with his CB partner and the fullbacks too. 

One of the reasons for Ajax’s success in building up from the back is that both of their centre-backs are ball-playing defenders. Timber is actually one of the highest in the division in terms of pass frequency with his 82 passes per game on average which support the team’s efforts to deliver the ball to the final third.

As per FBRef, Timber ranks within the top 10 percentile amongst the defenders in Europe’s top five leagues for passing metrics over the past 365 days. He ranks in the 98th percentile for passes attempted per 90 minutes (82.34), the 99th percentile for pass completion percentage (93.9%), in the 97th percentile for progressive passes (5.39) and the 97th for progressive carries per90 (6.46) meaning he is indeed one of the best around in his build-up play and progressing the ball in the attacking areas for his team.

His positional sense and the team’s advanced position allow him to have a great contribution to their attack. He supplies the advanced areas with 15.51 passes per 90 which is the second-best record in the league and underlines his impact when progressing the play.

That, combined with his lack of height for a CB, are the reasons why Ten Hag has relied on him as a right-back on a few occasions. He can easily hold onto the ball and deliver it to the advanced areas and has a passing range that allows him to make combinations with his teammates and exploit spaces.

However, the only reason for him not being able to fully succeed in this position is his hesitancy to cross the ball. Due to his inexperience in this position, he has failed to be beneficial for the team in terms of supplying the box with balls and creating goalscoring opportunities.

Apart from that, he remains outstanding in his passing and ball retention as shown in the stats in percentile stats above.

Timber is incredibly patient and will use every second he’s given to manipulate the opposition in order to create alleyways elsewhere. He’ll slowly adjust his position with the ball so that he can create space for teammates to rotate into untracked and unseen. This all facilitates the freeing up of Ajax’s Argentine decisive ball-sprayer, Lisandro Martínez, who can look to maximise the directness and tempo of play.

Despite how smartly he shortens and slows his passes as part of the team’s overall ploy, the 20-year-old has only shown glimpses of potential in this respect. He can weight a long ball perfectly well and is very quick to play through the lines when appropriate, but his adjustments when undecided can kill his ability to play vertically.

It’s why he’s best positioned further towards the right as shown in the heatmap below, as the angles remain open for him even when doing this.

It won’t be a surprise if the Ten Hag temporarily employs him in defensive midfield, trying to use his passing range to orchestrate play, as he has previously said that a central midfield position might be suitable for Timber in the near future.

Indeed, within the Ajax system and footballing approach, their young products are expected to perform numerous roles within their designated positions, and Timber is yet another one of those hugely versatile products within their prestigious roster.

What does the future hold for Jurriën Timber?

The somewhat caged talents of Timber have shed a light on a player with great promise in possession of the ball. Combined with how seamlessly he applies himself to different roles within such concentrated setups, Timber should, right now, be a very desirable offensive prospect for many of those slightly lesser teams in the top leagues that are looking to be assertive, progressive and dominant with the ball.

Even a step up to clubs such as Champions League challengers in Serie A and La Liga could be the perfect platform for him to ramp up his rapid development but also provide him with the added platform to enhance his profile and impress.

Would a move to reportedly interested clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea be the right moves for him at this stage of his career? The former, much more plausible, but for a club like Chelsea who are faced with much pressure to win titles may not allow Timber the room to make mistakes and grow.

It’s a factor he will need to think thoroughly on if he is to embark on fulfilling the supreme and huge potential we know he possesses in abundance.

Noa Lang 2021/22 – Scout Report

Noa Lang 2021/22 – Scout Report

For a number of years now, Netherlands has been the go-to hotspot for birthing some of the world’s most exciting and decorated young footballing talents, especially from the academy of Ajax. The latest in such a prestigious and rich list of household names is Club Brugge forward, and Ajax academy graduate Noa Lang.

The 22-year-old star, already on the watchlist of some of Europe’s most elite clubs including Liverpool, Arsenal, AC Milan and Leicester City is making tremendous waves in Belgium, regularly touted as the most hottest prospect in the Belgian top flight.

Lang was heavily linked to Leeds United in the summer of 2021, but the big move to England did not materialize. Still only 22, there is plenty of time for a Premier League move in the future; for now, first team football in Belgium (as well as European experience) will continue to aid in his development. 

The Ajax academy product has enjoyed a stunning two seasons at Club Brugge, helping them to the Belgian first division title in the 2020/21 campaign last year, as well as a two year run in the UEFA Champions League. Lang hit an incredible 16 goals and seven assists last year, and he’s followed that up this year with an impressive six goals and 11 assists in 27 league appearances.

He also made his national team debut in October 2021, putting him firmly in contention for an appearance at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

There are few things as synonymous in football as the Netherlands and exciting, creative wide players, and 21-year-old Noa Lang only enhances strengthens that relationship.

Who is Noa Lang?

Born in Capelle aan den IJssell, a town in the western Netherlands, Lang is of Surinamese descent through his biological father. He had initially burst on to the scene with Ajax, scoring a hat-trick on his first Eredivisie start against FC Twente, where he subsequently spent a short time on-loan with in the 2019/20 campaign.

Whilst he only made 14 first-team appearances for the senior side, they were a fitting reward for a strong, productive youth career with Jong Ajax. 

He made his debut for the reserve side as a 17-year-old back in 2017, contributed to 0.6 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes across 47 appearances in the Dutch second division. He also scored key UEFA Youth League goals against Bayern München and Real Madrid for the club’s stacked under-19 side that included the likes of Gravenberch, Botman and Brobbey.

It was at the beginning of the 2020/21 campaign that Lang made the transition south to Belgium, and has since taken the league by storm. 16 goals plus seven assists in 29 appearances is an exceptional return, recording an outstanding 0.66 goals per 90 minutes, and 0.29 assists, indicative of his supreme talents and creative and direct threat.

On 20 May 2021, Lang scored as Brugge drew 3–3 with rivals Anderlecht to win the Belgian First Division A title for the fourth time in six years and 17th time overall.

This campaign may not have breaded the same goalscoring return, with just the seven to his name so far, but an improvement on his abilities to turn provider for his teammates, registering 12 assists. the fourth most in the Belgian First Division at the time of writing.

Lang has also significantly strengthened his development, gaining valuable UEFA Champions League experience for Club Brugge following a few cameos for Ajax. He scored his fist European goal against Zenit St. Petersburg – though Brugge were unable to qualify from the group stage. The same is said for this campaign, but Lang put in a tremendous showing against Paris Saint-Germain, in the 1-1 draw back in September. In the return fixture in Paris, he turned provider for Mats Rits with a trademark run in a 4-1 defeat.

Lang was called up by Louis Van Gaal and made his international bow for the Netherlands in October, in a World Cup Qualifier against Latvia, the first of many potential caps for his country.

How good is Noa Lang? What’s his style of play?

This lad is incredibly gifted, so much so he is already drawing favourable comparisons to Paris Saint-Germain’s attacking superstar Neymar Jr. A right-footed wide forward most comfortable coming inside off the left-flank, though he possesses the versatility and nous to play in any position across the attack.

Lang is a true source and hub of creativity and decisive edge in the final third, where his sumptuous and entertaining technical skill, bravery and audaciousness on the ball are the striking characteristics of his education at Ajax’s exceptional De Toekomst academy.

It is his immense creativity and knack for the spectacular which is his most obvious trait. As seen in the clip above, Lang has no qualms in attempting to perform the extraordinary, whether its through an ambitious cross, pass or a mazy dribble.

When the ball is at his feet, he is incredibly hard to dispossess. Lang can effortlessly switch from a languid presence roaming between the lines to a more dynamic and direct style with rapid changes of tempo. It is his appreciation of time and space, knowing when to keep the ball, when to delay a pass or a cross, when to speed up the play, that gives such variation but also makes him so unpredictable when facing his markers.

Once he has the ball on the left flank, you simply do not know what he’s going to do next, just be confident in the fact that he is capable of creating something incredibly special.

Lang is at his flawless best when he comes inside off the wing into the half-spaces, as shown in his heatmap above. It’s in those areas where his ability to create passing lanes allows a high involvement in Club Brugge’s play. Here his wonderful imagination and creativity shines through, constantly looking to break the last line of defence in a variety of ways. He can slide runners in using disguised reverse passes through the eye of the needle, often with the perfect weight.

Lang isn’t a soloist like Neymar Jr, but he is a player who can participate in combination play with teammates as well as do his utmost to create chances for his fellow attackers – his signature style is a quick pass and move around the 18-yard-box to change the tempo of play and create uncertainty and imbalances in opposition defences. He is a nightmare when in the mood. He is also incredibly adept at performing improvised chips, dinks, scoops and round-the-corner flicks to breach defences who operate in a deep block.

Just know, when Noa Lang is around Club Brugge always have a chance of scoring goals. He averages 1.9 dribbles per game in the Belgian First Division, and also averaged an astonishing 3.2 dribbles in the UEFA Champions League. He is not one to shy away from the big stages. To contextualise his creative influence within the final third, he is in the higher percentile of expected assists and successful passes into the penalty area, and has created 15 big chances so far this campaign, with an average key passing tally of 1.9 per game.

(Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

He possesses the quality end product to back up his creative, risk-taking and free-reign style of football which is so entertaining to watch.

As put into numbers previously, he is so dangerous when dribbling and carrying the ball too, both in tight spaces to retain and outmaneuver his opponents as well as in open spaces driving directly towards goal. Over the past year, he is averaging 9.91 progressive carries, pitting him in the top 5% of players in Europe’s top five leagues, he is also amongst the top 3% of players for progressive passes (6.15).

Lang’s best asset is his ability to shift his balance and accelerate quickly into space, enabling him to create and maintain separation from defenders in an instant. He also holds a range of cuts, step overs, chops and pirouettes to fool his markers and glide past them with ease. He does tend to sacrifice possession frequently with the levels of risk he operates in, but the value he adds when he does break through and form chances for himself and his teammates means the reward is currently outweighing that risk by some distance.

It is not just his creativity and influence in the final third that is reaping rewards, but the goalscoring threat that supplements it also. The 22-year-old is not afraid to take shots on goal, possessing an incredibly high shot volume, taking over 2 shots per 90 this season, at a rate that many pure strikers would struggle to hit from time to time. He can generate shots for himself through dribbling and quick shifts with the ball to work an angle, or by attempting intelligent forward runs beyond the ball and into the penalty area to receive passes and get shots off.

He generally finishes with powerful driven shots, and in shooting situations he possesses a calm and collected manner that lets him finish ruthlessly and emphatically, a trait that so few players his age on the continent possess. The past two campaigns have strongly shown the high levels of influence Noa Lang holds for his club, but future employers must beware, Lang does have a hot-streak about him as shown through his 3 red cards over the past year or so already.

He must temper his fiery nature at times or else defenders will use it as a stick to beat him with, when trying to stifle his influence on games. Here’s hoping that improves with age, development, learning and maturity.

What does the future hold for Lang?

It’s fair to say Lang is already outgrowing the quality in the Belgian First Division, and you can be certain him and his representatives will be fielding a whole host of calls for his services this coming summer.

The 22-year-old is a UEFA Champions League quality talent, and a player who’s future lies in a top-five European league, but he should aim to find a team who will embrace his high risk style rather than temper it. There are a number of those even in the Barclays Premier League, and in a division that is evolving tactically, possessing Lang’s qualities are extremely vital as seen through Liverpool’s swift capture of Luis Diaz in the winter window, a player who is as risky as the Dutch prodigy.

Regardless, Lang is an incredible footballing talent, and a player well on his way to reaching worldwide acclaim and stardom, keep your eyes peeled on his potential whereabouts this summer, wherever he goes next, they will have a future star on their hands.

Bukayo Saka’s individual brilliance deserves the Champions League stage

Bukayo Saka’s individual brilliance deserves the Champions League stage

How good is Bukayo Saka? It’s no wonder Arsenal football club are so desperate to tie him down to a new long-term contract.

After a painful conclusion to last summer’s Euros, in which Mikel Arteta has described was “great for his career”, Saka has bounced back and fired on all cylinders so far this campaign, hitting back at his racist critics and proving once again why he is indeed one of Europe’s most prestigious young footballers right now.

In fact, we’d go so far as to say Saka is currently the best young player in the English Premier League. We really can’t bat an eyelid at this strong claim. His sumptuous individual performance against Watford at the weekend underlined is undisputed qualities.

It’s true, history tells us we can’t afford to hype up our young British talents any more than we have been, but when a player is performing as stunning and complete as this, you can’t help but heap such lofty praise.

No player under the age of 21 has been directly involved in more goals than Saka this season (8 goals, 5 assists), and his goal and assist at Vicarage Road in an entertaining 3-2 triumph lifted Arsenal into fourth spot in the table.

If you stretch the field further to Europe’s top five leagues, then only Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz (7 goals, 10 assists) has more combined goals and assists than Saka this season.

Players of such sublime skill and quality deserve to be playing Champions League football, and both of these flawless young talents have yet to step foot in Europe’s flagship club competition. Maybe, just maybe that will change come the end of this season.

If Saka continues to play to the level that he did at Watford on Sunday then it won’t be long until he is rubbing shoulders with the continent’s best on a regular basis.

Arsenal now sit fourth in the Premier League, a point ahead of Manchester United, who have played three more matches than the Gunners.

With 13 games remaining this season, Arsenal have moved firmly into pole position for the final Champions League spot.

Arteta will no doubt urge caution, and with games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United approaching, there is still lots of work to be done before the celebrations can begin. But Arsenal are on a resurgent run of form right now, with much of their football matching the kind of quality they possess in such a young and vibrant squad.

Bukayo Saka is the face of this new and exciting revolution at the Emirates, and Arteta is backing him to a tilt.

“I think Bukayo had an experience in the summer that not a lot of players would ever have and I think it was great for his career, because the football world showed how much they like him and how much they respect him,” said Mikel Arteta.

“That’s another thing you get much more than that in football apart from winning trophies, so I think that was a big boost for him to realise in difficult moments that people are going to give him support and the club did exactly the same as his team-mates.”

That penalty miss against Italy at Wembley last summer will have haunted any player, but Saka has consummately shrugged off that setback and has never looked back. Arteta in his pre-match comments, urged his team to show a “killer instinct” and no one followed those orders more expressly than Saka.

This was not the controlled performance Arsenal demonstrated against Wolves last time out, but it was a ruthless and clinical one. They ended the game with four shots on target and three of those were goals. All three goals were simply mesmeric, including Saka’s and Arsenal’s second.

It was all his own work, possessing the tenacity and resilience to dispossess an unalert Tom Cleverley, before playing a lovely one-touch move with Alexandre Lacazette highlighting the 20-year-old’s incredible knack to make something of nothing, before burying an unbelievable shot into the top corner, no chance for Ben Foster.

A special goal from a special player. One brimming with confidence, style, assuredness and a maturity that is belying his years. The way he dribbles past his markers, links up with the likes of Ødegaard and Smith-Rowe, his courageousness, bravery and unbelievable consistency always marks him out amongst his peers. The 20-year-old ranks sixth in the division for shot-creating actions (90), and eighth for progressive carries (180), as well as averaging 1.9 key passes per 90, highlighting he is one of the best in the division, for his efforts and influence in the attacking third.

Saka was at the heart of all Arsenal’s goals against Watford, highlighting his huge influence on this Arsenal side. He is the main man, the heartbeat alongside Martin Ødegaard. The combination between both of them for the opener was pure Arsenal football at its finest. The third, just as good. Saka taking a quick throw which resulted in a slick move that Gabriel Martinelli emphatically finished.

Arsenal’s success this season has largely been down to their young players and it is fitting they are rising to the occasion as the pressure mounts with every passing week. The Gunners have scored 41 Premier League goals this term; 29 of them have been scored by players 23 or under.

Saka was excellent at Vicarage Road but was so Odegaard, and the pair’s relationship is growing every week.

Then there is Emile Smith Rowe, who missed yesterday’s match after testing positive for Covid-19. Saka is leading the way for goals and assists by Premier League players under the age of 21, but Smith Rowe is second to him and ahead of Phil Foden. Martinelli is fifth on that list.

It all points to a bright future for Arsenal, but suddenly they have the chance to make the present just as exciting.

After a miserable start to the season, losing their opening three Premier League games, Champions League football is within Arsenal’s grasp – and that is exactly where the qualities and brilliance of Bukayo Saka belongs.

Yeremi Pino 2021/22 – Scout Report

Yeremi Pino 2021/22 – Scout Report

The future of Spanish football is looking spectacularly bright and in very good hands.

While all the talk and praise have been heaped on the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Oyarzabal, Olmo and Ferran Torres, all of whom have received first and regular call-ups to the Spanish squad under Luis Enrique and have become key figures for their clubs, there is yet another prestigious and flawless young talent quietly going about his business, slightly under the radar, and that young star is Villarreal’s Yeremi Pino.

After his four-goal haul against Espanyol at the weekend, Pino became the first player to score four goals in a La Liga game since Lionel Messi two years ago. He also became the youngest-ever player to score a first half hat-trick in the Spanish top-flight.

The record-breaking doesn’t stop there, Pino is also the youngest player to score a La Liga brace for Villarreal at the age of 19 years and 130 days.

The teenage Spanish international completed a perfect hat-trick in the first half — left foot, right foot, header — and added his fourth after the break in an emphatic 5-1 win over Espanyol.

The 19-year-old has earned rave reviews since his breakthrough in the Villarreal first team, and also became the first teenager to start a Europa League final, and win the competition as the ‘Yellow Submarine’ triumphed over Manchester United on penalties last season.

Pino has enjoyed yet another tremendous breakthrough campaign for Villarreal, and even made his Champions League debut for the club playing against the likes of Manchester United, and Atalanta. His four goal haul against Espanyol took his overally tally for the season to seven goals and four assists in 23 starts.

So who is Yeremi Pino?

Born and raised in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Pino joined UD Las Palmas’ youth setup in 2014, after representing outfits AD Huracán and Barrio Atlántico CF.

In June 2017, Pino was offered the chance to join Barcelona, a dream move for many young academy products across the country, but interestingly turned down the move and chose to join Villarreal instead.

He made his debut with the C-team in August 2019, coming on as a second-half substitute for Fer Niño and scoring the third goal in a 3-0 victory over CF Recambios Colón in the Tercera División. After finishing his first senior season with three goals in 20 appearances for the Villarreal C-team, he was promoted to the reserves in Segunda División B. A seamless and impressive transition.

It wasn’t long before Pino impressed and caught the eye of the Villarreal coaches in the first team. After spending the pre-season with the first team under Unai Emery, Pino made his professional debut on 22 October 2020, replacing Francis Coquelin in a 5–3 UEFA Europa League win over Sivasspor. He made his La Liga debut three days later, again from the bench in a 0–0 draw at Cádiz CF.

Pino bagged his first professional goal for the club in October 2020, netting the equalizer in a 3–1 away success over Qarabağ FK in the UEFA Europa League. On 12 November that year, he renewed his contract at the club until 2024, with many believing he’d go on to become a leading player for Villarreal in the near future.

In May 2021, Pino was rewarded for his stunning performances, with Emery entrusting him to start the 2021 UEFA Europa League Final against Manchester United, becoming the youngest Spanish player to start a major European final, aged 18 years and 218 days, breaking the previous record of Iker Casillas in the 2000 UEFA Champions League Final, aged 19 years and 4 days. 

He also became the youngest player to win the competition, eclipsing the record set by Robin van Persie in the 2002 UEFA Cup Final.

The 19-year-old has represented his country Spain across all levels, even captaining the under-18s. Due to the isolation of some national team players following the positive COVID-19 test of Sergio Busquets, Spain’s under-21 squad were called up for the international friendly against Lithuania on 8 June 2021, in which Pino featured.

Since then, Pino has gone on to make two appearances so far for Luis Enrique’s talented side, making his senior debut for the senior side on October 2021 in the Nations League semi-final against Italy.

What’s so good about Yeremi Pino?

Standing at just 1.72 metres (5ft8in) and 63kg, Pino is a small winger with flair, pace, trickery and a low centre of gravity. Even though he is a right-footer and prefers to be deployed as an inside winger, the 18-year-old can play on both sides of the pitch, showcasing a lot of versatility despite his tender age.

He’s also been deployed up front in a 4-4-2 system also, but prefers being deployed out wide where he can showcase his 1v1 abilities, make the most of space out wide and assist his teammates.

Pino’s main strengths include pace, dribbling and high technical abilities, an eye for a goal, acceleration, agility and, perhaps the most surprising of them all, genuine defensive discipline and work rate as shown through his performance against Manchester United in the Europa League final, tasked in keeping his defensive shape and halting Luke Shaw’s threat on his flank whilst also providing a telling threat on the counter.

Throughout the past year, Pino’s influence and importance to Emery’s organised and compact system has grown. He’s started 17 of his 25 La Liga outings, compared to just starting 6 out of 24 appearances. Whilst he recorded impressive stats in terms of his dribbling and ball-carrying per90 last season, 51.2% dribbles success rate, 2.36 successful dribbles per90, and 7.30 progressive carries per90, his numbers have dropped considerably this season, but that may not be any fault of his own but down to Villarreal’s inconsistencies for large parts of the campaign.

However, that hasn’t stopped him becoming an influence when he is on the field. What is impressive, is his finishing as despite not tallying too many shots per 90 minutes (1.45), the 11th most out of the whole squad and the least out of Unai Emery’s attacking weaponry. Though, Pino is extremely accurate and lethal, even currently outperforming his expected goals (xG) value of 5.4, with 6 goals so far in La Liga. His shots on target % of 54.5 is the 6th best in the Spanish top-flight. He’s also outperforming his expected assists (xA) value of the same figure, with 4.

Without a doubt, one of Pino’s greatest weapons in his arsenal is his dribbling. In the 2020/21 campaign and across all competitions, he registered 6.59 dribbles per 90 minutes with a 60.4% success rate, rating him as one of the more efficient dribblers in La Liga. As stated previously, that figure has dropped this season, but it’s no fault of his own, or to say his abilities and influence are decreasing.

He still attempts 3.36 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 45%, but more interestingly, through those numbers, his influence is actually increasing. He’s so far averaging 2.64 shot creating actions per 90 (meaning the two offensive leading to a shot or goal including live-ball passes, dead-ball passes, successful dribbles, shots which lead to another shot, and being fouled), which is an improvement of his 2.60 for last season, and Pino is also averaging and considerably topping his goal-creating actions figure (0.66) – the eighth best in the division – from last season (0.23).

Yeremi Pino’s heat-map this season

As shown through the above heatmap, Pino has been regularly deployed as right-winger for Unai Emery this season, and that’s where we regularly see the best of him.

Pino can effectively dribble from the halfway line onward but is most effective when entering the final third. Interestingly enough, as a true inverted winger, he will cut inside as he gets closer to the box and this is usually where he’ll try to beat his man to create the biggest advantage for himself.

It’s vital to note, that Unai Emery’s system ensures that the winger is isolated with his marker in large and open spaces, which always benefits him rather than the defender. We’ve seen how effective this is through the consistent performances of new signing Arnaut Danjuma, but Pino is also following suit. In these areas Pino can use his incredible acceleration and pace to cover a lot of ground, carrying the ball at his feet.

After that, he engages in and wins the duel against his marker, finishing the action with a brilliantly executed shot or an action that ultimately leads to a chance for his teammates. While he is certainly not a volume shooter since he’s only registered a total of 21 shots so far in 2021/22, his shot selection is great and the youngster has a keen eye for goal.

Considering he has scored six La Liga goals from a 5.54 xG, we can conclude his finishing has been at the required level. After all, 54.5% of his shots have ended up on target, which is impressive despite a lower overall volume.

All of his goals this season and last have come from a very similar position inside the 18-yard-box. This comes as a direct result of his marauding runs and dribbles, both of which we’ve already concluded originate around that same area. Against Espanyol at the weekend though, Pino showcased his incredible potency scoring from 4 of his 5 shots in an around the penalty area.

His fourth and final goal, arguably the pick of the lot, latching onto a through ball from Arnaut Danjuma before instinctively and skillfully knocking the ball past Diego Lopez in the Espanyol goal, and slotting home. A goal truly encompassing Pino’s sharp trickery, audacity and stunning courageousness when faced with pressured situations.

Passing might not be among Pino’s greatest weapons but when combined with some of his other traits, it makes for a deadly tool at his disposal. He is becoming a player skilful at setting his teammates up as much as finishing the actions himself. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that with only 27.8 passes per 90 minutes, he is not a volume passer and in general, can still be risk-averse in most situations. Pino’s passing can be safe but is also used in lay-offs and quick combinations out on the flanks, showing that he always wants to be on the move, which means his passing isn’t going to be one of his strongest suits.

Overall, with an 79.1% pass success rate, we can say that he’s fairly confident in possession and won’t give away the ball carelessly that often, which speaks volumes about any young, flair winger such as himself. Usually, this is exactly what young players struggle with the most but Pino seems to be mature on the ball, especially for his age. He isn’t afraid of the risky passes either, and it can be devastating when it derives from a mazy dribble and into an area where he can hurt opposition defences.

His 1.18 key passes per 90 so far this season is an improvement on his 0.90 figure from all of last season.

Finally, we’ll will finish with a quick overview of Pino’s contribution to Villarreal’s defensive tactics. In general, Emery’s men are a team that fluctuates between a high press and a mid-block and the youngster is a hard worker in both systems. On average, he engages in 26.08 duels per 90 with a success rate of 47.8%.

The youngster won’t always press as high and be successful at it but tracking back and maintaining the team’s structure is certainly a part of his repertoire. Of course, his success rate will vary from game to game but with almost 50% of his duels being successful on average, we can conclude that he plays a big part in ensuring the flank is not breached.

But when and if he’s asked to press high, Pino will gladly do it and will generally stick well to his man once the second line of press is activated. Emery has him either as part of the front two in a 4-4-2 or as part of the second line in the wider areas. In any case, with 2.89 tackles + interceptions per 90 minutes, he won 7 out of his 10 defensive duels against Espanyol, so there’s an argument to be made about Pino’s tremendous and admirable work rate.

He is a willing runner and defender when asked to but when given the freedom to express himself in attacking areas, he’s a player who certainly won’t shy away from performing the extraordinary.

Forecasting the Future

At 19-years of age, Yeremi Pino is an incredible young talent. The future certainly seems bright.

Pino has proven a blessing for Unai Emery and Villarreal because he does everything asked of him. Give him an in-game task, and he won’t deviate from it. He’s a willing learner, so mature for his age but also a player not shy to express himself on the pitch.

There’s no telling where his long-term future lies but it will certainly be at Villarreal after signing a new deal at the Estadio de la Cerámica, taking him to 2027. The Yellow Submarine will provide him with the perfect platform to grow, learn, develop and maybe become one of the club’s most prestigious every players in the coming future.

Let’s not forget, he could be a key figure not just for his club, but for the Spanish national team also along with the likes of Pedri, Gavi, Mikel Oyarzabal, Ferran Torres. Yeremi Pino is certainly amongst that prestigious list of flawless young Spanish talents.

Jadon Sancho finally proving his worth to become a key player for Manchester United

Jadon Sancho finally proving his worth to become a key player for Manchester United

With this current Manchester United squad you just simply have no idea what you are going to get from one week to the next.

One moment they’ll reel you in with some sublime attacking displays and the next, they’ll leave you bewildering and in total disbelief. One constant has been the inexcusable contrast between first-half performances and second-half capitulations, as was again the case at Elland Road at the weekend, regardless of the calibre of the opposition or position of superiority they assume.

It’s become a regular pattern in recent weeks, but also telling representation that this United side may have a wealth of attacking talent, but as a unit they lack the street-smartness and composure to control games to their favour. They can be devastating but unbelievably frail, lacking the panache to control and dominate opponents over 90 minutes.

It’s evidently clear the squad needs some injection of control and bite in midfield, though something that Ralf Rangnick has increasingly been able to rely upon amid the chaos elsewhere in his side has been the performances of £73m summer capture Jadon Sancho.

The England forward is finally adding some goals and assists to his Premier League repertoire helping decide another pulsating mini War of the Rose battle.

You’d be lying if you had said Sancho hasn’t endured a difficult start to life in a Manchester United shirt. Of course, it hasn’t been plain sailing. At Borussia Dortmund, Sancho played in a team with a high-octane style where the general levels of the Bundesliga are slower and tailored perfectly to his flamboyant and jinky style, and though he has grounding of English football from his time at Watford and Manchester City, the English top flight is a significant step for a player still so young.

It took him all of six months to get his first Premier League goal for the club, against Southampton at Old Trafford. Fans have looked at his relatively hefty price tag, rather unfairly expecting him to hit the ground running but even the best of players in this division have found it incredibly difficult to make a swift impact upon arrival, and Sancho is no different.

At times the 21-year-old has been criticized for playing too safe, not showing off his usual mazy dribbles, tricks and deceptive movements but rather playing the ball back when faced 1v1 with his marker. It’s perfectly understandable though, when you’re still trying to adapt to your new surroundings, being too safety-first and cautious under pressure rather than taking risks.

Some even wondered earlier on in the season whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s football, which gave licence to individual flair and creativity, really suited Sancho, and as a result found his place in the team limited. Indeed, Sancho seemed to be the collateral damage of the crisis engulfing Solskjaer, with the former United manager turning to the safety-first of a 3-4-1-2 system that had no room for wingers.

Such uncertainty in style and cohesion in United’s play ultimately led to the sacking of the Norwegian, and rather strangely led to Sancho’s immediate future at Old Trafford being under threat, even after Solskjaer had strongly advocated for the club to sign him last summer.

However, in all honesty, it can be argued that Solskjaer was the man holding him back. Since his departure, Sancho’s performance levels and adaptation to the team has markedly improved. His first goal for the club – under the stewardship of interim boss and former first team coach Michael Carrick – against Villarreal in the UEFA Champions League group stage finale, certainly showed a player finally beginning to get into his groove. The 21-year-old was superb on the night as United ran out 2-0 winners in the east of Spain.

Since Ralf Rangnick’s arrival though, Sancho is not just starting to show why United so desperately coveted him for two years, but is also fast becoming one of the few leading lights the club can depend upon to make crucial difference in matches.

The goals and assists may not have arrived until recently but it was clear Sancho was finally getting into the swing of things, accumulating more minutes under his belt, regaining his confidence, Rangnick almost simplifying his game and the tactical freedom around him and he’s now showing more glimpses of why Manchester United paid so much money for him.

Reports within the club in November during his difficult period were positive, with many believing Sancho would finally come good as the season progressed and that he has.

Against Leeds United, the weather helped set the scene and tone for Sunday’s ensuing battle, with incessant heavy rain leaving parts of the pitch sodden, making the trudging through no man’s land to reach your opponent that bit heavier underfoot.

With Leeds defenders bursting with rage and steam streaming from their nostrils bearing down on him, Sancho often remained calm and composed when clipping a sumptuous first time cross onto the head of Bruno Fernandes, who could not miss to put United 2-0 up.

It was the theme throughout the match surrounding Sancho’s performance. While others were slipping and sliding in treacherous conditions, Sancho used it to his advantage gliding across the pitch with such unerring grace and confidence.

Sancho has worked himself into such positions to create openings on plentiful occasions this season, but failed to find that killer pass. Now, he finally had that first elusive Premier League assist, on his 14th start, to prove the 11 he recorded in the German top flight, and the 18 he laid on in all competitions last season were no fluke.

Though, all his good work were about to be undone in a matter of moments in the second-half. Manchester United these days are never comfortable at 2-0 up, if you need any reminders just ask Aston Villa.

Infact, in three of their previous four league games, they had failed to earn victory having been leading by one goal at the break but, they instead conceded two quick-fire goals in 59 seconds early in the second half to allow Leeds back into it, and give the fans around Elland Road hope they could grab all three points.

With pandemonium still ensuing, and emotional embraces lasting longer than when a son or daughter returns home from university for the first time after a long period away, the quality and grace of Jadon Sancho once again dragged his teammates out of the mire and set them on the road to a crucial success.

With options either side of him, the weight on the pass for substitute Fred was something that only the very best can produce, and the Brazilian made no mistake. It was game, set and match from then on in.

Sancho didn’t stop there though, almost laying on another for Anthony Elanga after one of the most stupendous mazy runs and trickery down the touchline to get past three Leeds United players, but Elanga could only fire Sancho’s finely weighted pass straight at Illan Meslier in the Leeds goal.

Whenever Sancho is faced with creative decisions in an around the final third, he always delivers executing them with such wonderful composure, calmness and class that so few in Europe’s top-five leagues can match. It’s almost as if time stands still.

Sancho has now been involved in four goals in his last five games in all competitions – two goals and two assists – twice as many as he was in his first 23 appearances. He completed more progression actions (10) against Leeds than any other United player and he also made the third-most possession recoveries (9), only bettered by Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (11).

Credit must be given to Ralf Rangnick for providing Sancho with the tools and tactical freedom to express himself, almost unburdening him with needless responsibilities but ensuring he performs at maximum capacity.

The German discussed his extensively relationship with Sancho from former years before he chose to move to Borussia Dortmund and that bond and trust is certainly being reflected on the pitch.

In fact, in a matter of months Sancho ranks amongst the best for creativity in the final third amongst Rangnick’s crop of players.

So far this season, the former Dortmund wizard ranks 2nd for key passes per 90 (2.17), 2nd for passes into the penalty area (23), 2nd for shot-creating actions per 90 (4.20) (the two offensive actions leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls), he ranks 1st for progressive carries (140), carries into the final third (51) and 18-yard box (36). He’s also recorded the most successful dribbles (33) out of any United player too.

Whoever said Jadon Sancho isn’t making an impact at Old Trafford? The above numbers emphatically tells us he is. When United are in need of creativity in the final third, its not just Fernandes they are looking to, but Sancho also. The 21-year-old has almost lifted the creative burden off his Portuguese teammate.

The 21-year-old is playing with real style and confidence again, and it was only a matter of time and opportunity. With all the uncertainty, negative press and rumours engulfing the club in past couple months, Sancho has provided United fans with the hope and optimism that the future is indeed bright at Old Trafford.

From struggling to be considered for a starting berth a few months ago to being one of the first names on the team sheet. Rangnick was always going to look favourably on a player he knows so well from his time in Germany, but in this current form, he simply cannot ignore the man who should be front and centre of this up and coming United revolution.

Where are the Sancho doubters at now?

10 Talents to Watch in the UEFA Champions League Knockouts 2022

10 Talents to Watch in the UEFA Champions League Knockouts 2022

The UEFA Champions League is back on screens this week.

How we’ve missed that awe-inspiring, harmonious and breathtaking Handel-inspired Champions League anthem on our speakers, but we’re so glad its back as we look forward to another year of juicy European ties.

It might have taken two attempts to complete the draw in December but the round of 16 has certainly pulled out some exciting fixtures, with some of Europe’s heavyweights and a few of the most decorated up and coming clubs on the continent go head-to-head.

Other than the usual suspects like Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Robert Lewandowski, who are some of under-the-radar players to look out for?

#AnthonyScouts picks out nine exciting footballers enjoying stellar campaigns, who could make their name on the grandest European stage…

Karim Adeyemi, Red Bull Salzburg

This will be RB Salzburg’s first-ever Champions League knockout tie after negotiating a tricky and exciting group containing Wolfsburg, Sevilla, and Lille.

The Austrians possess a decorated history in bringing through bright, young talent, including Takumi Minamino, Patson Daka, Dominik Szoboszlai, Naby Keita, Sadio Mane and Erling Haaland in recent years. 

Though, the current jewel in their crown and arguably Europe’s most exciting young striker is 20-year-old Karim Adeyemi, who has lit up the Austrian Bundesliga so far this season and looks well equipped to become one of Europe’s biggest stars.

Adeyemi is reportedly on the radar of a number of clubs on the continent including Barcelona, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, and he could well be on his way the latter with the German giants reportedly close to securing Adeyemi’s signature for next season.

The Germany international has consummately sharpened his attacking output with an incredible 14 league goals in 18 games for RB Salzburg in 2021-22, eclipsing his return of eight goals and seven assists in his first full season last year. In eight UEFA Champions League games this season, including the early qualifying rounds, Adeyemi has notched 4 goals.

Besides possessing a unique eye for goal, Adeyemi is a stunning player to watch, a flawless young forward, blessed with such searing pace and acceleration, incredible close control and amazing trickery making him an absolute nightmare for opposition defenders. He regularly looks to pull wide and attack the penalty area with his low centre of gravity to make space for a shot.

Two of his three goals in the Champions League have come from the penalty spot and Adeyemi will be eager to add to his tally in Europe. Salzburg have been handed a very tough draw against Bayern Munich but Adeyemi’s incentive to impress on the grandest stage will be heightened by the fact he was released from Bayern’s academy at the age of 10. They are also one of the clubs that have been most heavily linked with a move for him in the summer.

This could well set up to be one of the most captivating headlines of the campaign.

Pedro Gonçalves, Sporting Lisbon

One of Portugal’s hottest prospects and a player certainly on a mission to force his name in the European headlines is Sporting Lisbon’s incredibly gifted forward, Pedro Gonçalves.

The former heir to Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes’ throne at the José Alvalade Stadium, has, incredibly, proven even more prolific for the Portuguese champions than the Manchester United ace.

Gonçalves was an integral figure in helping Sporting win their first Primeira Liga title for 19 years last season, finishing as the league’s top goalscorer with 23 goals from a scarcely believable xG total of 11.6. 

Fernandes had a stupendous season in 2018-19 for Sporting, scoring 20 league goals, but Pedro Goncalves outdid him last season.

In doing so, he became the Primeira Liga’s first Portuguese top scorer since Domingos back in 1996.

This goalscoring feat is made all the more impressive given the 23-year-old’s position. Sporting operate in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Goncalves as a hybrid attacking midfielder/forward between the lines — often drifting to the right-hand side. His ability to locate spaces in between the lines and in the half-space is incredible and highlights his wealth of tactical knowledge and super versatility.

His finishing isn’t too bad either, as his phenomenal stats show.

Naturally right-footed, Gonçalves is capable of clinical strikes with his left foot as well, and his great form has continued into this season.

Pedro Gonçalves, nicknamed “Pote” has netted six times in the league so far and added two braces versus Besiktas and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League as Sporting survived defeats in their opening fixtures to qualify for the last 16. He’s also recorded five assists in the league highlighting his wonderful gifts in not only scoring goals, but creating them too.

Gonçalves was previously on the books at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and his impressive performances in the Champions League will no doubt have caught the eye of more Premier League sides with a view to bringing him back to England in the very near future. 

It could be the perfect audition, given that Sporting play Manchester City in what could potentially be a tasty tie in the round of 16. Pep Guardiola’s men are likely to be strong favourites, but Pote could make life difficult — and maybe make Pep take notice too.

Arnaut Danjuma, Villarreal

When Arnaut Danjuma joined Villarreal from AFC Bournemouth last summer for €25m, little did we know he’d make such a telling impact in Unai Emery’s progressive side so soon.

A few months into his Spanish top-flight career and the recently-made Netherlands international has become one of La Liga’s blossoming individuals so far this season.

After hitting 17 goals and 7 assists in the Sky Bet Championship last season, the former Club Brugge forward was always destined for bigger and better things but many thought he’d make that step up in the Barclays Premier League rather than beyond borders.

With several clubs interested in his services last summer, it was Villarreal who took a punt on his flawless abilities, and its safe to say the 24-year-old hasn’t looked back.

20 appearances, 9 goals (5 in La Liga, 4 in the Champions League), and 3 assists, Danjuma has certainly showed he is good enough and ready to cut it amongst the most elite footballers in Europe. The slippery Dutchman has gone from the Championship to the Champions League without batting an eyelid at the transition.

Danjuma’s trajectory over the past year has been nothing short of sensational, and already he is showing his talents on the most prestigious of footballing stages in the UEFA Champions League.

If you need any pieces of evidence as to how good he is, not only that, but how invaluable he’s become to Unai Emery’s side in short space of time, check out his performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the group stages.

It was simply jaw-dropping, giving full-back Diogo Dalot a torrid evening.

Danjuma may have been one of La Liga’s most expensive transfers this summer, but is currently proving he’s worth every penny spent. The Europa League winners were looking for a player who could help them jump forward to the next level tactically and in attack and Danjuma is keeping his part of the bargain.

Unai Emery’s men are clearly more efficient, potent and exciting on the attack and much of that is down to Danjuma’s unpredictable nature on the left-flank.

Villarreal have a tough fixture against Juventus in the knockout stages, and they will need Danjuma firing on all cylinders after his return from injury to have any chance of causing yet another Emery-European-upset.

Jonathan David, LOSC Lille

Since his move to Lille from Belgium outfit Gent in the summer of 2020, Canadian Jonathan David has come on leaps and bounds, although he did endure a difficult start – going on a run of seven games without a goal.

However, in the second half of last season, his form picked up.

Eleven of his 13 league goals in 2020-21 came after the turn of the year, as Lille done the unthinkable, finishing the campaign as French Ligue 1 champions.

This season, Lille have struggled to maintain their form as they currently sit in mid-table in Ligue 1. However, Jonathan David has continued his tremendous development. He is Ligue 1’s second top scorer with 12 goals from 19 appearances, just two goals behind AS Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder.

In a league including Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi, that is a superb feat.

An extraordinary unique forward, blessed with great pace, skill, tenaciousness, trickery and acceleration. The Canadian is tremendously versatile too, capable of playing anywhere in attack; as a no.9, right-winger, left-winger, and a no.10. If fast and speedy players are your type, then Jonathan David is your man.

A player whose game is based on an exciting blend of technique, mental sharpness and tremendous physical attributes.

The Canadian has excelled in his work-rate and off-the-ball attributes. So far this campaign, he is recording 5.39 successful pressures per 90minutes. He is in the top 10 percent of forwards in Europe’s top five leagues when it comes to pressures off the ball owing to his tremendous energy, enthusiasm and work rate. David has traded off some of that defensive work, and remodeled himself as a poacher in front of goal. A record of 0.48 non-penalty goals per 90 is brilliant and is simply going to get better.

David’s scoring form in Ligue 1 over the past two seasons, and for Canada where he’s been the top CONCACAF scorer in World Cup Qualifying, suggests he could score more goals for any of Europe’s top clubs, and with his name reportedly in the headlines for a number of top European outfits this summer, he could well be on the move.

First he’d have to help Lille navigate through a tough fixture against last season’s European champions Chelsea, and there is no doubt that the young Canadian forward will be central to any potential upset.

Jurrien Timber, Ajax

Ajax’s youth academy has been providing Europe’s biggest clubs with elite talent for decades now and with the likes of Jurrien Timber emerging the trend is not slowing.

There’s been no change in the Ajax philosophy ever since: they invest tremendously in youth, making sure that the players receive the best physical and mental development, and even more importantly, that they are granted the earliest possible trust at the highest level.

Timber is the latest of those entrusted with significant responsibility in the first team, and is thriving as a result.

The youngster earned Erik ten Hag’s trust with his composure and vision as he reads the game well and fits Ajax’s strategy perfectly. His displays granted him a regular starting spot which he hasn’t taken for granted and has used to prove his qualities while becoming one of the team’s key players.

While they have always been successful in attack, this term their defensive performance has been exceptional. At the time of writing, Ajax have only conceded FIVE league goals in 22 games, which is a remarkable record and underlines the importance of their defensive players.

Ten Hag’s side also made history in the Champions League by winning all their games in the group stage, outplaying Sporting CP, Borussia Dortmund and Beşiktas.

Ajax are currently the best performing team in Eredivisie, displaying high awareness, composure and consistency. The team’s well-measured actions and anticipation skills result in a high success rate in almost every aspect. 

The Ajax players are proficient in winning their challenges clearly, despite actually having the highest challenge intensity (duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession) in the league. They are first in the league in terms of successful actions with 66.9% of won defensive duels on average.

Despite the lack of experience, Jurrien Timber has successfully contributed to Ajax’s unbreachable defence possessing impressive composure in defence which puts him ahead despite his lack of physicality and height. His technique and confidence on the ball allow him to dive into challenges and escape pressure through dribbling which helps the team in retaining possession.

His composure results in winning 76.2% of his defensive duels, which is a better percentile compared to his centre-back partner, Lisandro Martínez (73.5%).

What makes him successful defensively, though, is his positional sense. Timber’s ability to read the game helps him in anticipating the oppositions’ movement and move into spaces so he can pressurise his opponents and block their attacking efforts. He contributes with 13.35 recoveries per game and roughly four of them are in the opposition half.

This underlines his strong positioning and anticipation skills, although it also indicates the whole team strategy, which has the defensive line positioned high in possession.

The key qualities that have led to his valuable contribution are his concentration and work ethic. The 20-year-old is constantly aware of his surroundings and it is difficult to catch him out of position and unprepared. If their opponents Benfica are to triumph in this tie, they will have to do incredibly well to bypass Jurrien Timber and his resilient defensive counterparts.

Ridle Baku, Wolfsburg

Ridle Baku has enjoyed a seismic rise over the past 18 months, swapping relegation-threatened Mainz 05 for Champions League football at the Volkswagen Arena. 

At an age where many of his peers are just beginning to take their first steps in the Bundesliga, Baku has already started over 100 topflight Bundesliga matches, won a U21 European Championship, and narrowly missed out on Germany’s Euro 2020 squad.

With summer interest from PSG & Bayern, and Tottenham Hotspur it won’t be long before Baku is tearing up the pitch for Hansi Flick’s national team and competing for silverware at one of Europe’s elite outfits.

The right-sided midfielder, come right-back is an incredibly astute, tactically aware and all-round footballer.

The young right-back was an influential piece in the Germany U21 side that won the European Championship in June and as a result, is already attracting significant interest from clubs around Europe. Baku was named Player of the Match in the U21 final against Portugal and even concluded the tournament with the highest assists (3).

In the 38 appearances Baku made for German side Wolfsburg last term, he recorded an impressive 16 goal involvements, recording 6 goals and 6 assists in the German Bundesliga.

This season, he has continued his fine contribution to Wolfsburg’s goal threat, with two goals and two assist whilst also scoring in the Champions League group stages against RB Salzburg in November.

The 1.76m-tall defender, who can even be deployed as a midfielder, lead the ranking for the Bundesliga with 1,061 sprints last season. This season’s tally may have decreased, but he’s still within the top 10 sprinters in the division with 598 sprints. Few players covered a greater distance last season than him. He was the 10th-best runner with 351 km run on the field.

The 23-year old is always more than willing to make lung-busting runs forward as well as make the hard yards back to rescue a situation defensively.

Baku is highly versatile too having already played in all possible positions on the right-flank for the team. He’d prove a valuable asset for any top outfit in Europe owing to his incredible versatility but also providing his side with the opportunity to be tactically flexible. Wherever he is deployed, Ridle Baku will give his utmost.

With quick changes of direction, a glue-like control, and fluid movement, Ridle Baku is able to wriggle free from any lunging challenges and create the attacking impulses which have made him such a resounding success at the Volkswagen Arena.

The 23-year-old has brought lofty comparisons to Germany and Bayern Munich icon Philipp Lahm, showing what a generational talent Wolfsburg have on their books.

Though Ridle Baku has a long way to go before winning 113 national team caps, and 17 major titles, the intelligence in his positional play is right in line with FC Bayern’s former captain. Whereas Lahm made the switch from rightback to defensive midfield in the latter stages of his career, Baku has undergone the opposite transition, playing primarily as a midfielder for Mainz before operating almost exclusively on the right flank at Wolfsburg.

Just as Lahm was adept at moving inside from right-back or dropping into the wide channels from a midfield role, Baku’s ability to drift into the half-spaces have made him an absolute nightmare for opposition fullbacks. The Under-21 European Championship were perhaps the best example of this. Baku, operating primarily at right midfield in a classic 4-2-3-1, was electric from start to finish, ending the competition with the most goal contributions as Germany lifted the title with a 1-0 victory over Portugal.

Baku completed the 5th most crosses of any Bundesliga fullback last season, routinely searching for the head of new Burnley striker Wout Weghorst or providing a driven ball into the run of an advancing midfielder. Whilst he may not be as prolific as either Borna Sosa of Stuttgart or Filip Kostić of Frankfurt, the variety of ways Baku can hurt an opposition defense makes up for his somewhat inconsistent crossing.

Ridle Baku may have only registered 2 assists from the wide right channel this season, but when afforded time and space he is more than capable of finding his target.

Nuno Mendes, Paris Saint-Germain

Nuno Mendes has been getting rave reviews since making the move from Lisbon to Paris last summer as PSG’s new left-back.

At just 19 years old, Mendes has adapted well from a wing-back role in a 4-3-2-1 at Sporting Lisbon to a full-back role within PSG’s 4-3-3, but his skill set remains unchanged.

The Portugal international has made 15 appearances for Mauricio Pochettino’s side in Ligue 1 this season, alongside his six appearances in the UEFA Champions League. Touted as one of the finest talents of his position on the continent, Nuno Mendes is certainly on his way to world-wide stardom.

Last season at Sporting, Mendes cemented his status as the finest left-back in Portugal thanks to a deadly combination of speed, explosive movement, and close control which allows him to create danger either from a standing start or whilst on the counter-attack.

Apart from his dribbling, Mendes boasts an excellent crossing ability whether tightly marked or open in space, and his physical prowess allows him to beat out opponents to the ball either with his speed or strength.

Despite boasting such incredible speed and strength through his lambasting runs, he’s only successfully completed 0.88 dribbles per90 so far this season, but that will only increase with more playing time and development. However, he is relatively still creative with his contributions in attack, averaging 0.98 key passes, and 3.43 final third passes per90 whilst also possessing 2.64 shot-creating actions per90. He’s al an adept defender, boasting a SmarterScout defending intensity rating of 95 out of 99.

Given his speed and imposing size, he is able to recover well whenever he might be slightly out of position, frequently nicking the ball away from the opponent and often blocking crosses into the box. He averages a very good 4.12 tackles + interceptions reading per 90 minutes. For ball recoveries and interceptions, he is rated by SmarterScout 97 out of 99.

His 3.3 dribbles attempted per 90 put him in the top 10 per cent for full-backs in Ligue 1 this season, and he can be crucial in opening up space for his team-mates to exploit.

Mendes is still in the category of a raw and unpolished talent but he has all the materials and skills required to be one of the leading left-backs in world football. The pace of Mendes and Kylian Mbappe down PSG’s left-hand side is enough to give any opponent nightmares, even their knockout opponents Real Madrid. Be prepared for an enthralling tie.

Vinicius Jr, Real Madrid

It’s completely safe to say, Vinicius Jr is enjoying his best season in a Real Madrid shirt.

His 12 league goals are bettered only by team-mate Karim Benzema, with the pair contributing to a high proportion of his team’s attacking output this season as Los Blancos lead the way in La Liga, by four points.

Vinicius’ turnaround and maturity in his decision-making and all-round game over the past year or so has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 2020/21, he underperformed xG by a remarkable 3.82. For context, that’s twice as bad as anyone else in the Real Madrid squad. In 2021/22, he’s overperforming by 3.1 xG, a figure more than twice as good as anyone else, excluding Karim Benzema.

Benzema-dependencia, as the Spanish media like to call Real Madrid’s reliance on Karim Benzema for goals, well that phrase has been thrown out the window as a result of Vinicius Jr’s sudden purple patch. Now, Karim Benzema who didn’t approve of the Brazilian over a year ago, simply cannot perform without him.

While its a testament and credit to the 21-year-old, the credit must also be given to Carlo Ancelotti who has totally unleashed the Brazilian with undying belief and faith in his abilities.

He is a double threat from the left wing, scoring goals as well as creating them (8 assists so far this campaign) — largely owing to his direct play when the ball is at his feet. No player in La Liga can top his rate of 7.3 attempted dribbles per 90 this season, and goes to show how often he looks to commit defenders which can open up space for others, such as Benzema.

In this season’s Champions League, Vinicius’s 18 chances created in open play is more than any other player in the competition, as he frequently drives into dangerous areas to pull a pass back for an oncoming team-mate.

Vinicius is no longer that naïve, overconfident and inexperienced raw talent that arrived through the Real Madrid doors in 2018. He’s now more an assured, mature and decorated performer, still possessing bags of potential to become even greater and that spells such great news for Real Madrid, a healthy return on their risky investment.

Vinicius has shown this season whatever the situation, he can and will create – whether it be scoring or assisting, he is quickly becoming a central protagonist within Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

Real Madrid’s upcoming blockbuster clash with PSG is arguably the pick of the last-16 matches. Having won the competition in three successive seasons from 2016-2018, Real have gone out of the Champions League at this stage twice in the last three seasons.

If they are to correct that slide, they will need Vinicius Jr at his flawless best as he’ll be coming up against the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Di Maria and Messi. Pick your poison.

Antony, Ajax

Already an Olympic gold medalist, Antony has enjoyed a spectacularly successful rookie season at Ajax. The Brazilian right-winger is known for his rapid dribbling, amazing ball-trickery as well as his unique eye for goal.

The fact that Ajax have two talents on this list once again highlights their incredibly bright youthful roster, and a potential prediction that they could yet again take the UEFA Champions League by storm like they did in the 2018/19 campaign.

Whilst Sebastien Haller has been the pick of a talented bunch, Brazilian wing-wizard has arguably stolen the spotlight through his showstopping performances for Ajax in this year’s Champions League.

The 21-year-old has recorded 2 goals and 5 assists in 5 games, possessing a phenomenal xA average of 2.0 placing him the top 6 of players throughout the competition. The Brazilian also ranks first in the Champions League for goal-creating actions (9) and goal-creating actions per90 (2.06). He also ranks sixth for progressive carries (52).

The Brazilian is an inventive and intelligent player. With nine goals and eight assists in his first 1,200 Eredivisie minutes, there is unlikely to be a better rookie in the Dutch top-flight this season. Antony has taken to life excellently at Ajax, and has his gifted and mastery left foot to thank.

Much of the time, Antony enjoys hanging wide on the right so he can gain momentum after picking up the ball by driving inwards. His acceleration from a standing start is explosive; his elite balance and lower body strength allows him to remain on his feet even under heavy pressure – he is a worker with great endeavour, the type of player to clean up his own mess.

In Brazil, Antony relied more on ingenuity to create his moments, and there is still an element of that to his game. Now though, after just a matter of nearly a couple years in Europe, he plays with a calculating maturity and sensibility, while retaining that endearing unpredictable streak.

As with most Ajax players under the age of 25, the Johan Cruijff Arena will not be the last stop on the Antony Express. Slotting into elite European competition without skipping a beat is a sure-fire way of alerting Europe’s financially well-endowed sporting directors.

Who knows, some more scintilating performances in the knockout rounds will certainly push him closer to one of Europe’s elite clubs, probably this coming summer. The continent is certainly Antony’s oyster.

Alessandro Bastoni, Inter Milan

Italy is without doubt the home of defending. The list of renowned defenders from Bel Paese is endless. Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta are just some of the legendary names that have represented Gli Azzurri. 

As a new generation approaches for Italian football, their next great defender seems to already be turning heads across the continent.

Alessandro Bastoni was born in the small town of Casalmaggiore, Lombardy. At the age of seven, he joined Atalanta’s renowned youth sides. The young defender made waves at the Bergamo club, eventually earning himself a €31million move to one of Italy’s biggest clubs; Inter Milan.

After spending spells on loan to both Atalanta & Parma, Bastoni has now finally secured his place in the starting XI for the Nerazzurri. Currently touted as one of best defensive talents of this generation, Bastoni has immersed himself as one of Inter Milan’s most prominent figures for Antonio Conte in the title winning side last season, and for current manager Simone Inzaghi.

Bastoni’s defensive statistics aren’t spectacular, but they are exactly what you’d expect and want from a CB at a top club. He ranked 6th overall amongst Serie A defenders when defending vs. the dribble.

This season, he continues to impress within a well-rounded, cohesive and organised system in Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 shape, a continuation of Conte’s title-winning formula last season. Batoni averages 3.10 tackles + interceptions per90, an improvement from last season (2.49), 2.93 clearances per90, 1.30 blocks per90 and wins an outstanding 67.8% of his aerial duels owing to relatively tall, lean and imposing frame.

Alessandro Bastoni’s defensive ability is incredible for his age. Inter Milan have kept the 2nd most clean sheets (10) and have conceded the second least goals (20) in Serie A this season. Bastoni has been a key part of that defence, playing in 21 of their 25 of league games.

One of the areas that the Italian thrives is on the ball. Bastoni has long been regarded as one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the division. He completes 4.62 passes into the final third per 90 – amongst the best for defenders in the league. He is not only progressive on the ball, he’s very secure with it too. He has completed 93.6% of passes this season so far. Bastoni is not someone who shies away from the ball either, averaging the third most touches of Inter’s starting XI per 90 (79.7).

The Italian is clearly an incredible young defender, anybody who has watched Inter Milan this season will know this. With a tough fixture against Liverpool to come, Inter will need their stunning young centre-back in his best form if they are to stop the likes of Diogo Jota, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane from wrecking havoc.

Luis Diaz: Liverpool’s new Colombian showstopper

Luis Diaz: Liverpool’s new Colombian showstopper

With the immediate futures of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah up in the air, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool were always gonna have at the back of their minds, players who could come in immediately and potentially replace them in the long-term.

In such a whirlwind month of transfers, Liverpool were going to sit tight until the summer before adding to their attacking roster. Several players were on their radar, such as Jonathan David from Lille, Leeds United’s Raphinha and RB Salzburg’s high-flying wonderkid Karim Adeyemi.

Though, one player who has long been on their list of targets was FC Porto’s Luis Diaz, but the Columbia international’s release clause of €80million (£66.6million) was viewed as excessive.

However, when Tottenham Hotspur were scouring around their target, opening talks with his agents and attempting to secure his signature, Liverpool immediately thought now was the time to pounce – an opportunity they could not afford to miss.

It was now or never for the club, and the owners Fenway Sports Group funded and sanctioned the move. Liverpool will reportedly pay around €45 million (£37.5million) initially with a further €15 million (£12.5 million) to follow in add-ons.

The 25-year-old winger is enjoying an outstandingly productive season in the Portuguese top-flight, scoring 14 goals and providing four assists in 18 league appearances. In all competitions this term, he has netted 16 in 28 appearances.

Jurgen Klopp has long been an admirer of the live-wire forward but Diaz further enhanced his reputation as one of Europe’s most devastating wingers through his performances against Klopp’s Liverpool and AC Milan during this season’s UEFA Champions League group stage.

Many of the Liverpool faithful will have a rough idea of who Luis Diaz is and how he plays through trawling the internet for compilation videos of his best work. Fans desiring to see how good he is, will certainly have been satisfied with what they have seen.

Born in the town of Barrancas in the north of Colombia, Diaz caught the eye of scouts with his performances in the Indigenous Copa America in Chile in 2015. He grew up as part of the Wayuu, an ethnic group of the Guajira Peninsula, which juts out into the southern Caribbean. Diaz was coached at the tournament by former Colombia international Carlos Valderrama.

A successful trial with Atletico Junior in the nearby city of Barranquilla followed and after signing he was sent to their feeder club, Barranquilla FC, in the country’s second tier.

Those who knew him well then recall a boy who was “ridiculously skinny”. Suffering from malnutrition, he was put on a special plan to help him gain 10 kilos. Slowly he bulked up and was handed his senior debut against Deportivo Pereira in April 2016. 

After two seasons with Barranquilla, things really took off when Diaz became a permanent fixture in the senior squad at parent club Junior in 2017.

A fearless winger blessed with tremendous pace, he handled the step up seamlessly, scoring 20 goals in 80 games for the top-flight outfit in the next three campaigns.

After shining for Colombia at under-20s level, Diaz earned his first senior cap against Argentina in September 2018.

He now boasts a record of seven goals in 31 games for his country and was the joint top scorer with Lionel Messi, with four goals, in last summer’s Copa America when Colombia finished third.

Capable of producing moments of breathtaking brilliance, Diaz has taken over the mantle from former Everton star James Rodriguez as the main man his nation looks to for attacking inspiration and creativity.

FC Porto paid €7 million to sign him from Junior in July 2019 on a five-year contract. He was also pursued by Russian giants Zenit Saint Petersburg but countrymen Radamel Falcao and Rodriguez, both former Porto stars, helped convince him to pick the Estadio do Dragao over the Russian club. In total, he has scored 41 goals in 125 games in Portugal.

Luis Diaz is a true live-wire, a player blessed with unstoppable pace, acceleration, trickery, dazzling feet and tremendous power. Technically adept, tactically wise and a pure nightmare for opposing defenders. Just when Liverpool fans had though they’d had enough of that through Diogo Jota, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, Diaz will add a little sprinkle of South American dust to an enthralling potential forward line.

The 25-year-old’s ability to beat opposition players, to cut inside and finish on either foot or assist his teammates are the hallmarks of his exceptional game making him an exciting talent.

Part of Diaz’s brilliance is that he can play off either foot, so he is extremely hard for defenders to shackle off the ball. Once he sets off with the ball at his feet, he is simply unplayable, attacking open spaces and leaving defenders in his wake.

His favourite move is cutting in off the left and scoring with his right foot, as he has done to such consummate effect for Porto and Colombia. What’s so unique about his game is that he can go either way when taking on his markers, if the defenders feel they can halt his progress coming inside, he is just as devastating going on to his weaker foot. Throughout his career, Diaz has mastered the art of becoming effective on both feet.

Take the two following images for example:

He receives the ball on his right foot, shaping up to cut in and shoot with the same foot, which the defender also expects him to do…

…however, he does the complete opposite, shifting the ball onto his left foot netting Porto’s equaliser to such devastating and consummate effect.

This example proves just how good he is at taking on his man, and being able to perform many various actions with the ball. He isn’t a one-trick pony, but a player blessed with such fine balance, quickness of feet, technique and ball control to fool his marker 9 times out of 10.

His ability off the ball is just as impressive, capable of playing on the last man and timing his runs to perfection. This season, Diaz has managed to mix up his game meaning there are many facets to how he scores and creates. His versatility is also demonstrated in the way he is able to get into the box and score with headers — a knack that his new Anfield teammates Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane all possess.

Diaz has also shown he is capable of playing in a number of systems but that’s mainly because of the tactical and creative freedom he is afforded. He is regularly deployed on the left in Porto’s 4-4-2 shape, but can also play in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system too, one used by his nation Columbia.

With Klopp providing Mane, Jota and Salah the freedom and responsibility to provide his team with the attacking prowess, Diaz will also be given such liberty in the German’s high-intensity style which suits his game to a tee.

Diaz is enjoying his most prolific season — 0.85 non-penalty goals per 90 is up from 0.32 per 90 on average in the previous two seasons. He’s getting into better areas more consistently. In fact, he compares well to Mo Salah (0.81) and tops Diogo Jota (0.58) – Liverpool’s top two scorers – in such statistics.

The Colombian has scored 29 per cent of Porto’s league goals, underlining his importance to the team. Opta stats shows that his 14 league goals have come from an impressive 12.3 xG.

His shot selection has evidently improved, with far more inside the box this season compared to 2020-21. His xG per shot has nearly doubled from 0.12 last season to 0.20. Simply put, the average probability of his shots resulting in a goal has gone from 12 per cent to 20 per cent. This all shows how much of a potent force Liverpool will be adding to their weaponry, providing Luis Diaz quickly gets up to speed in the Premier League, which under Klopp, will be sure to occur.

Also, a particular component Liverpool fans will surely be excited by is Diaz’ incredible propensity to nutmeg his opponents when taking them on. In the past year across Europe’s top five leagues, as per StatsBomb via FBref, Diaz is listed in the top seven per cent of wingers and attacking midfielders for the number of nutmegs completed.

A skill that sums up the Columbian’s devastating pool of individual abilities. His speed combined with such unerring close control, balance, power and technique all helps make him the master of dribbling. Mo Salah will certainly have a strong competitor in the art of the dribble. He is difficult to read for defenders as shown above.

So how will he fit in at Anfield?

It’s evidently clear he will be lining up amongst any of the three attacking positions, most likely on the left but more importantly, Diaz will provide greater depth as he competes with Mohamed Salah, Mane, Jota, Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a starting spot in the front three.

It is the long-term implications of the Luis Diaz move that seems intriguing, and that’s due to the uncertainty in the contract situations of both Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. Liverpool knew they had to act fast in case the worst did happen in terms of losing either of their trio of stars this summer. Purchasing Diaz seemed the perfect plausible decision.

If no extension is agreed with them then Liverpool will either have to cash in or run the risk of losing them for nothing in 2023, and that is a scenario Klopp will not be looking to entertain.

Liverpool have been tracking Diaz’s progress since his time with Junior in his homeland. That interest went up a level last summer after his eye-catching displays at the Copa America.

Through an array of scouting reports and character references, they built up an extensive analysis of his technical and tactical ability, as well as his strong mentality. Like Salah and Mane, he has scored at the rate of a centre-forward despite operating out wide and there’s a belief he’s the perfect fit for Liverpool, style-wise.

Luis Diaz is a showstopper, a player you’d be desperate to buy tickets for. In the event of either Salah or Mane leaving, Liverpool fans could rest well knowing they have the perfect replacement.

Having only turned 25 on January, Diaz is also in keeping with the club’s strategy of investing in players with a high ceiling who are yet to enter their peak years.

Klopp has often talked about wanting to unearth the next star of world football rather than buying the finished article. Liverpool believe Diaz has huge potential, and there is no reason why the Columbian can’t become one of the world stars under Klopp’s tutelage like his new teammates Salah and Mane.

For now though, the Anfield faithful will be welcoming their new South American star on the block with open arms.

3 defensive midfield options Manchester United should look to sign this month

3 defensive midfield options Manchester United should look to sign this month

It’s been evidently clear for a long period of time that Manchester United are in desperate need of investment and improvement at the base of their midfield if they are to match the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

The club have made slight improvements under German revolutionary and tactician Ralf Rangnick, but those those glaring issues still rear its ugly head, and its costing United a place in the Premier League top four.

In Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2, he’s had to use a combination of Fred, Scott McTominay, and Nemanja Matic as his midfield base, none of whom are ideal fits for what Rangnick requires in his engine room, although McTominay has impressed there in recent weeks.

Against Burnley, the pairing of Matic and McTominay worked well, with the Serbian acting as a deep-lying progressor of the ball and the Scotsman providing the dynamism and energy to push up the pitch and support attacking moves. At 33-years of age, Matic cannot be relied on long-term to be United’s main midfield anchor, while his lack of mobility could also pose issues against teams who offer more of an attacking threat.

While both Fred and McTominay both bring energy, tenacity and aggression to the midfield, neither are reliable ball distributors, players who can break lines, feeding the ball to teammates in much more dangerous areas like that of the two no.10s behind the two forwards. And as a result, United are unable to penetrate teams with the preciseness and ruthlessness as their rivals and control games the way Rangnick wants.

According to The Athletic, Ralf Rangnick has already identified the midfield area as a point of addressing, so might we finally see some investment from Manchester United in that area in January?

If so, Iet’s have a look at three potential options Rangnick could look at to address the problem and how might they fit in at Old Trafford.

Amadou Haidara, RB Leipzig

(Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Given the weaknesses in United’s existing options in midfield, their reported interest in RB Leipzig’s midfield dynamo Amadou Haidara makes perfect sense. However, this may be a difficult deal to pursue as Haidara will be on international duty for Mali at the African Cup of Nations. If United still go ahead with trying to acquire his services, he may not be available until late January, which could prove costly for United if they desperately want to address their glaring issue in midfield.

The 23-year-old midfielder still makes for smart and astute piece of business. The Malian credits Rangnick with pushing for his transfer from RB Salzburg to Leipzig in 2019, proving a key figure for the German during his time at the Red Bull Arena. Haidara is crucially the sort of all-round central midfield who has thrived in the system Rangnick is attempting to implement at Old Trafford.

During his three years at Leipzig, Haidara has wonderfully developed his craft and effectiveness in Leipzig’s high-intensity style, becoming the well-rounded midfielder who can adapt well to the specific roles he is given. Upon his arrival at Leipzig, the 23-year-old impressed as an energetic ball-winning midfielder primed in breaking up attacking play, counter-attacks (a problem United suffered against Newcastle during Christmas) as well as supporting the press, and progressing the ball through bulldozing running and fine passing.

His ball-carrying was initially the foremost way he could break opposition lines, which he still does with such impressive precision. The Malian has successfully completed 75% of his dribbles, performing 1.55 successful dribbles per 90 minutes so far this season. Haidara has also recorded 4.12 progressive carries and 1.24 carries into the final third highlighting his knack of breaking through opposition lines to progress his team up the pitch.

However, its his passing that has proving increasingly incisive, and a trait Rangnick will not be able to ignore. Haidara holds a short passing success rate of 88%, and his long passing 68% showing his incredible distribution of the ball. So far this season per 90, he averages 6.32 progressive passes placing him in the 92nd percentile of midfielders across Europe’s top-five leagues. Also, he averages 3.30 final third passes, and 1.44 passes into the penalty areas showing he is very adept at finding his more forward-thinking teammates in more dangerous areas of the pitch.

If he were to move to Old Trafford, he would of course be playing with either of Fred or McTominay in Rangnick’s 4-2-2-2. Given the caliber of offensive talent ahead of him, Haidara will be tasked in fulfiling more defensive duties. In possession, his technical quality and acumen and desire to progress the ball will be extremely pivotal for United’s patterns of play.

Almost a third of Haidara’s passes travel more toward the opposition goal, significantly more than both Fred and McTominay, in which he performs significantly more progressive passes (6.32) than the Brazilian (5.06) and the Scotsman (4.56) and also performs more passes into the opposition penalty area. Clearly, Haidara would add much more needed ball retention and progression to the United midfield.

However, Haidara’s defensive metrics are, while reasonably solid, not paticularly impressive. Though, much of that will be down to the inconsistent form of RB Leipzig this season, rather than his own struggles. He averages a quite impressive 6.70 successful pressures per 90, 10.2 in the middle third and 3.30 in the attacking third highlighting that he is very effective when playing a pressing game. Still, his tackles and interceptions are not particularly the highest (2.27) amongst the most dominant midfielders in the English top-flight but Haidara would still so much more elite dynamism, aggression and most of all ball progression that United so desperately need in their engine room.

Provided Rangnick earmarks his former player as a target in January, United are likely to swoop in and pay his £33m release clause to acquire his services from RB Leipzig. However, having already inherited an excess number of players, the German will be aware of shipping out players ahead of demanding new signings over the coming transfer window.

Boubacar Kamara, Olympic de Marseille

Amongst the many exciting talents waiting on a big move next summer, Boubacar Kamara is likely to attract many suitors over the coming transfer windows. The midfielder has undergone remarkable development, having come through the French club’s academy, and remains amongst the most coveted defensive-midfield prospects in Europe.

Despite only being 21, the midfielder has already amassed 107 Ligue 1 appearances, playing close to 8,000 minutes across five seasons in the French top-flight. A ball-winner in multiple forms – a presser, a dueler and interceptor – but he’s also as comfortable against the press as he is when pressing himself. The 21-year-old is typically Marseille’s deepest midfielder in possession of the ball, very comfortable in drawing opponents in through ball retention, then bypassing them through silky footwork, mazy runs or passing combinations with his teammates.

Largely deployed in a double-pivot under Jorge Sampaoli this season in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Kamara has excelled under the tutelage of the former Chilean head coach. In a system which allows for much freedom and rotation positionally, Kamara is the one player who’s position remains constant although he does hold the tactical intelligence to perform those free-roaming roles when required.

Sampaoli’s system strongly requires the full use of Kamara’s skill-set. He is extremely composed in possession, dictating the tempo at his own pace possessing the ability and understanding to know when the slow the game down, and when to speed it up. A skilled and well-timed passer of the ball, with a good first touch, but without the ball he’s a tenacious, aggressive and methodical ball-winner who is strong in the tackle.

At Marseille, Kamara is used as the pivot point, keeping the ball moving with short simple passes, creating angles for the centre-backs or central midfield players like his partner Matteo Guendouzi. Kamara’s role is incredibly integral to Sampaoli’s positional play as he’s always available for a pass acting as a short passing outlet allowing his side to transition into their attacking pattern of play.

Boubacar Kamara’s season heatmap

More importantly, if given the space, Kamara is so good at breaking opposition lines with decisive swift passes, but also progressing it over long distances with a lovely range and superb vision and scanning of his surroundings. Kamara holds a short passing success rate of 94.7% and a long passing rate of 73.8%, highlighting how pivotal he is to Marseille’s build-up play, whilst also averaging a stunning 5.93 passes into final third per90.

He’s just as good in his reading of the game, often the man to help out his defence when dealing with the threat of attacking moves, winning the ball with strong standing tackles, but also having the speed of thought to distribute to his teammates and start attacking moves. While he does often drop deep, he’s very adept in the mid-block situations engaging opposition receivers and intercepting them from behind.

During the past year, Kamara has been successful with 36.9% of his pressing which ranks him in the 97th percentile for central midfielders across Europe’s top-five leagues. A stat Rangnick will certainly be proud of. He also wins 2.04 tackles per 90, ranking in the 87th percentile of midfielders, also winning 46% of his challengers against dribblers ranking 91st percentile amongst midfielders in Europe’s top-five leagues. Despite standing at 5’10, he’s also a very good aerial ball-winner winning on average 1.4 aerial duels per 90 with a 61.7% win percentage ranking him in the top 13% of central midfielders across Europe.

With him in the team, United could potentially have another promising prospect on the books, capable of developing into a world-class footballer, thus, lessening their need to spend big money on future transfers for the position. United are in dire need of an adept ball-winner but also a player who is just as effective and as incisive with his ball-progression. Boubacar Kamara fits the bill.

Although the Frenchman remains likely to leave in the summer with his contract at Marseille expiring in June, United are reportedly hopeful of luring him to the club as early as January. Provided the Red Devils see an opening, given Rangnick’s preference for developing youngsters as opposed to seasoned players, Kamara could potentially prepone his plans of moving clubs this month.

Joining Manchester United now seems as attractive as ever, considering the amount of potential in the squad.

Aurelien Tchouameni, AS Monaco

Like his fellow French compatriot, Aurélien Tchouaméni is amongst the most highly coveted young central midfielders in Europe, let alone the French Ligue 1. The 21-year-old has enjoyed a remarkable season at AS Monaco under now former coach Niko Kovac, and is reportedly on the list of a lot of top clubs around Europe for his signature.

If Manchester United are indeed serious about addressing their serious issues in midfield then acquiring the services of Tchouaméni should be priority number 1. However, it will take big bucks to prize him away mid-season from Monaco who still remain in Europe’s second competition, the UEFA Europa League and still remain in the hunt for Champions League football next season.

But, the club are in a state of flux right now, and Manchester United should take advantage of the ongoing issues currently plaguing such a decorated club in France, after Niko Kovac’s surprise sacking.

The midfielder is earning such glittering praise in France right now, simply because of his expert performances at the base of Monaco’s midfield in the French top-flight. Not only has he garnered exceptional praise at club level, but in his native France colours too, aiding their Nations League success earlier this season.

Tchouaméni is superbly athletic, dynamic workhorse of a midfielder who combines his sharp turn of pace with a fine-tuned and unique anticipation and reading of the game.

As a result, he is perfectly capable of fulfilling a number of positions in the midfield making him one of the most complete performers in the French top-flight: no.8, no.6, or no.4, you name it. He is right at home in each of those positions dominating, harrassing his opponents but also providing Monaco’s frontmen with the perfect platform to attack without any real concern of what may occur behind them.

Tchouaméni is an absolute nightmare to play against. Just when attackers think they’ve broken clear of the Monaco midfield, he quickly and consummately arrives out of nowhere to snap at their heels and win back possession.

Not only does he win the ball back for Monaco with astonishing regularity, but he moves it along beautifully once he has, with an impressive range of passing allowing the midfield runners in front of him to dart into space in advanced areas knowing that possession, and therefore the space behind them, won’t be ceded.

Standing at just 6ft, 2in Tchouaméni may not at first viewing look the dominating and imposing figure that he cuts out to be, but the aura and confidence at which he performs in midfield means he is every player’s nightmare when coming up against him.

Astonishingly, Tchouaméni made more tackles than (133) than other player in Europe’s top-five leagues in 2021.

In fulfilling his role as a capable defensive midfielder, Tchouaméni performs it with such expert assuredness and brimming confidence. He is an exceptional tackler and reader of the game making him so appealing to clubs who are in dire need of the safety he brings, clubs like Manchester United.

So far this season, he ranks in the 99th percentile for midfielders in the top 5 European leagues with 3.97 tackles per 90 meaning he is in the best of the best company with the likes of Fabinho, Casemiro and N’Golo Kante combining his aggressive nature in defending and his awareness of attacking situations developing around him meaning he can time his challenges well in order to halt opponent’s attacks.

With a unique combination of size, strength, timing, and coordination, he is quite proficient at cleanly dispossessing his markers at an exceptional rate. He is a very athletic and mobile, imposing presence, who stands at 1.87 meters (6’2”), and has extremely long legs which help him with many defensive actions – like tackling. Furthermore, his long legs mean he has a big stride when covering long distances, covering all areas in front of his defence both on and off the ball.

He would be the perfect component for Rangnick’s high-intensity style not because of his assuredness in the tackle but his ability cover all areas of the midfield pivot in the 4-2-2-2 system. He is a naturally fast player with a great engine meaning that much of the work isn’t overwhelming for him. So far this season, he’s won 1.85 tackles per 90, and performed 3.33 interceptions. In fact, his tackles + interceptions average reads at 6.42 per 90. All of it makes for superb reading, he is very adept and efficient in his role.

Even though he shows excellent balance and agility on the ball, Tchouaméni isn’t much of a ball carrier, a progressive one in that fact – he attempts 4.88 progressive carries per game, though on the rare occasion where he attempts to carry the ball over and progress it over larger distances, he seems fairly uncomfortable able to dribble out of tight areas, or muscle his way out of opponent’s pressure, though working under better elite coaches means that will only improve vastly. He holds tremendous ball control, agility and technical qualities when on the ball meaning it is incredibly difficult to dispossess him.

In terms of pass progression, Tchouaméni also operates at such a high level. Once he receives a pass, the 21-year-old always knows where he play before he even receives it, or his body positioning when he receives means he is more than capable of progressing even when it seems difficult. As stated previously, he is excellent technically and his range of passing is amongst the best in Europe, let alone Ligue 1.

Tchouaméni completes 90.9% of his short passes and 77.1% of his long passes making him a superb outlet when progressing the ball to players in more advanced areas – a trait United could do well in acquiring in the near future. He is better than Fred (87% & 77%) and partly better than McTominay (89% & 81%) at progressing the ball, averaging 5.37 progressive passes per 90, and an 5.43 final third passes. Once he receives the ball, he is not afraid to attempt to find his attacking teammates in more dangerous areas or pockets of space.

With his blend of size, mobility, dynamism, defensive intelligence, and progressive passing that will surely improve, he would be an excellent addition for a number of top teams all over Europe including Manchester United, becoming the complete performer for the here and now and at just 21 years of age, he looks to be a player who could be one of the best defensive midfielders in world football within the next 5-10 years. 

A no-brainer addition to fully complement Ralf Rangnick’s style of football.

Barclays Premier League Gameweek 21: Previews & Predictions

Barclays Premier League Gameweek 21: Previews & Predictions

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

In what was shaping up to be a gripping and captivating three-horse Premier League title race heading into Christmas is threatening to become a Manchester City romp to a fourth crown in five seasons.

While there is still some way to go before someone is crowned come May, we can’t help but to predict an inevitable outcome with the way the current Premier League table is shaping up heading into Gameweek 21.

Nonetheless, its a new year and with it comes new goals, ambitions and a fresh start for all 20 Premier League clubs. The title race, chase for European football, the battle to finish amongst the elite at the top-half of the table and relegation scrap down the bottom is beginning to take effect which again means we are in for an enthralling second-half of the campaign, and it all starts with the first set of fixtures in this new year.

So without further ado, lets again dive into another batch of exciting Premier League fixtures.

GAMES POSTPONED:

Leicester City P-P Norwich City

Southampton P-P Newcastle United

Arsenal v Manchester City, Saturday 12:30PM

Manchester City will be looking to make it 11 wins in a row when they head to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday lunchtime to take on a resurgent Arsenal.

The Citizens are currently eight points clear of second-placed Chelsea and can make it 11 points with a win, for a day at least as Chelsea and Liverpool face off seventeen hours later. Arsenal occupy fourth position, four points clear of fifth-placed West Ham and Manchester United in sixth.

Arsenal faced plenty of criticism in the opening months of the 2021-22 campaign, but it has been a positive few weeks for the Gunners, who have won each of their last five matches in all competitions, including four straight Premier League victories over Southampton, West Ham, Leeds United and Norwich City.

Mikel Arteta’s men have scored 14 goals in their last 3 outings, having thumped Sunderland 5-1 in the EFL Cup on December 21 before again hitting 5 against strugglers Norwich City at Carrow Road on Boxing Day.

The Gunners had been due to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league on December 28, but the match had to be postponed due to coronavirus issues in the Wolves camp. Nevertheless, the North London club have still played 19 Premier League matches during the 2021-22 campaign.

A record of 11 wins, two draws and six defeats has brought them 35 points, four points clear of fifth-placed West Ham, but Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United will also both believe that they are firmly in the top-four race at this stage of the campaign.

Unfortunately, there will be no Mikel Arteta on the touchline for this fixture, with Guardiola’s former coaching assistant testing positive for coronavirus, and there has allegedly been an outbreak among the staff at the club.

Manchester City, meanwhile, will enter this weekend’s contest off the back of a tight 1-0 win over Brentford in midweek, with Phil Foden scoring on his return to the side, his fifth league goal of the campaign.

The Citizens have now been victorious in each of their last 10 league matches, which has seen them rise to the top of the table, collecting 50 points from their opening 20 matches of the 2021-22 campaign.

Guardiola’s side are eight points off second-placed Chelsea, and nine points off Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool who are in third, with both facing off on Sunday evening, so City could be further clear at the summit heading into the next set of fixtures.

The reigning champions will take on Swindon Town in the FA Cup on January 7 before hosting Chelsea in the league on January 15, and there is a danger that they could start to run away at the summit.

Man City have won 11 of their last 12 matches against Arsenal in all competitions, including a 5-0 victory in the reverse match at the Etihad Stadium earlier this season, while they have not lost against the Gunners in the Premier League since December 2015.

FUN FACT: Manchester City have opened the scoring within the opening three minutes in each of their last three league and cup matches at the Emirates Stadium.

LEAGUE FORM:

Arsenal: LLWWWW

Manchester City: WWWWWW

KEY BATTLES: Bukayo Saka v Nathan Ake; Xhaka v De Bruyne

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Arsenal: Ramsdale (GK); White, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney; Xhaka, Partey; Saka, Odegaard, Martinelli; Lacazette

Man City: Ederson (GK); Cancelo, Dias, Laporte, Ake; B Silva, Gundogan, De Bruyne; Mahrez, Foden, Sterling

SCORE PREDICTION: Arsenal 1-2 Manchester City

Watford v Tottenham Hotspur, 3:00PM

Tottenham Hotspur will be looking to return to winning ways in the Premier League when they head to Vicarage Road on Saturday afternoon to take on faltering Watford.

Spurs will enter the contest off the back of a 1-1 draw with Southampton on Tuesday, while Watford suffered a disappointing 4-1 home defeat to West Ham United on the same afternoon.

Confidence was at an all-time high at Watford when the Hornets recorded a thumping 4-1 win over Manchester United on November 20, with the result ultimately leading to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking as Red Devils boss.

Since then, they have struggled to build on that win, suffering five straight defeats to Leicester City, Chelsea, Manchester City, Brentford and West Ham United.

Claudio Ranieri will of course be a men sweating at his current position, considering the history and the rate at which the Watford hierarchy decide to make changes when things aren’t going their way on the pitch.

The former Leicester, Roma and Sampdoria boss was brought in to calm the storm at Vicarage Road, but it seems that storm is currently showing no signs of letting up.

The Hornets actually took the lead against West Ham on Tuesday but then conceded four times without reply to suffer a 4-1 home defeat, with the result leaving them in 17th position in the table.

Watford are only two points clear of 18th-placed Burnley, who have two games in hand, while there are only three points separating the Hertfordshire outfit from Norwich City at the bottom of the division.

The home side suffered a 1-0 loss to Tottenham in the reverse match earlier this season, but they have not been beaten by Spurs at Vicarage Road since January 2017, a record they will be desperate to put right on Saturday.

Tottenham have shown considerable improvement since Conte’s appointment at the start of November, with the Italian serial winner moving the North London club firmly into top-four contention.

Spurs are unbeaten in their seven league matches under Conte, recording four wins in the process, and a total of 30 points from 17 matches has left them in sixth position in the table, just five points behind fourth-placed Arsenal with two games in hand on the Gunners.

The capital outfit suffered a small setback on Tuesday afternoon, though, as they were held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Southampton, with Harry Kane cancelling out an opener from James Ward-Prowse.

After Salisu’s sending off, Spurs were expected to go on and win the game, but never looked like troubling Southampton in the second-half with the home side defending comfortably to a well-deserved draw.

Tottenham looked well short of top-four challengers earlier this season under Nuno Espirito Santo, but it has not taken long for Conte to bring a winning formula to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Spurs also have two cup competitions to think about in the early stages of January, taking on Chelsea in a two-legged EFL Cup affair either side of a clash with Morecambe in the FA Cup.

FUN FACT: Harry Kane has hit five goals on New Years Day – a current Premier League record.

LEAGUE FORM:

Watford: WLLLLL

Spurs: WWWDWD

KEY BATTLES: Emmanuel Dennis v Eric Dier; Lucas v Masina

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Watford: Bachmann (GK); Kucka, Sierralta, Cathcart, Masina; Sissoko; Dennis, Pedro, Louza, Sema; King

Tottenham: Lloris (GK); Sanchez, Dier, Davies; Emerson, Winks, Hojbjerg, Reguilon; Son, Kane, Lucas

SCORE PREDICTION: Watford 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur

Crystal Palace v West Ham United, 5:30PM

West Ham United will be looking to boost their top-four hopes in the Premier League when they head to Selhurst Park on Saturday afternoon to take on Crystal Palace.

The Hammers will enter the contest off the back of a 4-1 win at Watford, while Palace recorded a 3-0 victory over basement side Norwich City last time out.

Palace boss Patrick Vieira was again not on the touchline against Norwich on Tuesday, having recently tested positive for coronavirus, but assistant manager Osian Roberts lead the team to a 3-0 victory over the Canaries at Selhurst Park.

Palace have won five, drawn eight and lost six of their 19 Premier League matches this season to collect 23 points, which has left them in 11th spot in the table, only two points behind eighth-placed Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The Eagles have been impressive at Selhurst Park this season, suffering just one league defeat in front of their own supporters, picking up seven points from their last three home league fixtures.

Palace have only been victorious in two of their last 13 top-flight matches against the Hammers, though, and suffered a 3-2 loss in the corresponding fixture between the two sides last term.

West Ham managed to return to winning ways in impressive fashion on Tuesday afternoon, coming from behind to record a 4-1 victory over relegation-threatened Watford, with the result following back-to-back losses against Arsenal and Southampton, seeing them lose ground in the top-four race.

The win over the Hornets was therefore incredibly important, and they are firmly in the top-four mix at this stage, currently sitting fifth in the table, level on points with Manchester United and four points behind fourth-placed Arsenal.

The 2021-22 campaign could be a famous season for West Ham, but they have two difficult away Premier League games in January, facing Palace on New Year’s Day before visiting Manchester United later in the month.

The 4-1 success over Watford would have boosted confidence, but Moyes’s side have lost three of their last five away fixtures in the Premier League, picking up just four points in the process. Can they improve that run to maintain their top four chase?

FUN FACT: Michail Antonio has recorded 11 goal involvements in his last 12 London derbies for West Ham (five goals, six assists).

LEAGUE FORM:

Crystal Palace: LLWDLW

West Ham: DWDLLW

KEY BATTLES: Marc Guehi v Michail Antonio; Tyrik Mitchell v Jarrod Bowen

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Crystal Palace: Butland (GK); Ward, Tomkins, Guehi, Mitchell; Gallagher, Kouyate, Schlupp; Ayew, Edouard, Zaha

West Ham: Fabianski; (GK) Coufal, Dawson, Diop, Johnson; Soucek, Rice; Bowen, Lanzini, Benrahma; Antonio

SCORE PREDICTION: Crystal Palace 2-2 West Ham United

Brentford v Aston Villa, Sunday 2:00PM

Aston Villa will be looking to return to winning ways when they travel to the Brentford Community Stadium to face-off against Brentford on Sunday afternoon.

The visitors, who are currently 12th in the table, suffered a 3-1 home defeat to Chelsea on Boxing Day, while Brentford lost 1-0 to Manchester City on Wednesday.

Brentford have won five, drawn five and lost eight of their 18 Premier League matches this season to collect 20 points, which has left them in 14th position in the table, nine points clear of the relegation zone, so it has been a successful campaign to date for the newly promoted club.

Thomas Frank’s men took four points from their two games against Leeds United and Watford earlier this month but have lost their last two against Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City without finding the back of the net.

Brentford have won five, drawn five and lost eight of their 18 Premier League matches this season to collect 20 points, which has left them in 14th position in the table, nine points clear of the relegation zone, so it has been a successful campaign to date for the promoted club.

Frank’s team picked up a point in a 1-1 draw with Villa in the reverse match earlier this season, while they recorded a 1-0 victory when the two teams last locked horns in Middlesex back in February 2019.

Villa, meanwhile, had been due to take on Leeds United at Elland Road on December 28, but the match was postponed due to coronavirus issues in the home side’s squad.

As a result, Steven Gerrard’s men have not been in action since suffering a 3-1 home defeat to Chelsea on Boxing Day, and a total of 22 points from 18 matches has left them languishing in 12th place, and Gerrard will certainly be looking to move the club up the table in 2022.

Villa have shown giant strides since Gerrard’s arrival as head coach, winning four of their seven matches, but they have struggled for consistency for much of the campaign and will take on Manchester United in the FA Cup and Premier League respectively in the middle of January.

The visitors have been victorious in two of their last three away league fixtures, beating Crystal Palace and Norwich City, and they are only three points behind eighth-placed Wolverhampton Wanderers on the same number of matches (18), so a win here could propel them up the table.

Villa have not actually beaten Brentford in the league since February 1947, with the Bees enjoying the better of the previous Championship meetings between the two teams.

FUN FACT: Brentford have suffered five defeats at home this season, with only fellow promoted clubs Norwich and Watford faring worse.

LEAGUE FORM:

Brentford: WLDWLL

Aston Villa: WLWLWL

KEY BATTLES: Ivan Toney v Ezri Konsa; Ollie Watkins v Pontus Jansson

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Brentford: Fernandez (GK); Pinnock, Jansson, Sorensen; Roerslev, Baptiste, Norgaard, Onyeka, Canos; Mbuemo, Toney

Aston Villa: Martinez (GK); Cash, Konsa, Hause, Targett; McGinn, Luiz, Sanson; Ramsey, Watkins, Ings

SCORE PREDICTION: Brentford 1-2 Aston Villa

Everton v Brighton & Hove Albion, 2:00PM

Everton and Brighton & Hove Albion’s 2022 campaigns begin with an afternoon Premier League encounter on Sunday at Goodison Park.

The Toffees have not played since their impressive 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea on December 16, and ironically, the Seagulls recorded the same result against Thomas Tuchel’s side in midweek.

To say that 2021 was a mixed bag for Everton would be a true understatement, but the Toffees ultimately ended the year on a relative high note with a point at Stamford Bridge.

With clashes against Burnley and Newcastle United both being called off as outfits up and down the country work around depleted squads, Everton head into 2022 with much work to be done to eventually save Rafael Benitez’s job.

Now 15th in the table with 19 points to their name from a possible 51, Benitez’s bright start to life at Goodison Park has not had the desired effect over the winter, as Everton sit just eight points above Burnley having played a game more.

The Toffees managed to win just one of their last five home Premier League games in 2021, and history is not on their side too, as they have suffered defeat in each of their last four opening top-flight matches of the calendar year.

A tally of 10 goals conceded in their most recent four encounters at Goodison Park does not bode well for the hosts either, and the pressure is weighing heavily on Benitez’s shoulders to turn his side’s fortunes around in the New Year.

Arsenal fans of 2016 are already well aware of Danny Welbeck’s affinity for last-minute goals, something he must have picked up during his time playing under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Chelsea proved to be the Englishman’s next victims as Brighton claimed a point at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.

The wins column is still looking particularly bare for Brighton, but four points from a possible six was an ideal way to end a topsy-turvy 2021, and they sit 10th in the table heading into the New Year as a result.

If Brighton end the season in the same position then Graham Potter will certainly be rewarded with some praise, but he knows his side will need to start getting luck and points on the board if that is to be achieved.

A stalemate at Stamford Bridge represented a third consecutive 1-1 draw on the road for Graham Potter’s men – whose most recent win on the road came back in September – and coincidentally, all four of their opening Premier League clashes in a calendar year have ended with the spoils shared.

Demarai Gray and Dominic Calvert-Lewin propelled Everton to a 2-0 win over Brighton at the Amex back in August, and all four of the Seagulls’ Premier League trips to Goodison Park have seen them come away empty-handed.

FUN FACT: Everton are 13 points worse off after 17 games than at the same stage last season.

LEAGUE FORM:

Everton: LLLWLD

Brighton: DDDLWD

KEY BATTLES: Dominic Calvert-Lewin v Dan Burn; Abdoulaye Doucoure v Yves Bissouma

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Everton: Pickford (GK); Coleman, Branthwaite, Keane, Godfrey; Allan, Doucoure, Gomes; Gray, Calvert-Lewin, Gordon

Brighton: Sanchez (GK); Lamptey, Veltman, Burn, Cucurella; Bissouma, Mwepu; Mac Allister, Lallana, March; Maupay

SCORE PREDICTION: Everton 1-1 Brighton & Hove Albion

Leeds United v Burnley, 2:00PM

Seeking to end a dismal run of three straight defeats in their first game of 2022, Leeds United prepare to welcome fellow strugglers to Elland Road on Sunday.

The Whites have seen their recent clashes with Liverpool and Aston Villa postponed due to COVID-19, while Sean Dyche’s men lost 3-1 against Manchester United in midweek.

From the highs of establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League to the lows of a likely relegation dogfight, it has been quite the topsy-turvy year for Leeds United.

Prior to seeing recent games called off, Marcelo Bielsa’s side lost three from three against Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal despite it being a tough run of games, and it would taken something special to get points from those top-four outfits.

The Whites prepare to enter 2022 16th in the Premier League table and five points clear of the relegation zone after Burnley’s defeat against Man United, so the highly-experienced Bielsa would choose no better time to weave his old magic and steady the Elland Road ship.

Leeds can take some solace in the fact that their 4-1 loss to Arsenal represents their only defeat in their last six Premier League contests at home, and the hosts have only failed to score in one of their last 11 top-flight games at Elland Road – finding the back of the net in each of their last seven.

Not since the Championship days of the 2014-15 season have Leeds lost four league encounters on the bounce, and given Burnley’s troubles on the road throughout much of 2021, the home crowd can afford to enter the New Year with a cautious sense of optimism for Sunday’s game.

Even amid Man United’s struggles to dominate matches under the tutelage of Ralf Rangnick, attempting to get one over the Red Devils at Old Trafford was a bridge too far for Burnley, who slumped to a 3-1 defeat on Thursday night.

Another fight to retain their top-flight status awaits Burnley in 2022, as Sean Dyche’s side occupy 18th spot in the table, but 17th-placed Watford and upcoming opponents Leeds are within touching distance as the Clarets aim to take advantage of their games in hand.

It is now six games without victory for Burnley in the Premier League, though, and they are one of only two sides in the English top flight – along with Newcastle United – yet to win away from home this term, but a trip to fellow strugglers Leeds could be a prime opportunity to end that barren streak.

Burnley and Leeds played out a 1-1 draw in their clash at Turf Moor earlier in the campaign, but the Whites managed to prevail 1-0 at Elland Road this time last year thanks to a fifth-minute penalty from talisman Patrick Bamford.

FUN FACT: Brazilian wing-wizard Raphinha has been directly involved in 50% of Leeds United’s league goals this season (8 goals, 1 assist).

LEAGUE FORM:

Leeds United: DWDLLL

Burnley: DDDLDL

KEY BATTLES: Patrick Bamford v James Tarkowski; Chris Wood v Diego Llorente

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Leeds: Meslier (GK); Ayling, Koch, Llorente, Firpo; Dallas, Forshaw; Raphinha, Roberts, Harrison; Bamford

Burnley: Hennessey (GK); Lowton, Mee, Tarkowski, Taylor; Gudmundsson, Cork, Westwood, McNeil; Lennon, Wood

SCORE PREDICTIONS: Leeds United 2-1 Burnley

Chelsea v Liverpool, 4:30PM

Second meets third in an intriguing opening to the calendar year at Stamford Bridge, as title rivals Chelsea and Liverpool prepare for battle in the capital.

Thomas Tuchel’s side were held to a 1-1 draw by Brighton & Hove Albion last time out, while the Reds were sunk by Leicester City in a 1-0 defeat. at the King Power.

Winter was certainly unforgiving to those in Blue, as a frustrated Thomas Tuchel bemoaned his side’s growing absentee list after Brighton took a point home from Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.

The Blues have now fallen eight points behind runaway leaders Manchester City in the rankings, and even though the season has only just reached its midway point, Tuchel claimed that it would be “stupid” to think his depleted side are capable of competing for top-flight glory.

VAR comments aside as well, four of Chelsea’s last five Premier League encounters at Stamford Bridge have now ended 1-1, and failing to keep a single home clean sheet in that run represents quite the downturn from Chelsea’s formerly steadfast defence under the German.

It would be ignorant to write Chelsea out of the title race ahead of the New Year, and they were certainly done a favour by Leicester before the confidence-sapped Reds make the journey South.

Before a ball was kicked at the King Power, all signs pointed towards an away victory especially amongst the star-studded pundits covering the fixture for Amazon Prime. The Reds had enjoyed a six-day recovery period after dumping the Foxes out of the EFL Cup, while Brendan Rodgers was short of options 48 hours after the 6-3 loss to Manchester City.

However, Leicester dug deep to pick up a much needed win in front of their own fans, as Ademola Lookman came off the bench to dent Liverpool’s title aspirations.

Defeat at the King Power marked only Liverpool’s second loss in the 2021-22 season across all competitions, and the third-placed Reds now find themselves nine points adrift of Man City having played a game fewer, and fourth-placed Arsenal are suddenly just six points behind.

Jurgen Klopp’s men will leapfrog the Blues back into the top two with victory in the capital, but they have failed to beat three London sides in Brentford, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur away from home so far this season.

Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool tend to kick off the New Year on a high note either, but recent history is in the Reds’ favour, as they have only lost two of their last 11 Premier League games against the Blues at Stamford Bridge.

FUN FACT: Liverpool could lose consecutive away league games for the first time since February 2017, when they were beaten by Hull City and then Leicester City.

LEAGUE FORM:

Chelsea: LWDDWD

Liverpool: WWWWDL

KEY BATTLES: Romelu Lukaku v Virgil Van Dijk; Sadio Mane v Cesar Azpilicueta

LIKELY LINE-UPS:

Chelsea: Mendy (GK); Azpilicueta, Chalobah, Rudiger; Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho, Kante, Alonso; Mount, Havertz; Lukaku

Liverpool: Alisson (GK); Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Tsimikas; Henderson, Fabinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Salah, Jota, Mane

SCORE PREDICTION: Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool