The Time Is Now Or Never For Isco

Isco-Real-Madrid

via 101greatgoals.com

Often seen as part of La Roja’s midfield for the foreseeable future, Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez – also known as Isco – faces a crucial season ahead of him at Real Madrid.  It is his third season at the Spanish giants after a €30 million move from Málaga in the summer of 2013.

Fresh off winning the Golden Boy award and a trip to the quarterfinals in the Champions League, Isco made a choice between following his former manager Manuel Pellegrini to Manchester City and the Premier League or staying in Spain and playing for Los Blancos. In the end he decided to stay in his home country.

The 2013 summer transfer window for Madrid was highlighted by the capture of Gareth Bale from Tottenham, but Real also scooped up Spanish talent like Dani Carvajal from Bayer Leverkusen (€6.5 million) and Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad (€32 million), while promoting Jesé Rodríguez, Alvaro Morata and Nacho Fernández from the Castilla.

This was thought to be a movement towards a more home-grown and Spanish oriented team, much in the same way that Barcelona’s stars had risen up through the ranks of La Masia.  In his debut season for Madrid, Isco made 32 appearances in the league, 23 of them being starts.  He scored 8 goals, while providing 6 assists in 1991 minutes total to cap off a fairly promising season.

The summer of 2014 was the World Cup in Brazil and a coming out party of sorts for Colombian international James Rodríguez.  The midfielder scored 6 goals and added 2 assists in just five matches.  This breakout performance was enough for Real Madrid to plunk out €80 million to secure his services from AS Monaco.  Despite the addition of Rodríguez, Isco appeared in 34 matches (26 starts) and played his third most minutes at the top level (2338).

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When looking at Isco’s numbers compared to Rodríguez and other attacking midfielders there is cause for concern.  You can see on the per/90 numbers that Isco is lower in almost every category except for Juan Mata.  To be fair Mata was in his first full season at United under Louis van Gaal, who couldn’t decide where the Spaniard really fit in his starting XI.

When you play in a team that boasts the attacking talent and free flowing play of Real Madrid you would expect much higher assist numbers.  Isco is normally set up on the right side of the midfield and shares the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, three of the most lethal offensive players in the planet.  In comparison Mesut Özil contributed 13 assists and 9 goals in his final season at Madrid in only 23 starts and was frequently subbed off in the second half by Jose Mourinho.

As Madrid have begun the 2015 season under new manager Rafa Benítez it is clear that his first choice front four consists of Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale and Rodríguez.  Unfortunately over the international break, Rodríguez tore his thigh muscle while playing in a pointless friendly against Peru.  The Colombian is expected to be sidelined for at least a month, opening the door for Isco.

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via uefa.com

This is the perfect opportunity for the 23-year-old.  He needs to grab the reigns and show he is more than a beautiful dribbler capable of producing Vine highlights and that he can play for one of the biggest teams in the world.  In his first match in the starting XI for Madrid against Espanyol it should’ve been easy to shine.

Madrid played as if Espanyol was a junior varsity team and completely dominated them, winning 6-0 with Ronaldo scoring 5.  Despite Isco starting the match lined up on the right you wouldn’t even have noticed he was on the pitch.  Watching the bloodbath I didn’t even realize Isco was playing until he came up to congratulate Ronaldo after his three first half goals. These are the type of matches the young Spaniard needs to assert himself in and build confidence.

With Rodríguez injured he is automatically the first choice to start at that position and it is worrying if he can’t show he belongs.  Benítez has urged his young midfielder to have more of an eye for goal and he certainly can improve upon the measly 4 he netted last season. Hell, Ronaldo had 5 in just the last match!

This season is truly make or break for Isco.  He can prove he is an essential piece to the Real Madrid squad or become another Illarramendi, who left before the end of this summer’s transfer window back to Real Sociedad after failing to live up to the hype.  If you believe the papers both Arsenal and Manchester City are among the clubs interested in Isco; he might have to move on to truly capitalize on his potential.  For now the world will watch at how he adapts to the first XI at Madrid over the next month or so.

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The Gabonese Gas Pedal

Capture

It’s not a tragedy, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a long, two-part uphill battle to show he’s one of the best strikers in the world.

First, the fact is Aubameyang is a very fast African player. His athletic greatness is something many of the world’s sports marvel at and demand more of. Yet there’s always been a snobby air around the phrase “he’s all pace.” There’s a pretentious presumption that a player who is simply fast lacks quality to play a game born of technical savvy.

As a footballing culture, we tend to underrate players when we can’t see their impact in dictating a game through their physical gifts. We also tend to underrate them when we percieve their impact as something solely born out of those same physical gifts. Since Aubameyang can simply outrun everyone, it’s easy to brush off any tactical knowledge of how and where he makes runs.

Another factor that plays against Pierre-Emerick is that he plays for the Gabon national team. There’s “doesn’t play for a world power” and there’s “completely off the map” in terms of international football. It’s already hard enough for many African players to get recognition when their transfer value is deflated for not not being part of a European FA (see: Lyon helping force Nabil Fekir’s hand in turning down the Algeria National Team for the much more prestigious and UEFA friendly France). It’s another thing when the nation you represent isn’t within smelling distance of the World Cup, largely African footballers only chance to star on the international stage.

So while the Toure’s, Drogba, and many other African footballers feel many of these pains, few experience them in the amount and variety of ways Aubameyang has. Spurning France himself in 2009 after only one appearance for the U21 side in favor of Gabon, he took the road less traveled to being a world class striker and the guy who puts the foot to the floor for Dortmund. And even then he’s hardly the first name people mention when it comes to the Borussians.

Aubameyang was French born to his father Pierre Francois. The elder was a staple of the Gabon national team and made his career playing as a journeyman center half in Ligue 1 until the early 2000’s. Through that career he put the younger Pierre and both of his older brothers through the Milan youth academy. Between the three brothers, they made a total of one appearance for the Rossoneri (and surprise, it wasn’t Pierre-Emerick). Catalina Aubameyang played mostly in Ligue 2 and lower level Italy before electing to play for the Gabonian club Sapins, while Willy’s most notable club was Kilmarock of the Scottish Premiership.

Pierre-Emerick was evidently the most talented of the three, making impressions in each of his four loan stints to France before being sold permanently to St. Etienne. While a member of The Greens, Aubameyang found a lot of success playing out wide to the right. His pace in combination with Ivorian Max Gradel made  for one of the most potent counter-attacking forces to be reckoned with scoring 16 goals with seven assists in his first season before scoring 19 goals and 9 assists in the second season.

This earned him his move to Dortmund, the world’s most notorious group of counter attackers. The fee never was disclosed, but rumors had it at €14 million at the time, which was hardly a lucrative sum for a 24-year-old who found the net 35 times in two seasons. His first year was solid, despite not receiving much fanfare. At St. Etienne, despite being classified as a winger, Aubameyang had much freedom to roam centrally on the quick counters and be individualistic. In his first season at Dortmund he did find the net 13 times, but was often times deployed more as a true winger with Lewandowski patrolling the middle and the current right winger Blaszczykowski hampered with injuries. His pace made him a solid enough substitute winger and while his ground crossing is good, he’s hardly one to whip in an aerial ball worth salivating over.

Lewandowski left that following summer, but instead of entrusting PEA in the role of striker, Dortmund looked to reshuffle at striker with Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile. Neither have still looked remotely close to add up to Lewandowski. Immobile is now off at Sevilla after a season where he seemingly didn’t fit off the field and Ramos has never looked like a fit on the field. However, Aubameyang was ready to step right into that place. Klopp was reluctant at times, still pushing Immobile and Ramos in the lineup in favor of deploying Aubameyang out wide, but when he was deployed centrally he looked special. His goal in the German Super Cup featured a smart run in the box, an amazing leap over the world-class Jerome Boateng, and a Spider-Man mask, showing that he’s much more than a dash and smash threat with the kind of poaching technique even Ruud Van Nistelrooy could appreciate.

He went on to score 16 goals that season, and not just powered by pace. Pierre-Emerick has the kind of nose for goal to make for one of the world’s very best, and he makes the kind of amazing off ball runs a slower, less physically gifted player makes. His chipped goals against Wolfsburg and FC Koln are just as impressive as his extravagant front-flip celebration. He’s even one of the most unselfish players in terms of squaring it to a teammate over trying to finish a one-on-one with a keeper. He even back heel flicked a pass, made a great run down the wing, and fired a pinpoint cross to Marco Reus against the titanic Bayern Munich. The pace is the mind killer, but he’s done more than enough to shed the “only pace” label many try to give him.

And in his first full season as an out-an-out striker he’s flourishing more now than ever. His last outing he may have scored two penalties without Marco Reus there to take the spot kicks, but his three goals in his first three appearances were all from open play. He’s even shown that willingness to pass setting up Henrikh Mikhitaryan. He’s Dortmund’s third banana, and The Black and Gold are more than happy to have a player of his quality in that role. He’s not mentioned in world class forwards now, but it’ll hard to imagine a conversation to not include him when the season ends.

He’s fast. He’s Gabonese. He’s a late bloomer. However he’s also a world class finisher and makes some of the best runs in all of Europe. And strangely enough is the missing link of French wide forwards turned world class strikers. Not only is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pacey, he’s the modern complete package of what you want up top.

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Ross Barkley isn’t Good at Football

It’s really easy to make fun of English prospects, so much so that it could simply be classified as low hanging fruit. The way the English media and fans hype their own talent way above their actual production level is borderline farcical.

Saido Berahino was thought so highly of that Tottenham dedicated nearly a month to try and get him from West Brom, even though his career outlook is potentially the next Jermain Defoe. Jack Wilshere can barely string 3 games together yet Arsenal fans for the longest time couldn’t let go his 2010-11 season. Jordan Ibe is a ball dominant winger who can’t pass the ball if his life depended on it, yet he’s gotten playing time over Lazar Markovic who’s now on loan in Turkey.

Of course, there are English prospects that are about as good as the hype machine that’s generated for them. Raheem Sterling has a chance to be as good as Franck Ribery was at his peak (RIP Franck), and he’s given Manchester City some much needed dynamism out wide. While the “English Verratti” tag for Jonjo Shelvey is somewhat hyperbolic, he is a genuinely good passer and dictator in a double pivot formation alongside a destroyer type. Jordan Henderson is a very good playmaker as a forward venturing central midfielder and Harry Kane could be the remix version of Alan Shearer. For every 3-4 overrated and overhyped English talents, there are 1-2 genuine quality players.

Sadly for Everton fans, Ross Barkley is not one of those quality prospects. In fact, he’s much more the opposite. Ross Barkley made the English media take notice in 2013-14 when he was part of Everton’s attacking team that threatened to overtake Arsenal for 4th place. The pace of Barkley and the attacking play from Romelu Lukaku made the Merseyside club somewhat of a neutral’s favorite. His goal versus Newcastle was magnificent and the hype machine gained full steam, earning him a trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. In many ways, Barkley was and still is the perfect “Match of the Day” player. All of this obscured the fact that Ross was really mediocre that season.

The following can’t be said strongly enough: Ross Barkley is talented, at least in the conventional way we judge talent with our eyes. Physically, he’s everything you want in a venturing attacking midfielder: he’s quick, fearless as a dribbler and on the counter attack, he can look like a real threat to do something beneficial. He is the type of player that managers give loads of time to, because the payoff could be enormous. He could be described as a very unfinished version of Kevin De Bruyne.

When you have a raw prospect that’s being allowed to make mistake after mistake on the ball, you get current Ross Barkley. If Mesut Ozil is on the suave and understated spectrum of #10’s (the part of the spectrum that we tend to underrate by a great degree), Barkley is the opposite. Ross Barkley is the football equivalent of mixing Mentos and Coke together then shaking it up and watching it explode. Paul Riley did an Everton preview and showed a graphic on the location of Barkley’s open play passes, and it’s not very flattering for a player Roberto Martinez has almost hitched his wagon to as Everton’s #10.

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Ross Barkley can look like a selfish individualist at work. He’s very reminiscent of what Andros Townsend and Jordan Ibe are as players, but in a central role.

Take his performance versus Chelsea yesterday. Ross Barkley’s best trait as a player is he knows how to position himself so when he gets the ball, he can have some space to set up a forward action of his choosing. For a guy who quite frankly sucks when he has to do something with the ball, he’s actually really good at this.

It’s the decision making that makes people (including me) scratch their heads. Yes, he registered an assist on Naismith’s hat-trick goal and it was a delightfully weighted pass that was David Silva esque, but that was more or less an isolated successful event in a series of unsuccessful events. There were moments where he would try and go 1v3 versus Chelsea and it went nowhere. This is perhaps the best encapsulation of Barkley’s poor decision making:

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Barkley 1 Barkley 3

Barkley 4

Nearly every game that Barkley plays, it features a lot of these instances. Ross could’ve easily just shifted to his right and play a ball to Lukaku which could’ve ended up in a goal. Instead he was so smitten with getting it to Kone that it was 2-3 steps too late. Lukaku might go the entire prime of his career playing with a #10 who only passes when he either feels like it or it’s somewhat of a last resort. No wonder his goal scoring record went down last season (Roberto Martinez also played him a lot on the flanks which also didn’t help things).

The best thing to say about Ross Barkley is he’s still only 21 years old despite this being his third season in the EPL, he’s very young. Every once in a while, Barkley seduces everyone into thinking that he’s starting to figure things out. He was really good against Southampton and his pass for Naismith’s third yesterday was a genuine piece of class. He also has produced only 5 assists and created 65 chances  in 4707 minutes of league play, a putrid return for a #10.

In five years, Ross Barkley could figure this all out and become a top notch #10, possibly in the mold of a Steven Gerrard. Ross Barkley could also turn out to be crap and not deviate from what he’s shown so far in his career. No one knows what Ross Barkley will turn out to be, but for now we can probably say that he’s not good at football.

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Atlético Madrid 1-2 Barcelona: “C’est la Vie,” Said the Champions

(Goal)

(Goal)

“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”

A team not often praised for its work when backed into a corner sure did well when it was backed into a corner Saturday. At the same time, it forced all challengers onto their heels.

On Saturday, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona did battle once again. It was the third meeting in Madrid and the fifth meeting overall between the two rivals in the last eight months. Seeing as familiarity breeds contempt (and media attention), this was billed as the match of the season so far on the continent. Some viewed a handicapped Barça as underdogs against a much-improved Atleti team playing in Madrid. An early leg up in the title race was expected for the winner, and anticipation was heightened after Valencia beat Sporting Gijón and Cristiano Ronaldo went off for five against poor Espanyol earlier in the day.

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The American writer Flannery O’Connor once said she found that most people know what a story is…until they actually sit down and try to write one. Such is the fluid nature of writing and storytelling. What seems like a foolproof outline or plan is sometimes shot to bits once an attempt to execute it is made. Whether through a personal oversight or the interference of an external force, it just happens.

You may recall that Atlético did not beat Barcelona last year. Didn’t even draw with them. Barça won four out of four against Atleti, knocked them out of the Copa del Rey, and clinched La Liga at the Calderón a few months later.

Diego Simeone knew the story. After four poor performances last spring and another 100 million spent in summer, surely the time was now to challenge the treble-winners and issue a statement of intent. After all, the top five were closer than ever last year; why shouldn’t the 2014 champions (and the teams beneath them) harbor title hopes once more?

***

You know the famous quote attributed to 19th-century French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. The more you think you know how to tell a story, the more you end up spouting gobbledygook. La Liga’s top teams get stronger, but cannot take down the kings.

(bola.liputan6.com)

(bola.liputan6.com)

Indeed, Barcelona got the best of Atlético once again, rallying to a fifth straight win over the rojiblancos on Saturday. Fernando Torres opened up the scoring eight minutes before the hour, but it was nullified after only three minutes by a Neymar free kick. When Lionel Messi strolled off the bench after 60 minutes you just knew he would slot home the winner, which he did 17 minutes later.

C’est la vie.

***

The Catalan club were pressed but managed the standard 70% possession and a bevy of good chances in the second half, as Simeone ushered on new signing after new signing, gunning for the three points. Atlético were well-positioned after a tense, goalless, perhaps fortunate first half (referee Mateu Lahoz missed two potential penalties from Giménez handballs) and went ahead after a sumptuous ball from Tiago found its way through to Torres, who duly converted off the back post.

Coming up on the hour mark, things were peachy for Atlético. All three subs remaining, Messi still glued to the bench after his wife gave birth to another child on Friday. Suddenly, Neymar stepped up for a free kick after he was cut down by Antoine Griezmann just outside the box. The Brazilian subsequently curled home beautifully past the fingertips of Jan Oblak. 1-1.

Neymar’s goal seemed to light a fire under Barcelona, which proceeded to run roughshod over Atlético’s normally-stout midfield and force Simeone’s back four into action. Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Jackson Martínez were sent on to wrestle control back from the champions, but it was too late. Messi was already on, and Luis Suárez set him up for the winner in close on 77’. All over. The Atleti hype train derailed (for now).

This time, a poor showing from the midfield proved to be Atlético’s undoing. Koke, in a very un-Koke-like display, looked lost and disconnected from play on the left side. Tiago failed to influence proceedings other than his assist to Torres. On the right, Óliver displayed his individual skill and on-ball acumen, but the 20-year-old was more than a step behind and perhaps his whirlwind 18 months – Villarreal to Porto to Atleti’s new #10 and starting against Barcelona – are beginning to catch up with him. All credit to Gabi, who played quite well and looks refreshed this year, but days when he is the best midfielder are likely days that will see the rojiblancos drop points.

Gabi (left) and Andrés Iniesta (right) were two of the most active players on the pitch Saturday.

Gabi (left) and Andrés Iniesta (right) were two of the most active players on the pitch Saturday.

Barcelona on the other hand passed its first major test of 2015-16, coming back from a deficit for the first time in four months. A difficult opening trio of games – at Athletic, home to Málaga, away to Atlético – all ended with victories. The bodies may be dropping (Thomas Vermaelen the latest to do so, a calf injury sidelining him for three weeks), but you wouldn’t know it. Even at this early stage, Barça are threatening to turn La Liga into a race for second place. It would be foolish to presume the blaugrana won’t get even stronger once healthy and reinforced.

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(sport360.com)

(sport360.com)

So now, a new story must be written. Luis Enrique once again outfoxed Diego Simeone and kept his troops a cut above the 2014 champions, just as Simeone outwitted Unai Emery yet again two weeks ago to prove Sevilla are not quite top-three caliber. The challengers continue to mount – deep, balanced Atlético, Real Madrid and its 11 goals in 180 minutes, Valencia’s Mendes-fueled youth movement – but Barcelona withstand them all through the greatest player to ever live and a pretty decent supporting cast. Opportunities like the one Atleti missed Saturday only strengthen the Catalans’ case to defend the crown.

It goes to show that the more we think we know about the story, the more we realize we have lost the plot.

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Rigid Louie

Louis van Gaal’s second season at the helm at Manchester United hasn’t gotten off to the greatest of starts. After four weeks of play, United have won two, drawn one and lost one, which isn’t really a problem in and of itself. However, it is the manner in which United have come out that kinda is.

After four games, United’s league goal tally stands at three: they scored an own goal against Spurs, Adnan Januzaj had a goal at Villa, and Juan Mata scored in their loss at the Liberty Stadium. That’s not good, but that’s not the most pressing concern.

To me, the most pressing concern with United is that they appear flat and boring, looking only to control games and not inflict any damage on the opposition. It seems that van Gaal’s aim is for his midfield to control the ball at all times. There’s no risk involved, which means that there most likely won’t be any reward.

To be fair to van Gaal, he is right to worry. After all, in the game against Swansea, every time United – through Luke Shaw, mostly – ventured forward, they were burned on the counter. However, his tactics are stifling the attacking talent he has at his disposal. I won’t go a lot into that here since we have yet to see what LVG does with Anthony Martial, his new 36m striker from Monaco.

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It was recently revealed that senior members of Manchester United’s team (Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick) voiced concerns over van Gaal’s coaching methods. They claim that the dressing room is flat and that the training regiment is very structured and rigid. Which kind of makes sense, because I think that Louis van Gaal is basically a college basketball coach.

Of course, the old guys don’t like his coaching style. Of course they don’t like his rigid tactics. (Nor do they like his data guy, Max Reckers, telling them exactly where and how they messed up.) They’re used to expressing themselves, having a say in the matter, and despite what Louis may tell the media, that crap won’t fly with Louis (or at least it didn’t).

Upon van Gaal’s appointment last year, his track record of giving academy players like Andres Iniesta and Thomas Müller their debuts was highly publicized. His father figure relationship with Memphis was characterized as a major factor in the Dutch winger’s decision to sign with Ed Woodward (for cheap!). Of course, on the other side of that coin is the fact that Louis doesn’t really usually see eye to eye with the established members of his respective team’s playing staff. He had run ins with Rivaldo. He feuded with Luca Toni. Just last year, his issues with Ángel di María (who wasn’t a veteran at United, but was still nonetheless a veteran player) were seen as the reason for the dip in the winger’s playing time and his eventual departure for Paris.

Which brings me to Wayne Rooney.

Since being made captain of both club and country two years ago, there’s a sense that Rooney has been pandered to at the expense of the teams he’s on. Admittedly, this is more pronounced at the national team since there are obviously better fits at his two favorite positions – striker and 10 – at the NT level, definitely more so than at United. As such, he’s been complacent, assured of always being guaranteed a starting spot.

That, quite simply, was never, ever Louis’s modus operandi. Whether it’s because he’s mellowed out as he’s gotten older (highly unlikely) or he knows that he has no better options at the moment (remains to be seen with Martial), he’s been reluctant to drop Rooney from his squad.

Van Gaal has claimed that he has taken some of the criticism from his players and that he’s willing to adapt. “I’m a communicator, not a dictator,” he said in his presser, which apart from being a top 5 rap lyric of all time, has never been true about Louis. He’s a strict, regimented tactician who has always done things his way. At United, his way has so far meant that Wayne Rooney will start. (He apparently won’t today, though.)

And that, ultimately, might be the thing that is holding and will continue to hold this United, van Gaal’s United, back.

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Crystal Palace’s Impact

It was around this time I wrote a guest post about Crystal Palace and their outlook just a few weeks into the 2014-15 season.

Palace’s first two seasons back in the Premier League were heart-attack inducing followed by infinite swooning.

Much of Crystal Palace’s 2013-14 season consisted of an intensely bad start. Then manager Ian Holloway dropped eight of the first nine fixtures, their only win being a 3-1 bashing of Sunderland. Holloway was then sacked, current West Brom manager Tony Pulis took over and, somehow, catapulted them from the bowels of the Premier League (in 20th) all the way to 11th at season’s end. Pulis won Manager of The Year, went into harsh contract negotiations and never returned after disagreements with co-chairman Steve Parish over transfer policies and missed opportunities, who, aside from the players, is the model the team is based off of.

It was perfectly acceptable for supporters to feel displeased with the board: their team’s Manager of The Year didn’t return (at the time, over something presumably ridiculous) and they foiled Liverpool’s title chances in the second to last week of the season. But looking back, thank goodness Pulis didn’t return, because, despite pulling off a very memorable relegation rescue, his system consisted of austere, drudged, bus parking while trying retain a one goal lead that was, somewhat, overly reliant on Mile Jedinak. Dreadful. Now, Pulis rejected four of Daniel Levy’s bids for Saido Berahino and is playing the same old deliberate system.

(Yes, you have to do whatever you can to win, but good god, it was like trying to watch Ross Turnbull trying to play for Chelsea. Please go back there, Ross; they need you)

Warnock was sacked again, the first four fixtures resulted in two losses and two draws and Alan Pardew (the managerial version of Zidane’s headbutt) took over at the helm. Sounds all too familiar, right? Well, sort of.

After a nice late surge of four straight wins from weeks 29-32 brought them up the ranks, they dropped the next four games, two of them against Manchester United and eventual champions Chelsea, respectively and won the last two weeks of the season, bringing them up to 10th for the season.

Fast forward to this season and the pendulum is swinging in the right direction. Through the first four weeks, the Premier League’s number one darling (with Gary Lineker’s Leicester up on their tails) are currently sitting at 2nd with 8 points, sitting behind red hot Manchester City, who have won their first four fixtures by clean sheets.

Now, we’re all wondering why the Eagles are doing this well. Is it the business that they’ve conducted over this summer? Is it the broad scale improvement? The immaculate power of Pardiola? It’s a matter of all three.

Palace has done brilliant business this summer. They swooped in for Wolverhampton’s best player in Bakary Sako (on a free, which is even more impressive) and he was a colossal component in their win against Chelsea this past weekend. Yohan Cabaye passed on PSG to come to South London on a club record fee of £13 million, and Alex McCarthy, who signed for £3.5 million from QPR, has impressed with his latest string of superb overall goalkeeping performances, warranting a very possible England call-up from the man Woy himself (then again, he’ll be sitting on his ass as the third choice goalkeeper, but that’s what Tom Heaton did last season before Burnley got the stamp of relegation last season).

And now, with the Premier League’s bloated new TV deal for next season, Palace will be in even better financial position. They earned just under £74.3M last season for their top half finish and they’ll earn at least £81M next year. With even more financial firepower, who knows who they’ll swoop in for?

According to Richard Foster of The Guardian, Parish has cleared out 30M in debts, while bagging a 23M profit in the most recent financial year. Something else:

“Given that every Premier League position is worth an extra £1.2m, while prize money for FA Cup winners is £1.8m and only £100,000 for League Cup winners, moving up those two league places earned them more money than they would have made from winning both domestic cups.”

Hard to believe, because just five years ago, former chairman Simon Jordan was running them six feet under with their dismal finances, getting docked 10 points and being placed under administration. How Portsmouthian of him.

However, though, despite a nice return of £4M, Glenn Murray’s departure to Bournemouth hit fans the hardest. The man, besides Wilfried Zaha, who carried them on his knapsack via his 31 goals in all comps on the 2012-13 promotion winning side, was a disciple to supporters. He stuck around till the end of last season as Pardew’s main striker.

Nevertheless, without the cult figure in Murray, Connor Wickham isn’t such a horrible replacement like the press says he is. Sure, he’ll slow down by holding up play, but with Sako’s authoritarian left foot, he could provide toe-tip goals from him that Olivier Giroud wishes he could put in. Plus, Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon and Wilfried Zaha are always around to pester opposing fullbacks with their winger dynamics and find Wickham in the box for a finish.

Parrish and his constituency are all about making correct, veracious decisions. He could have broke the bank on somebody like Jordan Rhodes or Craig Bryson, but instead of being cocksure like City Football Group, where money is dumped out of an office ceiling on one of their targets while negotiating, they look for the right move for the club at all times (like buying McArthur and using him and Jedinak as a double pivot for Pulis’s system).

Palace had dished out their £7M record fee on James McArthur last year, but getting Cabaye was perhaps indicative of their board room continuing to build themselves off of last year’s successes.

Alan Pardew made history last year: he became the first manager in Premier League history to take over a club in the relegation zone and guide them to top half territory, and it was also Palace’s second time ever in the top half. 21 league games in the bottom three and a top 10 finish five months later is an absolutely incredible feat.

It seems like a far-fetched proposition, but just thinking about Palace’s current identity taking a top 6-7 finish can be possible if this run of results stays constant. We even discussed the potential snagging of a Europa League spot on the Zlatcast. It might seem semi-unrealistic, but everything is coming full circle for Palace and their fans. You can see and feel it at Selhurst Park. These guys and their fans – probably the best set of fans in the BPL – truly believe.

As optimistic as I am, I don’t think Palace gets the Europa League spot, but I think they warrant a 8th-9th place finish. The excitement will continue as the season progresses. And if they beat Manchester City this upcoming weekend, let’s just say that each season will exponentially get better and better.

Posted in English Premier League, Features, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Massive Implications from Nabil Fekir’s Knee Injury

So… this is awkward. We posted our feature piece on Nabil Fekir at 12:00 PM MST yesterday on just how exciting a player he is and projects to be (the words “next Lionel Messi” were used in a non laughing matter). Almost an one hour later, he tore his acl and is projected to be out for at least the next six months. You really can’t ask for more bad timing than that.

There’s no going about this other than the following: this sucks. This really, really, really sucks. Olympique Lyonnais were heavily depending on another great season from Nabil Fekir to both make it out of the Champions League group stage and if they couldn’t somehow make up some ground on PSG for the league title, finish in the remaining two CL spots. Being honest, no one was ever going to catch PSG in Ligue 1 and even the most optimistic Lyon fan would probably concede that dream.

But with the new stadium opening in early 2016 combined with the frankly doable CL group they’ve been handed this season, it certainly was reasonable to suggest that a CL knockout stage appearance and a good showing domestically were in the cards for Lyon and the Fekir injury puts everything into limbo. Lyon lose their most exciting offensive talent and their best offensive player until at least sometime in March. The prognosis for the injury is reportedly around six months, which is probably the most optimistic timeline for a knee injury of this severity. Of course there are examples of players who have come back from this sort of injury in around that time span. But there’s always a Jay Rodriguez example to counteract that, and it took him around 15 months for him to return from his ACL tear.

It goes without saying but Lyon really need to be careful with Nabil Fekir. He’s only 22 and he’s just embarking on the prime 8-10 years of his career. I’m certain that the allure of being part of the France Euro 16 squad and the tournament being in his home country would make him want to return as soon as possible but even if the injury take 8 months to heal (and that might even be slightly optimistic too), that would take Fekir into early May and have probably 2-4 games to prove that he’s good enough to be part of the French squad.

It’s really tough to envision a scenario where Fekir could play for France next summer outside of a huge gamble being placed on him by Deschamps. Rushing him too quickly could have drastic, and I repeat, drastic consequences on Fekir’s career going forward. Medical science has come a long way in the past two decades or so and cruciate ligament recoveries have gotten better and better, but it’s still not perfect and every measure needs to be taken to make sure Fekir will have a full recovery and a greater chance of this type of knee injury not happening again.

Fekir and Euro 2016 is another story for another day, the injury implications are just too big on a domestic level to really worry about Euro 16 right now. It’s well documented that Lyon have not been great offensively through four games this season. Yes they’re one goal behind a bunch of Ligue 1 teams for 1st in goals scored this season but that’s more been a product of good fortune than anything. Lyon rank 8th in expected goals for, tied for 5th in danger shots for and tied for 17th in big chances for. Admittedly those numbers are a bit scattered all over the place but the point is that they have not been anything more than satisfactory.

The need for Alexandre Lacazette to be back to his 14-15 best has been ratcheted up significantly with Fekir’s injury as he’s not been good at all with the back injury he played through for 2.5 games this season. The only silver lining to this whole thing is that the keys for probably the rest of the season will be given to Mathieu Valbuena. The Fekir/Valbuena partnership so far has been uninspiring this season and their skill set do overlap each other to some extent. Having Valbuena dictate the tempo to his liking could soften the blow a bit in Fekir’s absence, and Lyon will probably play Claudio Beauvue and Lacazette together as a striker duo. This would enable Valbuena and the high venturing Lyon fullbacks to cross balls into the box and get Beauvue as a target man of sorts, a deviation from what they were last season as a club.

If Lyon can’t somehow cobble enough offensively, they’ll have to rely on their defense to get buy. There’s both good news and bad news. Good news: Lyon have been good defensively this year. They rank 8th in expected goals against, tied for fifth in big chances conceded and tied for 2nd in danger shots against. Bad news: Lyon weren’t particularly good last season defensively with most of the same core even though they ranked 3rd in goals conceded. Lyon had an expected goals against of 41.8 and they had a number of moments where their backline would commit a bad error that would lead to chances for the opposition. Lyon ranked 11th in defensive errors and tied for 10th in errors leading to goals. Yes they have strengthened their defense with the acquisition of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, but it’s a guess as to whether they improve greatly on that blemish and not have to rely on Anthony Lopes to be Hugo Lloris 2.0.

There is something that Lyon could do however to help their attack woes. There’s a clause in LFP that could help Lyon find a replacement for Fekir. My friend Bastien L (@Puchkin_B on Twitter) discovered Clause 213, part 5 from LFP and I asked him to translate it in English:

213-5 / « Joker Medical » A Ligue 1 or Ligue 2 club can, at any time, recruit a player in one of the following situations:

– Death of a player under contract

– Serious injury to their goalkeeper or to the goalkeeper’s substitute (In which case only another goalkeeper can be hired)

– Serious injury to a player under contract during a match with the French national team, if the injury triggers an incapacity to play for a duration of three months or more. In the latter two situations, the injuries will be examined and assessed by the doctor of the national federation. The injured player and the player recruited cannot, in either of these situations, be present on a match sheet at the same time during the three months following the assessment of the injury.

These authorisations for additional recruitment can be completed within the following boundaries: – Respect of the regulation regarding the number of players non-citizen of a EU or EEA member state

– Respect of the regulation regarding players who are citizen of states having signed an association or cooperation agreement with the EU.

– Respect of the FIFA regulation regarding the number of authorised transfers.

– Respect of the DNCG’s ruling

– Respect of the present regulations and of the “Charte du football professionnel”.

Since Fekir’s injury was both during his time in the French National Team and his injury will be for longer than three months, Lyon qualify for this clause and could in theory do a deal for a Fekir replacement in the near future. Who Lyon try to get is anyone’s case. The club is lacking in speedy attacking midfielders since the departure of Clinton N’Jie so that could be something that is addressed.

In less than a week, the two favorites for the other two CL spots behind PSG have suffered massive blows to their 2016-17 CL aspirations. Monaco sold off Martial/Abdennour/Kurzawa while Lyon have to make due with a Fekir-less attack. This opens up opportunities for the following candidates:

Rennes

This is probably the team with the longest odds of getting into the top three, but their summer business has been done really smartly. They’re still in talks to sign free agent Yoann Gourcuff (who was really solid last season when he could get his shattered body onto the pitch), got a solid prospect in Juan Fernando Quintero on loan, managed to keep Abdoulaye Doucouré and Paul Georges Ntep has returned from injury. Last season, it was a struggle for Rennes to score goals. This year? Perhaps not. And a Rennes club that could be around league average offensively and spectacular defensively has an outside chance at a top 3 finish, just like 2014-15 Saint Etienne.

Saint Etienne

This is a team I don’t feel too differently about after four games this season. Yes they peppered Bastia last weekend and generated a xG rating of 2.46, which is the 2nd best single game rating for a Ligue 1 team this season, but Bastia at one point went down to nine man and one of the goals for ASSE came off of an error. You have to be West Brom levels of awful offensively to not do anything against a team not playing at full strength.

I liked the loan acquisition of Jean-Christophe Bahebeck from PSG this season, as he can do an admirable job of playing as a LW alongside Nolan Roux. Romain Hamouma is a quirky but solid RW and they made interesting acquisitions of Neal Muapay and Valentin Eysseric. It’s a lot of cobbling together talent so they could replace Max Gradel and perhaps it could work. It’ll certainly help them navigate between the Europa League and Ligue 1. However, just by the amount of turmoil that’s happened with Monaco/Lyon, their CL hopes have gone up by a little bit.

Marseille

I know Marseille have three points in four games and Marcelo Bielsa quit right after the first game versus Caen, but they’ve been better than their point total. They’re 6th in my predicted points model this season and they’re doing really decently in other underlying metrics. I didn’t think Marseille had much of a shot at finishing in the top 3 but that was also envisioning a world where Lyon weren’t without Fekir and Monaco didn’t sell their three prized assets. Now? They were already probably the team with the best chance of making it and their odds have gone up substantially.

It’s going to be a slog fight for the final two CL spots. There are 5-6 teams in Ligue 1 who are incredibly flawed that have different ranges of expectations to nab one of these spots. If Lyon could somehow find a replacement for Fekir via that LFP rule, they should still have enough to be in the top three. Monaco need to prove that their first four games are just a small sample size and not a harbinger of more bad things to come for their defense.

It really sucks that we won’t be able to see Fekir for the majority of the 2015-16 season as he looked prime to become maybe the best young talent in Europe. Ligue 1 needs all the exciting young attacking talents it can have, and Fekir is the best one they have. His hopes for playing in Euro 16 are all but dashed and it’s another case of how much of a strain international football puts on a players body when taking into account the amount of domestic football these guys play in a season.

In a weird way, this will probably help Lyon keep Fekir longer as clubs will be scared off by a major knee injury to a player who uses his change of pace and acceleration to wreak havoc. Their hope is that 2016-17 Fekir will be 100% fully operational and won’t miss a beat from the long layoff. Not a lot of injuries can swing the balance of multiple teams’ hopes for a Champions League appearance, but Nabil Fekir qualifies as that special case.

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Nabil Fekir: Lyon’s Crown Jewel

One of the greatest legacies that Lionel Messi will leave behind when he slowly fades away from our collective consciousness (you know, outside the usual “he’s the greatest ever”, “he was better than Ronaldo” mambo jumbo) is that he’s spawn off a bunch of copycats. Numerous amounts of players have been labelled in some form “the next Lionel Messi”, too many in fact to list in its entirety but here’s a condensed list:

  • Xherdan Shaqiri
  • Ryan Gauld
  • Bojan Krcic
  • Maxi Romero
  • Alen Halilovic
  • Paulo Dybala
  • Christian Atsu
  • Juan Iturbe

Lionel Messi may be the greatest player football has ever seen, and this is just part of the job we have as people who love this crazy sport. Having to spin our wheels trying to convince ourselves that a quarter of these players would even come close to living up to the label. Mind you, some of these players have turned out to be solid contributors and Dybala could become a great striker by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around. But he’s no Messi and none of those guys are. (The same thing happened in the NBA in the post Michael Jordan era that eventually became a 12 year infatuation process with trying to take Kobe Bryant seriously as the next Michael Jordan.)

There is a point to all of this; there’s a new “next Messi” and he resides in Lyon playing for Olympique Lyonnais. His name is Nabil Fekir. He ticks all the boxes you want out of a guy being labelled as the next Messi: He’s short, has a low center of gravity, he’s left footed, has the ball on the string, first class acceleration and very good shooting ability.

Here’s the big difference between Fekir and the Messi wannabes I just mentioned: None of them have been as good as Fekir have been at the beginning of their professional careers, especially when taking into account he’s doing this in a major European league known for not being the easiest to create offense. Nabil Fekir has been very impressive and could become a generational talent. Last year was his first season as a every week attacking player, and he responded way better than anyone could’ve imagined.

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His teammate Alexandre Lacazette took more of the headlines last year, and some of that is understandable. Strikers inevitably get more of the headlines, especially in today’s era where age 24 and under strikers aren’t exactly growing on trees, and Lacazette certainly had a very good season. His form from October-January was great and a 27 goal season in his second season as a converted winger-turned-striker is massively impressive (albeit 8 of those goals were from penalties). Fekir played a lot like the Robin to Lacazette’s Batman and when Lacazette was out for 3-4 weeks between late January and late February, Fekir and the rest of Lyon struggled, further cementing the importance that Lacazette had on Lyon. Lacazette wasn’t at his best when he came back from injury and Fekir showed that he was more than capable of steering the ship when the opportunity arrived. His performance versus Montpellier in their 5-1 victory in March was proof of that, including a sublime chip that was Messi-esque:

However things haven’t gone exactly that way this season. Lyon have been… okay. They haven’t been bad, but it hasn’t been the swashbuckling football that made people who didn’t watch Ligue 1 regularly take notice throughout their title challenge. Their performances against Rennes and Guingamp in particular were very lackluster and unimaginative. The Mathieu Valbuena acquisition has been a work in progress (and that might be putting it a little lightly), and the midfield three has been not at their best. Perhaps most importantly, Alexandre Lacazette has looked like a shell of his former self. For now, it’s fair to say that most of that could be due to the injury he suffered in the second half of the season opener versus Lorient.

What’s been impressive for Fekir so far this season is that he’s been great throughout the first four games this season. In particular, his game against Caen was magnificent. Not only did he score a hat-trick, but all the goals were done in an effervescent style that made you hark back to a young Lionel Messi when he had the mop haircut.

Just look at the second goal from Fekir: he essentially ripped out a man’s soul and stomped on it for fun on live TV:

It’s only a four game sample size so there’s still lots of noise so far but good lord, look at the statistical production from Fekir this season:

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Just for a frame of reference, I went and checked Messi’s 2009-10 season and compared the two. That’s as far back as WhoScored will go in terms of Opta data but thankfully Messi is 28 so he was there and about the same age as Fekir. This is Messi’s radar:

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It’s very similar to Messi. Outside the ludicrous amount of throughballs (All hail the Barcelona effect), the production is mirroring what a 22 year old Messi produced at. Mind you, Messi also performed at a similar level the year before and that along with many things made him a freak of nature at 22.

It can’t be put into words just how fun it is to watch Nabil Fekir play football when he’s at the top of his game. He is the best attraction in Ligue 1 (we still love you Zlatan), he’s appointment viewing TV week in and week out. He is one of the most exciting players of his age bracket in Europe and he’s got a chance to be one of the best players to have ever come out of Lyon’s youth academy.

There is nothing this man can’t do. You need him to beat two defenders with his dribbling? No problem. You need him to play as a #10 in behind two strikers? He’s more than happy to oblige. Use him as a point of reference for your offense? Easy as you like. Of course with players with as much talent that Fekir holds, consistency is the big thing. Fekir had some rather pedestrian performances last season in big matches (though he was brilliant against Saint Etienne in April when ASSE were chasing the final CL spot). 2015-16 still has many twists and turns left in which Fekir will have to play a big factor and in certain games be the factor for Lyon, but so far this season he’s been up to the challenge.

The inevitable question with supreme talents who come out of academies like Lyon (and Ligue 1 in general) is when will a rich club come in and seriously sniff around for him? Perhaps that never happens with Fekir and he becomes the best Lyon player of the modern era. We don’t know exactly how high Lyon will climb financially over the next couple of seasons with the new stadium opening in January 2016.

From the looks of it, it looks like they’ll have relatively high financial power as far as Ligue 1 clubs are concerned. They re-signed the majority of their players over the summer and their player transfer spending looks much more different than what it has been over the past four seasons, after the “Spend like drunken sailors to win the Champions League” era didn’t work out:

Net Spend

You’ll never confuse Lyon as being in the same financial bracket as PSG, but they could possibly carve out a niche of being one of the rare Ligue 1 clubs who can afford a €15-20 million transfer or two. And that could be a big thing in trying to keep someone of Fekir’s stature for a relatively long period of time. Of course if Fekir grows into a superduper star at the rate he’s going and the elite European clubs come in with an extravagant offer, even a staunch business man like Jean-Michel Aulas would probably have to relent and sell Fekir to them.

When Aulas compared Nabil Fekir to Lionel Messi last year, I’m sure the general consensus from the French media was “Okay Aulas, we get that you’re excited but let’s calm down here”. Truth be told, there still should be a lot of reservation when it comes to the amount of excitement that Fekir has generated. He is still 22 and hasn’t even played 5000 minutes in Ligue 1 in his career. We’ve seen prospects flame out before in spectacular fashion and they serve as a warning, even if they probably never had the same CV at the same stage of their career that Fekir has.

But you just can’t help but be so excited with what Fekir could become. Liverpool fans and to a certain extent England fans were so thrilled when Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene in 2013-14 (although not so much now), and Fekir has probably been better than Sterling even with Sterling’s longer resume. He is a special prospect and is a symbol for how Lyon has rebuilt their squad primarily through their youth academy. The reservations that come with labeling someone “the next one” is natural, as we’ve been burned so many times before that we shouldn’t be as gullible to pronouncements as we are.

But maybe, just maybe, Nabil Fekir truly is the next Lionel Messi.

Posted in Analytics, Features, Ligue 1, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, and the New Transfer Market Ineffeciency

 

during the UEFA Champions Leaguequalifying round play off second leg match between Monaco and Valencia on August 25, 2015 in Monaco, Monaco.

The transfer dust has finally settled, and well, it was an interesting and active window. A certain Manchester club became Voltron and spat in FFP’s face, and the other became much maligned over a deal for an unproven French forward that hasn’t had his twentieth birthday.

How did we get here though? United, while maybe taking a pass at two La Liga players that could have helped their side, honestly had a good window. Matteo Darmian was a terrific find for £12 million and Memphis for £25 million was highway robbery. Sure, Memphis is a little bit of a project coming from the Eredivisie and needs to work on being less of an individualist, but the talent is there – much more talent than the price tag would suggest. They also found a way to get Morgan Schniederlin from Southampton for less than thirty million and grabbed Bastian Schwiensteiger for less than ten, and while these wouldn’t be classified as bargains they’re still fair fees and will serve as big boosts in the deeper half of the club’s midfield. This trickled down from the summer of 2014, which saw the highly-criticized Ángel Di María fee, but also Daley Blind who’s been phenomenal for the price.

However, people seem to not want to forget that United passed on Otamendi and Pedro and seemingly overpaid for Anthony Martial. While the Otamendi situation is mysterious, the Pedro one is not. With Juan Mata and Memphis and the renaissance version of Ashley Young in the fold, Pedro would have best served United as a center forward. While his ability to operate in space and finish seems suited for that position, it’s still completely untested waters, especially for a 5’5″ winger that’s a little light in the strength department. Regardless of class, United were forced to consider him and Rooney (also not a striker) playing off each other in some manner to be one striker in total.

Until Monaco were vanquished from the Champions League.

Then United trained on the wide-forward turned striker Martial. The only issue? The price. Monaco had no real reason to sell Martial. They look poised to finish second or third in France and collect Champions League money again and their backup options are Guido Carrillo and Lacina Traoré. After letting Berbatov go without a sound, the team was set up for Martial to show his talent. Barring any horrifying injury or team implosion, he was going to be the star and command a huge fee next summer.

Many look at the transfer market as some kind of auction house. X amount of money should get you player Y, and Z amount of money will net you player A. However, that’s not the case. United needed to give Monaco incentive to sell.

Losing Martial means Monaco run the risk of losing Champions League money/Europa glory, and the Principality club had no reason to believe he would be any less touted of a prospect next summer. Furthermore, the striker market was more barren than the driest of deserts. Martial was United’s only option with Jeremy “War and” Peace removing Saido Berahino from the market and QPR holding Charlie Austin hostage.

Now, could United have worked out a striker buy well in advance? Sure. Luciano Vietto went for £15 million in the beginning of summer without much noise. The 21-year-old Argentine had an excellent season at under-the-radar Villarreal. However, Vietto isn’t similar to Martial stylistically in that he’s a bit slender and weak as well, and didn’t have UK work permits. Paulo Dybala was also an option, but he completed his move to Juventus so early in the window it seems unfeasible to think United could have worked out Dybala and Memphis before the season ended. Harry Kane was never available it seemed. Salomon Rondon was an unknown. The remainder of the barrel were old uninspiring options like Falcao (who surely wouldn’t have come back), Chicharito, Balotelli, Jovetić or Džeko.

So it was Martial, or Rooney and the ghost of strikers past. Monaco knew it, United knew it, Chelsea knew it when they were inquiring at the price of €50 million. Because of that, United were in many eyes fleeced on the price. However, Martial is extremely talented, isn’t a retread or recycled striker, and provides the strength, pace, and finishing prowess that United desire. His current résumé doesn’t inspire, but he could be is the force United crave.

Because of that, his fee was regarded as shockingly high. What point that does bring up is where teams are finding the bargains. Whether it be a fallout with the club, a yearning for broader horizons, or the selling club being more than okay selling for a good price, the new market inefficiency is players who are available to sell.

Consider the Swansea attack featuring André Ayew and Bafétimbi Gomis. Gomis is a highly uninspiring striker that needs plenty of quality play behind him to get going, but he left Ligue 1 outfit Lyon for free. (Funnily enough, Lyon’s inability to offload Gomis is how Martial ended up at Monaco.) However, the point stands that Gomis has been a solid poacher for Swansea this season. Ayew came from financial black-hole Marseille and also was a free transfer. He’s been of the highest quality since he came and has shown the gap between Ligue 1 and the EPL based on talent last season may not have been as wide as the public opinion. Also, Ayew is only 25. The concept of a player of his caliber being free at his age is remarkable, but again Marseille were in much more need to offload Ayew and his wages than Monaco ever would have been with Martial.

A similar situation is Raheem Sterling and both Eden Hazard and Alexis Sánchez. Many were quick to point out that Sánchez only went for £35 million, while Hazard arrived from Lille for £32 million. Some thought of this as a Premier League and English premium with Raheem, but the fact is Liverpool will never need to sell like Lille has to. Similarly, Sánchez is a player that Barcelona saw no use for. Similar to Mesut Özil and Real Madrid, or even Petr Čech and Chelsea. There’s a reason Arsenal saw those players come to the Emirates but couldn’t land Karim Benzema.

Sami Khedira is a man made of glass but is also a similar case, in that he was unwanted at Real. Gonzalo Castro could be a bargain for Dortmund at €11 million.

Bayern Munich even needed to shell out €30 million for Douglas Costa – a move now being lauded as the bargain of the summer. When Costa’s move was announced, most opinions stated that he was a huge risk at that price. Plucking a player out of the Ukraine who didn’t inspire for the seleção was risky, and no one could see why he could be Franck Ribéry’s replacement. After all, this is the same club that signed Robert Lewandowski for free even when Real wanted to pay top dollar.

The fact is transfers aren’t auction houses. Not even close. They’re about as unique as snowflakes or fingerprints. Player X went for the fee Y based on a cavalcade of reasons. Vietto is a bargain for £15 million, but Villarreal knew that English clubs would be wary of work permit issues. Martial for £36 million (at least) is an overpay, but did United really want to go into the season watching Rooney fail to get in behind the defense again, and again, and again? Monaco needed to be compensated for the risk they take on for playing Carrillo and Traoré up top this season. United needed to give them a reason to sell, not the other way around. And there’s no plane of existence where Sterling and Pedro should be your number one striker option. Louis van Gaal isn’t dumb enough to mismanage that.

Should United have tried to work out a new striker option well before the deadline? Yes. That doesn’t erase the amount of good business they’ve done this summer. van Gaal has removed a ton of the hang-on players from the Sir Alex era that David Moyes didn’t have it in him to sell. Robin van Persie is well washed up, Jonny Evans never really panned out, Nani was a guy whose writing had been on the wall for awhile (though he should be in Italy or France rather than Turkey) and there were many others that hadn’t been United quality for some time. It’s a process, but that process is one that takes time and it’s brighter with Darmian, Martial, Memphis and Schneiderlin than it ever was with Chicharito, RVP, and Nani.

In a few years Martial may be the biggest transfer bust since Andy Carroll, or he could be the best player to wear the nine-kit for United in quite some time. We don’t know. But the issue that needs to be addressed is his transfer is different than Pedro’s, or Sterling’s, or anyone else in world football’s. And there’s a need to bring in the full brush of context before we start comparing them. Apples aren’t oranges, and Martial being sold by Monaco is a completely distinct set of circumstances than any other transfer out there.

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The Anthony Martial Saga and Another Detour in the Monaco Project

The Principality has been an awfully busy place this summer, but no deal Monaco have made is bigger than this one. At the time of this writing, Anthony Martial looks like he’ll be the most expensive French teenager in the history of football as he closes in on a move to Manchester United. There are conflicting reports about the number in question: the British media is reporting that the deal is worth around €49 million while the French media is reporting it’s more like €80 million.

Holy. Shit. These are exorbitant numbers for many players, but even more so for a 19-year-old who just completed his first “real” season in Ligue 1 (real as in he played more than 1000 minutes in the league). The price tag is a reflection of multiple things at work:

  1. United were desperate for a striker and Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward waited until the end of the window to find one;
  2. The market for decently-profiled strikers as a whole today is very scarce (just look at the holding pattern Napoli have had with Higuaín over the last two years);
  3. Monaco are well positioned enough financially to demand these types of fees despite missing out on the Champions League;
  4. Martial’s ceiling is the next Thierry Henry. I typically am not a fan of every French winger-turned-striker earning a comparison to Henry, but Martial in fairness could be that good. He’s certainly further along in his development than fellow Henry protégé Alexandre Lacazette was at age 19.

It’s certainly shocking to see this happen so quickly with Monaco and Man United, but English interest in Martial is hardly a new thing. Tottenham sniffed around Martial and that turned into Monaco handing Martial a renewal (Spurs gonna Spur). There were faint rumors about Chelsea preparing a bid for Martial as well but that never amounted to anything. To see how quickly this happened is pretty amazing and once again demonstrates how hilariously insane the transfer window is.

Again, I hate the idea of comparing every winger who’s converted into a striker to Thierry Henry, because it’s pretty lazy analysis and it does a disservice to how good Henry was. But Martial is that exciting a prospect. He possesses an impressive athletic build for a 19-year-old and he can play any position in the attacking midfield if necessary.  He had a solid season last year at age 18-19 in a notoriously slower-paced, defensive league in Ligue 1:

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For large stretches of last season, Monaco were bad as an attacking team. It was a mishmash of old and young talent failing to find a competent game plan in attack. By around February, they started to settle as a counter attacking side that leveraged the pace and directness of Martial and Yannick Ferrera Carrasco with the clever movements of Bernardo Silva. Monaco finished the season ranking tied for fifth in shots coming on the counter and tied for third in goals scored in those situations. The fact that Martial produced at the rate he did given the circumstances is impressive.

Man United have a lot of money all the money. Between the money they get for their commercial brand, their kit deal with Adidas, the EPL TV money and the fact they’re fricking Manchester United, they decided that it’s a chance worth taking to pay a lot of money for a potential generational talent. And if Martial fails? His struggles wouldn’t cripple the club.

More than anything, Martial will give United the type of dynamism in attack that they’ve sorely missed. A combination of him and Memphis, with the likes of Ander Herrera and Juan Mata feeding them on the counter could return United to some semblance of the Sir Alex Ferguson days of the mid-late 2000’s. Yes, this is still contingent on LVG loosening the strings on the club’s attack, but perhaps he’s just been waiting for a striker to do it with.

There’s also the fact that United have needed a striker who can get in behind an opponent’s backline since Robin Van Persie’s heyday, and Martial could certainly do that in abundance. Wayne Rooney has fluctuated between “very good” and “great” over his career, but he’s at a point where he just no longer has the athletic ability to get in behind a defense on a consistent basis. Yes, some of that is due to the constrictive nature of van Gaal’s system, but it’s also that Rooney has been playing professional football since 2002. He’s old in football years. There’s no shame in him having a slowly-reduced role but maintaining a solid standard of play.

Of course there’s the chance that Martial is a flop and turns out to be one of the worst signings in United’s history. Whatever the final number is on Martial, it’s a staggering amount of money for a guy who has had one solid season as a professional. United with this deal give off the appearance that they rushed to find another striker besides Rooney. It’s also a gamble that his potential will make that point more or less moot.

Where this leaves Monaco is anyone’s guess. From the sales of Aymen Abdennour and Layvin Kurzawa combined with Martial, Monaco could accumulate somewhere in the region of €135 million on those three alone. It’s insane. Yes, there are real arguments to be made that Monaco should’ve kept Kurzawa, let alone sell him to PSG. On a pure monetary note, however, it’s incredible business from Monaco. Martial cost €5 million in the summer of 2013 because Lyon couldn’t keep him, as they failed to offload their higher paid talents. Kurzawa came from the youth academy. Abdennour was a loan deal from Toulouse that eventually became a permanent deal.

The problem Monaco now face this season is while it’s great that they have this money generated from the transfers of those players, the team as currently constructed is very flawed and Monaco need to be in the Champions League next season to keep this new “buy young wingers and sell them for big profits” project going. Guido Carrillo and Lacina Traoré are the options at striker right now, and that’s pretty poor unless Carrillo becomes something. Ricardo Carvalho and Andrea Raggi are a combined 1000 years old. Fabio Coentrão and Elderson Echiéjilé are a significant downgrade from Kurzawa and a midfield trio needs to be sorted out.

Despite all this, Monaco through four games this season have been one of the best teams in Ligue 1 in terms of creating chances. They rank third in expected goals for, third in danger shots for and first in big chances created. Monaco also rank dead last in both expected goals conceded and danger zone shots conceded while ranking tied for 17th in big chances conceded. Monaco could return to being a purely defensive and drab side that hammer out 1-0 wins, but that might not even be attainable. The combination of the attacking midfielders they have stocked up combined with the losses of Abdennour and Geoffrey Kondogbia make it really tough. Perhaps they simply remain the counterattacking side we say from February through May last season but with a dodgier defense.

This is one of the crazier deals in recent memory for all the things involved. It’s a huge gamble by Manchester United but one that could pay huge dividends for the club if Martial fulfills his potential. Martial is an exciting prospect who, at his current stage of development, helps United right away. Monaco’s project has take another detour with the sales they’ve made this summer, and what’s left is a talented but incomplete side that’ll find it harder to finish in the top three in 2015-16.

Gotta love Deadline Day!

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