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Barcelona’s wounds are deep, and they won’t heal until they let Messi go

It was the 85th minute of last night’s Champions League tie between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and the home side were clinging on to what little dignity they had remaining. Finding themselves 3-1 down, they had conceded three away goals and, had fans been allowed in the Camp Nou, would surely have been subject to the kind of widespread whistling that comes hand in hand with discontent at Spain’s biggest clubs.

Ronald Koeman’s side were on the attack, looking for a stroke of inspiration to rejuvenate their hopes going into March 10th’s return leg. Instead, a chain of events were set in motion that epitomise everything wrong with Barcelona at the moment. 

A loose ball broke on the edge of the PSG penalty area. Lionel Messi lined up a long range effort, but substitute Julian Draxler nipped in front of him and managed to toe the ball away. Miralem Pjanic darted ten yards up the pitch to confront Draxler, dived in and and allowed Draxler to move the ball on to a teammate. Draxler continued his run, received a return pass and drove half the length of the pitch; he eventually slipped in Kylian Mbappe, who finished stupendously to round off his hat-trick and, effectively, the tie. 

While Draxler burst forward, Messi was walking backwards towards the halfway line. When Mbappe fired home, Pjanic (supposedly meant to be Barca’s deepest lying midfielder) wasn’t even in range of the BT Sport cameras. 4-1 was the final score, and what did Koeman do? Smile and hug an opposition player within seconds of the full-time whistle. This could be a new low for Barcelona – and there’s been some serious competition. 

So what was this epitomisation? Well, these actions from Messi and Pjanic highlighted a problem which was pinpointed a number of years ago, and has still yet to be effectively addressed; an ageing squad. Messi doesn’t really fall into this category in the way some of his peers do; like Cristiano Ronaldo, his genius is unwavering and he is still among the best players in the world. 

Pjanic, however, put his cards on the table for everyone to see. His mobility has severely declined in recent years and so, judging by this ill-timed slide tackle, has his decision making. The attempted tackle was poor in its execution – the Bosnian was a clear second-favourite to win the ball, and backed those odds up as he skidded past the advancing Draxler. 

The decision to even go for the tackle in the first place was arguably more worrying, however. Barca were already two goals down, but would have had at least a glimmer of hope heading to Paris. What good did Pjanic think he was doing by diving in so recklessly so high up the pitch? By doing so, he left his defenders woefully exposed and they were punished by PSG’s quality on the counter attack. If Pjanic had remained in his original position, he may have been able to stall the quick break and preserve the scoreline. 

A younger Pjanic would surely have decided against this sort of impulse-driven reaction. He’s not the only one who has fallen victim to age, however. 

Jordi Alba is 31-years-old, which is hardly the prime age for a darting full back. Gerard Pique, at 34, is still performing admirably but a decline has been noticeable (it is no coincidence he started both last night’s rout and the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich last season). Sergio Busquets is 32 and his mobility has severely declined; he was easily overrun by PSG’s midfield last night. Messi turns 34 himself in June. The entire spine of Barca’s side have been playing continuously for well over ten years, and their decrease in performance levels have been out there for all to see. Their thrashing last night should have put another nail in their coffin. 

There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the club willing to hammer that nail in, however, and that’s down to another factor which has plagued Barca for a while now – an over-reliance on Messi. While stars have come and gone from the Catalan club, the Argentine has remained and performed as well as ever. This seems to have had a negative impact on the rest of the squad’s ability.

In the past when Barca were accused of being too Messi-orientated, these accusations were easily denied. Neymar and Luis Suarez contributed heavily to one of the most feared frontlines in footballing history. Andres Iniesta chipped in with important goals and assists on a regular basis. Supporting strikers such as David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o had starring roles (albeit for varying lengths of time). 

Now, however, these accusations are well-founded. When Barca are in trouble, they look to Messi. When they need a goal, they look to Messi. When they need an assist, they look to Messi. It’s an extremely unhealthy coping mechanism, but the main problem is that it usually works. Such is Messi’s alien-like ability, he has pulled more game-winning moments out of the bag than James Bond has pulled Bond girls. 

When it doesn’t work, the results are disastrous. Messi scored a penalty last night, but was otherwise quiet. Without his creative influence, Barca struggled to create many chances of note and were shut out by PSG’s well-marshalled back line. Koeman’s system, like many of his predecessors’, cannot function if Messi isn’t involved. Teammates don’t know what to do without a focal point. Koeman doesn’t know what to change tactically. They don’t normally need an alternative because Messi is so consistent. 

It’s quite simple; Barca won’t realise they need to change their style until Messi leaves and they’re required to consistently find answers without him. This will lead them to alter their transfer policy, which is as unorganised and disjointed as their defence are.

Some of the club board’s decisions in recent transfer markets have been baffling. Allowing Suarez to join Atletico Madrid for free, who he has subsequently fired clear at the top of La Liga, was borderline insane. Swapping a 23-year-old Arthur for 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic was strange on paper, and has proven to be just that with the midfielder making just five domestic starts this season. Martin Braithwaite has done himself credit, but surely he isn’t Barcelona standard? Ousmane Dembele had just 92 senior appearances under his belt when they splashed £91.5million on him.

The signing of Philippe Coutinho for £139million has benefitted Liverpool more than Barca themselves, and they have now decided to freeze him out of first team action due to an unwillingness to meet a clause that would require them to pay the English club an extra fee.

The reasons behind Barca continually making these strange transfer dealings are beyond many of us, but it is clear they don’t believe they require a major rebuild at the moment. Finances are reportedly under immense strain, but a huge chunk will be freed up if Messi is allowed to leave and his lucrative contract is brought to an end. That will allow whoever is in charge to get the side back on the right track.

Is the man in charge right for the job, though? Ronald Koeman has done very little to convince critics he is the right man to take the club forward. If you go on social media and listen to board members or fans, however, you’ll find a unanimous opinion a large percentage of them seem to share; no other manager would do any better considering Barca’s circumstances. 

There are a number of things to consider here. Off-field matters do tend to have some sort of impact on the pitch, but that doesn’t mean they have to. Koeman’s main two jobs should be distracting his players from the mess upstairs and formulating a cohesive tactical plan. He doesn’t appear to have done either of these things.

The Dutchman has switched regularly between 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations this season, finally settling on the latter and beginning to string together stronger (emphasis on the ‘er’) runs of form in a domestic sense. This was the setup he employed last night, however, and Barca were picked apart with ease. Something clearly isn’t right. 

Is that really down to Koeman’s hands being tied, however? Is there really no manager out there that could do better with this group of players? If you can look yourself in the eye and say that Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp wouldn’t lead this group of players on a title charge, then I applaud your bravery.

Koeman’s suitability for a role of this size if questionable. He won league titles with Ajax and PSV, but that’s hardly a miracle in the Dutch Eredevisie. He struggled at Valencia and AZ Alkmaar. He was very successful at Southampton, but failed miserably with Everton. He failed to beat Portugal in the 2019 UEFA League Final as Netherlands boss before being appointed at Barca. 

Things have been underwhelming to say the least, but Koeman is reportedly being given the benefit of the doubt because he is an ex-player the fans can relate to. Why? What extra qualification does having played for a club get you in the world of football management? Too much leeway these days, apparently. If Koeman hadn’t played for Barcelona in his younger years, he would likely have been sacked by now. 

There is a huge to-do list at Barcelona, but ticking off can’t begin until Lionel Messi leaves the club. Only then will the club realise their ageing players are beyond repair. Only then will the hierarchy admit to an over-reliance on the Argentine. Only then will they realise their recruitment policy must improve if they are to compete again. Only then will they realise they require a higher quality of coach.

Letting Messi go clearly won’t be easy for Barca, or even desirable – as shown by last summer’s spat. However, it’s clear that the club must bite the bullet and let go of the best player their side has ever seen.

Do entertaining performances really deserve more praise than ‘boring’ defensive performances?

Leeds United travelled to London for their first game of 2021 and were soundly beaten by a typical Tottenham Hotspur performance; Leeds had the most of the ball and created a roughly equal number of chances, but fell to a 3-0 loss. 

Just four days prior, Marcelo Bielsa’s side had romped to a 5-0 win over West Brom (who had drawn 1-1 with Liverpool two days earlier). On December 20th, Leeds conceded six at Old Trafford – a mere four sleeps after putting five past Newcastle. 

The exhilarating matches Leeds have been involved in since returning to the Premier League have certainly caught the eye; the above examples only cover those played in the past 17 days. Pundits, writers and fans alike have been swept along with the excitement and have regularly exclaimed their admiration of the bravery with which Bielsa’s men go about their business. 

Does this brand of football really deserve such praise, though?

There is no question that we all enjoy watching the great footballing sides of past and present; Guardiola’s City centurions and Barcelona Champions League winners; Klopp’s English champions and Dortmund underdogs; Sir Alex’s free-flowing United sides. We admire them for a reason. 

But now think of Mourinho’s great Chelsea and Inter teams and the great Italian club sides of the 1990s; are these clubs’ successes not as admirable simply because they didn’t play as entertaining a style of football? Why, even Leicester City’s incomprehensible title win in 2016 only became a realistic possibility once they’d sorted out their defensive issues a quarter of the way through the season.

Defending and attacking are equally important in football. The fact that most YouTube highlight reels consist of bamboozling skills and streaming offensive moves doesn’t automatically make their perpetrators more important than those whose job it is to defend them. So why do attacking teams receive so much credit, while their defensive counterparts are slated for being ‘boring’?

It’s true that watching a side ‘park the bus’ for eighty minutes of a game can be on the tedious side. At the end of the day, however, it is a manager’s job to win games – and if he and his players’ strengths lie in their defensive third, then why not play to these strengths?

This brings us back to Leeds, who’s unpredictable form could probably justify their team name replacing the word “inconsistent” in the dictionary. This is normal for any promoted side, and sitting 12th in the Premier League table after seventeen games is a satisfactory spot. At the moment, the ends are justifying the means.

Does that mean they should be praised for losing games by such wide margins? After losing 6-2 to Manchester United, Leeds were still being celebrated for the way they went about their business. Why? Should positives really be taken from a game in which your defence is split open time after time and your goal difference decreases by four? If Sean Dyche’s Burnley lost by that scoreline, plenty of football fans would be quick to tell them they deserve it because of their style of play. 

The only team to have conceded more goals this season than Leeds are West Brom (highlighting the scale of the task Sam Allardyce has on his hands). The Hawthorns side are also the sole side who have more Expected Goals Against them than Leeds. This kind of defending is typical of a team at the bottom of the table, and the fact that Leeds are conforming to those kinds of trends should not be applauded. 

Leeds’ goalscoring exploits are pulling them clear of safety, of course. Their 30 strikes so far are undoubtedly impressive and make for a good spectacle. The argument is over whether or not a team should be commended for losing 4-1 at home to Leicester just because they won by three at Aston Villa a week earlier. Poor defending should not be preached, especially at this level. 

Another prime example of “bravery” and “trust in the system” being strangely eulogized came last season with relegated Norwich City – an example of what can go wrong with the Leeds model. Manager Daniel Farke was continually showered with praise for sticking to his principles and refusing to alter his style of play despite his side sitting bottom of the table for the majority of the season. Why? Because his side played with what was commonly perceived as an exciting style.

The reality? Norwich scored just 26 goals all season, and let in 75. They attained a mere 21 points and were well adrift by the time the league drew to an overdue ending. Is this so-called ‘excitement’ really worth it, or should Norwich have switched up their tactics to accommodate more resilient characteristics? Farke is still in charge and his side sit top of the Championship table, so if they are promoted we will see if he has learned from his mistakes. 

So who provides the blueprint for a side of Leeds’ stature going about their business with riveting attacking moves and strong defensive foundations while still achieving good results? The answer is simple; Southampton. 

It took Ralph Hasenhuttl a while to get his ideas across, but after last night’s win against Liverpool his side are back up to sixth in the table and are continuing to bear fruit. They’ve done it by combining clever attacking with solid defending and pressing, as well. However, the attacking doesn’t need to be as “all-out” as Leeds’ often is. The Saints’ xG so far this season is 17.55, which is the smallest by far among teams in the top half of the table (the second lowest in West Ham’s 22.86). However, they have actually scored 26 – just four less than Leeds. 

The big difference is the defence. Southampton have conceded just 19 goals (20.43 xGA) while Leeds have shipped 33. That’s the difference a good defence can make to a team who are clinical in front of goal. Leeds may have scored three against Liverpool earlier this season, but they let in four. Southampton only converted one last night, but didn’t concede and got an extra three points for their troubles. That’s why they sit sixth while Leeds are in twelfth.

Brighton are another side who warrant a quick mention in this article; Graham Potter receives a plethora of plaudits for his nice style of play and you rarely hear any negativity surrounding his team’s performances, but the fact remains that they have won only two of their seventeen games so far this season. The ends do not justify the means.

There is no problem with playing free-flowing, attacking football. I’ve already mentioned some of the great sides who have flourished by doing so. Just have a think the next time you bemoan a 1-0 Tottenham win and clean sheet, while you praise Leeds for a 5-3 loss. At the end of the day, points are what matter in football – and goals alone don’t get you them.

Why Manchester United shouldn’t favour the left flank

According to WhoScored.com, Manchester United’s style of play is characterised by “attacking down the left”. This has become a well-documented phenomenon over the previous few months; why do a team with a such a wealth of offensive talent focus their efforts so heavily down one side of the park?

Is it a deliberate choice from the manager? Unlikely. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has displayed a limited amount of tactical nous throughout his time in charge at Old Trafford, so it’s far-fetched to believe he is behind the decision. If it was his idea, surely things would have changed as inconsistent results piled up?

So it must be the players. United have attackers that typically prefer playing on the left hand side of the park – Marcus Rashford likes to hug the left touchline before cutting in onto his favoured right foot, Anthony Martial drifts left when he plays through the middle and star-man Bruno Fernandes creates the majority of his chances from the left third of the pitch. Even Paul Pogba (allegedly) enjoys playing on the left of a midfield three.

So if these players prefer to play on the left, what’s the issue? Well, problems with one-dimensional attacking are bad enough. If teams know where United are going to attack from, it’s easier to defend against. Why else would they struggle to break the opposition down until later in games, when they tire? Let’s take a look at some of United’s recent league fixtures.

These are the positions that United shot from in their 3-1 victory against West Ham. Not a single one came from the right third of the pitch; they’re all from central or left positions. But where were the chances created from? Perhaps the build-up play came from the right? Alas, no. The picture below illustrates that of United’s fourteen chances created, only two came directly from the right wing.

It was the same in the previous comeback win over Southampton. Ten chances created. Again, a mere two came from the right. United had 15 shots in this game, and only one came from a position right of the six yard box. This is a damningly one-sided approach to football.

However, this isn’t actually predicament in itself. The single greatest issue United create for themselves is that of isolating Mason Greenwood on the right wing.

Now, Greenwood is a terrific asset. The fact he is both two-footed and extremely clever for a player his age means he can come inside and join build-up play which is taking place on the left. That isn’t a problem. He isn’t a focal point for attacks, though, and that is a problem. I’ve said for a number of months now that Marcus Rashford would be a better option from the bench, and his recent performance are proving this point. He continues to start, however, and continues to have attacks directed through his position. His continual errors and poor decision making are costing United goals and points.

Greenwood is a smarter player than Rashford despite being a number of years his junior. He doesn’t make as many errors, is more clinical in front of goal and doesn’t give away idiotic fouls every other minute. And yet, with play focused so heavily down the left, Rashford gets more of the ball. 

Greenwood is forced to come much further inside than would be desirable in order to get involved. The dilemma isn’t that he himself can’t handle the positional change; he played as an out-and-out striker throughout his youth career and it is hoped that will be his long-term position at United. The problem is that this crowds the left side of the pitch. With Rashford, Martial, Fernandes and Greenwood all operating in the same space, it’s easier for opposing defenders to shut them out and force them away from goal. 

Greenwood needs to be given more of a key role. He has proven himself to be a reliable and consistent performer despite his age, and his ability shines through on a much more regular basis than Rashford’s. If the ball is on the other side of the park, though, Greenwood can’t have as much of an impact as necessary.

So United need to come up with a solution. In short, they need to find a way of spreading out their attacks. I doubt this will happen under Solskjaer, as he simply doesn’t have the footballing brain to devise a counter-plan. A new manager may be needed before these problems are solved, and that time can’t come soon enough for United. 

Perhaps Fernandes needs to mix things up more? Greenwood and Rashford could switch wings during games to give each an ample opportunity to impress? Or someone could give the coaches a manual on making a football team less predictable? Whatever the answer, United need to find it fast if they are to salvage a season thrown into turmoil by their Champions League exit.

Solskjaer’s press conferences are a mark of his ineptitude

Manchester United managers need to be built a certain way. Taking charge of one of the most highly scrutinised clubs in the world is no mean feat; pressure from fans is intense, criticism from the media is a given and success is a must.

With the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handles his press appearances, however, you wouldn’t think this was the case. 

Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford so far has been underwhelming to say the least; personally, I’d describe it as having been mind-numbingly devout of progress. 

Results have been almost as inconsistent as they could have been. Purple patches have been followed by barren spells, the board looks unwilling to take the club to another level and players look lost without a discernible style of play. Solskjaer has looked out of depth throughout the last two years.

These problems have been showcased through his lack of nous in the press box. There have been a number of strange quotes which have caught the eye for all the wrong reasons, and serve to show that United can’t expect to return to the top of the game while the Norweigan is at the helm. His comments breed inadequacy. 

It all started off with some misleading information regarding the future of flop-signing Alexis Sanchez. Solskjaer exclaimed that United fans could expect to see a lot more of the Chilean as the season progressed – before proceeding to send him out on loan a matter of days later. 

Then came the infamous Carabao Cup tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The tie itself was relatively drama free; City won the first leg and kept a spirited United comeback at bay in the second. What drew the most attention was United’s managers’s comments after the game.

“When you play Man City in the Carabao Cup and they put their strongest team out, you know you’ve gone places because that means they respect us,” he announced. 

Did he think he was still in charge at Cardiff City? This is Manchester United we’re talking about; one of the biggest clubs in the world. Taking pride in a team putting out a strong eleven against you is for lower league sides, surely? Let’s not forget that Sergio Aguero and Ederson were both rested for this tie as well. 

Another cup tie, this time against Rochdale, brought another bamboozling statement. 

“We’re better in shootouts than in games,” the coach claimed. The jury is out on whether he was boasting or joking, but the fact is that both are unacceptable. Limping to victory after penalty kicks against lower league opposition is nothing to joke about at Manchester United; instead of ill-placed comments, Solskjaer should have taken some time to criticise his players and ensured them that their places were under threat. Perhaps that would inspire them to provide some consistent performances?

Recently, United’s manager has been attempting to bolster his side’s confidence by saying that “when we have the right attitude and work as a team out there we’re hard to beat”.

Let that sink in: “hard to beat”. Manchester United should not be ‘hard to beat’ – it should be other teams with that mentality when they travel to Old Trafford. Quotes like this will hardly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, and that’s exactly what the aim of Solskjaer’s press conferences should be.

In the past week came more confusion surrounding Paul Pogba. Solskjaer said he was thoroughly pleased that the Frenchman had completed three 90 minutes over the international break, and he was excited to have him back in Manchester. Just days later, and he was nowhere to be seen in the matchday squad. What’s the need in the confusion? Why can’t the manager just be honest about these things?

There are rumours of Solskjaer being merely a puppet in the Glazer family’s wider scheme, and his interviews certainly point to an answer in that direction. It appears that he is actively trying to downplay expectations at the club; does he know his managerial ability can take them no further, and so he tries to hoodwink fans into belief in progress? Or is he being spoonfed press tips by the boardroom?

One thing is for sure; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s press conferences are instilling expectations of mediocrity at Manchester United that don’t look like going away while he is in charge.

Southgate must be out of his mind to defend Pickford so profusely

“We have some competition for places but I would have to say that there is nobody who I think is challenging seriously at the moment to push him out of that position.”

This view on Jordan Pickford’s England status must surely have come from an uneducated fan on Twitter? An under-qualified pundit, perhaps? Or a devout Everton fan sticking up for his goalkeeper?

Unfortunately for England fans, none of the above answers are correct. This strange opinion actually came from the national manager himself, Gareth Southgate. 

Southgate’s popularity has certainly declined in recent months. His insistence on employing negative tactics (despite the wealth of attacking talent at his disposal), some poor in-game decision making and his apparent antipathy towards Jack Grealish have raised plenty of questions among a fanbase who, until recently, went as far as bringing about a waistcoat revolution in his honour. 

Perhaps even more baffling, however, is the manager’s downright refusal to speak ill of Jordan Pickford. It has become somewhat of a mystery; what does the 26-year-old have to do to get dropped from the England starting eleven? Nick Pope of Burnley and Manchester United’s Dean Henderson have been knocking on the door for a significant period of time, yet Southgate says there is “nobody” who comes close to the ex-Sunderland man’s shirt.

Southgate may simply prefer Pickford, but this statement is an abomination. Taking a simple look at the numbers instantly dispels his beliefs and may even call his sanity into question. 

Let’s take a look at last season’s Premier League stats, where Pickford, Pope and Henderson were all regular starters for their club sides.

In the 2019/20 season, Nick Pope helped Burnley reach 15 clean sheets – a number which missed out on a Golden Glove award by a mere one shutout. Henderson achieved just two less with 13, but Pickford was significantly worse off with nine. Straightaway, Pickford falls behind when it comes to the most revered of goalkeeper stats. 

Clean sheets aren’t just down to Pickford though, are they? Everton’s defence may not have been providing adequate protection, after all. 

So what about errors leading to goals? This is a category Pickford does excel in – last season, he made four mistakes that cost his side goals. Pope, on the other hand, made just two; Henderson was even sturdier, with just one such costly mistake. This highlights Pickford’s erratic nature and the likelihood of him costing his team in the future (whether that be Everton or England). He has already made another error leading to a goal this season, and it certainly won’t come as a surprise when he does it again.

Am even deeper look into last season’s goalkeeping stats show Southgate’s defence of Pickford to be weak.

England’s ‘number one’ made 94 saves in the Premier League last year. Henderson edged him in this category with 97, and Pope blew both competitors out of the water with a massive 120 stops. 

Pope also made an impressive 94 high claims last year, again streets ahead of Pickford’s 24 and Henderson’s 20. When it came to successful punches away, Henderson’s 16 comfortably seen off the others – both of whom made 11. 

These trends have all continued into this season (barring Henderson’s, who finds himself behind David De Gea in the Manchester United pecking order). Pickford hasn’t made any significant improvements, and if anything is looking shakier than ever. 

These stats prove that both of Pickford’s direct competitors have been performing both better and more consistently than him. So why does Southgate believe there are no serious challengers? 

It’s fairly obvious that he refuses to drop Pickford because he hasn’t made these kinds of mistakes for England, but there are a number of reasons as to why this makes Southgate’s decision making incredibly inept. 

International games offer a very small sample size. Just because Pickford hasn’t made a notable mistake for his country so far doesn’t mean he won’t in the future; errors will naturally come with more games. 

Answer me this; what other player, in any position, can get away with playing consistently poorly for their club and still walk into their national team – especially when there are a wealth of suitable alternatives? At best it shows narrow-sightedness and a refusal to accept being in the wrong; at worst, blatant favouritism.

Whatever the reason, Pickford’s role seems to be safe for the time being. The question for Pope and Henderson, however, is simple – what else are they supposed to do? Henderson can at least blame a lack of game time this season for his exclusion, but Pope has been outperforming Pickford for a long time now and barely gets a look in. 

Southgate’s managerial ability may be lacking, but surely even he can’t be blind to the serious challengers for the England goalkeeper shirt?

The numbers behind Celtic’s week from hell

There is no question that last week was one of Celtic’s worst in recent memory. After going out with a whimper in a 2-0 home defeat to Glasgow rivals Rangers, a 3-1 Europa League loss to AC Milan was promptly followed by more dropped points away at Aberdeen. Talk of pressure on Hoops boss Neil Lennon has rocketed and pundits across the country have been in discussion over whether the champions’ season is petering out. 

It’s worth remembering, however, that prior to these results, Celtic had won seven league games on the bounce. While two league games without a win is hardly desirable, it was only the second and third times respectively that they have dropped points so far this season – so is it really fair to speak of a so-called crisis?

The real questions marks raised haven’t just surrounded the results, though, but the performances too. So what was different last week to the seven wins before that? I took a look at the numbers to find out.

In Celtic’s seven league fixtures before their game with Rangers (against Dundee United, Motherwell, Ross County, St Mirren, Livingston, Hibernian and St Johnstone respectively), they averaged 67.5% of ball possession. Against Rangers, this number dropped to 57% and at Pittodrie it was 62%. In both matches they had less of the ball than they’ve become accustomed to, so could this have had an impact on the outcome?

It’s hard to say. In games against opponents closer to Celtic’s level, it’s only natural that they will have less of the ball and they will have surely planned for this. High possession statistics aren’t necessarily a metric that lead to positive results, either; when Celtic were put out of Champions League qualifying by Ferencvaros, they had 71% of the ball and still lost 2-1. 

A more relevant stat could be the numbers of attempts Celtic are having on their opponent’s goal. In their seven-game winning streak, they averaged 18.7 shots per game – from which an average of 7.4 were on target. Throughout these matches, they mustered an average of 2.7 goals every ninety minutes. 

Come the Old Firm and Celtic managed only five efforts, and zero on target. This wasn’t just a drop; it was a mighty fall and it could hint at one reason for their poor performance. So what led to this dramatic decline?

The joint absence of Ryan Christie and Odsonne Edouard may go a long way to explaining this. Of the players who started for Celtic at Parkhead, only Patryk Klimala has higher goal contributions per 90 minutes this season (Christie with 0.88 goals and assists per 90 minutes and Edouard with 0.69). Two of Celtic’s chief goal-makers were missing and their creativity was sorely missed. 

It’s surely no coincidence that with Christie back in the side against Aberdeen, Celtic’s attempts on goal rose to 14 and they converted three of these chances (Christie got a goal himself, albeit from the penalty spot). 

The problem against the Dons clearly wasn’t scoring goals. The main issue (which also reared its ugly head against Rangers) was keeping them out. Celtic had only let in three goals in their seven domestic games prior to the Glasgow derby (an average of 0.4 per game) but went on to concede five in two straight league matches. 

There are two main factors to consider when analysing this decrease in defensive solidarity. The Old Firm result is perhaps easier to look at in this instance; two players with barely any Scottish Premiership experience were included in the starting lineup. Stephen Welsh made only his second league appearance for the side in Lennon’s chosen back three, while Diego Laxalt was a SPFL debutant at wing back. A first Celtic appearance is never an easy task, but being thrown in at the deep end like this was a particularly bold choice from Lennon.

He was forced into these changes, of course. Hatem Abd Elhamed (who had started in defence in three of Celtic’s four previous games) was out, and so was Christopher Jullien. It was a makeshift back five with a limited number of competitive minutes between it, so it was no surprise that Rangers were able to exploit it.

The Aberdeen contest brought an interesting change of tactics from Lennon. Having started with three central defenders in Celtic’s eight previous competitive matches (including the Old Firm) he reverted to a back four for the clash with Derek McInnes’ side. Had the manager lost faith in the system after falling to consecutive defeats using it? Whatever the reason, the tweak certainly didn’t pay off as Celtic shipped three goals.

Make no mistake – a crisis for Celtic is not the same as a crisis for other Scottish clubs. Win their game in hand and they’ll still be within three points of Rangers at the top of the table, and they have a Scottish Cup semi-final to look forward to this weekend. Depending on the way things go, Celtic could once again be favourites for the title within a few weeks. 

However, deeper underlying issues can be found when looking at the stats. A decrease in possession and shots on goal, as well as an increase in attempts on their own goal, three games in a row suggests Lennon isn’t sure how to set his team up in big games. 

New creative outlets must be found for instances where Christie and Edouard are unavailable. A lack of cutting edge up front, mixed with shortcomings at the back in terms of ability and personnel, means the Hoops have their work cut out if they want to achieve ten titles in a row. 

The numbers only tell part of the story in football, but those from Celtic’s week from hell will ring alarm bells in the ears of even the most devoted of Hoops fans.

Marcus Rashford deserves praise off the pitch, but still warrants criticism on it

Marcus Rashford’s heart is definitely in the right place. There is a lot more to the debate surrounding his free school meals campaign than the majority of people realise, but you can’t deny that the Manchester United star is trying to make things better for a younger generation. 

Rashford is receiving plaudits from left, right and centre at the moment, but the problem is that this seems to have made him invincible in the sporting media. When was the last time you read a credible journalist or pundit criticise his form?

This wouldn’t be a problem if Rashford was playing well. Unfortunately, however, he is not, and he hasn’t been for a while now. Ever since his return from injury during post-lockdown Premier League football, he has looked a shadow of his confident former self – and he isn’t being pulled up for it. 

There are a number of reasons as to why the 22-year-old is being consistently showered with praise, but the overpowering factor at the moment is his political activities. This, however, needs to be separated from what is, at the end of the day, his job. Just because he does a lot of good in one area of his life doesn’t mean he can get away with below-par footballing performances.

He also tends to produce a flash of brilliance once every five games or so that bail him out of poor showings. Take United’s recent 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, for example. Rashford played dreadfully throughout this game (I’ll touch more on this later) but secured the win late on with a stunning finish. Cut to the studio, and Rio Ferdinand is raving about Rashford being on the same level as Kylian Mbappe. 

It’s lazy punditry at best, but it also sums up the problem with Rashford at the moment. He is being let off the hook too easily. 

Having watched Rashford a lot over the past few months, I’ve realised he’s doing a lot wrong in a lot of different games. His decision making plays a big part in that. There are a variety of problems with his game (which he’ll hopefully iron out; he’s still very young, after all) but his decision making in big moments needs to be significantly improved. 

Take a look back at the PSG match once more. I’m sure you all remember the moment where Rashford found himself dashing through on goal in a 2v1 situation in United’s favour. Instead of sprinting through and finishing himself, or running far enough to drag the only PSG defender on hand towards him to make a pass easier, he tried an audacious pass straightaway. Fans watching from home must have been in uproar as the chance went begging.

He makes mistakes like this a lot, and it’s usually pretty infuriating to watch. It throws away chances for United and makes games where they are forced to break down teams playing with a low block even tougher. Rashford could do with taking a leaf out of teammate Mason Greenwood’s book; at such a young age, you very rarely see Greenwood make a poor decision with the ball at his feet. Rashford needs to add this tool to his arsenal. 

Rashford’s poor decision making also leads to him making a ridiculous number of needless fouls. While this isn’t as glaring a flaw as others, it is still a tedious one – especially when United are chasing goals and don’t want to disrupt the flow of the game. 

The number of times where Rashford clatters into the back of an opponent who is looking for a foul is ridiculous. Force them into a tight area? Press them into making a mistake? Show them onto their weaker foot? Not for me, says Marcus Rashford. Those aren’t options for a player who’s only defensive agenda seems to be gifting free kicks to the other team!

The England striker also needs to work on his consistency. As I’ve said already, a long-range strike every few games isn’t enough to paper over the cracks of one poor performance after another. He needs to stop with the fancy flicks, stop with the audacious shots and passes when there are easier options available, and work on achieving 7/10 performances every week at least.

It’s the dirty work and the unattractive goals that transform good players into great players. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo epitomised this at Old Trafford; while they too were capable of scoring spectacular goals, they consistently delivered the less than glamorous strikes. That’s what made them so successful. 

Rashford just doesn’t seem capable of doing that at the moment, and yet he still isn’t criticised in the media for it. If he plays poorly, he is ignored. If he plays poorly and scores a long range effort, he is called the best thing since sliced bread. Perhaps a bit of constructive criticism would go a long way to improving his game. 

All of these flaws combine to create what seems to be a poor footballing brain. Rashford just doesn’t look like a natural thinker on the pitch. Of course, this isn’t quite as much as a necessity for a winger or striker as it is for a creative midfielder or playmaker. It does make a big difference, however, and this is showing in his performances. 

Good decision making is necessary if a player like Rashford wants to be efficient in front goal (in terms of goals and assists) and he isn’t contributing nearly as much as he should be. There are too many stray passes and too many wayward shots. Too many ball losses and not enough end product. 

It is difficult to drop Rashford at the moment. The signing of Jadon Sancho would have made it easier, but I have a horrible feeling that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have happily dropped Greenwood before Rashford. We each have our own opinions, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the younger player is the more reliable option right now. 

Perhaps the signing of Edison Cavani will spur Rashford on to greater heights; his place in the team is now no longer a certainty like it was when he was up against the lousy competition of Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Odion Ighalo.

What Marcus Rashford does need is a bit more pressure from the media. None of this dancing around his shortcomings because of his good deeds in the political world. He might deserve praise off the pitch, but he still warrants criticism on it.

The Heirs to Ronaldo and Messi

After France and Portugal played out a 0-0 draw on Sunday night, a number of French players took to their social media accounts to post about the game. Interestingly, their main purpose didn’t seem to be to reflect on the match itself; instead, it looked as though many of them simply wanted an excuse to post a picture of themselves playing next to Cristiano Ronaldo.

You can hardly blame them. Ronaldo is, without a doubt, part of a duo that will go down as the best footballing couplet in history. The other, of course, is Lionel Messi.

Paul Pogba and Presnel Kimpembe were among those who showcased their pride at sharing the pitch with the Portuguese superstar, but it was the post of another player that has really caught the eyes of football fans around the world – Kylian Mbappe. 

Pictures have been doing the rounds all over the internet ever since, consisting of comparisons between the recent photo of the two and another of them meeting when Ronaldo was tearing La Liga defences apart as Real Madrid player (Mbappe hadn’t burst onto the scene at this point). 

This photo has served to remind us of a depressing and yet intriguing future – one in which Ronaldo and Messi no longer bless the pitch with their genius season after season. 

In this future, there are a new generation of players who will pick up the mantle and become the idols young footballers strive to be. It’s not an enviable task to try and live up to Messi and Ronaldo’s unfathomable heights – in fact, it might not be possible. Ever.

However, someone has to try.

So who is it going to be? Which players have the potential and bravery to reach the heights these giants have?

Kylian Mbappe is certainly one of them himself, and that’s why it’s so fitting that the picture of he and Ronaldo has sparked this debate back into life. The young Frenchman already stands among the elite footballers of the world and he is only 21 years old, so that gives us a clue as to how far his career can go.

A lot of critics have already fallen into the trap of believing Mbappe isn’t as good as he’s made out to be simply because he plays his club football in France. This is ridiculous and if anyone says this to you, you can tell them in good confidence that they possess no worthwhile football knowledge.

The French league may not be the strongest in the world, but that takes nothing away from Mbappe’s ability – especially at this young age. He will leave Paris at some point in his quest to match his idol Ronaldo’s exploits across Europe, but he’s already on the way to proving his worth.

The forward has 53 goals in 52 league games for Paris Saint-Germain, already propelling him to 7th on their list of all time top goalscorers. He scored in a World Cup final where his side lifted football’s greatest prize, and just last season he helped his club reach a Champions League final which, if they’d won, would have handed Mbappe two of the sport’s biggest trophies after barely leaving his teen years. Maybe it’s a good thing that he still has something out there to work for.

There is no question that after Messi and Ronaldo retire, Mbappe will be the one holding the torch for football’s next generation. 

Another youngster who has the ability to match the records laid out by the two superstars is Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland. The Norweigan’s goalscoring exploits are perhaps even more freakish than Mbappe’s, and his finishing is definitely up there with the best in the world. He just doesn’t seem to miss.

He has 17 goals in 18 Bundesliga games for Dortmund and has six in six international caps, so it’s definitely not unfair to define him as the definition of a goal machine. If he can improve even more on top of this current form (remember, he’s only 20 years old) then he’s another with a claim to the throne.

He’s another who will definitely move sooner rather than later, and that will only help his career flourish that much more. Dortmund are, at the end of the day, a selling club and it won’t be long before the big dogs come calling. Not if he maintains this level of performance. 

These two aren’t the only wonderkids who are being described as generational talents, and they certainly won’t be alone in the battle for Ballon D’Or awards in the post-Ronaldo and Messi era. Mason Greenwood is younger still and he’s already shown consistent flashes of genius and wondrous ability in a struggling Manchester United squad. 

Ansu Fati is giving Barcelona fans hope during a turbulent time at the Camp Nou, while Jadon Sancho will certainly have faith in his ability to reach the very top of the game. His link-up play with Haaland in Germany has been particularly good to watch.

It might not be plausible to ever match the standards set by Ronaldo and Messi. It could be nigh on impossible – these players will need to play to the best of their ability for well over a decade to even come close.

There’s one thing that is certain, though, and that’s that these players will give everything they’ve got to emulate their idols. 

Who knows; it might be Mbappe posing with the next generational talent in ten years time. Only time will tell.

Harry Maguire – An £80million Bag of Mistakes

As the dust settles on the worst result of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Manchester United so far, Harry Maguire is far from the only problem at the club. 

The manager himself is once again proving that he is not up to the job. Marcus Rashford continues to frustrate with lackluster performances (as do numerous members of the squad) and a lack of options on the bench only profounds these issues. Limited action in the transfer market makes this even worse.

After yet another alarmingly poor showing from the club captain against Tottenham, however, surely even his most devoted fans will be running out of excuses for the Englishman. United have now conceded 11 goals in their first three Premier League games, and that partly stems from issues at centre back. 

So what is it that makes Maguire so painful to watch at the moment? For starters, there is his positioning. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions over recent weeks where Maguire, either due to a lack of pace or sheer laziness, has failed to block crosses he should have. 

All too often when an opposing team is counter attacking, Maguire looks lackadaisical when getting into position. He has a bad habit of not checking his shoulder for runners off the ball, and therefore doesn’t know where to position himself to stop balls entering the box. This often leads to criticism of Victor Lindelof when he loses his man, but he needs a lot more protection from his partner. 

Maguire has to sharpen up in these situations. He doesn’t get much stick for this side of his game in the media because it doesn’t, strictly speaking, go down as an error. However, surely Solskjaer has to force him to work on these situations. 

Maguire’s silly mistakes are also becoming something of a regular occurrence. Today’s defeat to Tottenham showcased a number of them; most people know that his attempted headed backpass leading to Spurs’ opener would have been scolded at U14s boys club football, never mind at Old Trafford. 

The England defender also failed to stand in front of Harry Kane’s quick free kick which led to Heung-Min Son’s first goal, and again failed to block the cross which led to his second later in the game. In short, Maguire could have done better for at least three of Spurs’ six goals today. 

He has to cut these errors out of his game. David De Gea rightly received stick from fans and the media last season for these high profile errors, and Maguire should shoulder the same responsibility. He simply has to be more solid if United are to improve at the back. 

Maguire has also shown himself to be extremely unreliable at taking chances from set pieces. Over the past year or so, Maguire has been presented with a vast number of opportunities from corners and free kicks and yet has only taken a handful. For a man of his size and with his heading ability, he simply has to do more.

Set pieces give teams opportunities to grind out victories in games where they perhaps haven’t played to the best of their ability. Virgil van Dijk has a knack for scoring big goals from corners in games where Liverpool are struggling; Maguire doesn’t offer that and United are often made to pay. Maguire should be his side’s main threat in these situations, but offers very little. 

It’s also a worry that he appears to be undroppable. He played every single minute of United’s Premier League campaign last season and has done so again this year. It’s also telling that Solskjaer didn’t even drop him for the side’s Carabao Cup opener against Luton – despite switching up the rest of the starting eleven.

Perhaps this is because of his price tag, but at the moment it looks as though Maguire could do with a spell out of the side. It’s hard to tell if his poor form is down to jaded legs, but perhaps some time out of the spotlight could do him some good. 


Manchester United fans will be nervous about the fact that Maguire appears to be getting worse. His poor run of form shows no sign of slowing up any time soon, but he’ll need to arrest this slide at some point if he wants to help United climb back up the Premier League table.

Motherwell must keep Campbell this year

Young players breaking into the first team is no new phenomenon at Motherwell. Allan Campbell is simply the latest in a long line of success stories, having broken into the squad as a teenager and firmly establishing himself as a key player.

Now, however, he is being linked with a move to Aberdeen or Hibernian. This is natural and Motherwell will be used to it, but they should be doing everything in their power to keep the young Scot until at least the end of the season.

Having just sold star player David Turnbull to Celtic for a club-record fee, the balance in Motherwell’s midfield has been restored. They have looked much better with Liam Polworth back in the squad, but Campbell is the real heartbeat in the side. Not only is he incredibly industrious, constantly haggling opposition players and breaking up attacks, but he’s also developed a very desirable trait in popping up with important goals himself. 

If you take Campbell out of that Motherwell team, a severe drop in quality is likely. He will, of course, leave at some point; that’s part and parcel of the game for clubs like the Steelmen. Just weeks after Turnbull departed, however, it would leave Motherwell short in the midfield department with very little time to find a replacement. Liam Donnelly is already out for an extended spell through injury, so any sale would only deplete the squad more. 

The main miss, however, would be Campbell’s quality. He has been a regular in the Scotland U21 squad over the past few years and it surely won’t be long before he gets a call-up to the senior side (typically, this will be more likely to happen if he moves to a bigger team). He adds a whole different dimension to Motherwell’s play and brings a variety of qualities to the table. 

Hanging onto Campbell for another season will bolster Motherwell’s chances of boosting his market price as well. If the club can battle to another top six finish and Campbell continues this rich vein of form, then teams will have to pay more to secure his services. This means Motherwell would have more to spend on players who can replace the youngster properly. 

Campbell leaving Lanarkshire is inevitable, but Motherwell will be much better off if they can hang on to him this year – both financially and on the pitch.