In the second of these pieces on ways to improve the game, I suggest lessons football clubs and organisations could learn from their American brothers. These are written with regards to the social and contractual side of the game and arguably do very little for the fans in this country, but in a global society these things have to be considered. In fact, I believe these will lead to benefits for fans in this country too as the competitive balance is somewhat restored. I've written with the Premier League in mind, but it is more than possible to apply these principles across other European leagues.
1. An All-Star Game
In the NBA, the best players from the Eastern and Western Conferences play each year in an exhibition match dubbed the "All-Stars Game". At the end of each season the NFL chooses two teams, one from the NFC and one from the AFC, to compete in the Pro Bowl, featuring every elite player except those playing in the Super Bowl. Both of these games are seen as a bit of a circus by the players and the teams, who are really only concerned about the stars not getting injured. However, these exhibition games could be great if they were taken overseas. Realistically, UK fans wouldn't care about a Premier League All-Star game, so it could be played over the weekend of the EFL play-off finals at prime time in the US or the Far East (late night or early morning in the UK respectively). Any players taking part in the FA Cup final would be exempt, but all others would be contractually required to play. It would help to spread the game to the rest of the world even further, giving fans the chance to see their favourite players. Every year cities could bid to host the game, bringing in even more TV revenue and advertising contracts for the Premier League. The NBA in particular makes the entire show a skill challenge, including "shoot-arounds" (who is the best 3 point shooter) and dunking challenges. The Premier League could invite the best free-kick takers and most accurate passers to compete in mini challenges of a similar nature. Basically, the Premier League clubs, players and brands can expand even further into the developing markets. Alternatively, the Premier League could invite La Liga or the Bundesliga to provide an All-Star team to play the Premier League All-Stars. The fan engagement would be huge and the stock of the best players in the league would rise even further.
2. Contracts and Clauses
Linked to that is the nature of pay. In the NBA, any player voted into the equivalent of the Team of the Season gets a greater earning opportunity thanks to the "collective bargaining agreement". Players who are voted for by journalists and other representatives therefore find their wage potential is far higher than those not considered to be in the elite. This would obviously not work in football, with the free market nature and open system of promotion and relegation in football, but there would be greater potential for clubs to include performance clauses in a player's contract. For example, clubs could include an All-Star clause which would trigger a wage rise, or a relegation clause which triggers a massive wage cut. There's also the possibility for including a buy-out clause which can only be activated by clubs if the player has been selected for the All-Star game or restricts who the player can be sold to based on how many All-Stars are currently at the buying club (for example if Chelsea had 5 or more All-Stars then a clause in Lukaku's contract could stop them buying him). This would help smaller clubs keep hold of their star players and take a lot of the power away from the players and away from player agents.
3. Contracts and Trades
This then opens up the possibility to trade players (including their contracts) for other players. Using the example of Lukaku, Everton could refuse to sell him to Chelsea if Chelsea had too many All-Stars, but could request that Chelsea trade them one of their All-Stars (and whatever else would be needed to make the trade palatable) in order to retain their strength. The conclusion could be: Lukaku to Chelsea for Gary Cahill, Nathaniel Chalobah and a bit of cash. Chelsea would then take Lukaku and, crucially, his contract, whilst Everton would get Cahill and Chalobah (and their contracts) and whatever cash they felt would make the trade worthwhile. Removing the rights of players to choose where they play would need working out legally (although leaving the EU could actually prove beneficial in this case) and the changing system of trades would take time to adjust. The positives, however, are numerate. Firstly, it gives smaller clubs far more power in retaining their stars thanks to the clauses which could be written into contracts. Secondly, this would reduce the power of players and agents to force moves and would force far more savvy negotiations. It would also remove agents fees from trades (not traditional transfers) as it would be a straight negotiation between clubs. Thirdly it would restrict the ability of bigger clubs to simply throw huge amounts of money at poorer clubs and effectively force them into selling their best players summer-on-summer. It works hugely in favour of clubs like Southampton, who could potentially keep hold of their best players if they wanted to.
Obviously there are a couple of problems here. The first is "what about players who don't make the All-Star game?" Well, I believe that it would be a slow process of changing the entire nature of player contracts. As the All-Star contracts start creating these clauses, other clubs will see the benefits and will start imposing them on other players. It would be the start of the erosion of player power, not the pinnacle, but it would certainly be a turning point. Secondly, would players and agents accept it? Well, probably not. But realistically the majority of clubs would and if they all agreed to begin implementing them then players would start having to make decisions: do I drop down to the Championship, where these clauses might not exist, and take less money or play at a lower level? Do I go abroad (and probably take less money)? Or do I accept these terms? Thirdly, would it be legal? On this point I have no idea, but if they can do it in the US then I'm sure it can be worked out here.
Adapting rules from American sports to football would certainly require a lengthy campaign promoting it: football fans (especially in the UK) are averse to basically any changes, let alone any that come from American sport. The benefit of American sport organisation is the "competitive balance" aspect of it: by taking financial power out of the equation and reducing player power, good leadership and sensible club management can take a club from the bottom to the top in the space of a few seasons. Managers get longer contracts in order to oversee slow rebuilds and it is understood that coaching and management are different processes (which some football clubs are starting to warm to, with the Director of Football role). Of course, relegation poses a problem in this, but it is certainly possible to tip the scales in the direction of the smaller clubs if the league and the clubs have the desire to.
Next time I will look at the possibility of a European Super League and what that could mean for the game. I believe it would actually be beneficial for every single team if it was managed correctly; I will outline what "correctly" means in my opinion.
In the meantime, a reminder to watch the Women's Euros which are starting very soon. In the UK you can watch them on Channel 4 and (I believe) Eurosport and it will be well worth watching, with Germany, England and Sweden all taking part (plus plenty of others!). I've got my Steph Houghton shirt and will be cheering on the Lionesses; it would be great if we could all get behind our ladies, who have been getting more and more successful in recent years!
Football's governing bodies are well known for being slow on the uptake when it comes to anything other than money, often because fans don't seem to be too keen on changes being made to their game. The recent trial of the video refereeing system was a step in the right direction, as were some of the drastic proposals made recently (including 30 minute halves and a stopping clock). The changes we are starting to see now are things I have been proposing to my friends, loved ones and basically anyone stupid enough to ask for years, so I'm taking this opportunity to suggest, theorise, explore and debate the possible changes to our game to make it even better.
Video referees are the most necessary change, but also the most difficult to implement given the speed with which football is played. There is one easy solution: stop the clock whenever a decision needs to be reviewed. There can be two occasions when a video referral is made: either the referee stops play immediately, or one of the managers requests a time out for a play to be reviewed. Each team would get a maximum number of referrals, say 3 per game, in order to stop them becoming a tactical weapon and all goals would be reviewed automatically. The big thing fans are worried about is the American influence: will all our time-outs become advert breaks? Well, take a look at rugby and cricket. Do they cut away from live action just because a video review is taking place? No, and neither would football.
So, an example: Chelsea are playing Manchester United. In the third minute, Pedro is seemingly tripped in the area and the referee awards a penalty. Jose jumps up and calls time-out, allowing the play to be reviewed. The decision is upheld and Hazard tucks away the penalty. Later in the half, Mata is scythed in half by Matic and the referee awards a free kick. He then calls a time out and requests the video referee take a look at the tackle: should it be yellow or red? The decision is passed back, yellow. This gives the referee time to call medical help on to the pitch for the injured Mata and diffuse any tension bubbling between the players, as well as ensuring that when the decision is made it is the right one and Matic isn't unfairly sent off (or wrongly allowed to remain on the pitch).
In this scenario, a game at the very top of the Premier League watched by millions has lasted a minute longer and the referee has made two very tricky and very important correct decisions. It allows referees peace of mind and managers no excuses, whilst also improving the accuracy and enjoyment of the game. If clear guidelines are set then the video referral system is certainly the most obvious improvement that the game desperately needs. It is unfair that millions of fans and pundits around the world can come to the correct decision at their own pace whilst the referee must decide instantly and finally, with no assistance.
The problems experienced at the Confederations Cup are purely down to a lack of clear guidelines and a serious need for the clock to stop. At the end of the New Zealand vs Mexico game, the entire affair was botched because the teams wanted to get on with the game and the referee had no power by which to tell them that added time would continue until it made up for the time spent waiting for the video referee's decision (which should have included multiple red cards, but didn't because of the rush).
Stopping the clock every time the ball goes out and reducing the game to 30 minute halves, combined with manager's challenges and referee's referrals, will make the video referee an integral and indispensable part of the modern game whilst eliminating the problems of time wasting. This should not even be a discussion, but thanks to the ineffective application by FIFA and the lack of forward planning when it comes to fitting the system into a real game scenario, the detractors from video assistants have been able to make their voices heard over the last month or so. It only takes a couple of tweaks and adjustments to make these the most important changes to football since the dawn of the Premier League.
Sutton United's home clash with Arsenal in the FA Cup on Monday night may have reminded English audiences of the magic of the ancient competition, but the really spellbinding fixture of the week will take place on Wednesday in the early evening. Forget the Champions League fixtures, as intriguing as they may be; similarly, the Europa League is but a minor distraction in comparison. I am, of course, talking about a huge international friendly.
Now this game may have passed under the radar of the less-observant, but it hasn't escaped our attention. We struck up an excited conversation on twitter when we discovered that these two nations (I think they're both sovereign states) were going to be matching up in what can only be described as the most epic, the most highly anticipated and the most ridiculously pointless international friendly in history. San Marino, that once unheard of and now merely easily forgotten footballing nation, face up against Andorra at the Olimpico di Serravalle (in San Marino. And yes, I had to Google where it was to be sure it wasn't at a neutral ground. You know what those San Marino ultras are like). Andorra are of course slightly better known, although certainly not for their football, but quite why these two decided to spar on Champions League night is beyond us.
Seeing as most of their players are semi-pros at best (and surely any that are professional will have to stay with their clubs? It isn't an international break so they wouldn't have to, or want to, trek across Europe for a "prestige" friendly...?) you would imagine they would be more keen on watching the night's Champions League offerings, especially because Italian side Juventus will be playing Porto. Maybe that's why it has been scheduled in the early evening, to give them all time to get to the pub after the end of the game. Ah, the magic of minor international friendlies lives on... None of your faked pie eating stories here!
Andorra come into the match in much the better form, having actually drawn one of their last 6 games (yeah, they both lost the last five so I had to go back a little further to split them). Their away draw in Azerbaijan is actually quite impressive, probably, and Andorra look good value for the tag of favourites. They have only conceded 15 goals in the last 5 games, in comparison to the 29 of their hosts. Both sides have only scored once in that time though, so a high-scoring encounter looks to be off the cards. Andorra's top scorer in Euro 2016 qualifying, Ildefons Lima, actually scored 3 times in that campaign, to the one of San Marino's most prolific scorer Matteo Vitaioli, but the FC Santa Colma defender (?!) may have the best years of his career behind him at 37. I don't even know for sure if he's retired or not. Soccerway has his current season numbers as "Minutes ? Goals ? Assists?..." You get the picture.
So: a friendly between two terrible footballing nations, without any of their professionals available to them, both with awful scoring records and with the match being played in front of a maximum of 7000 fans. Important to reiterate that it is a maximum. If anyone can find a stream I would highly recommend you alert Amazon, because whoever is filming it on Facebook Live probably needs a portable charger to get through the whole game.
It should be a cracking build up to the Champions League matches so I hope everyone takes the time to watch what should be a fascinating clash.
San Marino vs. Andorra
5.30pm UK/ 6.30pm CET
Olimpico di Serravalle, San Marino
When young Swedish talents surprise media, it's their almost Pavlovian instinct to hype the youngsters a'la English media. This might lead to bad decisions for the youngsters. Our guest writer Malte Törngren scribbles his thoughts on the huge conundrum of making the right decision.
When you think about youth football, golden generations and future worldbeaters, you're most likely to think about countries like France, Germany and Spain. However, recently there's been a couple of talents from Sweden that's been attracting interest from the big clubs, with Swedish-Eritrean youngster Alexander Isak the most recent. Having broken through at AIK, he's now earned himself a big-money move to Dortmund.
17 years earlier, Isak was born in Solna, a suburb to Stockholm. Five months earlier, another kid had been born in another suburb of Stockholm. His parents gave him the name 'Joel', however we'll return to that later. Alexander Isak started playing for AIK in 2005, aged 6. 10 years later he had been invited up to train the first team. In an interview with Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Isak said that his attacking-idols are Zlatan and Henok Goitom. What's so special about Goitom then? Played for Real Murcia among others, but mainly, he and Isak have a lot in common. They both have Eritrean roots, they're both strikers and they both play(ed) for AIK. Besides that, their dads know eachother as well. How cool is that?
Nearly a year after this interview, Isak has broken through and scored 10 goals for AIK, and, as said, earned himself a big-money move. He went to Dortmund for €8.6m, according to Transfermarkt. A blockbuster, a real star already? No idea, we'll see about that.
Now, back to Joel. Joel Joshoghene Asoro was born in Haninge, a suburb 50 km south of Solna. Joel joins IFK Haninge, his local club, at the age of 8. When he's 11 he's earned himself a move to one of the bigger clubs in Stockholm, IF Brommapojkarna. IFBP are known for their ability of bringing through youngsters of great quality, in recent years John Guidetti among others. After 5 years in Bromma, Joel moves overseas and joins Sunderland. In most cases, England is a bad decision for Swedish talents. A plausible reason could be that the managers in England just won't give young players the chance as often as in other leagues. Just look at Tanković (Fulham), Kačaniklić (Fulham), Kris Petersson (Liverpool) and Kris Olsson(Arsenal). They all moved to England at an early age, got hyped (we Swedes hype any player that gets a game and is under 20 honestly), and moved on to mediocrity. Olsson is back in Sweden now, playing for earlier mentioned AIK. Kačaniklić, one of my childhood heroes, is now at Nantes in France. Tanković and Petersson are now plying their trade in Holland for AZ and Heracles respectively. The only one between Isak and Asoro showing tendencies of ending up like these is Asoro, as he hasn't played first team football before moving overseas to Sunderland, with Isak being experienced from playing first team football and scoring ten goals in the Swedish Allsvenskan, which is quite remarkable considering his tiny age.
To the small list of Swedish talents that have 'succeeded' in recent years we can count Albin Ekdal, Victor Nilsson Lindelöf and Emil Forsberg. So many unsuccessful talents and so few succesful, but that's football, I guess. Does this mean Asoro and Isak will fail? Probably not. But you never know. Another, maybe even better comparison to make would be the one between Norwegian wonderkid Martin Ødegaard and Isak. Alexander was very close to doing the same move, to Spanish giants Real Madrid, but instead chose to move to Germany and Dortmund. Would Isak have ended up frozen out like Ødegaard? Possibly. Isak does though seem to have a better attitude about things than Martin. But as said earlier, you never know. The last time we swedes had someone as hyped as Isak it ended up a HUGE failure.
The year was 2013, and the U-17 World Cup in the UAE had only just started. Sweden are huge underdogs, having been drawn into a group including Iraq, Mexico and Nigeria (including a certain Kelechi Iheanacho, who would proceed to get player of the tournament). Sweden won their first game against Iraq rather convincingly, with Gustav Engvall (now at Bristol City) scoring a brace, Anton Saletros (AIK) scoring one and Ali Suljic (Chelsea) scoring for Sweden. The next game Sweden drew 3-3 with Nigeria, in a game where Valmir Berisha scored twice. And it was all about Berisha, he got all the hype. The last game Sweden lost 1-0 to Mexico, yet they proceeded as the best third placed team. The next game, would see Sweden knock Japan out, with Berisha and Engvall scoring the goals yet again. Onto the quarters then? Yes indeed. Sweden came from behind to win another game 2-1, this time with Erdal Rakip (Malmö FF) and once again Valmir Berisha as goalscorers. However in the semifinals, Sweden lost 3-0 to Nigeria, meaning they'll now get to play for third place. Berisha scored a hattrick against Argentina, to seal a 4-1 win. The hype was unreal. He went on to get topscorer with his 7 goals, 1 more than Kelechi. Now to the importance of making the right decisions.
While having offers from basically every big club out there, plus being offered a first team contract with Halmstad, he took his time. In the end, the choice was between Halmstad, Dortmund and Roma. His family wanted him to pick Dortmund, he signed for Roma. This ended up as one of the worst decisions he'd made in his life. He obviously got no playtime there, proceeding to him being loaned to Panathinaikos where he once again got no playtime, oddly enough. After only 4 days back at Roma he signed for SC Cambuur. After 9 months at Cambuur, he became a free agent. And now, last week, he signed for Norwegian side Aalesunds FK. From being chased by nearly every big club to signing for the team in 9th place (out of 16) in the Norwegian league within under 3 years. Downhill? The only way he knows how. Football can be cruel sometimes.
Guest writer, Swede and avid believer in Aymen Barkok's excellence
Hamburg SV recently removed coach Bruno Labbadia from his role as their coach, with sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer citing the team’s poor start to the season. After four defeats in five matches Hamburg are mired in early season relegation trouble, only a place above the slightly more woeful Schalke 04. Hamburg finished last season in 11th, a relatively comfortable position given that they finished the previous two seasons in the relegation play-off spot, but that wasn’t enough to convince the powers-that-be that Labbadia deserved a longer stint in charge of the side. It was Labbadia’s second stint in charge of the north German club and, like his previous reign, it proved to be short lived.
Since Labbadia’s last outing as Hamburg boss, back in 2009-2010, the club have had 13 trainers (that’s an average of 2 a year, although it is including caretakers and the newly appointed Markus Gisdol). Few have lasted more than a season, with some seasons seeing the club employ three coaches to take the club to ever greater… Well I can’t even pretend they’ve been successful, so ever greater flirtations with danger and ever more incredible escapes. Fans of Hamburg expect so much more; as the dinosaur of the Bundesliga, Hamburg have played in every season of the competition since its inception in the 1960s and have arguably never faced as traumatic a period as this. Since the heyday of the 1980s, when Hamburg were a side challenging for the very highest honours in German and European football, the club have had aspirations of greatness and with a fabulous city and fan base behind them you can understand the frustration that there isn’t a fantastic football club to represent them.
Hamburg’s sporting directors are playing with fire, however. There is a certain logic to sacking coaches on a reasonably regular basis: it keeps everyone on their toes; there is often a boost in motivation every time a new boss steps through the door as everyone seeks to impress him/ her; complacency is avoided. However, there is a fine line. A lack of unity or clear direction within the club is clearly growing, young players are being given the chance to shine only for a new boss to come in and drop them again, whilst Hamburg themselves are wasting millions upon millions of Euros buying players for coaches who they then sack immediately. It means that plenty of players brought in by Labbadia this summer may never get the real chance at Hamburg that they thought they would be getting. How many talented youngsters have slipped through the net? How many experienced pros have let the club down in recent years? It is getting ridiculous.
Under Labbadia last season it finally looked like Hamburg had turned the corner. The German boss had undone some of the defensive horror shows that the previous regimes had become famous for, whilst occasionally even getting his side to play decent football. A mid-table finish was not to be sniffed at, given the lack of success in recent years. Things were looking up as the summer rolled by and there were even murmuring rumours of a return to European competition if the season went really well. Five games in and those thoughts have disappeared, but despite a promising 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich the board decided enough was enough, with the club on a run of four straight defeats and a solitary point to show from the season so far. But had things really been that bad?
A 4-0 home defeat against RB Leipzig looks bad on paper, but really the East German club have been exceeding expectations so far and have had a fantastic start to the season. Any side can have an off day; Borussia Dortmund further showed that away in Leipzig. A 3-1 away defeat in Leverkusen is also not that disappointing, given that Bayer are a cut above a lot of other clubs at the moment. Two narrow defeats in the last two games pointed to things moving in the right direction at least and after last season it really didn’t seem necessary to replace the manager so early in the new campaign.
This is where things get worrying for Hamburg fans; the director of football, Herr Beiersdorfer, along with other senior figures at the club, are rumoured to have their fingers all over the team sheet, their decisions dictate team selection whilst they remain far away from all responsibility. These are just rumours, understandable given the sacking of another manager who seemed to be on death row after the Freiburg defeat, but given the continued comings and goings in the coach’s office with little lasting improvement on the pitch, it is easy to imagine. Things are not healthy in Hamburg and fingers are starting to point upwards.
So, Hamburg fans, it looks like another season of failure and flirting with relegation danger is coming your way. Just when you thought it was over, here it is. Back again. Continually firing the coach may work in the short run but over time it just damages the club and leads to uncertainty. Here’s hoping Markus Gisol doesn’t face the chop before the end of the season or the Hamburg dinosaur will start to look like it’s being forced to perform in a circus for the cheap, sad entertainment of everyone else.
With our brand new La Liga section finding its way onto your screens imminently, Will Bolton, one of our new writers, tells you exactly why you should be paying attention to Spain's fantastic footballing world.
We may be only six games into the new La Liga season but it is already being touted as one of the most frantic and unpredictable leagues in over a decade. A casual glance at the current league standings, with the all too familiar ‘big three’ of Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid leading the way, would suggest once again another three way battle for the title, with the chasing pack competing for the other lucrative Champions League place. However, closer inspection of events both on and off the field reveals a fascinating league full of intrigue.
No team exemplifies the erratic nature of this season’s top flight than newly promoted Alaves, who followed up an impressive 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderón with a shock 2-1 victory at the home of the champions, FC Barcelona. Nor are they the only team sending shock waves through Spanish football. Last weekend saw Las Palmas secure an unlikely point against Real Madrid whilst Eibar, largely written off at the start of this season given last year’s extraordinary campaign which saw them avoid relegation, have taken ten points from their opening six matches.
One thing that hasn’t shocked anyone is Valencia chairman Peter Lim’s sacking of manager Pako Ayestaran at the Mestalla, less than six months after the removal of Gary Neville. Why the board of directors don’t hand Voro Gonzalez the role on a permanent basis is anyone's guess, especially considering he has served as caretaker manager on three occasions recently. Villas-Boas is currently the bookies favourite to be next in line to face the wrath of an over-expectant and impatient Valencia fan base.
Lionel Messi’s injury lay off leaves Barca manager Luis Enrique with the unenviable task of replacing the irreplaceable. How his side cope without their talisman will be largely determined by how the manager tweaks his front three to accommodate the strengths of Arda Turan, who tends to stray from his position out wide with less frequency than his fellow attackers. Although hardly a stranger to high pressing from his time at Atletico Madrid, how he performs when given the license to roam will be interesting to watch. Indeed, whether it is he or Paco Alcacer who starts against Celta Vigo on Sunday is fascinating in itself. It is a huge chance for both to stake a claim in disrupting the captivating partnership of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, who have scored ten of FC Barcelona’s last twelve goals. Good luck to them.
Over at the the Bernabéu, Zinedine Zidane once again showcased his managerial credentials at the weekend, substituting a below-par Cristiano Ronaldo. This year’s inevitable Ballon d’or winner’s strop wrongly stole the limelight from a fantastic Las Palmas display, yet nevertheless was significant in the Portuguese international’s Real Madrid career. It is difficult to recall the last time Ronaldo was substituted for tactical reasons, and is indicative of the fact he is no longer able to play ninety minutes every game for nine months of the year. Thankfully, Zidane has shown he is capable of dealing with the big egos (of which Real Madrid have plenty), whilst maintaining their respect, unlike predecessors Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho. How Ronaldo reacts to his new role will be crucial to the success of Real Madrid’s season, and is another riveting sub-plot to an exciting season of Spanish football.
William is one of our two new La Liga writers who will be covering all aspects of Spanish football for us from now on! Enjoy!
Tonight is the second night of this week's Champion's League and we would like to wish you a pleasant evening with a few great match-ups. In these match-ups, however, there are a few players we would like to recommend to you. As we've been raving on about this box-to-box-ish midfielder for a week now, let's take a look at a few of those who are in action tonight:
1. Ivan Rakitic.
While Iniesta is the man stealing the limelight in midfield, Ivan Rakitic runs the show behind the scenes. He is the often uncredited director of Barcelona's game and is vital to them and their success. Since he arrived at the club from Sevilla he has won two league titles and a Champion's League title with the club under Enrique and has been part of the revitalized Barcelona of recent years with los tres amigos dominating the international football scene. Rakitic' style of play is based on his passing and stamina. He has the ability to defend, while he also can act asa building defensive midfielder. Combine this with his obvious attacking talent and you have one of the most complete and underrated midfielders around.
2. Arturo Vidal.
Not as underrated as Rakitic, but certainly on his level. His passion and skill has improved Bayern massively since he arrived in Bavaria and withoit him as a constant machine in midfield, the Bayern attack wouldn't work nearly as good as it does. His transition skills and ability to carry the ball forward while still looking foir sumptuous passes in the attacking third makes him one of the best central midfielders in Bundesliga, if not the world.
3. Marco Verratti
Obvious choice for this role. Verratti's stamina and willpower in midfield has made him one of the most promising and most important players of his generation. his passing and strength is also vital to him as he is constantly under pressure from the opposing team's midfield but he rarely fails in his transitions and is a vital part to any team. Alongside Matuidi or Krychowiak he's best, but camn act as a defensive midfielder too, even though his primary role is that of a box-to-box-ish midfielder, just like Rakitic and Vidal.
Do enjoy the games and please help us with the name for this player. No, it's not box-to-box, that's too limited. There has to be another name for him.
editor and not too creative at the moment.
We all have that team, you know, the one we’d support if our favourite team didn’t exist. For me, that team is Valencia. Just the thought of their rich history, the passionate and proud valencianistas and the classic Mestalla stadium makes me feel all warm and happy inside. In the past few years, though, the club has been terribly mismanaged by owners, managers and others involved with the club.
Ah, Valencia.. One of the most Spanish cities around. Home of the paella, Las Fallas and one of the most succesful teams is world football. With 6 La Liga titles and several conquests in the European tournaments, Valencia Club de Fútbol have a rich history. Today, however, the big titles and tournaments feel so far away.
In May 2014, the current owner Peter Lim, bought 70,4% of the club. He promised titles, a new stadium and payed debts. It looked promising to say the least. The debts were payed, signings were made, and we all thought things had turned as Valencia finished 4th in the 2014/2015 La Liga campaign, and qualified for the Champions League.
The following season, the side was awful at times as they were embarrassed at more than one occasion, and it all ended in a massive failure. The talented side failed to reach the Champions League round of 16, and finished 12th in La Liga. The fans saw three different managers on the Mestalla sideline during the season with, among others, Gary Neville coming and going.
As the club lost two crucial players before the 2016/2017 season, with the talented youngster and former captain Paco Alcácer and incredibly versatile midfielder Andre Gomes leaving for Barcelona, and the squad’s woeful start to the season, there are many doubts if Valencia Club de Fútbol will ever return to its’ glory days. I, for one, think, and hope so. As the massive club that it is, it deserves to be in the top of Spanish and European football.
Amunt València! Visca el València! Es el millor!
Sunday afternoon sees two of the fast starters in this season's Bundesliga go face to face in the Domstadt. Ali and Axel discussed both side's start to the season in the most recent BundesSpeaker podcast, which you can listen to here, and now they match up in one of the biggest clashes of the weekend. Here are our top reasons to watch what should be a great game.
1. Both sides are undefeated
After strong starts to the season both sides go into the 5th match without a defeat to their names, particularly impressive for the newly promoted side from Leipzig. FC Köln only conceded their first goal in their midweek victory over Schalke, the last side in the top 5 divisions across European football to do so, standing them in good stead to face the fresh-faced attack coming their way from Leipzig. Leipzig have conceded goals but have been scoring too, with a 1-0 home victory over Borussia Dortmund really marking them out as a side to watch this year. It should be a close game.
2. RB away days
Leipzig are the most hated team in German football and possibly the most roundly hated team in world football now that everyone has forgotten about the Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup. That means that whenever they go travelling around the country they will be faced with a hostile reception. In their first match, away at now only "much disliked" 1899 Hoffenheim, they were greeted with banners reading "We want our title of most hated team in Germany back". After an uncomfortable trip to Hamburg, which actually resulted in a comfortable win, they will be back in the jaws of the Traditionsverein and the atmosphere is bound to be intimidating. How their players deal with that over the course of the season will define their campaign.
3. Sunday Afternoon Fightclub
What else do you have to do on a Sunday? Because of the more relaxed nature of Sundays, you can easily join Peter Stöger in jeans and a t-shirt, on the sofa, enjoying a good game of football. On the other hand, Köln fans will probably still be drunk from Saturday night, the police will almost certainly still be on high alert from Saturday night and the fireworks could really fly. Let's hope it doesn't get nasty, especially as you can hardly blame the people of Leipzig for getting behind the only genuinely successful team from the old East, but there is always the risk of ugly scenes. Sunday afternoon never looked so exciting.
What's not to love about a real goat as the mascot? Granted, Anthony Ujah went too far a couple of seasons ago when he actually rode it, but for everyone else it is some harmless fun to see a (pretty intimidating) real goat on the touchline. I'd certainly be worried if I ran into him in a dark alley. I guess RB probably have fewer such concerns, given that their mascot is a huge, you guessed it, red bull, but still. A real goat vs. a man in a bull costume, I know who wins that battle. Maybe RB should bring a real bull to the ground to be their mascot.... *Makes note*
5. It's better than the NFL
OK personally I'd go double screen and watch both, but I know that a lot of people are less than thrilled at the prospect of fake football taking over their screens. The best way to stop it getting more popular is to avoid it, so I'd suggest sticking this game on and making it clear what your favourite sport is (and will remain). On the other hand if it turns out to be terrible you can turn from the goat to the Rams and see how the LA Rams do. If they're playing. I don't know, just stick to the Bundesliga....
Axel and Ali are not keen on international breaks because it means watching irrelevant, unbalanced matches between teams nobody remembers exists outside of these qualifiers... Anyway, we are sorting our lives out this week and will post stuff when we can. If nothing interesting happens we will be back for the return of the Bundesliga on 9th!
One story, however, which will certainly have caught the eye is the departure of Bastian Schweinsteiger, a legend of Germany and Bayern Munich and currently a reject at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho. The midfielder was part of the 2014 World Cup winning team and one of the young stars that lit up the 2006 World Cup on German soil and really made the nation believe that not only were the team heading in the right direction but that the still reasonably newly reunified country could host an amazing event on the international stage again. The generation of Basti, Phillip Lahm and Lukas Podolski, along with the likes of Miroslav Klose, defined Germany during this period and arguably none of those players captured the essence of the new Germany than Basti.
Schweinsteiger was the sort of player every professional and every fan admired, albeit often silently when he was wearing the Bayern shirt, but his loyalty and ability made him a well loved player all over Europe.
A typical Bastian Schweinsteiger conversation: "I tried to sign him on FIFA, but he turned it down to stay at Bayern...."
That the latter stages of his career have been plagued by injury and a certain amount of disrespect from his two most recent managers (Pep Guardiola sold him then Jose Mourinho forced him to train with the reserves) is a real shame, but he has shown the younger generation of players that dealing with rejection is an equally important part of being a professional. He continued to work hard for his place, for his fitness and for his reputation, refusing to criticise either the club he grew up loving and won everything with nor the managers who cast him aside. If he moves to the USA then he will be missed on European shores but at 32 he will be an incredible addition for whichever franchise secure his signature. He still hopes to run out for United, an indication of his loyalty.
If he could have retired from international football after winning Euro 2016, in the style of Phillip Lahm post world cup, then it would have been the perfect end to a stunning international career. His final game was instead at Borussia Park and was a tearful occasion in front of a packed out stadium of adoring German fans. A fitting ending for a true star.
We'll be back with more articles and fun things in the next few days!
We round up our Bundesliga previews at the only place we could: the top. Ali takes a look at Bayern Munich and wonders whether anyone can stop them...
Carlo Ancelloti is my favourite manager. There, I said it. We need to get all potential bias out in the open early on, but Axel and I decided to preview the sides we thought would win the title. He plumped for Dortmund, as he explains in his excellent preview, because of their young, talented line up and their incredible manager, Thomas Tuchel. There is, in my opinion, only one manager in the Bundesliga that deserves the title of King, however, and that man is Carlo Ancelloti.
From his suave touchline appearance (a three piece suit in the Champions League final? Why not!) to the rave reviews of almost all his ex-charges, Ancelloti epitomises everything a top level manager should aim to be. He is well loved at Bayern already, an emotion that was in sparing supply during the Pep Guardiola period. He seems to have the players onside immediately, suggesting that his appointment was almost the antidote to Pep's reign, and the camp look happy and ready for the new season. An unspectacular Super Cup win against Dortmund was a good start, whilst the 5-0 cup victory over Carl Zeiss Jena avoided any embarrassing early slip-ups. The Ancelloti era has begun with very little fanfare but plenty of positive news.
Ancelloti is incredibly successful as a manager in multiple countries: from his native Italy, where he led AC Milan to Champions League success, through a stint at Chelsea where he won the Premier League, a stay in Paris where he again dominated domestically, and of course his incredible success in winning La Decima with Real Madrid, picking up the club's elusive 10th Champions League trophy. He was also a successful player, meaning he understands the pressures his Bayern squad will be under. Theirs will be a similar task to that which he faced in Paris: how to keep an overly dominant giant motivated and prepared to face any challengers. Bayern will have to fend off Borussia Dortmund again this season, whilst Bayer Leverkusen could also pose a threat. It is the Champions League which he will really be hoping to win and if he could achieve the treble in his first season it would be an unmitigated success.
He, like Guardiola before him, inherits one of the best squads in Europe and by far the best defence in the Bundesliga. As the old football legend goes, attack wins you games but defence wins you titles. Dortmund may feel they have a more intimidating attack, with the addition of Mario Götze and Andre Schürrle a move in the right direction in comparison with the ageing pair of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, but that would be to too easily discount the young talents of Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman. Robert Lewandowski will be aiming to go beyond his goal record from last season in all competitions, whilst Thomas Müller continues to be a huge threat on the domestic scene. Defensively, the additions of Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches will strengthen the current side and the potential side, with Sanches in particular appearing to be one for the future. With Xabi Alonso and Javi Martinez ageing and injury prone, it is time to freshen the squad.
Youngster Joshua Kimmich will also be hoping to continue from where he left off under Guardiola, making a place in the side his on a regular basis. With Phillip Lahm still unsure as to whether he wants to be a full back or a holding midfielder and David Alaba settling for the first option there is the potential for Kimmich to step into Thiago or Alonso's shoes and make a place in central midfield his. There is no doubting the quality of Bayern's squad and in Manuel Neuer they have the best goalkeeper in the world. If they concede many more goals than last year it would be a huge surprise.
Ancelloti is well renowned for being a fantastic man-manager and tactician and will take Bayern Munich up a level in 2016/17. Part of his job will be to transition the side from the old stars to the new talents whilst maintaining a winning team. Can anyone stop them? I doubt it. Come May there will be only one headline: All Hail King Carlo.
Key Player: Phillip Lahm
There's no doubt the captain is still the main man in Bavaria. As the squad transitions from the old shoulders of Ribery, Robben and Alonso to the young of Kimmich, Coman and Sanches, Lahm will be the steadying influence and the reassuring word. A better captain, role model or footballer does not exist.
It's Bayern Munich, we all know who they are.... But the man with the ability to surprise us could well be Julian Green. He's spent the last few seasons on loan but Ancelloti gave him a run out against Jena and we could see him get more of a chance in Bavaria this season.
Ali Predicts: 1st
Axel Predicts: 2nd
Editor Axel Falk looks at one of the top teams in Europe and Germany, Borussia Dortmund, and previews their upcoming huge season.
Borussia Dortmund was, when they won the league in 2011 and 2012 and reached the Champions League final in 2013, the essence of hipster football, the team everyone loved, the bandwagon everybody hopped on. This has cooled down and now Borussia from Ruhr is a well-covered, well-supported team in Europe and it isn't at all considered "hipster" or "jumping on a bandwagon" to support them. They have reached European normality, while they've had a few not as normal and rather tough years back home in Germany. It all started with the final in Champions League and Robben's goal. Then Götze left, then Lewandowski left and they crashed and found themselves at the bottom of the table after 18 games, but then they turned it around and almost (!) finished above fierce rivals Schalke in the end. Then Klopp left and Tuchel, an unproven manager at that level, stepped in and took over after the iconic Jürgen. Tuchel has, however, transformed this team into another kind of a machine and has arguably taken them to the next level.
Tuchel's fierce pressing system looks much like Klopp's, but it's even more aggressive, even more fierce. I had the luxury, thanks to editor Ali, to watch Borussia Dortmund rip Tottenham into white bloody shreds in March and left the stadium feeling very optimistic regarding this great club's future. Tuchel hasn't finished what Klopp started, he has started it all over again and he has cerntainly transformed this already aggressive and terrifying beast into a Greek Titan, making unbalanced teams shiver.
Aubameyang, Reus, Schmelzer, American super prospect Pulisic, Kagawa and Weigl were all big parts of last season's success, and even though Borussia have lost a few key players to other big European clubs, their key pressing contingent is still there and that is what matters. Add to that the signings of clever Portuguese left back, or midfielder, Raphael Guerreiro, Turkish wonderkid Emre Mor, the Spanish midfielder Mikel Merino, French wonderkid Ousmane Dembele and the German pressing expert Sebastian Rode and you have a rather complete team with one of the best balanced squads in Europe. Judging from their summer, it would be sensible to predict another downfall in Dortmund, but I beg to differ as their newcomers have not only looked interesting in pre-season, but seem to fit perfectly into Tuchel's system of extreme pressing. Sebastian Rode, Guerreiro and Dembele will all be pivotal for their success this time around.
The fun part with this is that I haven't even mentioned the two arguably biggest signings of the summer for Borussia Dortmund. Having lost both Gündogan and Mkhitaryan to Manchester City and United respectively, they had to bring in a skilled playmaker and a skilled winger. What wasn't obvious to most experts was that Dortmund were after their old star, the loved and hated Mario Götze. With this extremely controversial signing, Dortmund seemed to be back at their best and their team looked rather complete as Reus finally had his partner in crime back. One could only imagine the ripping into shreds we will have the fortune of watching when Reus, Götze and Aubameyang begin to link up with each other on the counters. However, this wasn't enough. André Schürrle was seen as the replacement for Mkhitaryan and Dortmund quickly swooped in and grabbed him, an extremely clever move if you ask me.
Having signed what seems like the majority of Europe's wonderkids, Borussia Dortmund have prevailed, albeit three of their biggest stars left at the end of last season. While this will hurt them, they have brought in replacements at every position and one should not forget Marc Bartra's perfect pre-season. Nobody knows exactly how they will play. Will they play with three or four at the back? How many in central midfield? Where will Götze, Guerreiro and Dembele play? I have no idea, but I will enjoy finding out.
Key player: Julian Weigl.
He's young and relatively inexperienced, but his yesterseason was too good to be ignored and with his diminutive passing from deep, Borussia's pressing and countering was even more effective. We could have chosen Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or even Gonzalo Castro, but without Julian Weigl, the balance isn't right.
Surprise player: Felix Passlack.
Pulisic has already had his breakthrough, 18 year-old Felix Passlack is the next in line. The young German has almost already surpassed Piszczek at right back and that is certainly a tough task, but with his energy, defensive contribution and very neat and clever attacking passing, Borussia Dortmund have another weapon from the right flank.
Falk's prediction: 1st
Ali's prediction: 3rd
editor, co-founder and lover of most things Augustus Caesar.
Ali takes a look at Bayer Leverkusen and explains why he thinks they, rather than Borussia Dortmund, will be challenging Bayern Munich this season.
I had the pleasure of visiting Leverkusen three times last year and managed to see three of their worst games: a 1-0 home defeat to Darmstadt, a 0-0 Europa League draw with Villareal which eliminated them from that competition, and a 3-1 home defeat to Werder Bremen in the quarter finals of the Pokal. Not their finest moments by any stretch of the imagination... So where on earth have I got the ridiculous notion that they will be this season's dark horses? Well, it comes from all the games I didn't get to see in person, particularly towards the end of the season.
Charles Aranguiz. One name that was on the lips of every Leverkusen fan last summer and will be again this. His first season in Germany was interrupted by a terrible injury sustained just as the season was about to get underway, ruling him out until March. Without him they did just fine, with the occasional wobble, but the bigger problem was that they weren't very interesting to watch on occasions, other than Roger Schmidt's famous meltdown when he refused to be sent off. When Aranguiz came back the team exploded into life, also helped by the stellar rise of winger Julian Brandt. The young star will be key again this season, especially considering his confidence will have been boosted by his part in Germany's silver medal at the Rio Olympics. Aranguiz and Brandt changed that team from solid and unexciting to dangerous and thrilling. But wait, because there's more!
Chicarito settled really quickly into life in Germany, shrugging off the disappointment of Manchester United to lead the line effectively for the Werkself and will be dangerous again this season. Add in to that heady mix Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu, both of whom were present at the Euros even if they didn't make much of an impact, and you have a scarily good range of attacking players. Oh, and don't forget Stefan Kießling, the former goal king of the Bundesliga and an experienced head (in the mental sense and with the ball) who will be hoping to help his side even in the latter stages of his career. Just in case that wasn't enough, Leverkusen added in Kevin Volland from Hoffenheim, one of the bright young German talents who lost his way a little bit in the first half of last year but carried his side away from relegation trouble almost on his own after the winter break. Leverkusen will be a force to be reckoned with going forward and defences will be rightly terrified of the pace, movement and dribbling ability of the players they will be up against.
In front of the back four, Bayer again look very strong. New signing Julian Baumgartlinger will bring his tough tackling and simple passing to his new side, whilst Kevin Kampl continues to grow into the player Borussia Dortmund never gave him the chance to be. Levin Öztunali arrives from Werder Bremen to offer something different, whilst Lars Bender will once again use his experience at every level to keep this group of inexperienced players calm and focused. He will be absolutely crucial if Bayer are to be successful this season, as there are plenty of egos to keep in check and lots of young players pushing for a place in the first team. Balancing them all will be Schmidt's job, but keeping them happy and onside will be the responsibility of Bender, as well as fellow experienced pros Kießling and possibly Chicarito. Looking through the squad there is a glaring lack of experience, especially at Champions League level, which could prove costly.
Defensively, questions remain. Centre back remains an issue, particularly if the first choice pair of Omer Toprak and Jonathan Tah get injured or suspended, as is likely over the course of a season. Danny da Costa has been brought in from Ingolstadt to strengthen at right back, a position which Roberto Hilbert and Tin Jedvaj have somehow been able to bungle for the past couple of seasons. Wendell is growing into a solid left back and if he continues to work on his discipline and defensive positioning he could develop into an exceptional talent. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Andre Ramalho hardly fill fans with confidence as the back up centre backs, however, which could see young Lukas Boeder be given a chance to impress. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno is still prone to mistakes, but continues to impress with his shot-stopping ability and the potential is there for him to be one of the best goalkeepers in the country.
Leverkusen are my dark horses because, centre back aside, they have real talent in every department and strength in depth. Their attack is frankly terrifying and if they don't come close to scoring the same number of goals as Bayern and Dortmund then something has gone very wrong. They have a relatively settled side, with a few new faces to add competition and an extra boost of ability on the bench, whilst they continue to develop new, young talent with the aim of introducing them to the first team. Leverkusen will be exciting to watch and I think they will thrive, not only in the league but also in the Champions League. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them climb above Dortmund after all the restructuring going on at the Revier club and a Champions League quarter final is not beyond the talents of these players if the draw is kind.
Key Player: Chicarito
If he continues to build on his form from last season then Leverkusen will be unstoppable. The Mexican has really blossomed under Schmidt and he will have even more talent supplying him with chances in the coming season. Aranguiz will also be crucial, as he showed towards the end of last season. Bender will need to be a strong leader in central midfield, a role Baumgartlinger will be more than willing to share with him.
Surprise Player: Danny da Costa
Bayer Leverkusen are unlikely to spring too many surprises this year, but I think we could really see something special from the whole squad. They are a young, talented group who will know each other well by this point and will be expecting great things of each other. If I were a Leverkusen fan I would be ridiculously excited about the new season. One player who could surprise is maybe the low key arrival of the summer, da Costa. Highly rated by Ingolstadt fans, he could be just the addition Leverkusen need to strengthen at right back.
Ali Predicts: 2nd
Falk Predicts: 3rd
Mainz 05 are growing steadily and impressively, from Bundesliga regulars towards Europa League qualifiers. Ali examines their chances in 2016/17.
Automatic qualification for the Europa League was another huge step in the right direction for Mainz 05, a side that have been developing with impressive results for the last few years. No longer the also-rans of the Bundesliga, Mainz are now considered to be regular challengers for the European places and made that leap at the end of the 2015/16 campaign after a disappointing exit in the qualifying rounds the season before. As Augsburg can attest, being in the Europa League is a blessing and a curse and Mainz will have to be on top of their game to balance Thursday night and Sunday afternoon commitments.
Boss Martin Schmidt is a bit crazy; team bonding exercises in the freezing conditions of the Alps are not uncommon if you look through his managerial past, but his methods have developed a team spirit which helped Mainz in their European quest last year. A stuttering end to the season meant they missed out on the Champions League, but realistically that was always going to be a step too far. The Swiss boss will be confident that he can build on his side's stellar season and have another good year, but things will be much more difficult this time around.
Chief among Schmidt's problems are the departures of manager (in the Director of Football sense) Christian Heidel (Schalke 04), captain Julian Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen) and goalkeeper Loris Karius (Liverpool). Those three have been crucial in the recent development of the club, with Baumgartlinger in particular providing a focal point on the pitch and a captain's presence which will be hard to match. The tough tackling midfielder is highly rated by many inside the game and it was only a matter of time before a Champions League club snatched him from the smaller setting of Mainz. Leverkusen are building a very exciting project which Baumgartlinger clearly wanted to be a part of, but he will be missed in Rheinland-Pfalz. Karius is an outstanding goalkeeper and will replace Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal as soon as his hand is repaired, but Mainz have been fending off advances for a number of years now. It was just a matter of time before he left. Heidel will be a huge loss for Mainz, however, although again one they could have seen coming. His transfer dealings were the key factor in Mainz's progress over the last few years, signing many young or unheard of players and developing them into stars, before selling them on for a tidy profit. Shinji Okozaki can thank Heidel for being a Premier League champion, for example. Without his leadership and transfer nous it will be much tougher for Mainz to build a successful squad.
They have, however, done a good job this summer. Bringing in Christian Clemens on a permanent transfer from Schalke is certainly a good bit of business, as is the signing of Jhon Cordoba from Granada. The two played key roles in Mainz's attack last season and by making their deals permanent, Schmidt knows he has an attack he can rely on. Much of the rest of the squad has stayed together too, with the defence remaining a solid unit and Yunus Malli staying in the Rheinland capital for at least another year. Adding a number of options at holding midfield, in a Spurs-style attempt to replace one player by buying three, could pay off. They have added Jean-Phillipe Gbamin and Jose Rodriguez to strengthen the central midfield area, but both are young and will rely on the experience of Danny Latza and Fabian Frei alongside them to really make an impact. It would appear Mainz are continuing along their favourite route: buy cheap and young players, develop them, sell them on. If they have chosen well again this time then there is no reason to suspect they can't repeat their 6th place finish from last season. The only concern is in goal, where Karius will be tough to replace, whilst new captain Niko Bungert will need to step up to carry the team in the same way Baumgartlinger managed.
Really, then, it all comes down to how well Mainz can deal with the extra burden of the Europa League. They have bought well and seem to have filled all the gaps left by their departures, but they still have a relatively small squad of experienced, first team quality players. That could hurt them if they take every competition seriously (which their fans will demand they do) and their European adventure could hurt their chances of qualifying again next year. Having said that, Schmidt is a good motivator and team spirit seems unlikely to be a problem. It could prove to be the next giant step on Mainz's ever impressive route to the top.
Key Player: Jhon Cordoba
The striker was the main attraction during his first half season in the Bundesliga and will be crucial if they are to sustain their levels of achievement this time round. His pace and finishing caused defences plenty of problems towards the back end of last season and if he can fire, the team will do well.
Surprise Player: Suat Serdar
The young midfielder started in the Pokal clash with Unterhaching at the weekend and could be an exciting prospect to break into the first team this season. The German youth international could be another one vying for Baumgartlinger's vacated spot in holding midfield.
Ali's Prediction: 6th
Falks' Prediction: 11th
We are hoping you will all join us for #BundesligaEve on Thursday, a day as exciting for us as Christmas Eve. Maybe more so. Either way we will be sharing all our previews, our new podcast episode will be out and plenty more excitement will be had! Be there!
Editor Axel Falk gives us his unfiltered thoughts on Hamburg's Hin- and Rückrunde and how they will fare.
Hansestadt Hamburg, the most resilient city with the most resilient and hard-working of teams in Germany. The Dino that always prevails. HSV. Rothosen. Traditionsverein has many names, as you could say. Hamburg is Traditonsverein des Traditionsvereins, the ultimate snobb, the extreme elite and the worst of the worst of German football. Hamburger SV is a hated and loved team in Bundesliga, one that everyone has some kind of a relation to and they all have a reason to love them or hate them, often good reasons. Whether it's a loveable club or not, is not for me to decide, but I can say this: The city is fantastic.
The Hanseatic city of Hamburg is one of the most beautiful cities of them all and has one of the most amazing football clubs of them all. Whether you like them or not is off the table, their resilience is admirable. In 2014 and 2015 they were almost relegated and they looked all-but-relegated during these play-off games, but they somehow prevailed, which is absolutely fantastic if you consider the material they had to work with. Basically, a team with Johan Djourou as starting centre back deserves relegation, but HSV kept on going. After getting a bit too close to relegation in 2015, they made a u-turn in the summer and signed a few decent players, among those were Swedish midfielder Albin Ekdal, who was later involved in an odd accident at a night club in Hamburg. Last season HSV turned around and actually went close to finishing top half. Will their rise continue?
It's a hard question to answer. their material has certainly improved with Alen Halilovic, Christian Mathenia and Filip Kostic being brought in, amazing signings by the way, and they haven't really lost any key players either. Bruno Labbadia is still there, somehow, and he could very well be their Achilles' heel, but he could also prove himself to be a good manager, something we haven't seen thus far. Hamburg's material is perhaps good enough for top 9 in Bundesliga and a respectable place in DFB-Pokal, but there are, as always, questions regarding their defence. Will it hold? Will Djourou actually do well? Will Spahic' body hold? While their wing-backs and goalkeepers are great, their centre halves aren't and this could also prove to be their Achilles' heel. Nobody knows what to expect from HSV, neither do the players I'd expect and this season is a really big one for the club..
Their system this season is easier to predict though. Adler in goal, newcomer Mathenia is good too, but Adler will most certainly be given the nod as first choice. Two very competent wing-backs in Diekmeier and Ostrzolek who will stroll along their respective flanks and hope that the two centre halves Djourou and Spahic don't mess up. In d central midfield Ekdal and Holtby will carry the team forward and in front of them Halilovic will look to provide wingers Nico Müller, the best goalscorer last term, and newcomer Filip Kostic with clear-cut chances week in and week out. Lasogga will probably do what he always does: Score the ones the other players miss. While this is how I would play with Labbadia's material, I would certainly recommend him to acquire a new, more stable centre half to at least help the very competent wing-backs and defensive midfielders in their strive for more than plain mediocrity, something the fans of this marvellous club have been wanting for years. Can they somehow keep their rise going? Can they continue their unexpected comeback to Uwe Seeler's time? Perhaps! Who knows? What I do know is, I will enjoy the ride.
Key player: Lewis Holtby.
Not due to his immense technical quality, but because of his newly found importance as the balancing player in midfield. His technical ability does come in handy at times though. Together with Ekdal he might form a great partnership and this will in itself be the key to success for the Hamburgers.
Surprise player: Gideon Jung.
When, not if, the defence falls apart, the young 21 year-old Gideon Jung might be able to step in. Having played 19 games in Bundesliga last term, he could very well have his actual breakthrough now.
Falk's prediction: 5th.
Ali's prediction: 11th.
editor, co-founder and joint best in Sweden at opening almost closed doors with my feet.
Editor Axel Falk looks at and previews one of the most popular German clubs, VFL Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Borussia-Park is one of the stadiums in Bundesliga that I've visited and it's one of the best. Even though it isn't even remotely close to being in the middle of the actual city, the city itself provides free shuttle buses to the stadium and back, which is very helpful. Helpful is one of the words that epitomizes Borussia Mönchengladbach, one of the most prominent and sympathic clubs in Germany. Borussia is an old club, from 1900, and has a very rich and successful history. In the seventies, Borussia Mönchengladbach was one of the best teams in the world and players like Berti Vogts and Jupp Heynckes won title after title for the foals from Rhein. Borussia was actually the first club to ever win three consecutive titles, a record only beaten by Bayern last season as they won their fourth consecutive. However, after this ridiculously successful decade, their successes felt sick of the area and left for southern Bavaria instead. While this has been the case for many teams in Germany, Mönchengladbach was one of those who perhaps took it the hardest. They were like a yo-yo in the table for many years and it was really only in the beginning of the 21st century that they found some kind of stability as a club, even though they were relegated in 2007.
Since rising back to the European stage, every season has been a new challenge for the club as key players have left and coaches have departed during the course of the season and they have found themselves stranded with very little hope too many times, but their star manager Max Eberl has kept hem afloat, even though they should perhaps have been worse off. Last season was one of those seasons where everything looked good pre-season, but then things started to unfold and the team's fragile nature started to show. After a few horrific results star coach Lucien Favre left the club with no replacement in sight. Andre Schubert stepped in and it was actually expected that he would bring them back to life and that was exactly what he did and surprising Schubert somehow managed to bring them back to the Champions League.
This season, another challenge has presented itself as their captain Granit Xhaka as left the club. The midfielder was their attacking and defensive key and will be sorely missed. However, the "newcomer" Christoph Kramer will most certainly be able to replace him in astounding fashion. Together with Mahmoud Dahoud, Granit Xhaka excelled and the same might just happen with Kramer, having left Bayer Leverkusen due to Borussia being familiar and a grave lack of playing time at Leverkusen, a decision from Bayer's Roger Schmidt I, personally, will never be able to completely fathom. Schubert has played with a very neat backline of three defenders with Christensen and Jantschke being the keys. On the flanks the two wing-backs, Traoré and Wendt, have strolled. With this experimental tactic, Schubert has managed to surprise quite a few and it allows the midfield to get forward to help as there are always at least three at the back. This has also made their extensive and effective pressing possible as there are always players enough in midfield to cover the spaces, which in itself is one of the keys of gegenpress. Schubert's tactics was the main reason Gladbach managed to reach Europe last season, a feat I personally can see them redo, but they have to be resilient and stable throughout the whole campaign, because this season Bundesliga is stronger than it usually is, with at least seven teams able to fight for Champions League, plus an eventual surprise team.
Having fixed replacements for both Nordtveit and Xhaka and Vestergaard quickly will benefit them long-term as they will be able to implement these new acquisitions into their surprisingly well-worked system, something that will prove pivotal for their continued success.
Key player: Oscar Wendt.
No, this isn't just because he is a Swede, even though it does matter... He has been a star since he joined and is one of those players who never stops running. Really important for them and it showed last season as they struggled without his energetic and erratic sprinting along the left flank. Could have chosen Raffael, could have chosen Sommer, but we like the players who have gone unnoticed, hence Oscar wendt.
Surprise player: Nico Elvedi.
The Swiss almost-20 year-old centre back played 21 games last term and provided two assists. He was a real surprise last season and we could certainly see him getting more playing time.
Falk's prediction: 7th
Ali's prediction: 5th
Editor, traveller of Germany and avid admirer of Oscar Wendt.
Editor Ali loves the city, editor Axel brings you the story. Here is our preview of Dirk Schuster's new club: FC Augsburg.
I am a horribly lazy person so I thought I'd use the same title for this piece as for the one on Darmstadt during last season. However, this just can't be said often enough; Dirk Schuster is amazing. Why? If you were to dig deep enough you'd find his record with Darmstadt and would see that what he achieved with that team and with that material was nothing short of spectacular. This does leave a big question though: why did he leave Darmstadt after all he had done? Is there no loyalty left? Personally I think Dirk Schuster almost epitomizes loyalty. He could have left during last season as there were many vacant positions during it; he could have left before last season as I'm fairly sure he had lots of offers from lots of financially stable clubs (the opposite of Darmstadt) but he didn't. Dirk Schuster stayed and lead his Darmstadt side to a sensational mid-table finish in their first season in the top flight since '81.
Him leaving for Augsburg is different. This is a new challenge for him, mind you, and he's not a Hasenhüttl who'll only go where there's money to spend. Dirk Schuster thrives when he's under no pressure and against all the odds, which he has shown time after time and here he's being given the opportunity to replace one of the best German managers during the 2010s, Markus Weinzierl, who has recently left for editor Ali's Schalke 04. To replace Weinzerl will most probably prove to be the opposite of an easy task. Schuster will have to work hard and use his team-building skills to utilize every sleeping part of FC Augsburg, as that is what they are: a sleeping beauty.
Augsburg is an old city, much like Ingolstadt, and its skyline is full of beautiful medieval churches and buildings. Bavaria was a kingdom on its own for a long time and Augsburg and Ingolstadt were two of the biggest cities in this kingdom, whose history ended on a high with Neuschwanstein in Hohenschwangau being built during the 1880s. This beautiful city would make most others full of envy, but they did miss one rather important cultural thing; a football team good enough to represent it. Along came FC Augsburg and shone and showed the Germans that the city of Augsburg wasn't finished yet. Along came FC Augsburg with Markus Weinzierl spearheading their charge into the Teutonic top flight where they somehow managed to pull one of the biggest wonders of modern German football when they reached Europa League in their first season in Bundesliga. Since then, they have been a bit too unstable and have mixed great seasons with bad ones as they've struggled to find consistency in their squad. This season will be no different. They've more or less managed to keep hold of all of their players, and even though Alexander Esswein was rumoured to leave and defender Ragnar Klavan is gone, their squad seems to be complete with Finnbogason being bought from Real Sociedad. However, this season they will have to deal with another, perhaps even more challenging task than losing players: Weinzierl is gone.
Will they struggle? It's hard to tell. As mentioned before, Dirk Schuster is a master with tiny clubs and can do wonders with even the smallest of squads and that is exactly what Augsburg need if they can't have the wondrous Weinzerl. It is truly a tough task to determine what will happen with the team from the marvellous city of Augsburg, but I am quite sure that they won't find themselves relegated come the end of May and they might just do something special if Frau Fortuna allows them to, because that is what is needed if they are going to achieve something extraordinary: luck.
Key player: Marwin Hitz.
The Swiss goalkeeper has been a pivotal part of Augsburg since the dawn of their Bundesliga existence and he will most certainly play as pivotal a part this season.
Surprise player: Philipp Max.
The young German left-back made the position his after Baba Rahman left and has cemented himself in the starting line-up. However, he has a long way to go and this could be his actual breakthrough with FCA lacking defensive stability.
Falk's prediction: 15th. Will finish on a low, but a marvellous Hinrunde will keep them above the play-off spot.
Ali's prediction: 9th. Schuster will work his magic once again.
Editor, Swede and huge fan of Bavarian beer.
"Be nice, we have a guest!" Welcome to Fresh off the Gegenpress Alex Howell and here is our guest's preview of his favourite side in Bundesliga, FC Ingolstadt.
‘Die Schanzer’, or to translate literally for our English readers ‘The Trench men’ is the colloquial pseudonym of FC Ingolstadt 04. The etymology of this comes from Ingolstadt’s history as an important, perhaps impenetrable fortress (as Swedish forces, sorry Axel, found out in 1632). This pseudonym, quite aptly, perfectly depicts the industrious style that the Bavarian side became synonymous with during their rise through the German football pyramid. The only problem being, and perhaps a large one at that - the main architect of that style and of die Schanzer’s ascent from 2. Bundesliga strugglers to First Division overachievers is gone; as Ralph Hasenhüttl plumped for the Leipzig project after coming to the opinion his work in Ingolstadt was done.
For a club formed only twelve years ago, Ingolstadt have achieved a great deal. Often labelled as a plastic club, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The input from Audi is overstated; in-fact there was no major financial sponsorship from the automobile giant until 2013. Formed as a merger between ESV and MTV Ingolstadt, both having played in the 2. Bundesliga, the new side quickly rose from the Oberliga Bayern into the Second Division some four years after the merger in 2004. After some years of mediocrity, Hasenhüttl transformed the fortunes of the club and the dramatic ascent was complete; although tipped by many for an immediate return to the second tier, die Schanzer outdid all expectations and finished in a very respectable 11th. In short, despite misconceptions Ingolstadt show a real fairy-tale story and if anything is to be sure, expect the unexpected from the plucky Bavarian club.
Markus Kauczinski was quickly snapped by Ingolstadt as their new manager – the 46 year old with plenty of experience with Karlsruhe in the 2. Bundesliga. Yet most importantly, he does not deviate from that very same style that the Austrian, Hasenhüttl, made so successful and therefore shows some good continuity from the chiefs at the Audi Sportpark. That’s what it boils down to, despite losing key figures along with Hasenhüttl, die Schanzer have been quick to replace them with players equally adept, or so one would think, to that highly effective system that they seem so keen to hang on to.
Three of Ingolstadt’s usual starting eleven last season have all bid farewell to Bavaria. Benjamin Hübner quickly jumped at the opportunity to join Hoffenheim, although was replaced in almost like for like by young Hauke Wahl. Wahl has followed the same career path as Hübner from the 3 Liga, to the 2. Bundesliga and then Bundesliga with Ingolstadt, although for Wahl that took the shape of Kiel and then Paderborn, rather than Wiesbaden and Aalen like the new Hoffenheim man. The other two big names both taken by Bayer Leverkusen – Ramazan Özcan and Danny da Costa. The Austrian saw the chance of one last pay day, or maybe success, it depends on your outlook whilst da Costa unfortunately for Ingolstadt had his buyback clause operated by the Werkself. Özcan’s understudy last term, Norwegian international Ørjan Nyland, will become first choice whilst Swiss starlet Florent Hadergjonaj was signed to compete with fan favourite Tobias Levels for the right back spot.
Whilst they were very effective last season, there was one aspect of Ingolstadt’s play that was lacking. Scoring goals. Only relegated Hannover 96 scored less than the Audi Sportpark side. The signing of Darío Lezcano somewhat alleviated that problem in the Rückrunde, but if Ingolstadt were to challenge again this season they needed to further address that problem. The answer came in the form of Robert Leipertz, a familiar face for those who take an interest in the Second Tier. The former Heidenheim man, via Schalke, arrived in Bavaria for little over €1 million. With 12 goals, and ten assists, the aim is for Leipertz to ease the strain on the aforementioned Paraguayan striker as well as Moritz Hartmann and if he can do that die Schanzer should be in good stead.
The way Ingolstadt are run, can draw huge comparisons to their primary sponsor Audi. German efficiency is the stereotype of Audi, and Teutonic car manufacturing on a whole, and it is this very same efficiency that the board of Ingolstadt owner, Peter Jackwerth, have shown. Problems have been addressed quickly, and if Ingolstadt are successful this season it will be in no large part because of the management of the club.
They are a realistic bunch in Ingolstadt, and after such a good first season in the Bundesliga you may have been forgiven for believing that they would want to push on. However it remains simple – stay in the division. Kauczinski and co will endeavour to recreate that industrious style, recently compared to the brutal Olympic Water Polo by editor Ali Haggis. Effective, but not always pleasing on the eye, if Kauczinski can replicate it with his new signings, die Schanzer will be placed well to achieve their ambitions of survival.
So whether Ingolstadt will epitomise the efficiency of Audi, or crash and burn like a Volkswagen emissions test remains unclear, but what is clear is that it’ll be a rollercoaster ride, along the bumpy Bundesliga Autobahn for the club that has defied the odds in its short history.
Key player: Marvin Matip
The importance of the Cameroonian cannot be understated. The media face of the club in public, the well-spoken defender is an equally capable stopper in defence. He also pops up with a number of important goals too, and will be key in Ingolstadt are to succeed this season.
Surprise player: Robert Leipertz
Already mentioned, Leipertz makes the step up to the Bundesliga. Whilst he many not recreate the same figures he did with Heidenheim, the pace and power of the winger may set the Bundesliga alight and provide Ingolstadt with a real asset.
Falk's prediction: 12th
Ali's prediction: 13th
Alex' prediction: 14th
guest writer and Ingolstadt fan.
NB: We are worried however that the world will implode if we have three writers whose names begin with "A"
So the Olympic games are in full swing (apart from for the rowers, who seem to be having a lot of trouble with the wind. On a coastal piece of water near the Atlantic, who knew?) so to get in the spirit we re-imagined every Bundesliga team as an Olympic sport. Disagree with our selections? Any better ideas? Get in touch!
Bayern Munich - Track
OK, mostly just the 100m. But Bayern are the undoubted superstars, the biggest egos and the most easily recognisable. How could we not compare them to the world renowned Usain Bolt, fastest man on the planet? And all the other superstars of the track: Michael Johnson, Mo Farah, Haile Gebre Selassie. Also it works because they always run away with it. Get it?
Borussia Dortmund - Swimming
Exciting, intense, full of household names and incredibly physically draining, swimming represents all that Dortmund's fast style of pressing and counter-attacking stands for. There's always a few young stars who you know will go on to do great things too. So for Katie Ledecky, see Julian Weigl or Raphael Guerreiro and for Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte see Marco Reus or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Bayer Leverkusen - Handball
Fast paced, a little crazy and only really appreciated by a marginal market, handball represents the chaotic world of Bayer Leverkusen. Dominated by Europeans with fringe support in other countries, handball is one of the best sports to watch, even though no one really understands what is going on...
Borussia Mönchengladbach - Cycling
Fast, reckless, full of crashes and a breathtaking finish, cycling perfectly represents the current Borussia Mönchengladbach. Backed up by a long history of success, big names and occasional troubles, cycling and Gladbach just seem to go together. With a strong contingent of Germans, Belgians and Dutch, even the nationalities match up.
FC Schalke 04 - Rowing
Feels like it should be slightly bigger than it is, considering lots of people watch and take part worldwide, rowing just lacks that final spark to take it to the level of the other sports, much like Schalke. There are greats of the sport, particularly Sir Steve Redgrave, but mostly competitors take part, are loved by those in the know, then disappear. Much like Schalke players.
Mainz 05 - Rugby 7s
Something new and fresh to keep the big boys on their toes, with just enough physicality to scare off the less popular sports. Mainz have had a great few years and, despite being an old club, have only recently moved towards the top of the German pyramid, much like rugby 7s is making an assault on the established arts of Union and League. Not as many people watch as they should either.
Hertha Berlin - Fencing
We watch in fascination, but really we are there for the surroundings rather than the sport. Berlin is one of the greatest cities in Europe; fencing has cool flashing lights on a black background and colourful face masks. There's a Bundesliga football team in Berlin? Oh, I never realised, I was too busy enjoying myself! Oh, there's a sport behind all those flashing lights? I never realised, I was too busy watching the pretty flashing...
VfL Wolfsburg - Golf
You recognise a couple of names and wonder how they ended up there, whilst the real big names, like Rory McIlroy or Andre Schürrle, "say" they want to be there and then decide against it, as there are better prizes elsewhere. Golf doesn't seem like it belongs in an Olympics, in the same way Wolfsburg don't really belong near the top of the Bundesliga. But here we are.
FC Köln - Archery
Still gets a lot of respect as one of the founding sports with plenty of tradition and history behind it, but no one really pays attention any more, much like Köln as the very first winners of the Bundesliga have gradually lost relevance over the years. Archery doesn't appear to be making a comeback in popularity, unlike Köln, but there will always be the sense that the best days are well behind them.
Hamburg SV - Wrestling/ Judo
Seem to be ever present, much like Hamburg the dinosaur. Not always the best to watch, not always pretty, but always effective and a continuous test of strength. OK so Hamburg had a period of success, but I guess WWE counts as wrestling's years of success right? Might be pushing it a bit with that one...
FC Ingolstadt - Water Polo
Brutal but effective, not always the highest number of goals but always the feeling that something more fun is going on under the surface, water polo perfectly reflects Ingolstadt. Their physical approach wasn't the most popular but it worked and replays often revealed something a little bit naughty going on in the background, much like the underwater camera in the water polo. Worth watching for the aggro at the very least.
FC Augsburg - Canoe / Kayak
The less prestigious of the water sports and a recent revelation in the Olympic world, canoe and kayak, especially on the rapids, represents the heady ascent of FC Augsburg. Twists, turns, problems and success in equal measure, a feeling of elation just for reaching the end of another season successfully... Augsburg are always fighting, much like a canoeist must, to stay the right way up and at the top of the game. Impressive and well liked if not the most historically important of the sports/ clubs.
Werder Bremen - Gymnastics
How they survived last season was a show of contortion which very few gymnasts could pull off. Like an amateur on the beam they look like they're about to fall off at any point....
Darmstadt 98 - Field
Everyone keeps an eye on the field events to see what is going on, but the bulk of it often puts you off from watching for too long. Very few personalities and a feeling of repetition keeps viewers channel hopping, but we keep coming back to see how it is getting on in the hope there might be a medal sometime soon. Not everyone's favourites but nobody dislikes it/ them.
1899 Hoffenheim - Basketball
The glitz and glamour of the NBA are a long way from the competition at the Olympics (other than Team USA). Hoffenheim pretend to be the real deal but actually are just a plastic fake in the middle of nowhere, with only a small group of people taking an interest. Hoffenheim depend on one star to survive, be that Roberto Firmino, Kevin Volland or Vedad Ibisevic, much like basketball relies on Team USA taking part to survive as an Olympic sport, especially after the break up of the USSR.
Eintracht Frankfurt - Boxing
This is purely a comment on their fans. They have that reputation for a reason....
SC Freiburg - Sailing
Pretty to watch, plenty of fierce competition and a sense that maybe we should pay a little more respect to the competitors and a little more attention to the sport as a whole. But we won't, in the case of sailing because no one has the foggiest what is going on and in the case of Freiburg because they'll probably get relegated again at some point so better not to waste our time on learning who their third choice holding midfielder is.
RB Leipzig - Equestrian
Rich, privileged and smug would be three words most people use to describe people who ride horses in the equestrian, hardly helped by the fact a Royal Princess took part for Team GB for a number of years. None of that class exists around RB Leipzig, but all the money certainly does and the simmering hatred that football fans often have for the wealthy of the world (until they're bankrolling their new striker of course) would certainly apply to RB. There's still a lot of grudging admiration though; the team they have built is very good, much like the ability to train a horse to jump over a fence and 3 foot of water is very impressive.
Enjoy the Olympic Games in Rio but don't forget, we have a lot of content coming your way and plenty of previews before the new season so keep an eye on us! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter so check us out!
Last night Manchester United announced that Paul Pogba would be returning to Old Trafford, ending the summer's longest running transfer story. Ali reports.
Close your eyes for a second and imagine a scenario: it is the night before the 2016 FA Cup final and someone has asked you the following: "Name the first five Manchester United players, past or present, that come into your head. Go!". No time for consideration, so you fire back immediately. "Umm... Best, Giggs, Cantona, Ronaldo, Beckham." If your list is very different from mine we might simply have different opinions of what makes a memorable player, but you could have named any of the 'Class of 92' as well (or Sir Bobby Charlton, for a real throwback), as players who the club developed and went on to become legends of the new Premier League era.
United have struggled with both of those areas in recent years. There are two elements at play in the lists of players above: first, the superstar; second, the home grown talent. Whilst young players have been coming through the United ranks, none of them have really gone on to make a mark yet: Marcus Rashford could well be the first to really make an impact on the United first team on a regular basis for a while now. Meanwhile, and even more importantly, the star faces have disappeared. Whilst there is no doubting that some of the current squad have unbelievable talent, they have either failed to show it or don't have the personality to make them a household name. If it wasn't for the fact he was English, Wayne Rooney would be almost anonymous. What happened to the flash and brashness of Cristiano Ronaldo, what happened to the strutting arrogance of Eric Cantona? These used to be characteristics associated with United and something which certainly added to the fear factor. No one could beat them because mentally they had already won.
Enter Paul Pogba. Mild and meek this kid is not, but what a player and what a personality. He embodies everything Manchester United want to portray: swaggering arrogance, incredible talent, a will and ability to win and, most importantly, a face to sell. Whilst United may have fallen off the top of the sporting food chain for the moment, they are certainly top dog in the financial world that is now almost as important. Whilst Ed Woodward would sell United's soul to any corporate giant going, it now means Manchester United can afford to buy the soul of every other club as a replacement. Faust, take note. In this vein, Pogba has been signed as the face of the rejuvenated United, a club which is well run, well financed and now well stocked with star talent on the pitch. But Pogba is so much more than the final piece in a potentially title winning jigsaw at Old Trafford. His addition follows three other excellent signings and an intriguing managerial appointment, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly adding considerable talent to the squad and Jose Mourinho stepping in to bring success where Louis van Gaal brought mediocrity. But what Pogba adds, beyond all else, is star quality.
The 23 year old arrives with a huge £89 million price tag around his neck, but United know that won't faze him in the slightest. Juventus have already made two video compilations thanking him for his time with the Old Lady (those are just the ones I've seen, by the way. There may be more), so United know they are getting an exceptional player. The face of Euro 2016 will be the strut that the Red Devils have missed on the pitch and he will be the brand image that they require off it. He was announced as a United player last night, but not by the club initially. Club and player are sponsored by sportswear giants Adidas, who secured a major coup by announcing Pogba as a United player in a music video with Stormzy. This is just the beginning. Pogba's face will be all over the world this morning and he will be one of the most valuable sports images in the world by the end of the summer. He was already valuable; now that he is with marketing behemoths United he will be challenging Lionel Messi and Ronaldo as the faces on every product and in every advert. For now, Adidas are having their field day. But England is a a green and pleasant land, and many more will follow to find the grass really is greener.
So United have won the marketing battle of the summer and, crucially, have retained 80% of the player's image rights. That will prove to be huge as Pogba continues developing into one of the world's very best players (and was allegedly one of the reasons why the deal took so long to complete). The club will be expecting a Premier League title challenge this year and a return to Champions League football next, knowing that Pogba provides enough pulling power to get sponsors queuing up and the Champions League provides a platform to get them trying to knock down the door. Woodward must be rolling up his sleeves in anticipation of the massive cash flow heading their way in the coming years, and for that reason alone Pogba is a bargain. OK, not a bargain, but certainly good value for money for a club the size of United. There are only two other clubs in world football who could pay that much for a player without selling someone first, but Real Madrid and Barcelona couldn't compete with the lure of home.
Pogba gets the chance to show the Premier League what we have been missing for the last four years, United get the chance to compete for the title again with him, and Woodward gets the chance to turn the already incredible money making machine that his club is into the greatest revenue stream in the world. The only loser? Juventus, who used the money to sign a fat Higuain. Really, Juve? The man who has missed so many crucial chances is going to be the man to win you the Champions League? If he scores the winner in the final in May/ June next year, I'll eat my hat and Leo Messi will probably hire someone to kill him...
Pogba is back. Premier League beware: the Red Devils are coming. Hell will return.
Editor (and Reading fan, in case you were thinking there was any bias here)
Bremen is a fantastic city, but their side in Bundesliga hasn't been as fantastic during the last seasons. How ill they fare this season? Axel takes a look.
Could you even imagine my immense rage when Papy Djilobodji scored during the last minutes of the season against my dear Eintracht to send us to play-offs? Probably not. I was jumping up and down and wanted to rip my whole place apart. The thing that troubled me the most with it was that Bremen had been horrific at home throughout the whole campaign, but then somehow gathered the strenth to beat an in-form Eintracht Frankfurt during the last minutes of the game. Hasn't God let me suffer enough with Arsenal? Werder Bremen's season was absolutely shambolic by all means, but they stayed up and that probably shows signs of immense character and that they're in the favour of Frau Fortuna. However, it doesn't matter how well they did during the last few games of the season. All that matters now is the upcoming Hinrunde and Rückrunde of Bundesliga.
The team from Weser have had this uncanning habit of starting the season rather well, but they then always somehow find themselves in the bottom of the table after the Hinrunde to somehow escape it come May. It has been the case for the last few seasons and I can see it happening again, but I could also see the green lads from the northwest get relegated together with Darmstadt. Bremen's team just isn't good enough in my honest opinion and even though their quality might be enough to stay up, their manager and their unpredictable results might just overturn them. This habit and their quality aside, is there much hope for them? There's always hope, it doesn't matter how bad it looks, things can always improve during the course of a season and Bremens quality isn't the worst in the league, but I can't see them pulling anything spectacular and I'd be extemely surprised if they do not fight for relegation come the end of the season. Will they get relegated? I have no idea.
Having said that, their signings have been quite impressive and clever. After having sold Vestergaard to Mönchengladbach, they desperately needed a new centre back, or three, and they quickly signed Niklas Moisander, a finnish large and strong centre back who will always be a threat from set-pieces, albeit a downgrade from Vestergaard. Even though they will need one or two more in defence, it's a good start. In attack, Lennart Thy from St. Pauli and Justin Eilers from Dynamo Dresden have been signed with the latter helping Dynamo to a crushing of the 3. Liga. Eiler's agile movement, decent vision and good finishing together with Thy's quick feet and lovely movement, they could possibly form a deadly duo, would Pizarro not perform. In attack, things are looking exciting for bremen, but as Stuttgart showed us last season, attack isn't everything and a horrible defence could possibly get you relegated on its own.
Where will Werder finish then? It's a hard question to answer as this season could possibly go so many ways for them, but I'm going to be the pessimist and predict them a relegated side come May. Sadly, I believe that the lovely city of Bremen won't have an Erstklassig team next season. Whether this will come true or not, this season will tell, but for now my prediction stands.
Key player: Fin Bartels.
Having gone from strength to strength during the last few seasons, his performances will be key to Bremen's success. A hard-working scoring midfielder who can turn a game around on his own on his day.
Surprise player: Lennart Thy.
Thy returns to Bremen after a few years in strange teams and I could see him being a real success. he might prove to be just what they need in attack and if he does better than Ujah did last season, this might prove to be special.
Falk's prediction: 17th.
Ali's prediction: 17th. We both seem pretty convinced of Bremen's downfall.
editor, co-founder and avid lover of Bremen's beer.
Ali ponders whether Darmstadt's great Bundesliga story could be coming to an end...
Without being unnecessarily negative, it doesn't look great for Darmstadt 98 going into the new season. The minnows, who Axel is constantly raving about after their dramatic climb into the Bundesliga, face an incredibly tough second season in Germany's top flight. The Bundesliga is well-known for being unsympathetic to minnows (hello, SC Paderborn), even ones with grit and determination. Survival last season was earned thanks to the goals of Sandro Wagner and the tactical nous of trainer Dirk Schuster. The problem? Neither of them are still at Darmstadt, with Wagner plumbing for his "dream move" to Hoffenheim (...?) and Schuster being slightly less smarmy upon his move to Bavarian surprise package FC Augsburg.
Darmstadt, seemingly in an attempt to maintain their status as the minnowiest of minnows, currently only have a squad of 20, including two loanees: Felix Platte and Antonio Colak, from Schalke 04 and Hoffenheim respectively. Platte is a young striker with plenty of talent, unsurprisingly allowed to go out on loan to get playing time with stars such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Franco di Santo and new signing Breel Embolo ahead of him in the Königsblau packing order. He could pick up at least some of the Wagner slack and could be a real asset for them over the course of the season. There is also the small matter of captain, stalwart and model pro Aytac Sulu, who has been a fantastic player for the club. The fact they have managed to keep hold of him speaks volumes about his dedication to the club, not demanding a move higher up the table in the manner of Wagner, who has soured his time in Hessen by being so outspoken about wanting to play at a higher level and then moving to Hoffenheim...
Anyway, Sulu will be absolutely crucial if Darmstadt are to survive, but second season syndrome could well strike the brave little club, despite a positive move in bringing in experienced trainer Norbert Meier from Arminia Bielefeld. Meier has plenty of experience in the 2. Bundesliga, potentially indicating that even Darmstadt have one eye on the trapdoor and are looking for a man who can certainly lead them in the second division, even if he can't quite perform miracles in the first. Meier had a successful playing career with Werder Bremen and West Germany, so knows his way around top level competition too: a shrewd appointment from the Darmstadt board which could just save them from the drop. If it doesn't they would appear to be in safe hands in the second division.
A weak squad, a trainer untested at this level and the loss of their main goal threat doesn't mean that Darmstadt will be heading down as a certainty. There is another remaining positive from last season: Marcel Heller, the lively winger, had a strong debut Bundesliga season after a long career traversing the lower leagues and has stayed in Hessen in the hope of inspiring his team to another miraculous survival. With the help of Sulu, the two experienced stars of the side will be hoping to show how staying in the Bundesliga can be achieved two seasons running against all the odds. If there is one thing that won't be lacking from Darmstadt's season it will be determination and fighting to the last game.
They may well go down, but it will be with more fight and certainly with more glory than the pathetic collapse of Hannover 96 or the impotent VfB Stuttgart from last season. Sadly, I fear fight may not be enough.
Key Player: Aytac Sulu
Undoubtedly the star man, especially after Wagner's inglorious departure, the Turkish centre back will be the rock around which the side will build their fort. He was superb last year and will be hoping to continue that form into the new season.
Surprise Player: Felix Platte
As a Schalke fan, I am excited by the prospect of Platte getting regular first team football. The youngster will benefit from Darmstadt's direct style too given his height. After a couple of impressive cameos in Schalke blue he will be looking to break through this season and establish himself. At 20, his time is now.
Ali's Prediction: 18th
Axel's Prediction: 18th
Ali previews the most contentious side ever to play in the Bundesliga: RB Leipzig
It is no understatement to say that RB Leipzig are one of the most hated club in modern football, at least to German fans. Sure, you might hate Chelsea or Manchester United for always winning, or you might hate Manchester City or Real Madrid for buying the best players, or you might even hate your local rival because, well, who doesn't. But then no team has faced such universal condemnation and hatred as the team from Leipzig do in their current form. So, who are they? Why does everyone hate them? And should we really try and be more positive?
The 50+1 rule is a sacred part of German football and is intended to keep control of a club within reach of the supporters. It has helped keep clubs financially stable and led to the almost profitable running of some clubs within the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga. In 2009 Red Bull decided they wanted a club in Germany run on similar lines to those in Salzburg and New York: a marketing scheme for the energy drinks company that also provided a sporting opportunity to a city without a major football (sorry New York, SOCCER) team. Red Bull initially showed interest in FC Sachsen Leipzig; after running into protests and legal trouble with the DFB and DFL, the plan was scrapped and they searched for other targets. Saint Pauli, 1860 Munich and Fortuna Düsseldorf all came under the microscope, each time with the same consequences: mass fan protest, almost ending in riots on some occasions, and legal trouble with the organisational bodies. Red Bull would need another plan if they were to take on the establishment.
After years of unsuccessfully entering at a higher level due to DFB fears they would commercialise whichever club they took over: kit colour changes, badge changes and an unfair injection of transfer funds were all touted as reasons to veto any purchase by Red Bull of a team under DFL or DFB jurisdiction. Red Bull therefore sought out a fifth division side, no longer bound by the constraints of DFB licencing and open to investment from a huge global company. Thus, SSV Markanstädt became RB Leipzig, via multiple name considerations which were considered illegal were the club to progress into DFB territory (which they surely would). The reason for the hate, then, is the unscrupulous way that Red Bull cheated the system to find a way in, combined with the clear bending of almost every DFB rule in order to gain a competitive advantage. They have been clever: all rules are followed, but they are bent just as far as they can be. Corporate sponsorship has entered German football via the back door and all hell has broken loose.
In the seven years since they were founded, RB Leipzig have made huge strides towards their goal of becoming a world player. Red Bull have other concerns, as mentioned above, but none have quite the ability to draw in the world audience like a side in the Bundesliga. After seven years of regular promotions they find themselves there, alongside 1899 Hoffenheim (SAP), FC Ingolstadt (Audi), Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer Pharmaceuticals) and VfL Wolfsburg (Volkswagen) as sides with corporate backing. Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have special exemptions thanks to their roots as works teams (Leverkusen's nickname is Werkself, literally Works 11), but the others have arguably paved the way for RB Leipzig by showing just what they can get away with. Leipzig have taken it far beyond what others have attempted though, so the hatred coming from the terraces will be unlike anything heard before. The atmosphere at the Düsseldorf - Leipzig clash in the 2. Bundesliga last year was nothing short of incredible; whistling for the entire time Leipzig had the ball. Whilst Fortuna fans may have more beef with Red Bull than those at Schalke or Dortmund, you can guarantee the attempt to take over other Traditionsvereine will not sit well.
So that's the negatives: the club is founded on money and power wrangling and is run rather sketchily along DFB and DFL lines, never quite illegal enough to lose the licence but always close enough to push right to the limit. So do they deserve any credit for anything? Well, actually, maybe. They may have been unsporting in their monetary demolition of the lower leagues, but a team passing through has less of an impact than we would probably like to admit. So now we have a well funded team coming into the Bundesliga to provide yet more competition in a league that is already one of the most unpredictable in Europe. Yes, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will almost certainly be fighting for the title again, but below that anything could happen. Teams are forever strengthening and those that do so unsuccessfully find themselves relegated (hello, VfB Stuttgart). It means the top two divisions of German football are closer together than in any other country; there is almost nowhere else where you can easily imagine a team going from second division bottom half to Europa League in a few seasons, but in Germany it happens regularly. RB Leipzig are just the latest to bridge the gap and, with solid investment and brave play, they could push on for Europe this year.
Here's the bit that is specific to RB Leipzig though, and which I think deserves admiration and respect. They have developed a squad based entirely on young talent. Their transfer policy involves a rule that says nobody over 27 is to be signed. This obviously has its opponents too: many poorer clubs have lost their best young talent to the east German side, but the money they receive is far bigger than if the player had run his contract down and left for the Bundesliga as a free agent. Leipzig don't have time to waste, so don't wait for contracts to run down. Their young side were incredible to watch last year; in the game against Fortuna they dominated the ball and were very comfortable 3-1 winners. Whether the youngsters can cope with the pressure of the Bundesliga is another thing, but the club are promoting and fostering young talent, something which will only help the established clubs. As discussed with Wolfsburg earlier in our series, there are plenty of reasons to play for a Traditionsverein still, and it could be that Leipzig are putting plenty of young German stars on the pitch regularly and therefore in the shop window. Hoffenheim have found that they have a high turnover of players, simply due to the fact that their stars still want to play for the biggest clubs.
Ethical? No. Successful. Hell yes. Whether RB Leipzig are still a story in a few years will remain to be seen. Hoffenheim are still unpopular, but familiarity has lessened the hatred and it has become clear they can't really compete at the highest level every year, much like all the other clubs below the big two. Leipzig are a different entity to Hoffenheim though; despite the money issues, in Hoffenheim it was the case of a businessman investing in his local club, rather than a corporate takeover.
There is no denying RB Leipzig goes against everything the Bundesliga stands for and no one will be crying if they drop straight back down to the second division come May, but the star talent they are fostering and the youth policy they are advancing may just work. Maybe all the clubs can learn something from Leipzig's youth policy, but you can bet your house they would never admit it.
Key Player: Youssuf Poulson
I really rate the young Danish striker, but there are plenty of young stars in this team. Poulson formed a good partnership with former Werder Bremen starlet Davie Selke and the two will be crucial if RB are going to push on this season.
Surprise Player: Rani Khedira
Only a surprise in the sense that everyone knows his brother, but the younger Khedira could be a player to watch in the midfield of RB and the expectations thanks to his name will mean he is keen to show he doesn't live under Sami's shadow.
Ali's Prediction: 15th
Falk's Prediction: 8th
Schalke fan and editor Ali opens up about Sane and just what City fans can expect
So Leroy Sane is now a Citizen, finally being confirmed as a Manchester City player on Monday after Schalke 04 confirmed he wouldn't be joining them in Austria for their training camp. After months of wrangling and back-and-forward between the two clubs, a deal was finally agreed on, suggested to be around €49 million once add-ons have been considered. It looks like a lot of money for a young star, just a year after City risked £50 million on Raheem Sterling (a gamble that is yet to pay off).
Much has been said about Sane, but as a Schalke fan who was lucky enough to watch the young star on several occasions last season I would like to add my voice to the conversation and pass on his strengths and weakness to the City fans wanting to know just what sort of young talent they have signed and how quickly they can expect to see him playing a starring role for their side.
Let's start with the positives, which are clear and well documented: his electric pace and dribbling. Sane has the ability to run at players and frighten them with his speed, knocking the ball past them and running beyond them before they have a chance to react. Against weaker defences this worked well: his blitzing goal against Eintracht Frankfurt towards the start of last season was a wonderful solo effort and really woke the Bundesliga up to the potential of the 20 year old starlet. His composure on the ball and confidence to do it all himself when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was stood unmarked on the penalty area screaming for the ball spoke volumes and that goal really marked him out as a player to watch. His control is generally spot on and running in behind will get him plenty of success against teams who play a high line, as shown on the final day when he scuffed in his final goal in Schalke blue away at Hoffenheim after blitzing away from Fabian Schär and co.
Here's the downside: his passing and crossing are woeful at times and if you're expecting Sane to be able to slip that final through ball in for Sergio Aguero then I think you'll be waiting a while. With practice and experience he will get better, but at times fans in the stands were left screaming at him to simply run with it because if he tried to pass it he would kill attacks dead. In the Europa League clash with Shakhtar Donetsk, a match in which Schalke were humiliated 3-0 at home, he halted a couple of quick counter-attacks by passing inaccurately to team mates rather than simply running at the Shakhtar right back. His decision making needs to improve, his distribution needs to significantly develop and his final ball needs work too. Remember Jesus Navas City fans? Well, you've just signed his younger, German counterpart.
Good news though, Citizens! He is still young and certainly looks like he has the potential to add all that to his game. City have certainly worked on that principle with his transfer fee, an astronomical amount for a player untested in the Champions League and with less than 50 games under his belt. They clearly see a player who will be a world-beater in the future and Sane has already said Pep Guardiola was a key reason in his decision to leave Schalke, so things could work out really well for the popular youngster who Schalke fans will be sad to see leave but will acknowledge is too good for the club in its current form.
A risky investment it may be, and a massive over-payment I would say it certainly is, but for that money City can be fairly confident they will be getting a sensible, mature player. There is no Mario Balotelli-type baggage, no Paul Pogba arrogance, just a young player well brought up in a very successful academy system. Under a coach renowned for making players better there is every chance Sane will one day grow into a €50 million player, but for now City fans will have to hope he progresses very quickly and uses his chances in the first team well. Otherwise you could have another Sterling or Navas on your hands; all the potential, all the pace, all the trickery, but little to show at the end of it.
Nobody wants to see Sane fail, but Schalke fan will have no complaints if he "does a Götze" and returns to the club in a couple of years for a fraction of the cost. After all, he is a fantastic prospect.
Editor and Schalke fan
Why to VfL Wolfsburg always sell? Ali takes a look in our season preview of the Wolves from Niedersachsen.
With the signing of Jakub Błaszczykowski confirmed on Monday, VfL Wolfsburg have made a shrewd signing that will boost their squad going into the new season. But with numerous stars leaving the Volkswagen Arena in recent years, are Wolfsburg now a selling club? Despite spending multiple millions on Julian Draxler, Andre Schürrle and Kevin de Bruyne, two of those three have since departed after one successful season (in Schürrle's case, a semi-successful season) and Draxler has already been linked with a move away. Is it the perceived non-history of the Wolves, shrewd management or simply normal football practice?
Fans of Wolfsburg will undoubtedly be frustrated by the recent news that their Weltmeister and only standout player from last season, Schürrle, will be moving onto the runners up in the black and yellow of Borussia Dortmund. He follows centre-back linchpin Naldo to the Ruhrgebiet, as the Brazilian was snapped up by Schalke 04 as a free agent. This follows the high profile departure of de Bruyne last season to Manchester City and the highly rated Ivan Perisic taking the route to Inter Milan. Max Kruse and Draxler remain at the club for now, but both have been linked with moves away from Niedersachsen. So why are the stars departing, even though the promise of European football and other high profile arrivals should keep them around?
Admittedly next season will see Wolfsburg only competing on the domestic front after a traumatic season in the Bundesliga saw them miss out on Europe altogether, despite an impressive run to the Champions League quarter finals. Without top level competition to keep their current players interested there seems to be little reason to want to stay in Wolfsburg, particularly when bigger, more illustrious clubs, or simply clubs in nicer cities, come calling. Perisic and de Bruyne jumped the gun, but their departure led to the downfall of Wolfsburg last season and caused the exodus this. Whilst signing young star Yannick Gerhardt was a major coup from FC Köln, the signing of Kuba (Blaszczykowski) is hardly a step forward, with the 30 year old entering the final chapter of his successful career.
Gerhardt will be hoping to make an impact, but he is surrounded by an underwhelming squad in comparison to what might have been. Fellow new arrival Daniel Didavi should help; the midfield of Wolfsburg looks much stronger and more balanced with the three new signings and will take some of the pressure off Draxler, as well as allowing Max Arnold to grow into the holding midfield role. But the problem remains; the wolves would be much stronger if they hadn't sold their stars. They had the financial power to hold on to all but de Bruyne, a superstar far too big for the Bundesliga's realistic wage budget, which begs the question: if not money, a competitive squad or the chance to play in Europe, why are they not staying?
The answer might give hope to traditionalists, or it might severely depress the people of Wolfsburg, but as far as I can see there are two alternatives: the chance to play in front of huge crowds and a passionate fan base; or the fact that Wolfsburg as a town is a bit horrible.
Sorry, but the concrete and windswept look went out of fashion in the 60's, at a time when other options became available.
What Wolfsburg lacks is the charm of Milan, but more than that: it lacks a football team with a history of success and a loyal fan base. After a year of playing in Germany it is clear where the support lies, and the prospect of playing for the most supported clubs in Germany clearly offers more than the less-than-30,000 who grace the terraces of the Volkswagen Arena on a Saturday afternoon. 60,000 await Naldo at Schalke; 81,000 at Dortmund for Schürrle. The San Siro carries weight, as does the race for the Premier League title. Without being unnecessarily cruel to Wolfsburg, it isn't a selling club because it wants to make money, trusts its young stars or believes they can get more than adequate replacements. No, it's a selling team because players don't really want to be there.
And until that changes, players like Draxler, Kruse and eventually Gerhardt will all just be passing through.
Key Player: Julian Draxler
The former Schalke player was hit-and-miss last season and hasn't settled at Wolfsburg. With a stronger midfield supporting cast alongside him he will be expected to lead the attack this year and really make a difference as Wolfsburg aim to qualify for European competition again
Surprise Player: Yannick Gerhardt
The highly rated youngster was a great signing for the wolves and will bolster their midfield options. Despite being only 22 he featured 58 times for Köln over the last three seasons and has been capped by Germany at every youth level between under 18 and under 21.
Ali's Prediction: 7th
Falk's Prediction: 10th
This is where it all begins. Our resident analysts study the unrecognised players and examine the matches that are of interest across Europe.