Champions League Part 1: Who’s going where?

With the Champions League play-off round approaching next month, fans of participating clubs would be forgiven for being wrapped up in the affairs of their beloved side, but with Europe’s best facing off, it’s always an advantage to find out what player has picked up his bags and left for another country before you can’t find him for half an hour on your television.

With that being said, the best have been busy, or at least have tried to be, in the market in the search to improve their squads.

Here’s a list of the best moves this summer, and the one’s we’re waiting on the edge of our seats on.

Douglas Costa, Shaktar to Bayern

It’s not often a player attracts the attention of the opposition club after he’s on the losing side of a 7-0 rout but Douglas Costa impressed enough in Shaktar’s last 16 tie with Bayern, so much so that the Bavarians forked out over €30 million to secure his services.

With the ability to play on either flank, Costa is nimble, intelligent on the ball and has a wicked left foot, as you can see below. A very dangerous player who will be sure to strengthen the German side even further, all at the age of 24.

Yehven Konoplyanka, Dnipro to Sevilla

This transfer will probably hurt Brendan Rodgers but Unai Emery was patient in his chase of the Ukrainian and looks to have finally got his man after Sevilla’s website reported that reached “reached an agreement with the Ukrainian international Yevhen Konoplyanka, at the expense of passing the medical examination and that the final agreement with the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk is closed”.

Despite the fact Konoplyanka was out of contract at Dnipro, an agreement had been made that the club would receive a fee when the 25-year-old did move on. Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham all had approaches turned down by the Europa League finalists, but after catching the eye in the international between England and Ukraine, Konoplyanka has been remarkable on his side’s adventure in Europe, and was outstanding in the final where he and his team-mates lost out to his new side. His speed, awareness and ability to draw fouls are some of his best assets.

Paulo Dybala, Palermo to Juve

There was a lot of rumours surrounding Dybala’s future but there’s no doubt he had a fantastic season, and was always quite impressive in his partnership with Ernesto Vazquez, who certainly deserves some plaudits for his performances. However, Dybala is one of the most exciting players in Europe at the moment. Palermo knew his potential when they paid a hefty €12m to sign the then 18-year-old, and the Old Lady are very much aware of his budding superstar status, transferring €32m into Palermo’s bank account.

He is ice cool, with a bag hidden full of tricks. A quality acquisition. His only weaknesses may arise from his small stature, but his left foot usually silences most critics. 13 goals and 10 assists for a team that finished in mid-table is no mean feat.

Luciano Vietto, Villareal to Atletico

Argentina seem to have an endless supply of attacking talent, and Vietto is no exception. He didn’t come cheap, at €20.9m, but he won’t be arriving at the Vicente Calderon to warm the bench whilst he watches Jackson Martinez have all the fun. Like Dybala, Vietto could be compared to Atletico winger Antoine Griezmann- both are quite light weighted, quick and left-footed, but this shouldn’t mean that one should miss out on a spot in the starting XI. Most likely, Vietto will continue up front either in a 4-4-2 with Martinez, or in a 4-3-3, where Vietto could play on either side of Martinez out wider. He is simply a pain in the backside for defenders. A master of perfecting a counter-attack, quick and a potent finisher. Vietto already has experience in Europe with Villareal in the Europa League.

Max Kruse, Borussia Mönchengladbach to Wolfsburg

Kruse’s rise is a meteoric one. Playing for St Pauli in 2012, he will now be one of Wolfsburg’s most threatening attackers. His time at ‘Gladbach developed him a great deal under Lucien Favre, where he transitioned from an attacking midfielder at SC Freiburg to a forward with the ability to drop back and link up with the play. His partnership with Raffael at Borussia Park was one to behold, and eleven goals and nine assists in a team where there the goals were shared quite evenly between Patrick Herrmann, Kruse and Raffael is quite impressive. Shouldn’t have any issues in beating off competition from Nicklas Bendter to partner Bas Dost but it will be interesting to see what formation Dieter Hecking will opt for.

Part Two to come soon.

The Ruhr Rivals: Tuchel Faces Breitenreiter As A New Era Begins

After disappointing campaigns for both Borussia Dortmund and their bitter enemies Schalke 04 in 2014/15, both teams are under new management, and both managers are quite unknown to those who do not follow the football in Germany closely. Who are the new tacticians behind the Revierderby?


On the 19th December 1909, seventeen men founded a football club in Dortmund, Germany after becoming unhappy with the constant monitoring by priests whilst they were playing for a church sponsored team Trinity Youth. A first brush with bankruptcy halted progress in 1929, when the club signed paid professionals to play for them. This only sunk the club further into debt and a rescue only came from the generosity of a local supporter who bankrolled BVB out of the red from his own pocket.

In the same year, a team by the name of Schalke 04 had won their first West German championship- only to be suspended from playing for six months following the emergence that the club had exceeded the salary cap for it’s players in the league. However, this didn’t curtail their support. In a game against Fortuna Dusseldorf in 1931, 70,000 fans were drawn to the ground. It was not until after the war that an intense rivalry between the two.

Back to the present day, and those two teams share that fierce rivalry ever still, though both have had various levels of success and failure. Both Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, however, have to admit that fortune has not shone brightly on either of them in the last year. Jürgen Klopp, after a extremely successful seven years at the Signal Iduna Park, had decided it was time to leave. He had nurtured and developed the likes of Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski slowly, but surely only to see them snatched by Bayern Munich.

Injuries, the uncertainty as to whether key individuals would stay, and poor form of players such as Ciro Immobile in the league resulted in Dortmund enduring a horrendous season. Being bottom at Christmas to the recovery that followed in the Rückrunde (second half of the season) gave Dortmund the consolation of a Europa League place. However, Dortmund had failed with their aspirations of further success in Germany and in Europe, and so had Klopp. A change was needed, and quickly.

Schalke, on the other hand, were under the guidance of the unfavourable Jens Keller from 2012 to 2014, when he was replaced by Champions League winning coach Roberto di Matteo in November of last year. The former Chelsea manager brought about a fresh sense of positivity for the club’s future, and it did start out quite well for him. An emphatic win over Hertha Berlin started his reign, and the most impressive “di Matteo styled performance” that followed was a stubborn 1-0 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach in a quite effective use of the catenaccio system. However, di Matteo’s honeymoon period was brought to an end as the rocky results that followed brought a miserable end to the season. The losses against Mainz and Hamburg in particular drove the final nails into the Italian’s coffin. Subsequently, he was removed from his post as Schalke finished 6th, failing to qualify for the 2015/16 Champions League.

As aforementioned, both camps have had to go under new management, but just who are the individuals given the task to rejuvenate their teams and bring back success?

Thomas Tuchel

Tuchel’s quite a popular figure in Germany having done a stellar job with Mainz before leaving with a year left on his contract at the end of 2013/14. Having taken a year’s sabbatical, it was widely expected that Tuchel would eventually take over Joachim Löw’s job as manager of the German national team. It was a surprise, then, when he was announced as Klopp’s replacement, but very much a welcome one in the eyes of the Dortmund faithful. His tutelage of Mainz led them to the Europa League, where Kasper Hjulmand unravelled his work rather quickly, losing in a qualifier to Greek outfit Asteras Tripolis. His shrewd management, and analytical thinking, should do the world of good as Dortmund head into a new era. He worked with a €20m budget, only a €5m increase on one of the relegated teams of 2013/14 in Eintracht Braunschweig. Having more room to swim in the transfer market could bring exciting things. Expect quick, attacking football with alternative patterns in approach play to always keep opponents wondering what the next move will be. Tuchel could be described like a chess master, often three steps ahead.

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Andre Breitenreiter

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It was an achievement in itself that SC Paderborn were promoted to the Bundesliga at the end of the 2013/14 season with Breitenreiter exceptional at the helm. After nine points from the opening nine games in the 2. Bundesliga, the club suddenly stormed to a second placed finish, earning a first-ever promotion to the top flight.
“We should seize this opportunity to drink up every type of beer in Paderborn” were the words of the coach. Despite battling all the way to the last day of the Bundesliga season, Paderborn were relegated and Schalke, after being turned down by Marc Wilmots, chose Breitenreiter as di Matteo’s successor. Relatively unproven at such a huge club, it will be interesting to see how Breitenreiter copes. His team at Paderborn were known for trying to play good football, and having a never-say-die attitude. His debut with Hamburg was certainly one to remember as a player, nutmegging Lothar Matthaus before firing past Oliver Kahn within the first fifteen minutes!

Both managers settled quickly and instantly became entangled in a fight to win- but with the Bundesliga over a month from it’s return, Tuchel and Breitenreiter’s attention turned to one player, Mainz’s influential starlet Johannes Geis.

An outstanding set-piece taker, Geis is the hub of the midfield and thrives with the responsibility. His four goals and four assists are not the stats you should be looking at, though. A whopping 74 chances were supplied by Geis for his team-mates, 54 tackles were won and with his 73 % pass accuracy from 1155 passes is impressive at only 21. Geis also played  a prominent role for Germany’s U21’s as the reached the semi-finals of the European Championships.

It was widely thought that it would be Dortmund who secured his services seeing as Tuchel had already worked with Geis, but Breitenreiter won the first battle in the market with his new counterpart, signing Geis to a four-year deal for an undisclosed fee.

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Tuchel and Dortmund did convince Ilkay Gündogan to sign a new contract after it was widely expected he would leave Germany for Manchester United, or join bitter rivals Bayern Munich. In truth, it seemed Gündogan backed himself into a corner and was left with no choice to agree a new deal with Dortmund to repair a damaged relationship. It is no doubt Gündogan is a fine player, though the strings attached to his purchase for a club, namely his poor injury background, would ward off interest. The addition of Gonzalo Castro from Bayer Leverkusen will pay off handsomely in an astute transfer to bring some balance and strength back into the Dortmund midfield.

Ultimately, it is the job now of Tuchel and Breitenreiter to restore glory back into the clubs they now are in charge of. The question is, who will thrive, and who will disappoint? With fresh rivals for the Champions League places now in place in the shape of Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg, both Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 will have to fight tooth and nail to bring Europe’s best to the Ruhr region again.

Premier League: Deals Of The Summer

10) Sylvain Distin, Everton to AFC Bournemouth

He may be thirty-seven years old but Eddie Howe’s signing of Distin for newly promoted AFC Bournemouth should prove to be fantastic business. The former French international holds the record for the most appearances of an outfield foreign player in the Premier League, and was a stalwart for Everton both under David Moyes and Roberto Martinez. His total forward passes total of 543, coupled with an impressive 63.33 % success in aerial duels as per Squakwa on last season’s statistics show Howe’s clever move in adding Distin on a free transfer to his squad.

9) Cedric Soares, Sporting Lisbon to Southampton

It’s no surprise to many that Ronald Koeman had an adept replacement for the outgoing Nathaniel Clyne in the form of the Portuguese international. Signed from Sporting Lisbon for a moderate £4.7m, Soares has thrived and earned four caps for his national team and established a prominent starting role since his breakthrough season in 2013/14. Used as a right-winger in his younger days, his diminutive figure is not an issue with his speed and control.  Already boasting experience in the Champions League, this is a good fit.

8) Pedro Obiang, Sampdoria to West Ham

Slaven Bilic wasted no time in making his mark on West Ham with the signing of Sampdoria’s Obiang. The 23-year-old is a combative midfield player with an average of 3.1 successful tackles per match as of last campaign, better that of his new team-mates Mark Noble (1.9) and Cheikhou Kouyate (1.8). Replacing the outgoing Alex Song, Obiang’s 82 % success rate in his passing should see him slot into a central midfield position or in a double pivot. Obiang’s defensive skills were often utilised as Sampdoria kept 11 clean sheets and finished seventh in Serie A. Despite co-chairman David Gold mistakenly tweeting a picture of Juve’s Angelo Ogbonna whilst mentioning Obiang’s arrival, fans of the Hammers should have no such issue in locating their new signing do battle on the pitch.

7) Andre Ayew, Marseille to Swansea
The influx of French players into English football continues with Swansea City’s fine capture of Marseille’s Andre Ayew. The Ghanian international technically arrived on a free transfer, though L’Equipe reported at the time of the move that the Welsh outfit paid a heavy £5.7m signing-on fee. However, Ayew should prove to be worth every penny. His thirteen goals in thirty-five appearances across all competitions in 2014/15  bodes well for Swans fans who are in search of a goalscorer following Wilfred Bony’s move to Manchester City in January. His rapid pace aides him in quick interceptions of the ball to instigate counter-attacks as well as attack opposition full-backs to create space for his team-mates.

6) Kieran Trippier, Burnley to Tottenham

Not many would have paid that much attention to this move, but it’s an exceptional one by Mauricio Pochettino and his team all the same with Tottenham meeting Burnley’s release clause for the English right-back of £3.5m early in June. Trippier should finally break the rut of underachieving and quite frankly, terrible full-backs that have been on display at White Hart Lane over the years. Apart from Leighton Baines, no other defender made more key passes than the 24-year-old in his debut Premier League season ( Two behind Baines with 59, and twenty-six ahead of his nearest rival in Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno). Only four assists may mislead fans but it is wise to recall the team he was playing with.

5) Shinji Okazaki, Mainz to Leicester

Fans of the Bundesliga have enjoyed watching forward Shinji Okazaki play football for middle of the road outfit Mainz, and were disappointed to see the 29-year-old leave for pastures new with Leicester City. However, if the Bundesliga’s most prolific Japanese player ever replicates the form he has produced in Germany, the Foxes are in for a treat. Like many of the now departed manager’s signings, Nigel Pearson knew Okazaki was certainly no ostrich. Twelve goals in thirty-two appearances in a shaky Mainz side is impressive, having also created 26 chances. His fifteen goals the previous season shows his consistency in front of goal, and at £9.5m is a superb addition for a team like Leicester.


4) Dimitri Payet, Marseille to West Ham

Bilic has been very intelligent in his dealings so far this summer and Payet is arguably one of the best signings in Europe. He is another addition from the French Ligue 1 and the winger is another big loss for Marcelo Bielsa’s side. Payet may be 28-years-old but he is hitting his prime and barring a failure to settle into Premier League football, the transfer fee of £10.7m should see West Ham as the happier of the two parties.
The reason why he simply is an extraordinary signing is the statistics he can boast. Seventeen assists in Ligue 1 last season was the best in France, and the superb total of 134 chances created was by far and beyond the best in Europe. Payet was twenty-two created chances clear of his nearest competitor in Wolfsburg’s Kevin de Bruyne, whilst Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was the only other player who made it past the 100 mark.

3) Memphis Depay, PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United

Manchester United’s apparent attempts to sign every top-level footballer has been widely ridiculed and although they may not secure the signings of Paul Pogba and Cristiano Ronaldo, Depay is a decent addition. Two footed, rapid, with a lethal right foot, the Dutchman is a flamboyant winger with exceptional confidence and skill on the ball for a man of 21. Already possessing experience in Europe and at the World Cup, there was a sense that a player of Depay’s style was wanted, rather than desperately needed, but he could well prove to be a fine asset as his performances for the Netherlands and PSV Eindhoven have shown. My personal favourite quote on Depay comes from Southampton manager Ronald Koeman, which perfectly sums up his confidence, or arrogance!

“Depay walks around like he has won 10 European Cups.”

The reported £25m deal should not hang heavy over his head. My personal favourite quote on Depay comes from Southampton manager Ronald Koeman, which perfectly sums up his confidence, or arrogance! Here’s just a sample of what Depay can do.

2) Petr Cech, Chelsea to Arsenal

The big man from the Czech Republic really needs no introduction. Cech was at Chelsea for eleven years and won pretty much everything there is to win at the club, but his move to rivals Arsenal highlighted his desire to just play football when the opportunity was there to sit in and relax on the benches at Stamford Bridge. Many ignorant fans have questioned Arsenal’s fee of £10m for the thirty-three year-old, but fail to realise that Manchester United signed Edwin Van der Saar from Fulham back in 2005 when the Dutchman who was a year older than Cech is currently at the age of thirty-four. For goalkeepers, age isn’t such an issue. This outstanding move also represents Arsene Wenger’s desire to succeed further in the Premier League and Europe, and could well oust Wojciech Szczęsny as No.1.

1) Roberto Firmino, TSG Hoffenheim to Liverpool

I have enjoyed watching Germany’s top flight for around three years, and it is undoubted in this writer’s mind that Roberto Firmino was one of the most outrageously good players to grace the pitch in the Bundesliga. At just 23, the Brazilian has already given himself an impressive reputation for being a stone cold killer in front of goal and it is well deserved. Firmino simply has the entire package- aerial presence, speed, control on the ball, a lethal finish and an ability to score from the most ridiculous positions.

Hoffenheim were incredibly lucky to keep possession of their star man for so long, who had a stunning relationship with his partner-in-crime Kevin Volland, and I fully expect him to dazzle fans of Liverpool and the Premier League. His failure to be called up to the 2014 World Cup enraged many, but he is set to star all across the world should he remain on the right path. Firmino is now the most expensive transfer in Bundesliga history with the cool tag of €41m on his head, but with confidence like this, he shouldn’t have any problem dealing with the pressure. My personal favourite performance of Firmino’s came in a 5-2 onslaught of Wolfsburg in the 2013/14 season, but you can enjoy his best goals of that season, including a terrific finish in the demolition of the Wolves, below.

Inside Championship: The Football League Weekly

Derby County have sent out a roaring message to the rest of the Championship with the addition of Austrian forward Andreas Weimann in a reported £2.75m deal with Aston Villa.

With over 100 top flight appearances to his name, and thirteen caps at international level, Weimann is certainly an outstanding signing in the second tier of English football and is a brilliant addition to have at Paul Clement’s disposal. Darren Bent, who scored twelve goals in seventeen appearances in a loan spell at the iPro stadium last season has already joined the club permanently, alongside former Reading and Leeds defender Alex Pearce and Wigan goalkeeper Scott Carson.  Real Madrid’s former assistant manager had high praise for his new signing.

“It goes without saying that we are very pleased to welcome Andreas Weimann to Derby County and we very much look forward to working with him.

“He has a good amount of top flight experience to his name and, at the age of 23, he still has a lot of potential.”

Elsewhere in the Championship, Jamie Mackie has been relishing the chance to perform week in, week out at Queens Park Rangers after rejoining the club he had a three year stint with back in 2010.

“People say never go back, but I feel as though I’ve got some unfinished business here and under the guidance of Les [Ferdinand] and Chris [Ramsey], I can only see a bright future for this club.” Mackie said, talking to the club’s official website.

He joins former Swindon duo Massimo Luongo and Ben Gladwin as well as Jay Emmanuel-Thomas at Loftus Road.

Bolton have looked to Ireland as a source for potential signings with a rumoured interest in talented duo Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan of Dundalk.

The duo won the league with the club last season, whilst the latter player has been in fine form, the left-winger winning the League Of Ireland’s player of the month award for May.

Finally, Paul Gallagher has said it was a “no-brainer” to sign permanently with Preston North End after their play-off success in May.

Gallagher, 30, has spent the last two years on loan with the Lilywhites from Leicester and was delighted to get the deal done, extending his time with Simon Grayson’s outfit for a further two years.

“It was something I wanted to get done quite quickly and it’s great that it’s been done,”

“Being here last year and witnessing what happened and with the team spirit and the staff that we have here it was a no-brainer.”

Gallagher’s permanent stay is not the only good news for fans of the club, with star forward Joe Garner agreeing to a new three-year contract. Garner’s outstanding partnership with Jermaine Beckford will be reunited, with Beckford himself signing on a two-year deal after his release from Bolton.

Borussia land Kruse replacement, Bayer sign Mehmedi

Champions League outfit Borussia Mönchengladbach have moved swiftly to replace outgoing forward Max Kruse in the shape of Swiss striker Josip Drmic.

The Leverkusen forward, 22, has joined Die Fohlen on a four-year deal, and couldn’t be happier to join Lucien Favre’s team.

“I know what I’m capable of. I want to carry on developing – that is my goal. I’m a versatile player, but I prefer to be right up top. The closer I am to goal, the more dangerous I can be.”

Sporting director Max Eberl spoke of how Drmic was the jigsaw piece that “fit well” in his Borussia team. The club are now looking to strengthen elsewhere in the team, particularly at centre-back. A move for Matthias Ginter could well happen after Drmic’s arrival. Something the pair have in common? They both turned down moves to Borussia Park last year.

In Berlin..

Hertha have secured the transfer of Bayern München winger Mitchell Weiser. Signed by the champions from Köln in 2012, Weiser made 16 appearances for Pep Guardiola’s side, scoring one goal.

“Hertha came in for me early on and this is going to be a very exciting challenge for me,” Weiser said of his short move.

Weiser arrives at the Olympiastadion joining Pal Dardai and co until the summer of 2018.

Meanwhile, Bayern have strengthened in the goalkeeping department, having added Sven Ulreich to cover Manuel Neuer in preparation for Pepe Reina’s likely move from the Allianz Arena.

At the office..

Armin Veh has returned to Eintracht Frankfurt as manager for the second time, replacing Thomas Schaaf, whilst Schalke 04 have replaced Champions League winning coach Roberto di Matteo with a little less known manager in SC Paderborn’s Andre Breitenreiter.
After unsuccessful attempts to lure the impressive Markus Weinzierl from FC Augsburg and Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots to the Veltins Arena, Breitenreiter has signed a two-year deal in an attempt to rejuvenate the club after an underwhelming season.

Best of the rest

Borussia Dortmund, like their rivals FC Bayern have added another goalkeeper to their ranks in the form of Roman Bürki from relegated SC Freiburg. Bürki is a Swiss international who impressed many in his debut Bundesliga campaign in 2014/15, keeping nine clean sheets in a struggling team.

Freiburg fans have also lost a favourite in forward Admir Mehmedi, a fellow countryman to Bürki. Roger Schmidt has moved to cover Josip Drmic’s departure with the signing of the 24-year-old. Mehmedi  scored 16 goals and provided five assists in 60 Bundesliga outings in his two seasons in Germany and will provide more options for Die Werkself’s front line.

Finally, Hannover 96 forward Joselu has  left the country to play for Premier League Stoke City. The Spaniard departs after one season at the AWD having scored eight goals in thirty appearances.

RUMOURS, NEWS, AND MOVES: Inside Bundesliga

Wolfsburg chairman Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz has warned away potential suitors for the German outfit’s star player, Kevin de Bruyne.

The 23-year-old Belgian was pivotal to the Wolves’ sensational season as they brought back Champions League football to the Volkswagen Arena following a six-year absence, and Sanz is keen to keep the nucleus of Klaus Allofs’ successful team together.

“We want to confirm our success this season in the future and, for that, we are keeping this team together,” he told German newspaper Bild, after Bayern were linked with a sensational £43m bid for the de Bruyne.

However, the player’s agent, Patrick De Koster, has admitted there has been interest in his client from Bayern, Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, admitting he is soon to hold talks with Wolfsburg about de Bruyne’s future.

“I will know if they want to offer a Kevin a new deal or allow him to move. If Wolfsburg decide to sell Kevin then he will have a choice of clubs who can win their domestic league and challenge for the Champions League as well. The choice is his.”

An outstanding twenty assists, the most ever recorded in the Bundesliga, coupled with ten goals helps to show why the Bundesliga player of the season’s stock is ever on the rise.

Elsewhere..
Franck Ribery has revealed he has set a July date for his comeback from injury.

The French winger has been out since March following the Bavarians’ 7-0 drubbing of Shaktar Donetsk, and admits his persistent problems have been a “catastrophe” for him.

“I think about my football the time. I just want to run! I want to play! I have to be able to train in order to be happy.”

Finally..
Max Kruse’s €12m move to Wolfsburg from Borussia Mönchengladbach and Gonzalo Castro’s relocation to Dortmund have been much talked about in the press, but seemingly the best value for money deal in Germany has been at Hoffenheim, where Swiss defender Fabian Schär has arrived for an undisclosed fee from FC Basel.

Schär, 23, who impressed for his country at the 2014 World  Cup, joins fellow new recruit Jonathan Schmid on a four year deal. Contract extensions for two of the Bundesliga’s most exciting prospects, Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland, at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena shows the progression of one of Germany’s controversial clubs.

Middlesbrough face Bees as Karanka looks to build on progress

Tiny details can be big things.

Aitor Karanka’s words cannot be truer when pinpointing the transformation in Middlesbrough over the last 18 months. Certainly, fans of the club would have predicted a bleak future following the sacking of Tony Mowbray in October 2013.

Mowbray had left the club he had once captained with just two wins from a possible twelve. The job was hardly an inviting one for available managers as, undoubtedly, Middlesbrough are a big club with a big history, but the task at hand for the new man in town would be of a mammoth size. Fortunately, Steve Gibson, the club chairman had links with agent Jorge Mendes and former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon. Partly through their aid, Gibson persuaded Champions League winner and former assistant of one Jose Mourinho, Aitor Karanka, to take the reins and rejuvenate this sleeping giant.

Karanka already possessed vast coaching experience after a spell in charge of the Spanish U16 squad, as well as his time with Los Blancos in Madrid. Karanka’s referees are people his fellow Championship managers could only dream of including in their managerial C.V. Speaking to The Guardian on how Mourinho chose him, the former Real centre-half said Clarence Seedorf and Luis Figo had offered words of support. Karanka also took his coaching licences with Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. Friends in high places already established for a man who was embarking in his first post as first team manager.

Karanka stabilized Boro in his first season, leading the club to a twelfth place finish, with the January signings of Lee Tomlin and Daniel Ayala adding strength in depth.  This year, 22-year-old Ben Gibson has had an outstanding campaign. The centre-back was part of a concrete back four that conceded just eleven home goals in the entire season. Gibson, who is a lifelong fan,  also plays for former Middlesbrough player and manager Gareth Southgate in the England U21’s, and is set to compete in this summer’s European Championships.

In midfield, captain Grant Leadbitter is the ferocious driving force. Known for his crunching tackles and speculative efforts, and his dominance in the centre of the park earned him a prestigious position in the PFA Championship team of the year, alongside popular left-back George Friend.

Ben Gibson has been phenomenal for Boro' this season. Credit: The FA website.

Ben Gibson has been phenomenal for Boro’ this season. Credit: The FA website.

However, the key to Middlesbrough’s meteoric rise from mid-table mediocrities to promotion chasers, is Patrick Bamford. One of four loanees from Chelsea, Bamford’s exquisite composure, skill and quality in the final third is what has essentially granted Middlesbrough the chance to return to the Premier League after six year’s absence. The Championship player of the year, the 21-year-old was captured by Chelsea as a sixteen-year-old from Nottingham Forest, and has enjoyed outstanding spells at MK Dons and Derby County. Bamford is also the first player at the club since Mark Viduka in 2006/07 to score 19 goals in all competitions this season. His experience with the Rams in last season’s play-offs could be vital.

The opposition Karanka and Middlesbrough face on Friday will be Mark Warburton’s Brentford. Despite leading the Bees’ to the Championship for the first time in 21 years, owner Matthew Benham and Warburton mutually decided to part ways, after the latter disagreed with Benham’s future plans for the club. Regardless of outcome in Brentford’s play-off campaign, in which they pipped last year’s finalists Derby and Wolves to a spot on another dramatic final day, Warburton will still be relieved of his duties.

Warburton, like Karanka, is an interesting character. Once a banker, he told FourFourTwo why he had to give up his day job after coming across a billion pound deal in the City of London.

“There was this huge deal in front of me, and all I could think about were the passing drills I was going to do that evening with my under-10s team”.

One of the three men behind the popular NextGen series, an U19 tournament for European clubs, Warburton visited every footballing paradise from Ajax to Inter to Barcelona, to hone his coaching skills before taking a part-time mantle at Watford. Benham then asked for Warburton to assist at Brentford. The rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst Middlesbrough work from a solid back four, Brentford favour an attacking style, using the increasingly popular 4-1-4-1 formation. Only play-off favourites Norwich have scored more than Brentford, who have netted 78 goals this season because of their expansive approach. However, the defence are at times suspect, paying the iron price for Warburton’s style, with 59 conceded.

Alex Pritchard, if managed well, will become one of England’s finest attackers and may even make the World Cup squad for Russia 2018, such is his precocious talent. The 22-year-old excelled for Swindon in League One last year, making his Premier League debut towards the end of the season for his current club, Tottenham, after his loan had come to an end. Brentford beat a host a clubs to house the midfielder. According to Squakwa, Pritchard has scored twelve, assisted in seven goals, and created 109 chances, the third most in the entire division.

His team-mate, Jota, has been a revelation since his £1million arrival from Celta Vigo in the summer and his contribution of 11 goals has attracted the attention of the Premier League. Andre Gray’s remarkable step-up from Conference football with Luton to Championship level with Brentford has been astounding following his summer move. Alan Judge has Warburton to thank for revitalising his career after his permanent arrival at Griffin Park being earned after his loan aid in promotion the previous season. If you want goals, Griffin Park is the place to be.

Jota and Pritchard have been instrumental in the Bees' surge to the play-offs. Credit: Ben Queenborough

Jota and Pritchard have been instrumental in the Bees’ surge to the play-offs.
Credit: Ben Queenborough

Middlesbrough return from warm weather training in the Costa del Sol this week, minds focused on the upcoming mission. A coveted place in the Premier League is what Karanka and his players desperately desire, but it is the fans who deserve it most. With the financial issues in the 1980’s a sore memory for older supporters, a pain they all share is the six seasons spent outside the top flight.

For Brentford, it is a win-win situation. Despite being the underdog of this tie, the experience will be an enriching one. Either way, Brentford will go on without Warburton, who will surely attract attention from a team in need of a leader.

Let the battle commence this Friday.

 

AFC Bournemouth: From Near Extinction To Possible Paradise

For those none too familiar with AFC Bournemouth’s rapid ascendance through the Football League, they sit with their morning coffee and croissants looking at the Championship table with the Cherries’ in fifth place, three points from the automatic promotion places, and think nothing of it as they flick on to this week’s crossword that they will never finish.

However, for the hardcore fans, their rise to be one of the Championship’s most entertaining and lethal teams in attack is a pleasant sight. Actually, that’s an enormous understatement, for these fans have been to heaven, hell and back supporting a club which begun the 2008/09 season in League Two with a heavy points deduction for not adhering to insolvency rules. Here is the remarkable tale of the coastal club, and how an unmitigated genius steered them through administrations and embargoes to be steps away from the Premier League.

With AFC Bournemouth in turmoil as they approached the business end of a torrid League One season, the club were placed into administration with debts of around £4 million. Not a large sum to those of you who support Manchester United or Chelsea, but an enormous sum for a lower league club.  Of course, the little present at the end of every shot glass that is administration is a points deduction. Ten points were removed, and as well as battling to avoid relegation, Bournemouth had to fight to exist as a football club. Relegation ensued in a 1-1 draw at Carlisle, but the Cherries’ problems hadn’t quite come to an end as of yet.

As a fan of a League 2 club, I and many other fans know the pain of relegation to the Football League’s basement division. Players leave, fans disappear, the club loses money and, like my Southend’s situation, the club can spend an exhausting amount of time in League Two.

However, Bournemouth had a much larger issue than having to contend with away trips to Accrington. A hefty penalty was placed on the club for not being able to exit administration from the previous season. Rotherham were deducted the same amount, they too being in administration. If there was one positive, they would be thirteen points clear of Luton Town, who started on a negative of thirty points for paying agents via a third-party and for being in administration also.

Fast forward to December 2008, and the fans had already seen two managers come and go in Kevin Bond and Jimmy Quinn. A local consortium owner named Adam Murry bought half of then chairman Paul Baker’s shares with the club, and had the authority to name Quinn’s replacement. The selection, initially on a temporary basis, was a strange one but the effect it had on this club in dire straits was incredible. The name of this mystery man? Eddie Howe.

Howe’s only previous experience in coaching was as the head of the reserve team. At 31, he was the youngest ever Football League manager after injury had cut his career with the Cherries’ short.

“The club was on it knees. We had bailiffs knocking on the door every day, nobody was being paid and there was no investment in the club or the facilities. It was a crash course in management at its harshest level. I’d had two years as a coach under Kevin Bond and experienced relegation. I’d been sacked from that job and had a lot of lows. We even paid some of our staff out of our own pocket because we wanted to give ourselves a fighting chance.” Howe said, reflecting back on his appointment.

Despite two defeats from his only two games as interim manager, Murry gave the position on a permanent basis to Howe. This brave move was richly rewarded, with Howe guiding the club to safety despite the outrageous deficit in the final home game of the season, club legend Steve Fletcher scoring the winning goal as Bournemouth beat Grimsby Town 2-1. Howe had been told the club was fifteen minutes from extinction at one point in the season.

Their tumultuous season ended with their best away win in thirty years at the time, a 4-0 triumph at Morecambe. Adam Murry’s consortium completed their takeover of the club in the summer of 2009. “The Great Escape” is how the club reminds it’s players on the walls. “The Journey” was about to begin.

Thriving in the role, Howe then led his team to nine victories from his opening ten games at the start of the 2009/10 season, rejecting job offers from Peterborough and Southampton. The club, still in a tight financial situation, were hit by a transfer embargo in the second half of the season with Bournemouth among the chasing pack in the fight for promotion from League Two. Eddie Mitchell, vice chairman of the club, appealed to the Football League to allow Howe to sign one loan player, but they refused. Bournemouth eventually got the extra player to add to Howe’s squad they needed, and it came from inside the club – his assistant, Jason Tindall, had to come out of retirement!

Incredibly, Bournemouth still achieved promotion, finishing second to return to the third tier. Bournemouth accustomed well to life back in League One, but the departure of Howe to Burnley in the January stalled the club’s progress. Although Lee Bradbury led Bournemouth to the League One play offs that season, the following campaign was indifferent.  Bradbury left before the season’s end, an 11th placed finish disappointing for the fans of the Cherries’ who had hoped for more.

Paul Groves fared no better- the club were struggling near the relegation zone when he was handed his marching orders in October of the 2010-11 season. There was only one man that could engineer Bournemouth’s rise up the Football League. Howe returned, stating that his family had struggled to settle up north, having endured the darkest period of his life following the death of his mother.

Not only did he steer them again from the relegation zone, under Howe’s leadership Bournemouth’s players had enough belief and drive to earn another promotion. Harry Arter, a £4,000 signing from Woking the previous summer, and Steve Cook, a £150,000 signing from Brighton, were stalwarts of a cohesive team with an attractive playing style. Brett Pitman ‘s nineteen goals were often supplied by wing wizard Matt Ritchie, a £500,000 signing from Swindon in another of Howe’s January exploits.

The transfer funds came from new Russian billionaire owner, Maxim Demin, but none can argue that Howe deserved the opportunity to strengthen his squad through these extra means via Demin more than anyone following his achievements in League Two.

A strong finish of 10th in the Championship was pleasing for Howe and Jason Tindall, still his assistant.  Astute in the transfer market as he is tactically, clubs came calling for top scorer Lewis Grabban, and Norwich signed him for an undisclosed fee- his release clause rumoured to be £3 million.

The Cherries replaced him with Coventry’s Callum Wilson, the fee approximately £2.25 million. Wilson has already scored fifteen goals this season, two more than the man he replaced. The outstanding football on show at Bournemouth is clear to be seen- watch Matt Ritchie find Harry Arter who finishes exquisitely against Watford last September.

Howe was asked in the Express what he would have replied six years ago, in his first tenure at the club, if someone had told said they would be where they are today.

“No chance – just impossible,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a huge motivating factor to try to be the first Bournemouth team to get into the Premier League. I don’t think anyone can put too much pressure on us.

“It would be an amazing story when you consider where this club was. It was down and out. Regardless of what happens onwards, our position should be a branch of hope for every League Two club.”

 With rivals in Derby County, Middlesbrough, Norwich and Watford in the race for Premier League promotion, the Cherries’ may have to contend with the gamble of the play-offs this season. However, whatever happens, Howe should be proud of Bournemouth’s success under his navigation. Undoubtedly, the 36-year-old is an innovative genius, and it is a case in this writer’s eyes of when rather than if Bournemouth appear in the Premier League.It is sink or swim in the top flight, but under Howe’s tutelage, they may well replicate Swansea’s transition from an exciting Championship to a sturdy Premier League force a lot sooner than anyone could have imagined. From the 91st worst team in the Football League to the Championship in six years. It’s not dissimilar to the Swans’ meteoric rise in the last ten years, and it may well culminate in a trip to the Liberty in due course.Howe has the letter “R” tattooed onto his wrist in remembrance of his black Labrador called Rodney who kept him company as an 18-year-old apprentice. He also has several quotes adorning the walls, such as “What you are thinking is what you are becoming,” from the famous boxer, Muhammad Ali. It’s clear he is a sensitive family man, but also one who has a clear objective with his AFC Bournemouth side.

“Players need to be internally motivated but there are ways you can get that little bit more to inspire them to great things”.

AFC Bournemouth have entered a new era, and with Eddie Howe in charge, there is little doubt for everyone involved at Dean Court that this dynamic duo will go on to achieve greatness. For Bournemouth, the Premier League surely awaits soon. With regards to Howe, while he will look to fulfil his dream of managing his boyhood club in the top flight, I feel England may look no further when eventually replacing Roy Hodgson. A bold prediction? Maybe. Though you only have to look at Howe to see what passion and drive in a manager can do to a club. I wonder what effect he could have on a nation.

Borussia Dortmund’s Renaissance

Marco Reus instigated a 4-2 comeback win over Mainz on Friday evening and after a sensational 3-0 rout in Freiburg the previous week, the resurgence of form for Die Borussen led many to think Jürgen Klopp’s outfit had returned to the heights of last season in terms of quality and performance.

However, others are cautious after such a long struggle throughout the Bundesliga season, collapsing entirely at the end of the Hinrunde with a place in the relegation zone.

There was a noticeable difference in response to going behind in BVB’s games against Augsburg and on Friday night. Raul Bobadilla had put Augsburg ahead and Dortmund just seemed to deflate, lacking composure and confidence in their own style, being unable to defeat Markus Weinzierl’s side even when Christoph Janker was sent off midway through the second half.

However, after Elkin Soto’s incredible first minute finish at the Westfalenstadion, the break down of Mainz’s defensive strategy was highly impressive. Neven Subotic nodded home to equalise five minutes after the restart and Marco Reus beat Stefanos Kampino in the Mainz goal through an exquisite through ball from recent signing Kevin Kampl.

Yunus Malli made the most of a lapse in concentration at the back to equalise but an incredible outside of the boot assist from Reus, who signed a contract extension until 2019 earlier in the week, was met by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to put Dortmund in the lead.

Nuri Sahin wrapped up the three points lifting Borussia into 15th, twelve points behind fourth-placed rivals Schalke.

Klopp praised his team and highlighted the difference between the Augsburg game and the win:

“When we went behind in games before, we also had chances to turn the game around, but failed to take them. We didn’t have the energy to sustain the intensity to control the second half as well.”

The question on everybody’s lips following this apparent mini-revival is whether this is the return of Dortmund, and how has it come about?

The Form Of Marco Reus

As aforementioned, Marco Reus seemingly put to bed rumours about his future with the extension of his contract until 2019. There is some discussion as to whether he really is content at the club, or whether there is an agreement in place between Reus and the Dortmund board consenting him to leave the club in the near future.

Whatever the situation, the Germany international’s revitalisation of form has been clear for all to see. He opened the scoring and contributed well to the victory in the Black Forest and his magnificent goal and assist against Mainz has signified he is back to his best, probably at the forefront of all explanations as to why Dortmund have regained their confidence.

Tactical Changes & The Arrival of Kevin Kampl

There were high hopes for Ciro Immobile when he made his big money move from Torino in the summer to replace outgoing hero Robert Lewandowski. Disappointingly, Immobile has struggled to adapt in his first season.

In the Champions League, he is quite similar to his current club, performing well in contrast to his league form, scoring four goals from six appearances.  As a key figure at his former club, being on the end of the vast majority of chances created by his partner-in-crime Alessio Cerci, Immmobile was able to stay mobile and let Torino’s play run through him.

He was the spearhead of their attack in a league where there are less tactically astute teams when compared to the Bundesliga.

His measly contribution of three Bundesliga goals from fifteen appearances led Klopp to believe Gabon attacker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, signed from Saint-Etienne in 2013 was the ideal replacement in Immobile’s position.

“Auba” as he is affectionately known by the Dortmund faithful has thrived and grabbed the opportunity with both hands, scoring a brace against Freiburg and striking again against Mainz. Arsenal fans will do well to remember his contribution to their 2-0 reverse last August, and his fresh position in the team has left the rest of the Bundesliga fearful of his capablities.

“The win was important for us. I ask myself again and again how Aubameyang (and Reus) can shoot like that. Every time I try it, I get a sore knee!” -centre back Neven Subotic.

Kevin Kampl was signed from Red Bull Salzburg for an undisclosed fee in the January window, being “an attacking versatile midfielder whose style of play fits perfectly with our own” according to director Michael Zorc.

The 24-year-old has breathed some fresh air into the Dortmund midfield. His exciting offensive play matched with his intelligence on the ball is a gift for his team mates and hopefully these are attributes he can replicate against Juventus.

The Return Of Ilkay Gündogan

It has been a brutal few seasons for BVB’s Turkish-born German midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan. After a serious back injury which forced him out of action for a year, he suffered a setback early in September 2014, eventually returning in October during a 2-1 defeat at Köln – a total of 427 days away from the pitch!

It has taken a while for Gündogan to be reintegrated into the first XI but, similar to Reus, his stand out performances against Freiburg and Mainz have been eye-catching and extremely pleasing to fans. His organisation and discipline has been sorely missed in Dortmund and throughout the Bundesliga.

If Gündogan’s phenomenal showing in 2012-13 was anything to go by, his potential and peak will be wondrous to see.

In this writer’s opinion, if Klopp wasn’t such a vibrant character and hadn’t restored Dortmund to the peak of their powers in recent seasons, with such poor performances and results in the opening half of the Bundesliga, he would have been surely dismissed from the post.

With Klopp though, he was like the missing piece in the BVB puzzle after his arrival from Mainz in 2008. His relationship with the fans and players as well as his obvious love for the club would make it near impossible to vacate the crater-sized hole that remained if Zorc has sent Klopp through the exit door.

It appears that Klopp has re-figured out a way of restoring the balance to Dortmund’s play and with a bit of consistency and luck, the ambition of the club must be to reach the Champions League qualification spots.

With approximately four and a half months remaining for Die Borussen to cut the gap between themselves and Schalke, it may take a minor miracle and a string of fantastic performances. However the big derby against the Royal Blues is on the 28th of this month, a huge chance for Dortmund to inch closer to Schalke and an opportune moment to show the rest of the world that they really are back to their best.

The sleeping giant that is Borussia Dortmund may have well been reawakened, but will it be slayed again in Turin when Dortmund face Italian champions Juventus?

Bundesliga Review: Matchday 13

Jürgen Klopp must be feeling the warm breath of the Dortmund board on the back of his neck after Sunday’s 2-0 loss in Frankfurt. Qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League has been achieved, yes, but they still languish bottom of the league.

Eagles captain and Bundesliga leading scorer Alexander Meier put the home side in front with his eight goal of the season in the opening five minutes and in the closing stages a mistimed Matthias Ginter header allowed Haris Seferovic to intercept the ball and round custodian Roman Weidenfeller to finish BVB off.

Their closest rivals in the relegation zone, Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart, both picked up outstanding wins to pile the pressure on Die Borussen. Viktor Skrypnyk’s reign has begun well and another win steers them further away from trouble. A surprise 4-0 rout of SC Paderborn thanks to goals from Zunuzovic, Selke, Bartels, and Aycicek. Stuttgart won the curtain raiser of the Bundesliga weekend in a 4-1 triumph away to SC Freiburg, who will be nervously looking over their shoulder after dropping into 15th. Vladimir Darida cancelled out Martin Harnik’s goal midway through the first half but Gruezo, teenage starlet Timo Werner and a second from Harnik won the game for managerless Stuttgart, though Stefan Mitrovic’s red card after seventy minutes undoubtedly helped.

Bayern Munich narrowly beat Hertha BSC at the Olympiastadion thanks to Arjen Robben’s goal but still have to keep up their incredible pace at the top as Wolfsburg triumphed over third placed Mönchengladbach, Robin Knoche’s (slightly) fortunate goal early into the game proved decisive, Diego Benaglio producing an outstanding save from an Andre Hahn header, Kevin de Bruyne had a goal disallowed before a late scramble in the Wolfsburg box proved fruitless in Die Fohlen’s attempts to salvage a point. Here’s what André Hahn had to say after the game, courtesy of the Borussia site:

“That’s our third Bundesliga defeat in a row. It was unlucky and consequently we are annoyed. We didn’t put in a bad performance but we need to be more clinical in front of goal. We struggled in that regard today. There’s a lot of work to be done in front of us but I’m optimistic that we will return to form sooner rather than later.”

Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke romped to resounding victories over Köln and Mainz. Both Champions League sides went into their games on the back of disappointing results in mid-week, but both would have delighted their managers.

Leverkusen fell behind due to Andreas Lehmann’s early penalty but the Billy Goats false start was reversed as braces from Karim Bellarabi and Josip Drmic, a summer signing from Nuremberg, who will hoping to kickstart his season from here, and another absolutely sumptuous free kick from Calhanoglu, which can be seen below, won the game for Roger Schmidt’s men 5-1. This young man is among the best in Europe, certainly at set pieces.

http://t.co/SGwjTuZJwz

Schalke’s Klaas Jan Huntelaar made it 100 goals in the Bundesliga to set a personal milestone for the Dutch forward. The Royal Blues led 2-1 at half time, Shinji Okazaki’s goal an attempt to claw the 05’ers back into the game after Die Hunter had put his team 2-0 ahead. Huntelaar notched another to complete his hat trick in the second half after Tranquillo Barnetta had extended Schalke’s lead nine minutes after the break.

Augsburg also continued their impressive form with a 3-1 win over Hamburg, Rafael van der Vaart’s well placed effort from Rudnevs’ pass gifting the visitors the lead on the stroke of half time, but  Halil Altintop equalised soon into the second half, Raul Bobadilla put Weinzierl’s side in the lead just after the hour and captain reliable Paul Verhaegh smashed home a penalty to kill Hamburg off, who again find themselves struggling after narrowly escaping relegation after a play off win over Greuther Fürth. Augsburg, on the other hand, had a fantastic season in 2013/14, finishing 8th, and despite losing stars like Hahn and Ostrzolek find themselves in a Champions League spot in December.

The game of the weekend was at Hoffenheim who faced Hannover. Pirmin Schwegler scored a fantastic, low-drilled free kick before a superb squared ball from Jin-Su Kim was met by Kevin Volland, who fired past Ron Robert Zieler. A poor misjudgement on Oli Baumann’s part let the ball bounce over his head and allowed Lars Stindl to nod home, before Joselu met Jimmy Briand’s pass and sweetly lofted the ball into the top corner, not worrying about respect towards his former team in terms of celebration! Eugene Polanski scored arguably the goal of the weekend to restore Hoffenheim’s lead before Niklas Süle headed home Polanski’s free kick, though awful marking didn’t help Zieler. Lars Stindl got his second of the game to give Korkut’s side some hope but Hoffenheim held out.

Here’s the table at the end of matchday 13:
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