Overlooked players number 3: Rafinha Alcantara

Today I’m going to write about one of my favourite players in world football – Rafinha Alcantara. The younger, less well known brother of Thiago Alcantara, he remained at Barcelona rather than flying the nest at a young age and though he isn’t an regular starter at Barca (who could be honestly) but is almost the definition of underappriceiated.

So what kind of player is Rafinha? He is a central midfielder. Probably. In all honesty no-one is really sure. In the last 2 seasons he has played on both wings (primarily the right), Central midfielder (both right of a three, left of a three and in a double pivot), striker and even right wing back – despite being left footed. He could almost certainly play number 10 as well, but Barca don’t use one. Where he is best in is very much up for debate – personally I think either RW or RCM show his strengths the best.

screenshot-from-2017-01-17-11-13-16
A saviour is needed.

But what are those strengths? His versatility is exceptional and this allows him to play the 12th man role effectively – being a rotation player and backup in the event that Sergi Roberto got injured. His work rate also means if regardless of the situation he will likely have an impact off the bench However sine then he has been a more fringe player due to Lucho’s insistence on playing Andre Gomes (his signing critiqued previously here).

Above is the lineup for the second leg of the Copa Del Rey match which Barca went into 2-1 down. He got his start – alongside Iniesta and Busquets in midfield he was quietly effective. Standout? No, that was Iniesta, but did everything asked of him, worked hard, supported the attack and won the ball back with aplomb. Likewise in the 5-0 thrashing of Las Palmas he played again in midfield (this time the left) – and though Aleix Vidal and the front three of Messi, Suarez and Turan stole the show Rafinha still more than showed his worth – dropping wide to cover for Turan dropping inside into midfield, driving forwards to create overloads in the box and giving someone for Gomes and Busquets to play to as well as getting an assist for his troubles, which brings us neatly on to Rafinha’s greatest strength…

screenshot-from-2017-01-17-11-11-54
Goal!

Goalscoring. When playing Rafinha near guarantees an impact in the final third. Going into October he was top five in the LaLiga scoring charts. Despite being a rotational midfielder he has 5 goals so far putting level with elite forwards like Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Raul Garcia and Alvaro Morata but what makes that even more impressive is the rate of scoring. Lets make a table comparing him with a few top LaLiga strikers:

Player Goals scored Minutes played Minutes per goal
Rafinha Alcantara 5 599 120
Antoine Griezmann 7 1441 205
Aritz Aduriz 6 1281 213
Neymar 4 1257 314
Gerard Moreno 7 1570 224

This is eye opening to me – Rafinha Alcantara, a midfielder scores at nearly twice the rate of a Balon D’or finalist. In fact in terms of minutes of goals he is fifth behind the big three of Messi, Suarez and Ronaldo and Wissam Ben Yedder and comfortably the highest for a midfielder.

Honestly at almost any club at Barca he would start consistently and a standout player for them – there is an arguament to be made that he has to leave Barca to gain the recognition he deserves, but as a Barca fan, I don’t want to see him go.

Overlooked players number 2: Nacho Fernandez.

I’m going to start this with a disclaimer: I am a Barcelona fan, I make no secret of this. However I try to be impartial and and recognise the abilities, innovations and strengths of other teams and their players. I think I do a pretty well, but who knows.

nacho
Nacho Fernandez. He has a fabulous beard

Ok, on to Nacho. For those of you who don’t know, he is a Real Madrid defender who can play comfortably across the backline and, frankly, I feel sorry for him. Why do I feel sorry for him? Because of the colossus of chaos himself: Sergio Ramos. No matter how well he plays he will always be dropped in favour of Ramos purely because of his name.

This season is already the perfect example; Sergio Ramos has been nothing short of atrocious so far this season – cards and penalties have come at rate of one every game, and that doesn’t even mention his awful positioning. He leaves both Marcelo and Varane exposed by leaving gaps when he charges forward. Truly, Ramos has been nothing short of shocking.

Nacho however has been by far Real’s best centre back this season (and has been excellent when filling in at left back) no matter where he has played. Lets take the Madrid derby as an example Whoscored.com listed him as the best defender on the pitch and the fourth best player in total (after Navas, Bale and Ronaldo) what is his reward for excelling in such a big match? A spot on the bench alongside rejects Fabio Coentrao and James Rodriguez.

So other than being an easy target for dropping in favour of a big name, what else is there to say about Nacho? Well he is a product of Real’s La Fabrica youth system (which depending on how you count is the most successful in Europe), he is regularly in the squad for the Spanish national team as a backup defender, he is very short for a CB at 5 foot 10 inches and often fills in at left back. And I don’t mean the Azpilicueta style right footed defender who just protects his flank, Nacho comfortably charges up and down his flank, crossing with both feet and being a useful wide link player with excellent quick passing – the 2-2 draw with Las Palmas is an excellent example of this.

So why do I consider him overlooked? Because no matter what he does he will never establish himself as the Real Madrid Regular he needs to be to gain a mainstream following, Nor will he leave RM due to his home-grown status being useful for Real and him loving his youth club.

So both for now and the foreseeable future he will remain a reliable backup and nothing more. But make no mistake he is probably the most reliable backup in the world – and at the very least, that deserves recognition.

Overlooked players number 1: Santi Mina

OK, new segment time. I plan to do this regularly by the way – but who knows If I will be able to find the time. Anyway, the topic of this segment will be players who are not necessarily underrated (though may be so) but those who fly under the radar. Those who despite putting up decent numbers and contributing a lot to the team just never get mentioned like some of their team-mates. On to who is up first:

Santi Mina.

Ok seriously, outside of Spanish football fans who has even heard of Santi Mina? I’d wager very few of you. And perhaps understandably so, playing alongside Nani, Munir and (until recently) Paco Alcacer means little focus on Valencia’s attack can be directed towards the young talent that is Santi Mina. But frankly, that’s unjust. He’s only 20 years old but last season got 8 goals and the season before 9. Obviously not earth shattering numbers but for someone who at the time was only in their late teens it is very impressive. This season after 3 LaLiga games he has already scored twice while playing off the left wing – making him Valencia’s top scorer so far. Yet still, no hype or even mention of him anywhere.

That brings me onto my next point – versatility. Mina can play across the front line with ease. Though seen as a centre forward by many (myself included) he spent last season (and quite a bit of the season before) on the right wing and has started this season only on the left and his effectiveness hasn’t dropped (if anything its improved). He has even played number 10 on occasion.

Now we reach the elephant in the room – Valencia. Let me put this simply: They are atrocious. They shouldnt’t be atrocious, but they are. They have lost the opening 3 games of the season leaving them stranded in 19th. The golden age promised by Peter Lim has completely failed to materialise and all the sense of hope and positivity brought by the takeover has been entirely sucked out (into the pockets of giant economic leech super agent Jorge Mendes). Perhaps this combined with the loss of key players (like Paco Alcacer as mentioned earlier, along with Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi among others) have drained the optimism so much that no one can even get excited bout him (or anyone else) anymore – an argument supported by the demise of the Alcacer hype (until the Barca move of course) and eventual missing out of a euro squad place despite being top scorer in qualifying. The media however has no excuse.

Overall Santi Mina is an extremely effective, versatile attacker – especially for someone only twenty years old and he has unjustly overlooked by pretty much everyone. And frankly why escapes me.

Jesse Lingard – How Manchester United can get the best out of him.

Undoubtedly last year was the breakout year for Jesse Lingard, but almost from day 1 he has been an enigma – some value his work rate, others criticise his end product. Some love his intelligent runs to open space for others, others criticise his end product. Suprisingly few people value his versatility and tactical intelligence, others criticise his end product. It should be clear now which side of the fence I stand.

Jesse Lingard tactically though is quite odd, here are very few players of his style around. Most of the matches he’s played have been on the wings (primarily the right) but he has played number 10, centre midfield, striker and even right wing back (albeit only once). However no matter where he appears on team sheet he plays largely the same role. Below is his heatmap for the community shield (playing, in theory, on the right wing):

Screenshot from 2016-08-11 12-13-49

He appears in both boxes, on both wings and frankly everywhere on the pitch. If you saw the game then that was evident – not least in his goal, where he started at the centre circle dribbled out towards the left then came back inside before shooting.

This is role I mentioned earlier is simple – run to create and exploit space. Be that by dropping deep dragging defenders out of position, running beyond to stretch the defence or moving across field to create overloads. Above all else Lingard is an intelligent footballer.

What about his weaknesses? Well his finishing is erratic (except in finals it appears) and crossing isn’t a strong point. The former is the bigger issue as the latter can be easily masked by tactics. At the moment (assuming he plays on the right) his crossing isn’t a problem as Antonio Valencia (who recently found the crossing boots he left in his parents garage 4 years ago) is a short pass away on the overlap, but on the right wing his time is limited. Mata has started there in the first two Premier League games due to Lingard’s injury (and impressed) and though he is being eased into EPL life, Henrikh Mhikitaryan will almost undoubtedly establish himself as a regular starter.

So where next? Left wing would be an option if not for Martial, and though he’s been average so far he isn’t going anywhere. Central midfield could have been possible, but with Pogba now at United such an offensive pairing of the 2 would be suicidal (Mourinho will be aware of this more than anyone). So that leaves one slot – number 10.

Louis Van Gaal tried Lingard last season at pseudo-number 10 in stretches and he was fine there but not outstanding. But the pseudo here is important; on the team sheet presented by the TV broadcasters he was number 10 (as they naively assumed it was the standard 4231) but it played out more like a lopsided 4141 – with Carrick holding and Lingard and Herrera/Schneiderlin/Fellaini/etc the other side of central midfield.

But now, LVG’s days of baffling tactical switches are over and with Mourinho in charge the standard 4231 has been implemented and there is no real reason to think that will change. So now a proper number 10 role emerges – for Lingard to slot into. The final question is how.

Looking again at his heatmap and style of play, him wandering the final third with freedom would likely be very effective – dropping out to the right when Mkhitaryan/Mata comes inside, going to the left to create an overload with Martial/Shaw, running beyond (the rather slow) Ibrahimovic onto his knockdowns and through balls – the possibilities are endless.

Having read that the first player that came to mind was Dusan Tadic. He is a natural winger who now plays as a number 10 for Southampton (as United fans saw in the first planned Friday night football) but even when he does he drifts wide to cross and impact play.

The second (and I think more apt) player I thought of was Bernardo Silva in the U21 EUROs last year – the Portugal side he played for finished second playing a strange 4312 system but with the 2 being wingers rather than forwards. The main attacking threat for that team was Silva – playing behind forwards(?) and generally running the games. In the final and couple of other matches the opposition tried clogging the centre to stop him playing but it didn’t help. His experience as a winger meant he just as comfortably exploited the extra space out wide – because Silva is an adaptable, intelligent player who finds space and exploits it.

Now set Lingard this role – starting in the number 10 area before pushing forward to press, or splitting wide to support a full back before dropping deep to defend. Not only would such an improvisational, intelligent player disrupt the opposition backline, but having those areas left free for Pogba to charge into would help him undoubtedly (and Mkhitaryan to an extent).

Playing in the number 10 area would emphasise his strengths, and make his main weaknesses less important. If Mourinho is able to overcome the enormous political wall that is Wayne Rooney to implement this, it will help Manchester United, and Jesse Lingard, no end.

3 Key areas for Atleti next season.

1. Kevin Gameiro and the striker situation

Atleti have struggled with finding a player to lead the line since David Villa left. Mandzukic was the first to try, but though he scored often and provided Griezmann with

plenty of ammo he lacked the speed and athleticism required.

Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto were the experiments last season, Jackson looking like the more athletic, physical target man they needed. Unfortunately he wasn’t good enough. At all. Why not is not clear but it appeared the step up from Liga NOS to La Liga was simply too big. Vietto looked like another Griezmann project – a young forward who after Simeone got his principles through would become the long term forward Atleti needed. But as we know, that simply didn’t happen. Apart from a little clever link play outside the box he contributed very little and generally floundered in Atleti’s system.

That left Fernando Torrid Torres to lead the line as of January. To be fair, from about March onwards he played well, stretching the back-line and linking play well. He was a stopgap, and effective one, but a stopgap none the less.

Now we have Kevin Gameiro. Stylistically he is a change from Jackson and Mandzukic, a speed based channel runner rather than a physical target man. In theory it should work, dragging defenders away to create space for Griezmann and the attacking midfielders to exploit, but frankly if the last few have taught us anything, its that leading the line for Atleti is no easy feat.

 

2. Balance in the midfield

By the end of last season Atleti had a very clear first choice eleven (with one exception: Savic vs Gimenez) which looked like this:

Screenshot from 2016-08-10 17-26-26

The midfield being the interesting part: none of these players are irrefutably wide players (you could make a case for Koke, but most agree long term he should play centrally).

Gabi is the traditional midfield general. Breaks up play deep before distributing the ball forwards and leading his team from the centre

Saul is (in terms of positional versatility at least) the Spanish James Milner, able to play centre back, left wing, right wing, defensive midfield, attacking midfield, central midfield and even as a second striker. But always had most impact running from deep midfield into the attacking third, late Lampard style.

Augusto actually has spent most of his career as a right winger however in the last 2 seasons that has stopped completely – despite his past he is a defensive midfielder through and through.

Finally, Koke. where he plays best is subject to the most most debate. This season his best play came mostly from the right wing where he was moved to accommodate Carrasco – his ability between the lines and in the channels shone, but long term him either dictating from the centre or cutting in from the left looks the sensible options. Isco struggling on the right is a good comparison.

From these 4 a strong midfield was born. Saul wasn’t quite in his best position but he made it work for the team. This season however a spanner has been thrown into the works – a spanner named Nicolas Gaitan.

Gaitan will be coming in expecting to play – and he will. Slotting in on the left in either a 433 (Griezmann on the right) or the above 442 means displacing Koke – the only player (bar Godin) Simeone has described as ‘untransferable.’ Obviously Koke will (and should) start. The question is where? Most people have been calling for years to play Koke centrally, and on occasion, he has. Largely though Simeone has resisted and when Tiago was injured Koke was left wide and Saul was brought centrally. Why?

I strongly believe Simeone resists because of balance – for years Tiago and Gabi have almost been fighting each other for who can be more defensive than the other. Simeone sets his centre midfielders so deep that offensively they contribute little (except when he switches to 433) so in a 2 Koke may be wasted. Bringing Saul with his powerful running inside would help but that pushes Koke onto the right. It seems certain that all of Saul, Koke and Gabi will start but other than a switch to 433 (which isn’t good for Griezmann) it is struggle to get the best out of all three.

 

3. Quality in depth

I ran a poll the other day on which of the big 3 had the best backup eleven (vist the post to see the lineups, comments etc – https://plus.google.com/+TomFedrick/posts/RYypYyEUYbD)

Real Madrid won with 63% of the vote, Barca second with 28% and Atleti third with just 8% (yes I know that is 99% – it’s a rounding error). This shows how much worse Atleti’s backup is compared to Real and Barca’s. And frankly that isn’t surprising; Torres despite last season isn’t that great a backup, Hernandez hasn’t made many appearances and Oli has more or less faded into obscurity. Due to this Atleti may struggle to rotate in some areas and hence keeping players fresh will be more challenging. As will substitutions – Angel Correa and Yannick Ferriera-Carrasco are great options from the bench but honestly simply aren’t at the level of Rafinha Alcantara or James Rodriguez, at the back Vrsaljko and Savic are good but not Raphael Varane and Lucas Digne good.

Esentially, whichever way you spin it Atleti don’t have a squad as talent rich as the old big two. This, the other two issues mentioned here and many others besides are just some of the issues Atleti will come across (and knowing Atleti, solve) throughout the season.

What happens to international football if Catalunya gains independence? Part 2.

Ok, the first part of this dealt with the quality of the Catalan team could have, and what lineups they could have, now the second half will be the effect on the La Furia Roja.

Well first lets look at their EURO 2016 squad (with one substitution) at time of selection:

Number Name Position(s) Club League
1. Iker Casillas GK Porto Liga NOS
2. Cesar Azpilicueta RB, LB Chelsea Premier League
3. Gerard Pique CB Barcelona La Liga
4. Marc Bartra CB Barcelona La Liga
5. Sergio Busquets DM, CM Barcelona La Liga
6. Andres Iniesta CM, AM, LW Barcelona La Liga
7. Alvaro Morata CF Juventus Serie A
8. Koke LW, CM, RW, AM Atletico Madrid La Liga
9. Lucas Vazquez RW, LW Real Madrid La Liga
10. Cesc Fabregas CM, AM Chelsea Premier League
11. Pedro Rodriguez LW, RW Chelsea Premier League
12. Dani Carvajal RB Real Madrid La Liga
13. David De Gea GK Manchester United Premier League
14 Thiago Alcantara CM, AM Bayern Munich Bundesliga
15. Sergio Ramos CB, RB Real Madrid La Liga
16. Juanfran RB Atletico Madrid La Liga
17. Mikel San Jose DM, CM, CB Athletic Bilbao La Liga
18. Jordi Alba LB, LW Barcelona La Liga
19. Bruno Soriano CM, DM Villareal La Liga
20. Aritz Aduriz CF Athletic Bilbao La Liga
21. David Silva AM, RW, LW, CM Manchester City Premier League
22. Nolito LW Celta Vigo La Liga
23. Sergio Rico GK Sevilla La Liga

That substitution being Carvajal for Bellerin – Carvajal was in the original squad, but then got injured and was replaced by Bellerin.

From this list 5 have been highlighted – those who are Catalan. Notably 4 of these players (Pique, Alba, Busquets and Fabregas) all started at every game at the euros, A sizeable blow obviously. 5 players to replace them would sensibly be:

Victor Ruiz, Javi Martinez, Saul Niguez, Juan Bernat and Santi Cazorla – now for why.

Victor Ruiz for Pique – a victim of Vincente Del Bosque’s HUGE big club bias, should have been in the squad above Bartra.

Javi Martinez for Marc Bartra – the argument regarding if he is a central midfielder or a centre back is ongoing, but he undoubtedly is excellent at CB. Especially considering the alternative is Nacho Fernandez.

Saul Niguez for Sergio Busquets – Can play the holding role of the player he’s replacing and pretty much everywhere else as well. Bizarre he didn’t make the euros.

Juan Bernat for Jordi Alba – similar in style: a short, fast, very attacking LB. He’s been in numerous Spain squads before – so was the obvious pick.

Santi Cazorla for Cesc Fabregas – Cazorla has normally been consistently in the Spain squads and only missed out due to injury problems, playing a very similar role a club level makes him a perfect replacement.

So after this what does the Spain lineup look like? Taking what they played as the euros then replacing directly you get this:

Screenshot from 2016-08-07 12-40-30.png

Pique being replaced by Javi Martinez, Alba by Bernat, Busquets by Bruno and Fabregas by Cazorla.

Why these players?

Martinez as the CB partner as after The Netherlands tore Spain apart at the 2014 world cup this substitution happened – so repeat it here.

Bernat as the other option is Azpilicueta – who wouldn’t provide the attacking impetus and width on the left needed with Nolito’s love of cutting inside.

Bruno for Busquets, this was a tough call. Javi Martinez could have filled this role (Ruiz at CB), San Jose would be a more physical option and Saul was in the best form this season. But I went for Bruno as he is the most similar player to Busquets (and very underrated and overlooked as well). Saul always seems hamstrung by being limited to DM, San Jose probably isn’t a good enough passer and I think Martinez would suit CB better in this teamwork

Finally Cazorla replacing Fabregas – Do I need to explain again? What I said earlier justifying him being in the squad is equally applicable here. He regularly starts for Spain anyway, 77 caps in total.

How would this team do? Probably about as well as it normally does today. Bruno and Bernat as possible weak spots but overall the team is still almost as strong as it was before. Tactically, again little would change. Martinez and Bruno aren’t quite as good in terms of passing as Pique and Busquets so ball retention would be harder – but still classes above most other teams.

The short term impact on this team would be big – especially defensively, but long term it would be fine.

Robbie Brady – why he should be Liverpool’s LB target

Robbie Brady has been relegated from the premier league twice in a row – first with Hull, now with Norwich. Hardly seems like the type of player a team with Liverpool’s ambition should be targeting. But frankly, he is one of the most underrated and unjustly not talked about player around today.

Last season Brady was one of Norwich’s best players – be that at Left Back, left wing, right wing or right back. And at Hull and for the Ireland national team had also played central midfield and number 10 as well. This versatility would undoubtedly be useful.

But frankly, enough about his versatility, what about quality. According to Squakwa he was Norwich’s best player this season bar none, best defence score for any full back and best attack score bar none. Admittedly Norwich’s attack wasn’t great but for a player who played primarily at LB to be the most impactful attacking threat is very impressive. For Hull the story is similar as well.

What about fitting into Klopp’s system? Klopp has always liked (at least) one full back to be a wide playmaker of sorts – not limited to crossing but also linking with central players. Grosskreutz, Durm, Schmelzer and now Moreno have been the primary beneficiaries of this and Brady fits this role perfectly – he ability to play infield has made him very comfortable cutting inside and acting like be a number 10, and it works! Playing quick clever balls to the likes of Jarvis and Hoolahan before dropping back wide and deep to enable an overlap later on.

Drawbacks? He isn’t great at maintaining possession, but with the high pressing, counterattacking style Liverpool currently enjoy that isn’t to much of an issue. The biggest Issue I forsee isn’t actually a footballing one – It’s an image one. Signing a player from a relegated club doesn’t exactly come with prestige, nor scream ambition – regardless of quality (see the criticism of the Wijnaldum and Gueye signings by Liverpool and Everton respectively). But frankly, I don’t care – if a signing improves the squad it shouldn’t matter where they came from. Diafra Sakho came from the French second division and lit up the EPL, Barca singed Marlon for the B team from Fluminense and he’s played so well in pre-season I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a little first team action.

Overall the best thing about Brady will be the price and how achievable it will be – Norwich have been relegated so will have reduce their wage bill and Brady will likely want to return to the top flight quickly. With a deal like this, there will be no transfer saga (cough Hector cough) while he decides which top flight, competitive club he likes more. And Brady wouldn’t preclude signing a new, more defensive LB as well – again using Hector as the example, Hector often played as a DM this season (the position Can needs a partner in) leaving Brady and Moreno to LB – Hector moving over when needed. Likewise Brady could easily cover the attacking midfield three leaving Hector and Moreno LB. The possibilities resulting from having such versatile players are great.

Overall, the signing of Brady has no significant downsides. Even if he doesn’t replace Moreno, competition and cover is just as much an issue. As a good, versatile, risk-free signing for LB, Robbie Brady is surely the perfect choice.