Euro 2020 ended barely five weeks ago, Copa America barely four. Hell, the Olympics ended last week, and now the new European club season is already here. Ligue 1 is already underway, and the rest of Europe’s Big Five leagues (German Bundesliga, English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga, Italian Serie A) will begin this coming weekend.
We’ll have plenty of time in the weeks and months to come to talk about Champions League favorites, the Premier League title race or how hypnotic a hypothetical-for-a-bit-longer attack of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar might be. But a sport with this level of breadth and depth overflows with storylines at all times. I wanted to focus on 11 players, and the plot lines associated with them, that intrigue me the most as the season approaches.
(Does this list have more attackers than defenders on it? Absolutely. Goals are fun, and this is a list of mostly fun things.)
Jadon Sancho, the upgrade Man United have been waiting for
In his first season as a Borussia Dortmund starter, he scored 12 league goals with 14 assists at age 18. He followed that up with a 17-and-16 campaign at age 19. The England forward began slowly last season, then missed almost two months with injury and only finished with eight goals and 11 assists while leading BVB’s late surge back into a Champions League position. (He had two goals in a vital 3-2 win over RB Leipzig, then two assists in a 3-1 win over Mainz 05.) In 21 career Champions League matches, he has five goals and six assists. He’s still only 21.
Sancho is one of the best wingers in the world, even if, by his personnel choices this summer, England manager Gareth Southgate somehow sees things otherwise. But now he gets to prove himself at one of a small handful of clubs bigger and more visible than BVB.
With uncertainty around Paul Pogba‘s future at the club — his contract expires in 2022, and there’s been little notable movement towards an extension so far — we don’t quite know everything we need to know about how well Manchester United will be able to transition into attack this season. They did a large portion of their damage in short explosions in 2020-21 — they scored 17 goals in possessions that (a) began in their defensive third and (b) ended within 30 seconds, most in the Premier League — and that will likely remain a focus in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s system.
However, they could use extra help when it comes to pulling apart backed-in defenses, and Sancho’s creativity will be vital if United hope to make a Premier League title push.
Like Olmo, the 18-year old Pedri racked up the mileage this summer. He not only played at both Euro 2020 and the Olympics, but he played major roles, logging 1,188 minutes, creating 16 chances and completing 90% of his 817 passes. He was 65-for-67 in the Euro semifinals against Italy, the biggest match of his life to date.
Pedri now returns to a Barcelona that is, to say the least, quite different from the one he left at the end of 2020-21. Messi, the face of the club for nearly 15 years, is gone. Other signings (Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum, Eric Garcia, Emerson) have not yet been registered. After trying to bluff its way through a transfer window while over a billion Euros in debt (and unable to find buyers for any of its more expensive sale items), the club enters 2021-22 desperately uncertain in nearly every way.
The Blaugrana still have Pedri, however, and barring a truly shocking and desperate sale, they’ll be able to retain his services for years to come. He’s already one of the world’s most reliable methods of “get the ball from Point A to Point B” transportation, and he might soon become the face of one of the sport’s most famous clubs if he isn’t already.
How he deals with all of this, especially after his summer star turn (and all those extra minutes in his legs), is one of the most fascinating stories of the season.
I wrote excited words about Szoboszlai back in February after he had moved from RB Salzburg to sister club RBL, noting how he was three players in one: a fun, progressive midfielder, a set-piece whiz and an outright star in the making.
This evidently jinxed him: a minor injury turned out to be a much bigger one, and not only did he fail to log a single minute for his new club in 2020-21, but he also missed what was still a solid Euro 2020 run by Hungary.
Szoboszlai finally made his RBL debut this past Saturday in an early-round DFB Pokal win over Sandhausen. Three minutes after coming on, he scored on a counterattack. Two minutes later, he created a gorgeous chance for Hwang Hee-Chan, who had assisted his goal. Finally.
RBL sold two strong defenders this summer, sending Dayot Upamecano to Bayern Munich and Ibrahima Konate to Liverpool, and combined with the loss of manager Julian Nagelsmann to Bayern, there’s enough uncertainty to dampen the Red Bulls’ Bundesliga title hopes. But the pieces they’ve compiled in attack make them a contender all the same.
It’s possible that midfielder Marcel Sabitzer still ends up leaving during this transfer window, but Jesse Marsch’s first RBL squad will return every other primary piece of last year’s attack: forwards Emil Forsberg, Yussuf Poulsen and Alexander Sorloth (combined: 26 goals and 15 assists in all comps in 2020-21), the incredible left-side duo of Angelino and Christopher Nkunku (15 goals, 18 assists, 189 chances created) and, when he has recovered from the minutes logged during his breakout performance in both the Euros and Olympics this summer, press-friendly winger Dani Olmo. Hwang might be ready for more action, too.
Adding Szoboszlai, Ajax youngster Brian Brobbey and Eintracht Frankfurt‘s Andre Silva — the latter is the biggest discount of the transfer window, having joined for only €23 million in transfer fees after scoring 28 goals in Bundesliga play last year — to that mix is almost unfair.
The Red Bull style is eminently watchable by nature; RBL’s watch-ability might be off the charts in 2021-22.
The last two years for Leicester City have been defined by two things: twice losing their grip on a Champions League spot at the last possible moment, and preparing for life after Jamie Vardy.
The Leicester legend, scorer of 24 goals during the Foxes’ miraculous Premier League title run in 2015-16 and of 147 total goals in a LCFC shirt, is now 34 years old. He’s barely 12 months removed from winning the Premier League’s Golden Boot, but he scored only two non-penalty goals in all comps after Dec. 20 last season. He missed time with a groin injury, and his iffy form thereafter correlated pretty well with Leicester’s poor form down the stretch. (James Maddison producing no goals or assists after Feb. 21 didn’t help either.)
However, we got sustained glimpses of a bright future. Kelechi Iheanacho, 24, finished the season with 19 goals — 14 after Mar. 1 — and six assists in all competitions. Winger Harvey Barnes, 23, contributed 13 and four respectively, and even with an injury and a late-season slump, Maddison, 24, produced 11 and seven.
We’ll see if Maddison is still with the squad when the transfer window closes — all the whispers have him working out a move to Arsenal — but we know that Patson Daka will be.
The 21-year old from Zambia made RB Salzburg one of the most watchable teams on the planet over the last two seasons, scoring 51 goals with 10 assists in an admittedly offense-friendly environment. He has three goals and three assists on his Champions League and Europa League resume, too, and his confidence and ability to both pressure the ball and pounce on opportunities will make him a fan favorite.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) July 31, 2021
When I say “fan favorite,” I mean for both Leicester fans and casual soccer fans. He and Iheanacho could be absolutely dynamite together.
In his first season after joining Sampdoria from Nordsjaelland, the 21-year old winger/wing-back more than held his own, scoring twice and generating 25 chances and 108 ball recoveries. But his star turn came with his national team; after scoring twice with two assists in Denmark‘s blowout win over Moldova in World Cup qualifying in March, he was thrust into more action than expected at Euro 2020 after Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest and Damsgaard responded in brilliant fashion, with two assists, six chances created and 22 ball recoveries in just 331 minutes. He put Denmark ahead of England in the semifinals with a wonderful free-kick goal, and he naturally became a popular subject for transfer rumors.
For now, Damsgaard remains with Sampdoria, who finished within shouting distance of a Europa League or Conference League bid last season. Plenty of teams are expected to try to prise him away in the final weeks of the window. Wherever he ends up, however, his performance will be under a microscope.
Develop a star player, sell him for big bucks, acquire the rights to three new good players in return. Rinse, repeat, build a winner. It’s the go-to move if you’re playing Football Manager and if you do it successfully and frequently enough, you can turn a mid-tier club into a Premier League squad (Brentford) or turn a good club into a very good one (Leicester City).
We’ll know in due course whether Villa’s moves during the summer of the Great Jack Grealish Sale work out, but they sure do make sense.
With Manchester City writing a £100 million check (or however money is transferred in these instances) for Grealish’s services, Villa spent a combined £88 million in transfer fees for Norwich City attacking midfielder Emiliano Buendia (15 goals, 16 assists last season), Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey (nine goals, eight assists) and Southampton veteran striker Danny Ings (34 goals in the past two seasons).
After last year’s additions — Brentford’s Ollie Watkins and Lyon‘s Bertrand Traore — combined for 21 goals and 12 assists and winger Anwar El Ghazi increased his output from four goals to 10, it would appear that Dean Smith’s squad has quite a few exciting pieces at this point, and if they fit together as the club clearly hopes, it’s possible that Villa’s attack could improve despite losing the player who finished third in the Premier League in chances (81) and fourth in assists (10).
Joan Jordan, the man who makes Sevilla tick on the field
The last time a team other than Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid finished in La Liga’s top three was nine years ago, when Valencia finished third. The last time someone finished in the top two? Go back 17 years ago (Valencia again). If we’re being honest, that probably won’t change this year. Even with Real Madrid and Barcelona struggling more than usual in 2020-21, title-winner Atletico Madrid was the only team that could take advantage, and only Sevilla could stay within 17 points of the big three.
Sevilla might never have a better opportunity, though. Real Madrid and Barca have both lost more talent than they’ve added this summer and while Atletico rode a hot early run of form to the title, they averaged fewer points per game after February 1 (1.89) than Sevilla (2.11).
Julen Lopetegui’s squad lost winger Bryan Gil to Tottenham Hotspur, but added Spurs’ Erik Lamela in return and retained most of last year’s key pieces. That includes prolific forward Youssef En-Nesyri, high-value centre-backs Jules Kounde and Diego Carlos and wingers Lucas Ocampos and Suso, but I’m listing Jordan here instead because he makes Sevilla, Sevilla. He completed 89% of his passes — overall and in the attacking third — in all competitions last season and finished second on the team (behind ageless captain Jesus Navas) in chances created. But Sevilla stood out in its ability to frequently switch play from one side of the field to the other, stretching and testing defenses, and Jordan was the man most responsible for that.
Lopetegui uses all his subs, fields a sturdy defense at all times and instructs his personnel to constantly look for new angles they can attack. If they’re good enough at it to challenge in La Liga, we’ll know it pretty early in the season, and Jordan will be the main reason why.
This list isn’t just for up-and-coming strikers! Monaco was the best team in France after Jan. 1 last season — 51 points (+31 goal differential) compared to PSG’s 47 (+29) and Lille‘s 47 (+22) — and while they came up five points short of Lille in the overall title race, they locked up third place and are closing in on a spot in the Champions League. (They lead Sparta Prague 2-0 after one leg in the third qualifying round with a two-legged tie looming against the winner of Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Genk.)
Ben Yedder, a 30-year-old veteran with long stints at Toulouse and Sevilla on his resume, set a career high with 20 league goals (13 after Jan. 1), and while Monaco lost a couple of defenders during the transfer window, Ben Yedder and fellow attackers Kevin Volland and Aleksandr Golovin both return and the club added AZ Alkmaar‘s 15-goal scorer Myron Boadu as well.
It’s safe to say that PSG should be favored to romp to the Ligue 1 title, but while they suffered a frustrating draw with Nantes in a wacky first weekend of Ligue 1 play, Monaco might be the best bet to become both the No. 2 team in the table and No. 1 most watchable.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta has flown as high as ever in the past couple of years, reaching the Champions league quarterfinals in 2019 and the round of 16 in 2020 while finishing third in Serie A with 78 points both years. Each season, they fall into a league slump while Champions League play is going on, before catching fire in mid-December.
This is pretty good living, to be honest. Gasperini’s style is prolific, fun and successful, and his use of three defenders at the back — usually in either a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-1-2 formation — appears to be the hot, new trend if Euro 2020, and Chelsea‘s Champions League triumph, are any indication.
If they ever want more than third place and a deeper run in Europe, they’ll need a stand-on-your-head performance from their keeper. Atalanta’s heavy-possession style leaves them vulnerable to counter-attacks, and while opponents don’t have the ball enough to attempt many shots against them (their 0.08 shots allowed per possession were easily the lowest in Serie A), the shots they get are high-quality (0.14 xG per shot, 16th) and well-placed (0.37 xGOT* per shot on target, 19th).
Combined with what was average goal-keeping at best from Pierluigi Gollini and Marco Sportiello, it meant that despite the low shot quantity, Atalanta allowed the most goals of Italy’s top five teams. (They also scored the most, of course.) They allowed at least two goals in seven of their nine league and Champions League losses.
The style isn’t going to change, of course, but the quality of their goalkeeping could. Gollini is off on loan at Tottenham Hotspur, and Musso, the fourth-best goalkeeper in Serie A last year from the perspective of Goals Prevented (xGOT conceded minus actual goals conceded), arrived from Udinese for a €20 million fee. He prevented 0.9 goals compared to xGOT expectation last year, while Gollini and Sportiello combined for minus-3.2.
If Atalanta prevents four to six more goals this season because of him, it could make a world of difference.
(* xGOT is a post-shot xG measure that looks at the value of a shot’s placement on goal)
Virgil Van Dijk “like a new signing” for Liverpool
That Liverpool won its final five league games and took 26 of a possible 30 points from its last 10 to steal third place in the Premier League might have ended up the most impressive coaching feat of Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool. Sure, winning the Champions League and then taking the club’s first league title in decades is great, too, but stealing third when your centre-backs are doing a particularly committed imitation of the Spinal Tap exploding drummers bit? Downright incredible.
It’s probably safe to assume Klopp wouldn’t mind a lower degree of difficulty this season. Liverpool signed the 22-year-old Konate from RB Leipzig as the centre-back of the future, and 24-year-old Nat Phillips was excellent down the stretch. But the Reds will get a massive boost simply from getting back last year’s injured starters — namely, Joe Gomez and van Dijk. And if or when van Dijk returns to 100% full health, it will be like Liverpool just made a transfer move for one of the best defenders in the world.
and finally… Leroy Sane, Bayern Munich
Sane is on this list for two reasons.
1. He’s very good, and he’s now two full years removed from an ACL injury that cost him his 2019-20 season. In his two seasons before the injury, he scored 24 goals with 31 assists in the Premier League and Champions League, a vital and prolific player for one of the best teams in Europe. He certainly wasn’t bad for Bayern last season — nine goals and nine assists in the Bundesliga and UCL — but those numbers were still diminished, as were his pass completion rates.
Bayern has added only defenders Dayot Upamecano (RBL) and Omar Richards (Reading) thus far this summer, and they might need to send a couple of players away if they wish to make another move in this window. But if Sane gets all the way back to his previous level, it has a similar effect to Van Dijk: it’s like upgrading from a good winger back to one of the best in Europe.
2. It appears he might have broken Bayern’s salary structure. They paid City €50 million last summer and evidently offered him a salary more commensurate with that of the team’s biggest stars (Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller) than of its ultra-talented supporting cast. It probably isn’t a coincidence that since adding Sane, Bayern has seen quite a few of those players looking to upgrade their own salaries.
David Alaba left for Real Madrid after a long contract dispute, while others like Kingsley Coman and Leon Goretzka have been pressing Bayern hard in renegotiation. If Bayern’s long Bundesliga title streak ends in the next year or two, you could somewhat loosely tie it to the Sane deal.
Maybe the drama’s all worth it if he finds fifth gear again, but he didn’t in 2020-21.