My top 5 most underrated players

When someone says “underrated” Son Heung-Min is, for most people, the player who springs to mind. But there is an abundance of players out there who don’t get the credit they deserve. Here is my top 5 most underrated players currently plying their trade in Europe. I have gone for a mixture of positions and a combination of leagues. Of course there are plenty of players who don’t make it on to this list; Luis Muriel, Rapahel Guerreiro, Gerard Moreno and of course, one of my personal favourites, Olivier Giroud, were all very close to making it but just missed out on my top 5.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

How the big Lazio man with the magnificent moustache hasn’t been picked up by one of the “big teams” is beyond me. The 26 year-old central midfielder has been one of the most consistent players in Serie A over the past few seasons and if you haven’t watched him recently, I urge you to. Whether it’s picking out a pass to create a chance, doing the dirty work in the middle of the park or popping up with a vital goal he does it all. One of the most complete midfielders in the game has been linked with teams like Manchester United in recent transfer windows but a move has never materialised, however I wouldn’t be surprised if a PSG, Juventus or Real Madrid make a move for him in the summer or perhaps even as early as January. The Serbian would cost a fair amount, but after 17 direct goal contributions in 32 games last season and continuing that form with 3 goals and 3 assists already this, surely someone has to take a (in my opinion fairly risk-free) gamble on him sooner rather than later.

Andre Silva

With all the talk around Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski, the now RB Leipzig striker somehow flew under the radar last season, despite scoring 28 goals and picking up 7 assists in just 32 league games whilst on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt. That’s one more goal and one more assist than the Norweigan powerhouse at Borussia Dortmund who all the big teams are sniffing around. He has struggled elsewhere previously in his career, not cutting it at Sevilla or AC Milan, but the numbers he has produced in Germany speak for themselves.

Keylor Navas

What more does the Chilean goalkeeper have to do to prove himself as one of the best? Since completing his move from Spanish giants Real Madrid to the French powerhouse that is Paris Saint-Germain, he has conceded a paltry 42 goals in 57 league matches, including 29 shutouts. In fact, he’s currently keeping Euro 2020 player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnaruma out of the PSG side, playing 7 league games to “Gigi’s” 4. Funnily enough, consistency is likely to be the key word to describe a player who has too often been described as erratic. The Chilean shot-stopper has conceded just 241 league goals in his career; 3 less than his league appearance tally of 244!

Milan Skriniar

A stalwart in the Inter Milan defence since completing his move from Sampdoria just over 4 years ago, Skriniar (have to sound that one out every time I write it) has been a major part of the project that has seen the Nerazzurri rise from 7th to league champions. Aside from his solid defensive stats, it’s his ball retention that truly stands out. The defender has averaged a 92.1% pass completion rate during his time at San Siro, with his long passing averaging 78.5% completion; not dissimilar to Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk (90.8% and 79.4% respectively), known for his expansive passing range. In fact, Skriniar’s pass completion was the highest in the entirety of Serie A in the 2018/19 season. And he is namesake to the city he plays in. That’s always fun, isn’t it?

Joao Cancelo

A right back so good he has become one of the best left backs in the league. The former Juventus man, alongside boss Pep Guardiola, has redefined the role of the fullback. Rather than bursting down the line to support the left winger, he instead tucks in to the midfield, allowing a central midfielder to offer the extra option; whether that’s Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan et al. His stats aren’t particularly strong for such a forward-thinking player, with just 2 league goals and 4 assists in his Manchester city career, but the way he has evolved the role and gives freedom to his team mates is what has seen him on to this list. I also think he’s a better right back than Kyle Walker anyway, but that’s a debate for a different day.

So there you have it! My top 5 most underrated players. Of course there are arguments to be had that these players aren’t even underrated let alone the 5 most underrated in Europe. Aside from Milinkovic-Savic they are all currently playing Champions League football and the Lazio midfielder is representing the Italian side in the Europa League. But it’s more to do with the lack of buzz around these players as opposed to their actual abilities and accomplishments that puts them here. I don’t like to get bogged down with statistics as they never tell the whole story, but you only have to look at Silva’s goalscoring record, Skriniar’s passing stats or Navas’ goals conceded to realise they are top, top players that haven’t managed to really get their names in the headlines yet.

The problem with Ronaldo and Messi.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have defined football over the past 15 years, winning a combined 11 Ballon D’or awards and 10 European Golden Shoes. They have scored an astronomical 1,542 goals between them and are the 2 highest goal scorers in Champions League history.

But what if the problem is that they are too good?

Of course, we have been fortunate to be able to witness two of the greatest players in football history playing at the same time, but the bar has been raised so high that it makes it difficult to appreciate the quality of other players. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski have all scored 500+ goals in their careers and, had they been playing during a different era, would have been spoken about in the same way we talk about Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff. For context, the last player to score more than 500 goals was Mexico’s talisman Hugo Sanchez, who retired all the way back in 1997. Don’t get me wrong; these players haven’t evolved the game in the way that Cruyff, playing Ajax and Rinus Michels’ “Total Football”, did, or dominated the international scene in the same manner as Pele and Maradona. But they are ruthless, clinical goal scorers and, if not being compared with Messi and Ronaldo, would likely go down in history as some of the all-time greats.

It was Mo Salah’s extraordinary performance in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw against Manchester City at the weekend that got me thinking about this. It is very rare that we see a performance as breath-takingly impressive as that and, although Phil Foden was very good on the day, it was only enough for Salah to be awarded “Joint Player of the Match” with the young Englishman. As far as individual performances go, it is up there with the best in recent memory. But as Messi and Ronaldo have set the bar so high we just find it difficult to comprehend the level that players like the Egyptian are consistently playing at. Just the simple fact that Salah has scored over 100 Premier League goals since joining Liverpool in 2017 should be enough to warrant him as one of the best, in the league at least, of all time. But we have got so used to wearing our “Cristiano-tinted glasses” that we fail to see just how lucky we are to witness a player of this calibre at his peak.

But it isn’t just Mo Salah that receives this treatment of under-apprecitation. Angel Di Maria and Thomas Muller boast 258 and 260 career assists respectively; a tally bettered only by the aforementioned Luis Suarez and, you guessed it, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The mere fact that two players as creative and decisive as Di Maria and the “Raumdeuter” Muller don’t even get mentioned in the conversation as modern greats is a crime in itself. Yes they play for top teams in, arguably, weaker leagues, but you don’t see anyone else racking up these numbers. Even Kevin De Bruyne, who was admittedly rather poor in the Liverpool game (despite still managing to grab a goal; albeit courtesy of a kind deflection), already has 221 assists at the age of 30, but these numbers will always pale when compared to the duo of Ronaldo and Messi.

Will we see footballers with these kind of numbers again? Potentially. Probably, actually. With technology and the damning insistence of pushing young players to their limits in academies all over the world, the standard of footballers is at an all-time high and will only continue to get better. All you have to do is look at Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland and Messi’s PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe to realise this. But as Messi and Ronaldo reach the twilight of their careers, we need to begin appreciating players like Mo Salah and Thomas Muller because, by the time the “GOATs” retire, they will be winding down their own careers and we will have missed the best of them. As football fans we will only live to regret that.

“That was so Wycombe”.

Although almost impossible, with just one game left of the season, Wycombe Wanderers still have a chance to stay up. Technically. That is incredible. People doubted whether or not they would even get a win or hit double figures for points, but here they are on 40 points after winning 10 and drawing 10. Of course there are negatives to their season; only Birmingham have scored less than their 36 goals and no team has conceded more than Wycombe’s 69, but what a fairy-tale story it has been for the Chairboys.

Wycombe have actually scored in each of their last 7 games, stretching back to the beginning of April, and picked up 13 points in that time. If they had managed this form earlier in the season, they would have been in a much better position at this point. But with a small, ageing squad they possess, no one saw them staying up anyway.

If there was one moment to sum up Wycombe’s season, it would be 38 year-old Adebayo Akinfenwa, a football league legend, scoring his first (and so far only) Championship goal of his career when he converted a 93rd minute penalty to win the 3 points against Bristol City. A penalty which came from a Kasey Palmer handball following a David Stockdale shot. Yes, David Stockdale. Wycombe’s goalkeeper. In Stockdale’s own words, “that was so Wycombe”. And that is why football fans up and down the country have developed a soft spot for Gareth Ainsworth’s team over the past year, despite their controversial promotion to the second tier.

Players like Joe Jacobson and the aforementioned Adebayo Akinfenwa; rockstar manager Gareth Ainsworth; a brilliant, traditional, lower league stadium. There is so much to like about this small, overachieving team, but nothing more so than the story. It’s a season Wycombe fans and players will remember forever and despite their impending relegation they have proved a lot of people wrong. It’s just a shame they have the worst nickname in football.

We need to talk about Jesse.

Lingard’s meteoric rise back to the top of the game since joining West Ham on loan in January has been incredible. 6 goals and 3 assists in 8 games are ridiculous numbers for any player, let alone someone who has hardly featured over the past 2 seasons. Gareth Bale was in a similar boat when he re-joined Tottenham in the summer, but it took him until last month to begin to look like the Bale we knew before. It took Lingard just one game to get himself on the scoresheet and he’s only improved from there. His goal to open the scoring against Wolves on Monday was just delightful; driving with the ball from inside his own half, supported by an outstanding decoy run from Michail Antonio and finishing past Rui Patricio. It was a statement goal. He really has put his name in the hat for the England squad this summer.

Football fans have short memories. When Gareth Bale won Player of the Season in the 2010/11 season he only scored 12 goals, with none coming after Tottenham’s New Years Day victory over Fulham. Everybody remembered the incredible form he had showed in the early months and overlooked how average he was in the back end of the season. With his current form, Lingard is on course to finish the season with a higher productivity rate than the Welshman did in 2010/11 and the “JLingz” hype-train will really be rolling. They are quite easy players to compare. Both are often in the media, both have been inconsistent throughout their careers and both have always played well for their national team. Don’t get me wrong, 8 games isn’t enough to get any player straight in to the England squad, but if Lingard does manage to maintain this current level, it’s going to be very difficult to overlook him.

If Southgate were to pick the West Ham loanee, James Maddison would probably be the player to miss out (although many would argue he won’t be going anyway). I have seen a lot of people suggesting Sancho or Grealish be dropped, which is quite frankly ridiculous. The Aston Villa captain is an incredible talent and despite his recent injury will almost certainly be in the squad. Jadon Sancho is a strange one and this opinion to drop him most likely stems from the fact that he doesn’t have the Premier League bias that others profit from. He has 15 goal involvements in 21 Bundesliga games this season and only 3 players have featured more times for England since 2018.

I went on a slight tangent there, but the point I am trying to make is that although Lingard has been in incredible form and although he is clearly a highly talented player, he may have hit form a few months too late. Familiarity is important at international level, with consistency being key and a big reason international managers don’t experiment nearly as much as fans would like. I wouldn’t be adverse to Lingard being in the England squad, but with the amount of competition for places, some very good players are undoubtedly going to miss out and I would imagine that many of those players will be those that haven’t featured for England and worked directly with Gareth Southgate in the past year or so.

Make Shaw he’s in the team, Gareth.

After his big-money move to Chelsea in the summer, it was almost a certainty that Ben Chilwell would be England’s starting left-back at the Euros and had they gone ahead as planned in 2020, then he wouldn’t have had much competition. But Luke Shaw’s upturn in form over the past few months has been nothing short of spectacular as he has become one of the strongest players in the league one of the first names on Southgate’s team sheet.

After breaking in to the Southampton team at the tender age of 17, it was clear he was a very talented player and few were shocked by his move a year later to Manchester United for upwards of £30 million in a time where youth was increasing price tags all around the world. Had he been an immediate star, that price for a player who could play week-in, week-out for 15+ years would have been a steal. But a combination of being a target for Mourinho, a dip in form and confidence and a horrible leg-break slowed his development massively.

With the emergence of Brandon Williams and the signing of the (then) highly-rated Alex Telles, Shaw finally had real competition in his position and has thrived this season. Picking up 6 assists and a goal for his club, he is already having the most productive season of his career and looks set to break his personal record for most appearances in a single campaign. He has really added to his game with his ability to push up and support Marcus Rashford and the improvement in his crossing, now a necessary skill for full-backs, is impressive. Just check out his assist for Kane’s opener in England’s World Cup Qualifier win over Albania.

He is still only 25, so Luke Shaw has many years ahead in both the England and Manchester United teams and that’s testament to him for pulling himself back in to the fold. It’s easy to forget how damaging long-term injuries can be physically and mentally; football players are often looked at as superhumans who, once back from injury, should be displaying the same levels as they were prior to getting injured. But it just isn’t realistic to expect this from people who’s livelihood comes from being fit and being in peak condition. We can only hope that he continues with this upward trajectory in form and shines for England at the Euros and beyond.

Feel-Good Stories of the Week

Bearing a grudge.

42 year-old Kevin Ellison scored for Newport County 10 minutes after coming off the bench to secure their win against his former side Morecambe. That in itself is a great story, but his celebration was just fantastic. After dedicating 9 years of his career at The Mazuma Stadium (formerly the Globe Arena), he was released just 6 months after Derek Adams took charge of The Shrimps and clearly holds a grudge. Running over to the dugout, he celebrated loudly and proudly in Adams’ face. Most players take the “muted celebration” route when playing against their former employers, but after being treating pretty poorly in the last few months of his Morecambe, Ellison had every right to celebrate how he wanted to, and celebrate he did.

So that’s what Jones has got in his locker.

Speaking of celebrations, in last Tuesday’s match against Portsmouth Jordan Jones scored a lovely chip to double Sunderland’s lead and as he wheeled away, seemed to rip the SkyBet League One patch from his arm. This goal moved them up in to real automatic promotion contention and, whether intentional or not, the Northern Ireland international seemed to be implying that they won’t be needing that particular patch much longer. Brilliant, just brilliant. It was a well thought through statement of intent and, if they don’t manage to pull themselves up in to the Championship, it is something that Jordan Jones will be made a mockery of by rival fans for years to come. To quote the ever cringe-worthy world of Football Twitter; “You love to see it”.

Hatty Mother’s Day.

If you haven’t seen Kelechi Iheanacho’s post-match interview after Leicester’s 5-0 win over Sheffield United, please check it out. The Leicester City striker’s emotional response to being being asked how he felt after bagging his first Premier League hattrick was heart-warming even before people started doing some digging in to his personal life. He dedicated his 3 goals “to all the mother’s in the world” on Mother’s Day; something that he had no obligation to do. Internet sleuth’s have since found out that his own mother passed away when Iheanacho was just 14 years old- apparently the reason he wears that number. It was just a lovely gesture and showed what a genuine, likeable person he is.

Olivier Giroud. Born 15 years too late.

I think Olivier Giroud is a wonderful, wonderful football player. He’s strong, brilliant in the air and can finish well, but he also possesses a deft touch that we don’t normally associate with players of his style. You just have to look at that assist for Jack Wilshere in Arsenal’s win against Norwich back in October 2013 to get an idea of what he offers to a team. Or his 2017 Puskas Award winning scorpion kick to finish off a devastating counterattack against Crystal Palace. Or just watch his bicycle kick against Atletico Madrid 2 weeks ago. He’s magnificent and offers so much more to teams than he gets credit for.

I’m going to say it. If Giroud had played in Italy during the 90s he would be viewed as one of the greatest strikers in world football. Just imagine the Frenchman at the top of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team towards the back end of the century alongside the likes of George Weah and Roberto Baggio. Leading the line for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Lazio side of the same period with supply coming from the likes of Pavel Nedved and Juan Sebastian Veron.

You only have to look at his stats in comparison to some of the greats of that time. For his club teams, despite only starting 71% of games, Giroud averages 0.56 goals every 90 minutes- a very strong return for a player who hasn’t been a regular starter in recent years. This average goes up to 0.72 when just looking at Champions League games and when you include assists this jumps up to a massive 0.96 goal involvements per 90 minutes.

In comparison, Roberto Baggio, often touted as one of the best players of the 90s, averaged 0.54 goals per game, in which he started 91.5% of the 457 club games he played. Gabriel Batistuta, famed for his incredible goal record through the 1990s with Fiorentina, averaged 0.63 goals per 90 during that time and 0.58 throughout his career. Both have very similar statistics to Giroud. And he would have thrived in a league like that, where speed and agility weren’t the be all and end all. His clever movement and his strength would have been such an asset up against brilliant Serie A defenders such as Ciro Ferrara, Fabio Cannavaro, Lillian Thuram and Franco Baresi.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about Giroud’s record for the France National Team. He is second to only Thierry Henry (51) on France’s all-time top goalscorer list with 44 goals, ahead of the legendary Michael Platini (41), Euro 2000 golden-goal scorer David Trezeguet (34) and the infamous Zinedine Zidane (31). That is astonishing for a player that isn’t regularly seen as a starter for his clubs.

I don’t want to get too sucked in to the statistics- they only tell a part of the story. On multiple occasions, such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this post, Giroud has got me on my feet, celebrating a goal scored by a player I have no attachment to for a team I have no affiliation to. He is the sort of player that makes football special and one of the many reasons we love football, but he has spent so, so much of his career being overlooked and underrated. And all because he was born 15 years too late to be truly appreciated.

2 Strikers, 1 Striker, False Striker… No Striker?

We often see trends come and go in football. In the 90s, Italy’s Serie A was a step above the rest, the 2000s saw the likes of Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard plying their trade in the Premier League and for the majority of the last ten years we have seen the two best players in the world battle it out in Spain’s La Liga. We have seen formations such as 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 dominate world football and as we have lost wide midfielders we have gained inverted fullbacks.

Strikers no longer play the role in football that they previously did. Rather than just being traditional goalscorers- the likes of Van Nistelrooy and Miroslav Klose come to mind- forwards are now required to bring other team-mates in to play. Roberto Firmino has been doing it for the past 3 years at Liverpool, Karim Benzema has always been seen as a deeper centre-forward and we have even seen Harry Kane, previously one of the most obvious “out-and-out” strikers in football, dropping much deeper to link up play and claim assists.

The point I am getting at here is that there are constant comings and goings of tactical styles and preferences and I think we are probably due a new one. With Aguero’s injury and Guardiola’s lack of faith in Gabriel Jesus (yes, I know he scored twice against Wolves), we have recently seen Manchester City deploy a striker-less system and I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw more teams pick this up. I know what you’re thinking. This is hardly new. Spain won the World Cup in 2010 with Fabregas, hardly even an attacking midfielder and often deployed as a deep-lying playmaker, in the false 9 role. A false, false 9 if you will. But the point I’m trying to make is that he was still a focal point for Spain. We haven’t been seeing that with Manchester City and it’s quite clear from their run of 21 games unbeaten that teams have no idea how to defend against such a fluid system. Rather than teams playing in one formation throughout the match, we have recently started taking a closer look at teams’ “in possession” and “out-of-possession” shapes. A lot of teams play in a 3-2-5 when attacking and Manchester City and Liverpool, the two dominant Premier League teams of the past few seasons, are the prime examples of this.

We will see more and more teams adopt this tactic. The top 5 Premier League goalscorers since the turn of the year are all midfielders. If you are a team who dominates possession, why do you need an outlet playing on the shoulder of the last defender? To be honest, I’m surprised we haven’t already seen other teams try it. At Manchester United, Martial isn’t good enough to play as a lone striker and Cavani has his injury problems. It’s an obvious solution to Ole’s problem of trying to fit Bruno Fernandes and Pogba in the same team. Arsenal fans, for some reason, can’t stand it when Lacazette is on the pitch and with no obvious replacement and a wealth of attacking options in Odegaard, Smith-Rowe, Saka, Willian, Aubameyang and Pepe, why not give it a try? We even saw Chelsea try it out briefly against Manchester United at the weekend when Olivier Giroud was replaced by Christian Pulisic, leaving them without a true striker until Timo Werner was brought on.

Of course, not every team will be able to play like this. I can’t imagine the likes of Burnley or West Brom playing without a striker as they knock the ball around the edge of the opponents box, but for the bigger teams in the league who see a lot of the ball it’s certainly an option. It might even be the answer to Graham Potter’s goalscoring (or lack of) conundrum at Brighton.

And what about the strikers that wouldn’t fit in to this system? I’m not sure Erling Haaland would be a big fan of joining a team that plays striker-less, or Romelu Lukaku would be happy if he was forced out wide again. Jamie Vardy is one of the most exciting players in England, what would we do without him? But I do think we are going to see more and more of this “striker-less” system as teams focus more on possession and creating high quality chances and less of getting the ball up the pitch as quick as possible.

As much as I enjoy watching teams playing without strikers, of course there will always be a place in football for them. They are the players we get on the back of our shirts and the players we cheer loudest for when their name is announced on the tannoy before a match. They are the players who get us on our feet and get our heads in our hands. They are what makes football, football.

Feel-good Stories of the Week

Is Bale (finally) back?

A goal in Europe on Wednesday, followed by a brace against Burnley on Sunday? Much like everyone, I had my doubts when Tottenham re-signed their Welsh talisman on loan and until this week, I was pretty pleased with my prediction. But he looked really good at the weekend; his second goal against Burnley was very Bale-esque. And he looks happy. He finally, after many years of sitting on the bench at Real Madrid, looks like he’s enjoying his football again and that’s great. I think he could light up the Premier League for the remainder of the season now that he’s finally got his fitness and confidence back. It’s exciting for Spurs fans.

A Frenchman with a bicycle? How cliché.

Not only is he the most beautiful man in football, he’s really bloody good too. He’s always been seen as a target man because of his effectiveness in the air, but the amount of outrageous goals he scores is incredible, showcased by his bicycle kick in Chelsea’s win over Atletico. Imagine if Olivier Giroud had been at a team like AC Milan throughout the 90s! Actually, that’s given me an idea. I’m going to leave this here, but watch this space.

“Glenn was a true gentleman”

I didn’t know too much about Glenn Roeder prior to his death this week. I vaguely remember him managing Newcastle and my dad, a QPR fan, saw him captain his team in the 1982 FA Cup Final, but that’s about all I knew. The tributes and stories that have been pouring in have been incredible. When Don Hutchinson’s father was dying, Roeder told him to get in the car and drive up to see him and Roeder spent the entire 5 hour car journey on the phone with his midfielder. Nigel Pearson described him as a man with “incredible integrity, humility, warmth, humour and humanity”. Howard Wilkinson, the League Managers Association Chairman, said that Roeder’s “commitment and application to his work at all levels warrants special mention”. Roeder probably deserves his own piece in my blog, but I simply don’t know enough about the man. When people die, we always hear the positives, but there is always people who will remember something bad they did. I haven’t seen that with Roeder. It really does sound like he was a fantastic human being. Rest in peace Glenn Roeder.

Martin Tyler, Serial Pessimist

In the end, the highly-anticipated clash between Arsenal and Manchester City was rather underwhelming. An early header from Raheem Sterling and a defensive masterclass from Ruben Dias and John Stones were enough to seal the 3 points for high-flying City, but there was a moment of history in this game. And no, it wasn’t the number of times Martin Tyler referred to Smith-Rowe as the “Croydon De Bruyne” and it wasn’t Pep Guardiola’s decision to just stick on a hoodie in a Premier League tie (something that I fucking loved by the way).

After Rob Holding went down injured, we saw the first use of a “concussion substitution” in the Premier League, inspired by Raul Jiminez’s awful injury earlier in the season. Of course, a player going off with a head injury is never a good thing, but it’s good to see that something is finally being done about it. In previous games, a player would likely have carried on so as to not leave his team a man down, but by adding this new rule, allowing both teams an extra substitution in such circumstances, we are seeing the safety of players put first without putting the integrity of the game at risk. It’s something that has taken far too long to implement- there is evidence to suggest that just heading the ball can be detrimental to players’ heads in the long run. Of course serial pessimist Martin Tyler voiced his issue with it, as players will apparently use it to their advantage (is he assuming that the medical staff won’t do their job properly?) and it shocked me how much negativity this substitution invited on Twitter.

I’m tired of the negativity. I’ve spoken before about why I started this blog and I’m not going to go in to it again. But we should be doing everything we can to protect the physical well-being of players who we tune in to watch every week and this is a step in the right direction.