Men of the Hour

Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

It is rare when an unknown player pops out of nowhere and, against all odds, becomes the star of a top-class league. It’s even rarer in England, where promising players are being scouted extensively and the club owners don’t hesitate to spend big money on them – even if it’s dubious whether they can reach the desired potential. Recent and spectacular transfers of Raheem Sterling, Anthony Martial and Baba Rahman prove that there’s still a lot of faith in promising youngsters to make strong clubs cough up the money for such gambles. But how do the English powerhouses cope when a player who outshines all their young signings costs 122 times less than Sterling, 90 times less than Martial and 35 times less than Baba? What’s going through their heads when the man in question plays his first impressive games at the age of 24, being completely anonymous low-division player in France beforehand? Are they happy with their scouting and player recruitment system? Because, apparently, Leicester City are outworking them in that department.

As we speak, Riyad Mahrez is flourishing. With 5 goals and 3 assists to his name in five BPL appearances, he’s been so far the sensation of Harry Kane’s magnitude from the last season. On the pitch, the Algerian pretty much takes all the traits Arjen Robben has and unleashes them against the other teams’ left-backs. So, on one hand: great dribbling ability (failed only 14 out of 39 take-ons he attempted this season). On the other hand: using the quick left foot to take shots from the right wing (tenth most frequent shooter in the entire league, ahead of players like Giroud and Lukaku). How much faith his teammates put into him we’ve all seen when Foxes were trailing 0-2 at home, against Aston Villa. Despite an awful spell of play in the first half, most of Leicester’s forward passes were still being addressed to Mahrez, who eventually started finding space between marking zones of Jordan Amavi and Joleon Lescott – which soon translated into a memorable comeback for Claudio Ranieri’s team. How many other player would’ve cracked under such weight of responsibility?

What certainly makes the Algerian much more notable is the uncompromisingly crazy style of play his team has been displaying this autumn. The team that escaped the relegation last season largely thanks to 5 clean sheets in last 10 league matches, now boasts the 13-9 goal difference after just 6 matchdays – with exactly 0 clean sheets in the last fifteen games in all competitions! Deploying a 4-4-2 formation, Claudio Ranieri normally throws caution to the wind by not giving his wingers any defensive responsibilities. Foxes also love to press their opponents relentlessly and don’t really care about retaining possession – so far, only against Villa, the team had the ball more often than their opponents. The final result is more or less the endless pit of entertainment: noone can ever be sure about the final result until the referee blows for a full time. Which is exactly the reason why LCFC’s game against Arsenal this weekend should be such a great spectacle to watch. British press already suggested that The Gunners shall make a serious bid for Mahrez’s signature in January…

Nolito (Celta Vigo)

The last time I remember Celta being any sort of force in La Liga was about fifteen years ago. Those were the times when tireless Claude Makélélé bossed the midfield for Celestes and the attacking duties were performed by two, unforgettable Russians: winger Valeri Karpin and attacking midfielder Aleksandr Mostovoi. For a while, that team was able to keep up the pace with “Super Depor” – local rivals from La Coruña, who at the time, enjoyed the best days of their history and even captured their only La Liga title. Nowadays, while Deportivo keeps going down and returning to the Spanish first division, their sworn enemies from Estadio Balaídos are suddenly on the rise. Despite a horrible financial meltdown just eight years ago, the team finished last two seasons in the top half of very packed Primera Division table and they’ve started this campaign with a roar, getting 4 wins and a draw from the first five league games. Despite Luis Enrique’s departure from the managerial position, Celta are still playing 4-3-3-shaped, attacking football – and most of the credit goes to their winger, Nolito.

The lad’s career is somewhat typical for a country that breeds more footballing talent than it can bear. Hailing from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Andalusia, he spent several years unnoticed in lower leagues before being snapped up by Barcelona at the age of 22. The year was 2008, Pep Guardiola has just been appointed as Blaugrana’s manager and there was absolutely no room for new players in a ridiculously stacked Barca team that soon went on to win the treble. Nolito spent three years in FCB’s reserves, making only 2 appearances for the first team. Upon realizing how hopeless it is to challenge Thierry Henry’s, Pedro’s or Messi’s positions, he eventually departed for Benfica. Two years and fifteen goals later, it was his former Barcelona B manager, Luis Enrique, who brought him back from the exile in Portugal – and he immediately repaid the debt by becoming Celta’s top goalscorer for two seasons in a row. Now, the team that once dismissed him, seems to be keen on bringing him back – even if they’d have to pay £13.5 million to buy-out his contract.

The reason for that is simple: Barcelona are in need of a backup striker – someone, who could provide some depth to the MSN trio when it’s regular members are tired or unfit to play. In the past, it’s been Pedro’s role; now that he’s gone, the team is stuck with Munir and Sandro, who don’t bring much to the table. Also, Nolito is quite a finisher, which he’s proving once again this season, scoring 4 goals in the last 5 games. All those transfer speculations didn’t stop the Celta star to inflict a severe damage on his former (and future?) club yesterday. Amazingly efficient on the counterattack, Nolito took full advantage of Dani Alves’ shaky comeback, wrapping up the game with 1 beautiful goal and 2 clever assists to his name. It’s been a regular demolition of a dismal FCB’s side – and the 28-years old winger was in a drivers’ seat. Does this performance seal his returnal to Camp Nou? Surprisingly, the player himself declares complete readiness for such move, claiming that he rejected other offers just get another shot in Catalonia. So, Luis Enrique – your move, I guess?

Allan (Napoli)

Last season was very disappointing for Partenopei. The Scudetto was far out of their reach. They never got to the group stage of Champions League thanks to a play-off defeat to Athletic Bilbao. And finally, when the chance for Europa League title opened, the team spoiled all their previous efforts – including 4-1 victory in Wolfsburg – by losing to the Ukrainians from Dnipro. In those two games, SSCN looked particularly suspicious: short of cutting edge upfront, they’ve spent most of the time unsuccessfully knocking at the opposition’s door. A lot of blame has been given to the insipid tactics employed by then-future Real Madrid boss, Rafa Benítez; however, in reality, what the team lacked was an all-around, dynamic central midfielder who would contribute more than just tackles and interceptions. Last season’s regular starters – David López and Jonathan de Guzmán – simply haven’t met those expectations. Once Rafa’s move to Madrid was confirmed, it became obvious that there will be changes to midfield at Stadio San Paolo.

Fortunately, whenever in distress, big Italian sides can always reach for Udinese players. The team that developed the talents of Olivier Bierhoff, Stefano Fiore, Samir Handanović, Mehdi Benatia, Gökhan Inler, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sánchez simply does not stop producing skilful players. Allan, 24-years old Brazilian and their most recent star, currently seems like a suitable response to all issues Napoli struggled with. Less than impressive physically – 173 cm and 73 kg – he has, however, a complete ability to get forward with the ball, wreaking havoc in front of the opposition’s penalty area. When that’s not possible, he sticks to playing surprising through balls to either Callejón or Mertens – and teams like Brugge or Lazio both recently experienced how accurate Allan’s passes can be. Teamed up with his compatriot Jorginho, he’s been so far a massive improvement in Napoli’s offensive capability: the team has scored 15 goals in the last 6 matches! All that under the guidance of a tactics-obsessed manager Maurizio Sarri, who’s been widely expected to fail in Naples…

Of course in Italy, what’s most appreciated from the central midfielders, is still their tactical responsibility and the defensive work they do. Allan is no stranger to this side of Serie A – last season in Udinese, he’s been the most frequent tackling player in the entire league. One of his victims was Juventus’ star Paul Pogba, who couldn’t do any harm to the team from Udine in a drawn 0-0 encounter in February. Shortly after that performance, Allan was reported to be one of the Chelsea’s target for 2015 summer. The transfer never happened, which makes everyone wonder where The Blues would’ve been defensively with a player like that in their squad. Anyway, CFC’s loss was Napoli gain, as their Brazilian signing has gelled seamlessly with the rest of the team, already providing 2 goals and 2 assists in just four games. If only his passing skills were a tad better, he’d be set for a much bigger club; sadly, the 2011 U-20 World Cup winner (along with Oscar, Coutinho, Danilo and Casemiro) has a lot to improve to surpass his notorious, underwhelming, 80% accuracy.

Matthias Ginter (Borussia Dortmund)

This miraculous story started on a sunny, hot Tuesday in of August 19th 2015. Łukasz Piszczek, so far the indispensable BvB’s right-back, has suffered a hip injury prior to the Europa League clash with the Norwegian side Odds Ballklub. His new manager, Thomas Tuchel had to improvise, somehow: he was just letting go of a usual all-around sub Kevin Großkreutz and of all other players, only a new signing Gonzalo Castro had a shred of experience as a right-back. Ultimately, it was him who got the chance against Odd – and failed miserably, allowing a cross 48 seconds into the game that put the rivals upfront. Dortmund have conceded 3 goals in that game before Castro was subbed off – and only then, they’ve managed to make a comeback. Tuchel had to be creative once again, as Piszczek’s injury problems persisted, this time with a calf strain. Thus, the manager went for Matthias Ginter – 21-years old defensive midfielder, who has joined the team from SC Freiburg just year ago and who’s been previously tried as a centre-back too. A crazy experiment born out of necessity, one could say?

Not so. At the moment, BvB are flying high, having secured the best start in their Bundesliga history and also scoring as many as 31 goals in their last 10 matches. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are at the top of their footballing powers and Shinji Kagawa is back to his usual self after a failed adventure at Manchester United. However, the biggest surprise is being delivered by Ginter, who, playing in a position he has never experienced before, already scored 2 goals and provided 3 assists. Not only the kid has stamina and determination to make all the forward runs he’s expected to make – he’s also one of the most frequent and accurate crosser in Bundesliga, with only 6 players in the whole Germany surpassing him in this department. “It’s a lot of fun to be playing for Dortmund right now” – says the youngster and it’s also hard to object. Similarly, it’s hard to argue with the opinion of ex-Borussia midfielder, Ingo Anderbrügge: “If he keeps working like he does now, he might be our new Philipp Lahm”.

Exactly – Lahm. After his international retirement, it’s fair to say that the whole Germany awaits for a player to fit into his shoes. In Euro 2016 qualifications, Joachim Loew’s team already tried Emre Can from Liverpool and Jonas Hector from FC Koeln. Both of them had couple of decent games, but both also made mistakes which Germans managed to avoid completely when they had Bayern’s full-back at their disposal. Ginter, despite being with the national team in Brazil during 2014 World Cup (he hasn’t played a single minute), has still yet to gain Loew’s trust. I bet he eventually will, though – and not just because of the relative lack of competition. This summer, when asked in the interview about English clubs looking at him, Ginter only laughed and said: “I wish they did”. In January, he might not be laughing at that anymore: so far, he’s been simply sensational. To leave the final word to İlkay Gündoğan: “What Matze is doing at the moment – hats off to him. (…) It feels like every square ball or cross he whips in ends up in the back of the net.”

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