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Gareth Bale? Castilla starlets, Cristiano Ronaldo and the potential dangers of Florentino Perez adding the Welshman to his list of Galacticos.

(Wrote this in mid-August for TheHardTackle.com)

 

Gareth Bale? Which Football club anywhere in the world would reject the notion of having Gareth Bale in their 1st-team squad? That question asked now would bring about loud cries of “Yes!” Considering that Bale was once the subject of a potential part-exchange deal between Tottenham Hotspur and Middlesbrough for the then Boro winger Stewart Downing, much has changed over the past few years. After a personal run of 24 Premier League matches without a win, Gareth Bale has since become 1 of the most recognisable and highly-rated Footballers on the planet. As such, Real Madrid want him. Florentino Perez wants him. Another name for Perez’s collection of Galacticos.

For all the positives that would come with signing Gareth Bale, Real Madrid most definitely should not overlook the potential dangers that signing the Welsh international could bring to the Santiago Bernabeu outfit. La Fábrica. Cristiano Ronaldo. Simply put, there are more important things to be done than adding to what is already a star-studded 1st-team squad.

With a Footballing superstar like Cristiano Ronaldo already on their books and being the face of Real Madrid, one of the last things that Florentino Perez should do is anything that would put a knock on the Portuguese maverick’s ego. With his contract having reached the danger zone of 2 years remaining, Ronaldo could force an exit next summer with the threat of leaving on a Bosman free in 2015. While the winger did have doubts about signing a contract extension that would seemingly keep him at the Bernabeu past his current peak years, there have been signs of an improvement in player-club relations after the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign in Madrid. Carlo Ancelotti is as intelligent and astute as any coach in the Football world at this point in time, and so his man-management ability should be enough to ease Cristiano’s worries and eventually get him to sign an extension. Signing Bale would take some of the spotlight away from Ronaldo. Truth be told, we all know how much Cristiano Ronaldo loves the spotlight, don’t we? Knocking the ego of your club’s superstar – Not a wise thing to do.

Gareth Bale is a good player, there’s no doubt about that. But is he “Transfer World Record” good? We might want to disagree. Granted, Bale has been on the up and up since his famous ‘Taxi for Maicon’ UEFA Champions League performance at the San Siro in 2010. Momentum is on Bale’s side and he was one of the best attackers in the English Premier League last season, but El Presidente should not get carried away with his obsession over the biggest names in Football. Gareth Bale is not worth a world record transfer fee and Los Blancos would be foolish to pay it, as their current financial debt has decreased gradually with each passing year and UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations coming into effect. Gareth Bale is a ‘want’, not a ‘need’.

Gareth Bale vs Inter. “Taxi for Maicon”.

On that ‘want’ vs ‘need’ aspect, signing Gareth Bale could just be a way for Florentino Perez to stroke his considerably-sized ego. After all, Perez did revive the Galacticos policy, which can trace its roots back to Santiago Bernabeu signing the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano and Raymond Kopa in the 1950s, when he was first elected Real Madrid President back in the year 2000. With the groundwork for signing the “biggest name” Galactico signed in recent years, Cristiano Ronaldo, having been done by Perez’s predecessor Ramon Calderon, the Portuguese isn’t truly seen as absolutely Perez’s big signing. Signing the Portuguese superstar is seen as Ramon Calderon’s legacy as President (besides the infamous vote-rigging scandal). Yes, that’s despite Perez being the President that officially unveiled Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing at the Santiago Bernabeu. Having been re-elected unopposed this summer, what better way to signal the coming of his 3rd Presidential term than to sign the current most-talked-about name in football?

Florentino Perez wanted to stop the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. When he became President he found that Cristiano was already signed, and I know that he wanted to stop it, but Jorge Valdano and Jose Angel Sanchez convinced him not to. They said he was mad. He did not look to kindly on it and Ronaldo knows this.

Ex-Real Madrid President Ramon Calderon on Real Madrid signing Cristiano Ronaldo

As the saying goes, “too much of a good thing is bad”. This well and truly encapsulates Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez’spursuit of Gareth Bale. With an array of both proven and up-and-coming stars – Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Mesut Özil, Ángel di María and Kaka, to name a few – in the playmaking trio of Ancelotti’s 4-2-3-1, Bale would turn it into a situation of overcrowding as he would more-or-less be a mandatory starter. Conversely, the current attackers, with the exception of Ronaldo, have shown no trouble with accepting a rotation for the remaining 2 spots in the triumvirate. Having Özil, di María, Isco and Kaka fight for just the 1 solitary remaining spot could be a disaster with a potential clash of egos that could cause Real Madrid’s season to gradually and/or eventually fall apart from the inside out. Again, “want” vs “need”.

All talk of the positives that would befall Real Madrid with signing Gareth Bale are theoretical. This theoretical aspect can be turned the other way round too – there is no guarantee that Gareth Bale will fully adapt to a foreign culture both on and off the pitch. Where the on-pitch adaptation is concerned, Spanish Football compared with its English counterpart is, according to Arsenal playmaker Santi Cazorla, is “more tactical”, “less space”, “less time” and “less fun to play”. Having played all of his domestic Football in England so far, could Gareth Bale successfully adapt to a more tactical brand of Football?

Compared to Spain, the Football here is less tactical, but more fun to watch and play. There’s too much technique in Spain and they are held back by it. This makes the match more boring. There’s a better pace in England. There’s also more space, especially for Footballers like me, and more time to think. Teams always want to attack and score goals in England. In Spain they are locked down by tactics.

Spanish star Santi Cazorla comparing English and Spanish Football

Off-pitch factors should not be overlooked when football clubs sign players. This applies to not only this potential Bale signing but to every club and every transfer, even more so if a player is moving to a foreign country. Clubs sign the ‘whole package’ when they sign a player. They sign a human being, not just a footballer. With such an exorbitant price tag, Gareth Bale could either be a complete success or a flop (after being unable to bear the weight of his price tag and the expectations that come with it). Both parties would be taking a gamble – Madrid a financial and sporting (‘overcrowding’) gamble, Bale a sporting gamble (risking his currently extremely positive career momentum).

A mix between the on and off-pitch factors would be the kickoff timings of football matches in Spain, with a CET range of 6pm to 11pm on matchdays. That is a stark contrast to kickoff times in English Football, with league matches having a kickoff time range of noon to late afternoon. In his autobiography, the recently-retired Michael Owen talked about this stark contrast and having to adapt (boredom and all) to the late kickoffs during his time as a Real Madrid striker. You could call this just a small detail, but it’s often the little nuances, the small details, that end up making a considerable difference in the big picture of things.

Many promising youngsters – such as Roberto Soldado, Juan Mata and Alvaro Negredo – have left Real Madrid after not being given proper chances to make a 1st-team breakthrough. After years of waiting and poor decision-making, Los Blancos now have 2 of the finest young talents that their youth academy, La Fábrica, has produced over the past decade – Jesé Rodriguez and Álvaro Morata. Jesé, in the season he turned 20, finished the 2012/13 Segunda Division campaign with 22 goals and 12 assists in 38 league appearances for Real Madrid Castilla. With his dazzling performances for Spain’s youth sides, Jesé has impressed at both club and international level. He is more than ready to be a 1st-teamer from this summer onwards, perhaps with a few appearances every now and then for the Castilla side in La Segunda. The same can be said for Alvaro Morata, who has impressed at both domestic and international levels thus far, culminating in being awarded the Golden Boot, scoring some vital goals in the process, at this summer’s 2013 UEFA U21 European Championship. Morata has more 1st-team experience than Jesé. The young striker has in fact impressed in a top-flight Clasico, playing the full 90 minutes in the 2nd league Clasico of 2012/13 and capping off his impressive display with an assist for Karim Benzema in a 2-1 home win. With Jesé able to play anywhere along the line of 3 in the aforementioned 4-2-3-1 that Ancelotti is expected to continue with, not forgetting the more than fine crop of 1st-teamers in that area with both quality and strength in depth, signing Gareth Bale would hamper Jesé’s development at Real Madrid. With Gonzalo Higuain’s swapping of Real Madrid and the Santiago Bernabeu for Napoli and the Stadio San Paolo, a real gap has opened up for Morata to firmly squeeze himself into the 1st-team picture as both an understudy and competitor for Karim Benzema. While Cristiano Ronaldo has been tried as a striker in pre-season against French outfit Olympique Lyon, he’s expected to revert to his familiar left-sided role.

With Isco, Asier Illarramendi, Dani Carvajal, Jesé Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid and Florentino Perez have a rare golden chance to somewhat re-create the much-vaunted La Quinta del Buitre – the generation of 5 home-grown youngsters (Emilio Butragueño, Manolo Sanchís et al) that helped Real Madrid dominate Spanish Football in the 1980s. With the potential of something like that in their hands, Perez would be foolish to sign Gareth Bale and hamper the development of Jesé and Morata, particularly the former. Granted, Jesé could leave on loan, and Malaga have been linked, but why spend 100 million and loan out your brightest prospect when your coach wants to and is undoubtedly able to groom these starlets in the 1st-team? Real Madrid should not sign players just because they can.

We’re ready to start the season. I’m happy with what I have, why talk about Bale if Morata and Jesé played so well today. I’m very happy about them, they’re very young but they have great ability.

Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti after a 3-0 pre-season win over Italian giants Inter

Zidane doesn’t think Jesé Rodríguez should leave

Real Madrid President Florentino Perez on Jesé Rodriguez

With home-grown talents like Jesé Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata good enough and ready to be 1st-teamers, coupled with the potential negative repercussions of signing Gareth Bale for an exorbitant fee, Real Madrid need to watch for what falls over the edge of Florentino Perez’s Galacticos plate. It could well be “a Jesé Rodriguez” that falls over the edge. Just, be careful of what you wish for.

Fernandinho – A key signing for Manchester City?

In the month of August in 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group took ownership of Manchester City Football Club, buying out then owner Thaksin Shinawatra. Though signing a Brazilian – Robinho – was their landmark moment, few people could’ve foreseen that the signing of a £34m-rated Brazilian midfielder who was born in Londrina, Paraná would be the signing to take the club another step up the Footballing ladder. Step up Fernando Luiz Rosa – Fernandinho.

Fernandinho’s Competition:

Fernandinho's direct competitors at Manchester City - Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia & Gareth Barry

Fernandinho’s direct competitors at Manchester City – Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia & Gareth Barry

Assuming that Man City keep all of their current options for their double pivot in midfield, Fernandinho’s competition for the spot as Toure Yaya’s midfield partner would be Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia. I’d fully expect Fernandinho to start ahead of all 3 of those players. While Jack Rodwell could possibly have a key role to play in the future, he is too injury prone for Manuel Pellegrini to count on right from the start of his managerial reign. Javi Garcia played well enough at Benfica to earn a move to Manchester but, put simply, he has not given City their money’s worth. Though the Spaniard will be useful to Manuel Pellegrini with his ability to play in defence and midfield, he is not THE player that City need to give their midfield engine room a much-needed boost, when facing stubbornly defensive opposition, albeit without sacrificing any defensive solidity. Gareth Barry has been a solid performer for City since signing from Aston Villa but his limitations both physically and in the attacking areas are crucial elements that will see Fernandinho displace him in City’s double pivot in central midfield.

Statistical Comparisons:

(The statistics used are from WhoScored and are of the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League)

As with any midfielder, passing is 1 of, if not the, most important tools of the trade. Fernandinho has an 86.2% pass success rate from 8 appearances. That compares extremely fairly to his expected competitors at Man City – Barry has 86.4% from 4 apps, Toure 86.1% from 5, Garcia 90% from 5. While Barry and Garcia have better pass success rates than Fernandinho and Toure, the former duo spend most of their games away from the final third. Barry and Garcia do not often have to attempt a penetrative pass further forward, while Fernandinho and Toure do, hence it is only logical that it would be much easier for Barry and Garcia to log higher passing rates – Most of their passes are “safe passes” just to keep the ball moving along when City have possession .

In terms of “key passes”, Fernandinho averaged 1.3 per match. Barry averaged 0.8, Toure 1, and Javi Garcia 0.2. This is in line with the aforementioned point of passing rates, though they have their uses, not being the be all and end of studying any midfielder.

While Fernandinho does have the ability to start attacks with his passing ability, he is also able to use his athleticism to dribble forward as well. With 3.9 successful dribbles per game, Fernandinho’s stats in this aspect dwarfs those of Toure(1), Barry(0.3) and Garcia(-). In fact, in the 2012/13 Champions League Group Stage, the Brazilian was ranked 3rd in WhoScored’s list of “Players with the most successful dribbles per game”.

Where direct tackling is concerned, Fernandinho made 3.3 successful tackles per game while Toure made 1.4, Barry 2.3 and Garcia 1.4. The Brazilian’s tackling stats put him ahead of the likes of Ramires(3.2), FC Porto stalwart Lucho Gonzalez(3.2), Nemanja Matic(3) and Michael Carrick(2.7). Now on to defending, where Fernandinho has shown his ability to intercept the ball, with his 3.5 interceptions per game being on par with the likes of Nigel de Jong and slightly better than the likes of Blaise Matuidi(3.3), Ignacio Camacho(3.3) and Benfica’s impressive Nemanja Matic(3). For comparison’s sake, Toure made 2.4 interceptions per game, Barry 1.3 and Garcia 1.2.

Whilst tackling is frequently perceived to be the key to whether a player is truly able to defend, I’d strongly disagree. For example, it has been said that Alex Ferguson’s decision to sanction the sale of a then 29-year-old Dutch centre-half Jaap Stam in 2000 was partly aided by statistics – Stam’s tackling stats had declined after an achilles injury. In actual fact, Stam’s interception stats had improved, showing that he had become more mature and hence the Dutchman did not need to make as many tackles as before as his game-reading ability and positioning nous had improved. Thus, Stam had in actual fact improved, contrary to Ferguson’s thinking.

With the Jaap Stam anecdote in mind, Fernandinho most certainly is a reliable player to have when his team is forced to defend.

On the whole, Fernandinho has shown that he has the ability to not only be a threat going forward, but also more than holding his own when defending.

Stepping in at Manchester City:

Fernandinho & Manuel Pellegrini

With years of UEFA Champions League experience(knockout stages included) and also having won 6 Ukrainian Premier League titles, 4 Ukrainian Cups, 3 Ukrainian Super Cups and 1 UEFA Cup, Fernandinho will most definitely add to the “winning mentality” at the Etihad Stadium.

Fernandinho will bring athleticism, dynamism and more quality in the more attacking midfield areas than any of his aforementioned direct competitors – Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia. Able to transition quickly from defence to attack, be it through running with the ball or executing an accurate pass, Fernandinho gives City a greater ability to play on the counter-attack. This will be crucial in Europe, where City have failed to meet expectations. At Shakhtar, Fernandinho was used as a box-to-box midfielder who played his part in a double pivot providing a defensive screen in front of the defence. He joined the attacking play from deep, providing key bursts of creative inspiration and movement with his Football intelligence and decision-making ability ensuring that he made the right type of run, to the right area of the pitch and at the right time. With forward runs from deep, timing and decision-making are crucial tools. Fernandinho most definitely has both those attributes. While the Brazilian is not known for his passing ability, he is more than capable of successfully executing an incisive forward pass when given the chance.

Defensively, Fernandinho and his previous midfield partner Tomáš Hübschman were key to Shakhtar’s menacing defensive record, especially at home in the Donbass Arena. With such strong foundations for coach Mircea Lucescu and Shakhtar’s attackers – Willian(replaced by Taison in January 2013), Henrikh Mkhitaryan(now at Borussia Dortmund), Alex Teixeira and Luiz Adriano – to build on, it is no wonder that the Ukrainian giants have hugely impressed in the UEFA Champions League with their tactical solidity in defence and eye-catching creative play going forward.

One of Fernandinho’s biggest strengths is his versatility from a tactical standpoint, perhaps not positionally but rather in terms of the types of duties that Pellegrini can ask of him. The Brazilian can play as a box-to-box midfielder, taking turns with Ivorian powerhouse Toure Yaya to bomb forward and join City’s star-studded attack. He can also be used as a more specialised defensive midfielder, which City have lacked since the sale of Dutch destroyer Nigel de Jong to AC Milan. Furthermore, Fernandinho can play as a ball manipulator tasked with keeping the ball moving and hence aiding his team’s dominance of possession – Think Sergio Busquets, but of a more box-to-box variety. While Barry, Garcia and Rodwell each provide 1 of those 3 tactical options, Fernandinho can not only do all 3, but do them with great quality to boot. Fernandinho gives Pellegrini the option of tweaking or altering the team’s tactical approach in midfield without the need to make any substitutions.

Fernandinho in action for Brazil

Fernandinho set for a return to Brazil next year? Don’t bet against it. With his move to a “more visible” league and club, he now has everything needed to get a phone call sometime next year from Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The £34 million that Manchester City paid Shakhtar Donetsk may seem an overpriced fee to some, but if Fernandinho plays as well as I know he can, he’d have been worth every penny.

Bernard – Small stature, Big future (Scout Report for OutsideOfTheBoot.com)

Walking through the streets of Belo Horizonte, one could be forgiven for not taking any notice if a 1.64m youngster walked by. Similarly, on the pitch, a 1.64m youngster would commonly be looked down upon by the opposition, as though he were “weak” and/or “inferior”. With the rapidly growing appreciation of diminutive Footballers, quite a number of whom currently rank amongst the best in their respective positions, such aforementioned views have changed vastly, compared to the decades past. That said, Bernard Anício Caldeira Duarte – known simply as Bernard – is truly something special, and would find his way to Football’s summit regardless of which time period he played in. With the apparent popularity of “Anglo-style” names in Brazilian Futebol, names such as Jo, Fred and Alex, “Bernard” is 1 name Football fans across the globe will be hearing aloud more of over the next decade.

Profile:

Bernard Anício Caldeira Duarte was born in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the South Eastern Brazilian state Minas Gerais, on the 8th of September in 1992. As with most Brazilians, Bernard played Football from a young age. In 1997, A 5-year-old Bernard joined local club Comercial EC do Barreiro, where he would play for 9 years. After showing that he had enough promise and quality, Bernard joined the youth academy of his local club – Atletico Mineiro – in 2006, at the age of 14. Due to his small stature, the youngster was sent away by Atletico MG on 2 occasions, but the club realised their folly and asked him to return. Interesting, and this is where the Messi links come in, Bernard had to receive growth hormone treatment during his childhood, to treat his diminutive size. Yes, he is still very much on the small side, physically.

 “I arrived at Atletico in 2006, They were problems and I was sent away 2 times, because of my size. Most Directors recognized the error of the technicians who sent me away and they asked me back.

Bernard on the obstacles he faced at Atletico MG’s youth academy

In 2010, after 4 years in Galo’s youth teams, Bernard was loaned to Atletico’s farm club – regional lower division outfit Democrata Futebol Clube – to gain experience in the 2nd division of that year’s edition of the state championship, the Campeonato Mineiro. Despite being just 18, Bernard proved to be a key player for Democrata in the Campeonato Mineiro, scoring 14 goals in 16 appearances. With such promise, Galo 1st-team coach Dorival Junior called him up for 1st-team duty when he returned from Democrata. Bernard was placed in the 1st-team despite then still being eligible for the Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior.

On the 23rd of March in 2011, Bernard made his 1st-team debut for Atletico Mineiro, featuring in a Campeonato Mineiro fixture against Uberaba Sport Club. Interestingly, Bernard wore the number 2 shirt on his debut as he had to play as a right back due to an injury crisis. After his professional debut, the young Brazilian returned to playing for Galo at youth level, scoring a crucial goal against Fluminense in the Final of the Taça Belo Horizonte de Juniores. After Dorival Junior’s dismissal, Cuca was brought in and he proceeded to reinstate Bernard into the 1st-team. The youngster went on to make 23 appearances(19 starts) and 4 assists in the Brasileirão, with highlights including playing the full 90 minutes against the likes of Corinthians, Flamengo, Internacional, Santos, Fluminense, Palmeiras and Gremio. A slight confirmation of Bernard’s budding potential came in the form of a £3.4 million on the 14th of September from Qatari club Al Ahli SC, which Atlético’s president Alexandre Kalil immediately rejected.

If his 2011 was impressive, 2012 would be even better – Bernard’s breakthrough year. Bernard scored his 1st ever 1st-team goal against Boa Esporte Clube in the 2012 Campeonato Mineiro. On the whole, Bernard scored 11 goals and made 12 assists in 36 Brasileirão appearances. Featuring in all but 2 fixtures in the 2012 Brasileirao, Bernard made quite the impression. With no goals or assists in the first 3 Brasileirão matchdays, the key turning point in Bernard’s year, the factor that helped Bernard make the step up to the 1st-team stage, was none other than Ronaldinho Gaúcho. After Ronaldinho joined Atletico Mineiro on the 4th of june that year, Bernard’s performances pushed on to a whole new level. Linking up with Ronaldinho and Jô, who had been signed in May, Bernard provided the youthful exuberance in the exciting Galo attacking triumvirate. Looking more closely at his 2012 statistics, a sign of Bernard’s step up is shown in the fact that none of his 36 appearances featured him coming off the bench. To cap off such a great 2012, Bernard was called up by then Brazil coach Mano Menezes for the Superclásico de las Américas, a home-and-away set of friendlies against rivals Argentina. After featuring in the 1st leg, the youngster made his Seleção debut in the return leg in Buenos Aires, with Brazil emerging overall victors via a penalty shootout. After playing a key role in Atletico Mineiro’s surprise 2nd place finish in the Brasileirão, Bernard was voted the “Revelation Of The 2012 Brasileirão”. The youngster clearly deserved to win this award, what with his breathtaking breakthrough onto the 1st-team stage. Yet again, Atlético president Alexandre Kalil had to turn away another foreign bid for Bernard, this time £9.8 million from Russian side Spartak Moskva in December. Quite clearly, the name “Bernard” was on the lips of every follower of Brazilian domestic Football and, most importantly for him, European club scouts were starting to take notice and keep tabs on his progress.

After finishing as runners-up in the 2012 Brasileirão, there was no way that Bernard would be leaving Atletico Mineiro in the first half of 2013, let alone as early as the January transfer window. With Copa Libertadores Football coming to the Estádio Independência, there was no way that the boyhood Atletico Mineiro supporter would leave his beloved hometown club before playing his part in a push for Continental glory in the hallowed Copa Libertadores. At the time of writing, Atletico Mineiro have delivered impressive perfomances in the Copa Libertadores, and are currently about to face Argentine outfit Newell’s Old Boys in the Semi-Finals. As with the Brazilian mindset, Atletico have prioritised their Copa Libertadores campaign as their highest priority. This is evident in Bernard’s stats, with the youngster thus far featuring only once in the 2013 Brasileirão. Bernard has taken another step up in his fledgling career, scoring 3 goals and providing 1 assist in his 8 Copa Libertadores appearances. Furthermore, he recently gained another international cap, coming off the bench in a much-talked-about friendly against England in Brazil’s famous Maracana stadium.

Turning 21 this year, Bernard already has 59 appearances and 11 goals in the Brasileirão, the “Revelation of the 2012 Brasileirão” award and 2 senior Brazil caps under his belt. He could also be 1 of the heroes of his beloved hometown club winning their inaugural Copa Libertadores title. What a dream 2 years it would be for Bernard if the latter were to happen. With Bernard’s undoubted current quality and future potential, few would bet against that possibility.

Playing style, Strengths and Weaknesses:

As with any diminutive player, the first thing that one notices is his lack of top notch physical attributes, in this case mainly pertaining to strength. On the bright side, Bernard has an electric turn of pace, which simply enhances his technical attributes.

Bernard has very much a team-centric style of play, frequently plays one-twos, often with Ronaldinho, Jô or Diego Tardelli. That said, as with any flair player, Bernard does have his moments of individuality. The Brazilian is comfortable with both feet and likes to drift inward from his starting spot on the left wing.

In terms of technical attributes, Bernard has good vision and is frequently that “1 step” ahead of his opponent when receiving the ball. With his gift of improvisation, Bernard doesn’t look out of place when receiving the ball with his back-to-goal or back-to-opponent – 1 quick turn or flick and he’s created that extra yard of space to execute his ideas. When Bernard receives the ball in the final third, the match “comes alive”, for example in Diego Tardelli’s goal(1-2) against Sao Paulo in the 2013 Copa Libertadores Last-16 1st Leg last month. Receiving the ball from Ronaldinho on the edge of he box and with a defender behind him, a quick flick allowed Bernard to turn away from his opponent and play a pass across the edge of the box to a team-mate(who provided Tardelli with the direct assist). Galo’s attacking move received a tempo boost in that split-second moment of Bernard receiving the ball. The diminutive youngster also has intelligence in movement, often being found drifting across the 3-man playmaking line in the currently en vogue 4-2-3-1 system.

Defensively, Bernard does his fair share of tracking back and pressing the opposition. Despite his inability to be physically intimidating, Bernard’s pace gives him an edge when pressing or tracking back. When needed, the Brazilian wonderkid is willing to even track back all the way to in and around Atletico’s penalty area. Bernard clearly has a good work and team ethic. Where “technical defending” is concerned, Bernard is decent enough at marking his direct opponent when he has to track back. His Football intelligence comes in handy here, as Bernard is able to maintain his focus on marking his opponent and knowing where his opponent is even when the ball is on the opposite flank. That’s an attribute that most coaches will appreciate, as every so often we see attackers having a lapse in concentration and their direct opponent ends up scoring a goal.

A clear weakness of Bernard’s would be his lack of physical strength and, as with almost every young talent, inexperience. These weaknesses can be ironed out with time. Unfortunately, a barrier in Bernard’s progression could be the impression that people have with regard to his diminutive stature. However, that is more of a mindset barrier than any overwhelming weakness.

Where the intangible aspects are concerned, Bernard has a fair bit of tenacity, enough to “to care of himself” on the field, so to speak. With the spotlight currently centred on diving, this isn’t a problem with Bernard, who doesn’t go to ground at the 1st point of physical contact with an opponent.

All in all, Bernard is clearly an extremely talented young Brazilian and he has all the tools needed to make his mark on European Football.

Transfer Situation:

As aforementioned, Bernard has attracted official bids in the past. However, those bids were not a win-win situation for both club and player. Bernard’s potential development would’ve been put well at risk had he moved to the Middle East or Russia. Atletico Mineiro wouldn’t have received as high a transfer fee then, compared to what they would realistically expect to receive at this point in time.

With a good few years in Atletico Mineiro’s 1st-team under his belt, of which the recent 2 years have been Bernard’s breakthrough, Bernard is now ready to move on to bigger and better things, with all due respect to Atletico. What matters now is that Bernard chooses his next move for Footballing reasons than any other incentives.

At the time of writing, Bernard is valued on Transfermarkt at €10m. However, Atletico Mineiro will be looking for a much higher price than that, perhaps closer to €15m or €20m. The young attacker has been linked with a move to Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund, Spartak Moskva (again) and AS Roma. All of those moves would be financially attractive to any young Footballer. However, closer inspection suggests that a much closer look should be taken. Any move to Russia should be out of the picture, purely down the fact that Bernard can do much better.

Chelsea wouldn’t be a wise choice at this stage of the Brazilian’s career. While the money on offer would, in all likelihood, be higher than other potential suitors, Bernard wouldn’t get the required regularity of games needed to kick on to the next level. Tottenham could be a viable option, with Andre Villas-Boas being the main draw. However, the much-talked-about physicality of English Football could be “too much, too soon” for a 1st move out of South America. Furthermore, the spotlight of the English media and tabloids wouldn’t be a good thing for Bernard at this point in time.

Borussia Dortmund would represent a good starting point for Bernard’s career in Europe. The attractiveness of a move to the Signal Iduna Park would be the stability of German Football, and BVB in particular, the charisma and nous of Jurgen Klopp and the fact that the core of the Schwarzgelben is relatively close to Bernard’s age group. Also, UEFA Champions League Football is more-or-less a yearly guarantee at Dortmund. With the departures of Mario Götze and (probably) Robert Lewandowski, Bernard will have a good chance of cementing a regular starting spot while BVB are going through a “transition” phase. Die Borussen have reportedly been in direct negotiations with Bernard’s club but, as expected with each club fighting for a self-beneficial deal, they aren’t close to a concrete deal yet.

“Dortmund rumours? I am very happy here, I have a contract until 2017 but it all depends on the manager’s decision.”

Bernard on a possible move to Borussia Dortmund

“I talked a bit with Bernard and explained the philosophy of this country(Germany). He is a talented boy who will adapt to Germany. If that is his desire then I hope he will do it. I gave him some tips. He may not have a physique like many other players but he is a player who would suit Borussia Dortmund’s style of play.

Bayern Munic’s Brazilian international Dante on his Seleção colleague Bernard

If Bernard were to take the much-plodded route of moving to a smaller league before moving upwards, a move to Portugal would be pragmatic. Porto will be looking to sign a replacement for James Rodríguez, while Benfica will be needing to shake-up their team after a disappointing “Neverkusen”-esque performance in the 2012/13 season.

While Roma would also be a good move, with the prospect of an attacking triumvirate of Francesco Totti, Erik Lamela and Bernard being extremely enticing, the pressures that are continually placed on the Giallorossi wouldn’t be conducive for Bernard’s development. In Calcio, Bernard could either be an absolute star or a pressure-induced flop. Put in his boots, would anyone really take that chance..?

“There is no chance I will leave before the Copa Libertadores. I have made that clear to Atletico. If they want to sell me, do so after the Libertadores. I want to make history at this club. There is nothing right now, just speculation. The club’s president has said I am unlikely to stay, that it will be hard to keep me, so I am waiting on a decision. If he decides something, we will sit down and talk and decide what is best for everyone”.

At the time of writing, the latest quote from Bernard himself [Globo Esporte]

Quite clearly, Bernard is a driven young talent who knows what he wants. From a fairytale-esque standpoint, a Copa Libertadores triumph would be the perfect way for Bernard to end his time at his beloved Atletico Mineiro, and also provide him with a good platform to make his long-awaited leap into European Football.

All in all, I personally believe that a move to Borussia Dortmund or Portugal would be best for Bernard’s overall development and long-term career prospects.

Whatever the case, I’d confidently assert that Bernard will be a name that Football fans worldwide will be hearing a lot more of over the next decade.

Newcastle United – A dire 2012/13 and pushing on in 2013/14 (also on OutsideOfTheBoot.com)

What a difference a year makes. While a year is widely regarded as a “long time” in Football, few could’ve predicted that Newcastle United would be fighting against relegation going into the last weeks of the 2012/13 season just a year after almost clinching a Top 4 spot in 2011/12. From a possible return to the UEFA Champions League, not seen since the days of the late great Sir Bobby Robson, to an unwanted return to the Football League (nPower) Championship. Though the latter provided the last trophy that the Magpies have won, no one in the Toon Army ever wants to win that trophy again, due to what it would entail. Alan Pardew, the League Managers Association “2012 Manager Of The Year” and praised by many in 2011/12, now has sections of the St James’ Park faithful calling for his head. Looking at the current NUFC squad, as a Newcastle supporter, I believe that, with the right transfer ins & outs, next season will be one of brighter days than those seen and experienced this season.

2012 Summer transfer window – A big mistake:

When one looks at the player transfer movements made in the summer of 2012, it is of no surprise that Newcastle have struggled to live up to expectations, which were increased after a surprisingly stellar previous campaign. Vurnon Anita, signed from Dutch giants AFC Ajax, was the only senior player added to the squad, that is unless you’d count Gael Bigirimana as a “senior player”. On the other hand, 1st-teamers like Peter Lovenkrands, Danny Guthrie, Leon Best and Fraser Forster were allowed to leave. Just on paper alone, the squad had overall lost 3 senior players. While the departing quartet aren’t the most famous of names nor among the league’s best in their respective positions, they had contributed their fair share of good performances in 2011/12. In particular, Guthrie had more than proven his worth to be relied upon more often.

With the rigours of the UEFA Europa League added to the new season’s plans, Alan Pardew and other NUFC higher-ups – I’m looking at you, Derek Llambias – had failed to act on the need to boost the team’s squad depth, in both numbers and strength. I, and many other NUFC fans, could see that the 2012 summer window would be the deciding factor in whether we continue to push on, with our 2011/12 momentum under our belts, or fail to at least replicate our successes of 2011/12. Sadly, we have been proven right. It is shocking – well, not really, given the character of the current regime – that the club elected to stand still than push on for more. After all, the saying goes that “in Football, standing still means that you regress”.

Squad and season killer – Injuries, suspensions and the AFCON:

Injuries. Newcastle have been hit by injuries to key players at various points of this season. Core 1st-team players – Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Yohan Cabaye & Hatem Ben Arfa – have been struck by the injury bug, often more than one of the quartet on each occasion. The mercurial Ben Arfa, so often the spark in the 2011/12 campaign, has been out injured in crucial sections of this season. More than the others, Ben Arfa is more often than not the one and only “pure” matchwinner in the NUFC squad. His absence has been sorely felt. Bookings have also been a problem, with Mathieu Debuchy, Fabricio Coloccini, Cheick Tiote and Shola Ameobi each receiving 1 sending off. Yellow cards have been aplenty, with Yohan Cabaye, James Perch and Cheick Tiote the chief culprits at 11, 12 and 12 respectively. Furthermore, the 2013 African Cup Of Nations meant that midfield enforcer Tiote was not available to Pardew for a full month. Are you rebutting that with “Tiote had AFCON commitments in 2011/12 too. Nothing new.”? I disagree. With the injury woes and Europa League commitments the squad was stretched past its limit this season. In 2011/12, the key players were more-or-less fit throughout the year and, crucially, there was no European competition.

With regard to Cheick Tiote, whom the current squad has no like-for-like replacement, he seems to have lost his “edge” from the point of his sending off against Sunderland on 21st October 2012 onwards. That “edge”, which played a key part in his stellar first 2 seasons on Tyneside since signing in 2010, could be put down to his aggressive playing style and competitive nature. A possible reason for Tiote losing his “edge” is that his reputation then started to precede him and played against his favour in 50-50 decisions made by match officials. Speaking of Tiote’s reputation, the aforementioned sending off against Sunderland is, at the time of writing, the first and only red card in his Premier League career. Perhaps Tiote held back from putting his all, in terms of his aforementioned playing style and nature, to ensure that he would receive no more red cards. With his aforementioned “edge”, Tiote was an impressive midfield screen in front of the Newcastle defence in seasons 2010/11 and 2011/12. Many of the league’s bigger teams, such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, were touted as potential suitors for this combative and then highly-rated Ivorian midfield enforcer. The loss of the “real” Cheick Tiote has definitely been a blow to the team, both in terms of giving the Toon attackers the confidence to bomb forward with Tiote’s defensive presence further back and also for the defenders having a reliable shield ahead of them.

With the lack of sufficient squad depth, the youngsters – such as Mehdi Abeid, Sammy Ameobi, Shane Ferguson – were pushed into the 1st-team spotlight and expected to take to the 1st-team scene like a duck to water. Toon Manager Alan Pardew had expected the youngsters to be ready for 1st-team Football but he was ultimately proved wrong, save for 1 young central midfielder – Gael Bigirimana. The young Burundi confidently made the step up, featuring more times than he would’ve thought likely when he moved from Coventry City in the summer. Among other displays, his performance at Old Trafford(a pulsating 4-3 defeat for NUFC) was 1 of the highlights of his debut campaign on Tyneside. Bigirimana also scored his 1st Toon goal, a long-range screamer in a win over perennial relegation escapees Wigan Athletic. As aforementioned, most of the youngsters were not ready to step up and be counted, hence they were sent out on loan at the first most suitable opportunity. With injuries to key players and youngsters not being able to step up, there has been little squad depth to speak of.

Inconsistency & the UEFA Europa League:

With the players having to get used to the “Thursday, Sunday” fixture list(across all competitions), coupled with the lack of credible squad depth, consistency was a major problem. Brilliant displays almost always preceded dire performances. For example, a 3-0 home win over French outfit Bordeaux was swiftly followed by a crushing 0-3 home defeat to Manchester United. A 3-0 victory at home to Wigan Athletic preceded 2 defeats – 2-0 away to Bordeaux and 2-1 at Fulham’s Craven Cottage. A disappointing 2-1 away loss to Tottenham Hotspur came immediately after a breathtaking and inspirational 3-2 home win over reigning European Champions Chelsea. A vital last-gasp 1-0 win over Fulham preceded a humiliating 0-3 derby defeat to Sunderland. Need I go on?

January 2013 transfers – An unneeded departure & season saviours from France:

Demba Ba, with 13 goals in 20 league appearances before his January move to Stamford Bridge, was a sizeable blow to the club’s goalscoring ability. Papiss Cisse, a sensation in his first 6 months on Tyneside last year, had failed to carry his breathtaking 2011/12 form into this season. Cisse’s form has dropped drastically from 13 goals in 14 league appearances in 2011/12 to 8 in 35 this season. Granted, Cisse was often forced to play out wide, until Ba’s departure, when the latter was scoring goals regularly. However, the former Freiburg striker has failed to score regularly enough since being deployed in his favoured central position. Though Cisse has scored crucial winners on 3 occasions in the league this season, 2 of those being post-Demba Ba, there has been a distinct lack of regularity in his goalscoring form.

In NUFC Chief Scout Graham Carr, both the club and the fans have the faith in the club’s scouting network. After all, this is the man who brought us the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote at bargain prices. For a net expenditure of £7.7m, 5 signings were made in the mid-season transfer window – French international right back Mathieu Debuchy, Montpellier’s Ligue 1-winning captain Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa, promising Nancy left back Massadio Haidara, French international central midfielder Moussa Sissoko & Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran. These signings should’ve been made in the summer prior. 1 bright spot has been French midfielder Sylvain Marveaux, who, after his injury woes since signing on a Bosman deal in 2011, has been like a new signing this season. The former Rennes midfielder has provided bursts of inspiration in attack, most prominently a sublime through pass – which took out 4 opposition players – for Cisse’s last-gasp winner against Stoke City. On the whole, the January 2013 French imports provided the much-needed freshness and impetus to fight on in the 2nd half of this season.

Top-flight status secured, now changes and decisiveness are needed:

Fast forward to the 14th of May 2013. A 2-1 win over already-relegated Queens Park Rangers this past weekend came at the perfect time, with results in other matches going our way and hence confirming our survival. With a fortuitous, albeit deserving(Jonas Gutierrez’s hard work at pressing the QPR defence), winner from Yoan Gouffran’s sidefooted finish into an open goal, a huge sense of relief was felt by Newcastle supporters worldwide. At Loftus Road, Ben Arfa showed flashes of his 2011/12 best, as well as much fight and desire to help ensure Premier League survival.

Enough about this season. Alan Pardew has to push his bosses – Derek Llambias and Mike Ashley – for summer transfers, and not wait to “see how the season goes” before making squad additions in January 2014. Even without the commitments and fatigue of European involvement, this squad needs to be strengthened or, at the very least, refreshed. Fresh faces in the dressing room is just what’s needed to give the squad a lift and a fresh impetus to push on next season and try to replicate the brilliant achievements of last season.

Overview:

First things first, while my aforementioned factors of injury woes and added Europa League commitments did play a fairly sizeable part in our lacklustre form this 2012/13 season, the brunt of the blame still lies with the lack of summer signings last year. The failure to add to the squad, in terms of both quality and depth, meant that we started the new season without solid foundations to build on. It was clear for all to see that qualification to the Europa League required at least 3-5 new signings, best done in time for these new players to be bedded in – both on and off the pitch as well as in their respective personal lives – during pre-season. If the club had made our recent January signings last summer, I believe that the team would have secured survival weeks ago and would instead now be looking to cement at least a spot in the top half of the 2012/13 league standings. It seems that while we didn’t learn from anything from Stoke City’s juggling of domestic and European commitments in 2011/12. Our failure has been a league rival’s gain, Swansea City have learnt from our inconsistent and disappointing season as Swansea Manager Michael Laudrup has stated that he’ll be looking to bring in up to 6 new players this coming summer, ahead of their 2013/14 Europa League commitments. We now need to learn from our mistakes this season and ensure that they don’t happen again when we next qualify for European Football.

Much has been said about Alan Pardew. I personally believe that he should stay at the club. The problems NUFC have had this season are not down to Pardew as an individual, but more so the lack of squad reinforcements. The possibility that Pardew had his hands tied(by the higher ups) in the summer 2012 transfer window cannot be dismissed. Most importantly, there is a working transfer system in place, with key individuals being Alan Pardew, Graham Carr, Derek Llambias and Mike Ashley. Good players, internationals for their respective nations, have been signed at bargain prices under the current transfer system. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, only tweaks are needed.

My take on potential transfers – Summer 2013:

While 5 new signings were made just a couple of months ago, more signings should be made the summer transfer window. Some players have not performed to expectations and should be sold.

It has already been confirmed that veteran goalkeeper Steve Harper will be leaving at the end of this season. Tim Krul and Rob Elliot have done enough to cement their places as 1st and 2nd choice respectively. However, as a 3rd goalkeeper is needed, a signing in this position should be made, unless young Jak Alnwick is deemed as good enough to make the step up.

And now for the defence. Despite Simpson’s expected departure on an expiring contract, Debuchy and Ryan Taylor have the right back spot covered, James Tavernier would remain as a young prospect. Steven Taylor will be staying, so is Yanga-M’Biwa. Mike Williamson has been a good squad player since joining the club. 1 central defender should be signed, someone who is better than Williamson and hence will keep Steven Taylor and Yanga-M’Biwa on their toes. Pardew could revive previous interest in PSV Eindhoven’s Erik Pieters, or perhaps sign Marseille defender Nicolas N’Koulou. Lille’s Cameroonian centre-half Aurelien Chedjou, West Ham’s James Tomkins and PSG’s Mamadou Sakho have also been linked. If both Coloccini and/or Williamson decide to leave to seek more regular minutes, then at least 2 centre-half signings will be needed. The left back spot is covered by Santon and Haidara.

Where the midfield is concerned, Dan Gosling could be allowed to leave permanently or on loan, and the same goes for Gabriel Obertan, who has been more disappointing than impressive. 2012 summer signing Romain Amalfitano hasn’t made the step up but could be loaned out to give him 1 more season to prove himself. Cabaye, Marveaux, Ben Arfa, Tiote, Sissoko, Anita, Bigirimana and Jonas Gutierrez will, in all likelihood, stay past the summer transfer window. 1 wide player would be a useful signing if Gouffran isn’t seen as a wide player by the coaching staff. However, Shane Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi will be returning from their respective loans, and they have done well while at Birmingham and Middlesborough respectively. With that, perhaps a midfield signing won’t be that crucial.

Up front, Cisse and Shola Ameobi are expected to stay. St-Etienne star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been seriously looked at as a transfer target, along with the big Geordie Andy Carroll and QPR’s Loic Remy. It has been reported that Remy has a relegation release clause in his contract, and that NUFC are looking at meeting it, though Remy would probably have to take a wage-cut. Aubameyang has been tagged at £10m, but a St-Etienne wanting more wouldn’t be surprising, considering the brilliant 2012/13 season he’s had. Overall, any 2 of Carroll, Aubameyang or Remy would be good business on Tyneside.

(*Key players sold – eg Cabaye, Ben Arfa – will be replaced by similar quality, according to club officials)

Though 2012/13 has been a disappointing and, at times, embarrassing campaign, the current squad is good enough to finish in the Top 10 in 2013/14. If some of the aforementioned suggestions are indeed signed by the club, a top 6 spot wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, no European commitments, a good squad and few injury problems last season resulted in a stellar 5th place finish. With Newcastle United, hardly anything is surprising.

Howay the lads!

Dennis Praet – Another Belgian on the rise (Scout Report for OutsideOfTheBoot.com)

21st November 2012. A group stage fixture in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League – RSC Anderlecht vs AC Milan. If the ages of the players were listed on that fixture’s Starting XIs, 4 names would probably stand out – Massimo Bruno, Dennis Praet(both of Anderlecht), Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy(both of Milan).


Much has been written/said about the Milan duo, particularly the mohawk-sporting El Shaarawy. The focus today is on the youngest of the quartet – 18-year-old Dennis Praet.

Profile:

Dennis Praet at Genk

Dennis Praet was born on the 14th of May, 1994 in Leuven, which is the capital of 1 of the provinces of the Flemish region in Belgium. Much like Leuven-born Belgian international and PSV Eindhoven star Dries Mertens, Dennis Praet has the talent to make it at Football’s top level. Like most kids in Europe, Praet showed an interest in Football from a young age, joining youth teams in his hometown. Praet’s journey started as a 6-year-old, joining the youth team of the now-defunct Koninklijke Stade Leuven, then proceeding to play for Oud-Heverlee Leuven(the product of a merger between Koninklijke Stade Leuven and 2 other clubs). After 3 years at his hometown club, young 9-year-old Dennis Praet probably had no inkling that he’d be playing 1st-team Football for the biggest team in the country, RSC Anderlecht, just 9 years later, by the age of 18.

Scouted by K. R. C. Genk at the age of 9, Praet joined Genk’s academy system. Some of Genk’s academy graduates in recent years include the likes of Chelsea-owned duo Kevin de Bruyne & Thibaut Courtois, FC Porto midfielder Steven Defour, Standard Liege goalkeeper Sinan Bolat, Aston Villa star Christian Benteke and Hannover 96 defender Sebastian Pocognoli. All are current Belgian internationals, with the exception of Bolat, who represents Turkey. Needless to say, Genk’s academy system has a certain prestige to it.

Dennis Praet(10) & Massimo Bruno(7)

Catching the eye while moving through Genk’s youth ranks, Praet was also highly-rated within Belgium’s national set-up. Praet has featured for all of Belgium’s age groups, starting from the U15s. Is that impressive? There’s more – Praet’s moved from Belgium’s U15s to U21s within the space of 3 years(2009-2012). Quite clearly, this youngster has real potential to be a star.

After his good work at Genk and in Belgium’s age groups, it was inevitable that Praet would attract interest both at home and abroad. Many clubs scouted the starlet and wanted to sign him to their respective youth academies. To name a few, FC Barcelona, Arsenal and AFC Ajax showed serious interest. Praet even had a trial at Arsenal. Unlike how most of his peers would’ve reacted, Praet showed his maturity by looking at the big picture rather than risking his career prospects for the biggest short-term offer. Joining Anderlecht in 2010, aged 16, it has only ever been onwards and upwards for the starlet. Such maturity bodes well for the youngster in the long-term, both on and off the pitch.

“If I’d opted for money, I would have gone elsewhere”

Dennis Praet on his move to Anderlecht

Praet’s performances at the 2011 AEGON Future Cup again aroused interest from foreign clubs, with the youngster being named MVP, having led Anderlecht to the trophy. Anderlecht had to overcome some prestigious teams along the way, with tournament participants including Bayern Munich, Ajax, Fluminense and Celtic. Ironically, the tournament was hosted by Ajax, who as aforementioned showed serious interest in Praet just a year prior. In a rather symbolic moment, it was Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen who handed the MVP award to Praet. There are striking similarities between the two, particularly their playing styles and maturity. Praet would do well to follow in Eriksen’s footsteps and, crucially, not make a premature departure from Anderlecht.

After rightfully being tagged as 1 of the Belgium’s most promising talents, a 1st-team debut was inevitable. 21st September 2011, his 1st-team debut against Lommel United in the 2011/12 Belgian Cup, will be a day to remember for Praet. With 2 assists, a 17-year-old Dennis Praet had made his mark on the 1st-team scene. Praet had impressed to the extent that he earned his first 1st-team start in the next round of the Belgian Cup, a Last-16 tie against FC Rupel-Boom. On that day, Praet scored his first senior goal for Anderlecht. Ending the 2011/12 season with 9 appearances(league + cup), 1 goal and 2 assists for Anderlecht, and a debut for Belgium’s U21s, Praet had shown flashes of his talent.

2012/13 UCL – Dennis Praet in action against AC Milan

Since winning the 2011/12 Belgian top-flight, Praet has added the 2012/13 Belgian Super Cup to his collection. Fast forward to 8th May 2013, at the time of writing, Praet has made 23 league appearances this 2012/13 season, with 1 goal and 5 assists, and has played the majority(>60 minutes) of matches on 15 occasions. On the big stage, the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League Group Stage, the youngster made 5 appearances, playing the majority(>60 minutes) of matches on 4 occasions. Most impressively, of those 5 UCL matches, Praet started on all 4 occasions of his “majority minutes”, against Zenit St Petersburg(away loss & home win), Milan(home loss) and eventual shock quarter-finalists Malaga(away draw). Against Milan, Praet went on a marauding run which was illegally stopped by Mathieu Flamini, which got the Frenchman booked. From WhoScored.com, Praet’s performance rating against Zenit was 6.44(away) & 6.36(home), 6.3 against Milan and 6.02 against Malaga. For an 18-year-old, those are impressive figures.

Dennis Praet is widely regarded as the biggest talent to emerge from Anderlecht’s youth ranks since the likes of striking prodigy Romelu Lukaku and current Manchester City & Belgium captain Vincent Kompany.

Praet has successfully made the step up to Anderlecht’s 1st-team and has also proved to be a relatively key player in the defending Belgian champions’ attack. Anderlecht are currently favourites to win the 2012/13 Belgian league(Jupiler Pro League), with a 2-point lead over Club Brugge and Zulte-Waregem after 7(out of 10) matchdays of the 2012/13 Jupiler Pro League Championship Playoffs. 2 top-flight winners’ medals at the age of 19 is definitely fitting for a talent as precocious as Dennis Praet.

Style, Strengths and Weaknesses:

It was while watching the 2011 AEGON Future Cup that Dennis Praet, then aged 16, first caught my eye. Though I had followed that edition of the tournament with my focus on AFC Ajax, I only had 1 name on my mind after the tournament – Dennis Praet.

At first glance, what stands out about Praet is his playmaking ability and technical skills. Though I’d had the impression that he was another diminutive playmaker, Praet is of a decent size, being bigger than he seems – 179cm tall and weighing 70kg. In terms of his physical attributes, his agility, balance and turn of pace stand out the most. Though not a “speedster”, Praet knows when’s best to accelerate with the ball, which is arguably much more important than having the raw pace of a Theo Walcott or a David Odonkor. In essence, Dennis Praet’s physical attributes elevate, and not hinder, his technical skill set.

Moving on to his technical skill set – Praet has the tools that are inherent of most “modern era” playmakers/Number 10s. The starlet has displayed superb vision, good ball control, a confident dribbling ability and, most importantly, maturity.

While Praet does have some tricks up his sleeve, they involve his close ball control rather than “flashy” tricks a la Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Nani, etc. 1 bit of skill I particularly remember was when he played against Spain at U21 level – Slightly advanced of the ‘right back area’ in his own half, Praet was caught in between 2 Spaniards. With the sole of his right foot, Praet proceeded to drag the ball back, towards himself and behind the 2 opponents, before producing a quick turn(pirouette) to dart into open space near the touchline. He’d done that in 1 movement. It was brilliant.

(Praet’s bit of skill is 1 minute into this video)

His maturity was also evident in that, after that breathtaking bit of skill, he played a simple pass, through the space between 2 opponents who’d reacted quickly to restrict his space. Most youngsters, with the adrenaline rush after such a brilliant bit of skill, would’ve attempted to “showboat” or play a “Hollywood long-range pass” instead of doing as Praet had done – playing the simple pass to an unmarked team-mate, hence retaining possession of the ball.

With his eye for a pass, Praet has the ability to unlock opposition defences and create goalscoring opportunities for his team-mates. While he can play in central midfield, he is best utilised as a central attacking midfielder. Being placed closer to the goal, hence receiving the ball between the opposition’s midfield and defence lines, makes the most of Praet’s quality and skill set. Considering his attributes, Praet could perhaps feature on either flank. However, deploying him out wide would increase the chances of him being isolated(marked out of the game by the opposition). Such versatility could be a real option but only in the future, as Praet’s career momentum would be put at risk with a positional move out wide in this crucial developmental stage of his career. An example would be Andres Iniesta, who was played across many positions during his first few years in Barca’s 1st-team. Iniesta has, of course, since gone on to superstardom. However, being played in many positions – even at left back – could’ve caused irreversible long-term damage to Iniesta’s long-term prospects.

“Dennis plays like Iniesta. He’s got good technique, he’s solid, holds onto the ball well, keeps things simple and doesn’t panic. His vision of the game is incredible.”

Anderlecht’s Tom De Sutter on his team-mate Dennis Praet

(From my little chat with ‘The Belgian Waffle’ on Twitter) Praet needs to be more aggressive. Physically, Praet’s endurance also needs improvement. After superb form at the closing months of last year, his performances have tailed off hugely since January 2013. While there’s also the small matter of Praet needing to bulk up so as to prepare himself for the rigours of professional Football, it is vital that Praet’s bulking up doesn’t come at the expense of his turn of pace.

As an archetypal “modern era” playmaker, defending is naturally not 1 of the young Belgian’s strengths. Tackling is quite clearly not something Praet excels at. However, Praet is a team-player and puts in his required bit of graft, such as in pressing the opposition from the front. This is in line with his maturity and bodes well for any future move to 1 of Europe’s giants, with the “high intense pressing” tactics being in vogue at the top level of European Football since the dawn of Barca’s era in 2008/09. Bearing in mind his superb game-reading ability, he could perhaps focus on becoming more adept at that side of the game – interceptions – rather than outright tackling.

Despite his current flaws, Dennis Praet has exhibited the will to smooth out the few rough edges of his game. The starlet has shown enough thus far to assert the fact that he has huge potential.

“I’m very down to earth and I’m lucky enough to have good people around me in my family and at the club. I’m staying who I am and, away from football, I spend my time with my childhood friends. They’re not at all involved in football, and that’s what I need. I know I have to get more muscle, but above all it’s important that I retain my qualities, which are speed and acceleration. Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta aren’t exactly big either”.

Dennis Praet on his progression thus far and future

Transfer Situation:

As with any precocious young talent, Dennis Praet has been linked with many of European Football’s biggest clubs – AC Milan, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Arsenal, FC Barcelona, Chelsea, AFC Ajax and Manchester United. Transfermarkt have, at the time of writing, priced his current market value at €5 million.

Having extended his contract(until 2015) in March 2012, Praet has no reason to leave Anderlecht anytime soon as he has guaranteed regular 1st-team Football in Brussels and he will be taking on more and more responsibility at Anderlecht as he continues to develop over the next few years. Furthermore, current Anderlecht Head Coach John van den Brom has been key to the youngster’s development since his appointment in the summer of 2012, with the Dutchman taking the young Belgian under his wing in what can be described as a “paternal tutelage” .

“It’s not easy to break through at Anderlecht, but I’ve been fortunate to have the perfect coach. He believes in the younger players and has given me a lot of confidence.”

Dennis Praet on John van den Brom’s tutelage

“His arrival has clearly changed everything. It’s not always possible to promote youngsters, play attractive football and win games at the same time, but Van Den Brom has managed it and Dennis has benefited from that.”

Ex-Anderlecht Head Coach Johan Boskamp on John van den Brom

“I know that Van den Brom has the right approach. I trust him. I saw him last year at Vitesse Arnhem and he’s not afraid to put his faith in the younger players, while his attacking style is a perfect fit for Dennis to really blossom.”

Lille OSC scout and ex-Anderlecht player Georges Heylens on John van den Brom

(From my little chat with Belgian Football Expert John Chapman on Twitter):

Mark Ooi – “I reckon Praet should stay at Anderlecht until after Euro 2016. Your opinion?”

John Chapman – “I fully agree. Only issue is that Praet will want to go to a bigger club to be ‘noticed’ before Euro 2016.”

MO – “Would Ajax fit the bill of a ‘bigger club’? I’m thinking a path like Christian Eriksen’s, albeit Anderlecht are ‘bigger’ than Odense.”

JC – “Praet will probably want to aim for the EPL in a couple of years.”

Unless there’s a change of Head Coach at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Praet’s best option is to stay at Anderlecht for at least the next few years. Personally, assuming that Belgium qualify, I strongly believe that Dennis Praet should make the inevitable step up from Anderlecht after Euro 2016. If he develops as expected, I believe Praet will have asserted his case for a regular spot in Belgium’s senior Starting XI in time to star in Euro 2016. The tournament, held in France, would thus be the perfect stage for Praet to attract 1 or more of the European giants to formalise their long-standing interest in him with a big offer. Of course, that would require a further contract extension with Anderlecht. In the summer of 2016, the down-to-earth Praet would be, barring any injury problems, perfectly primed for a big move – aged 22 with good international experience and 4 years of 1st-team experience at Anderlecht under his belt.

All in all, Dennis Praet is mature enough to know when to make his much-anticipated big move abroad. Whenever that is, it’ll be well worth the wait.

Claudio Yacob – The Baggies’ Bargain Buy

Asked to think of an English Football club signing an Argentine and names like Sergio Aguero & Carlos Tevez will, in all likelihood, come to you fairly quickly. Ask a West Bromwich Albion supporter that same question and chances are, he’ll instantly respond with 2 words, 1 name – “Claudio Yacob”.

A central midfielder in the classic Argentine “Number 5” mould, Claudio Yacob has caught the eye in English Football and has been 1 of the bargain signings of this current 2012/13 season.

Background:

Claudio Yacob, born in Carcarañá in the Santa Fe province of Argentina, began his Football career with at Boca Juniors’ famed youth academy at the age of 12, but had to return to his family due to homesickness.

After a short break from Football, he proceeded to join the academy of Racing Club de Avellaneda. Dubbed “La Flaca” upon joining Racing due to his shoulder-length hair and thin body, Yacob’s talent was evident, and he was part of a crop of Racing youngsters – including the likes of Atalanta livewire Maximiliano Moralez and current Argentina international goalkeeper Sergio Romero – dubbed “La Sexta Especial”. Progressing through Racing’s youth ranks, Yacob made his 1st-team debut in an away defeat to Club Atletico Banfield in November 2006.

After impressing at 1st-team level, Yacob was called up to represent Argentina at the South American U20 Youth Championship and FIFA U20 World Cup, both held in 2007. Yacob asserted his credentials as another promising “Number 5” at the U20 World Cup, playing 6 matches and scoring once in Argentina’s triumphant campaign. After a period of steady development in Racing’s 1st-team, Yacob was made captain at the ripe old age of 21, before the start 2008/09 Primera Division season in Argentina. While Racing ended that season’s Apertura in 14th place, they did much better in the Clausura – finshing 5th. The same inconsistency followed in the following seasons, high or above average placing in 1 half and a below average finish in the other.

The high point in Yacob’s time at Racing came in the 2011 Apertura, with La Flaca leading Racing to 2nd place. Another good moment in 2011 was Yacob’s first goal for La Albiceleste in a 2-2 draw with Ecuador. Sadly, it was to be downhill after the Apertura. Into the 2012 Clausura, Yacob’s involvement in a controversial incident – swapping shorts with his friend(an Independiente player) – in the Clasico de Avellaneda meant that he never featured for Racing again. While that will sound ridiculous to most fans, we have to note the intensity that exists in South American derby matches.

“I swapped shorts with a friend who played for the other team. But it wasn’t a big deal. It’s just that in Argentina [a derby match] means that it’s your biggest enemy and you shouldn’t exchange, a bit like with Aston Villa and Albion here. The press made it into a problem.”

Claudio Yacob on the “incident”

Despite a sour end to his time at Racing, the ex-captain of Racing probably couldn’t have predicted how well he’d do after joining English Premier League outfit West Bromwich Albion. After 7 goals and more than a century of appearances at 1st-team level and 3 international caps, Yacob left Racing Club with no hard feelings against them. He was ready to test himself on the big stage.

The reason I didn’t play again was because I didn’t want to renew the contract because I was not happy with what they were offering. But Racing will always be in my heart because it was my first professional club.”

Claudio Yacob on his Racing departure

Claudio Yacob’s maturity and leadership qualities stood him in good stead for a move to Europe.

Step up – West Bromwich Albion:

After impressing on trial, during the Baggies’ pre-season training camp in Malmo, Claudio Yacob was signed on a Bosman free on 24th July 2012. He was a virtual unknown to the his new team-mates and manager. WBA goalkeeper Ben Foster had never heard of him, while Steve Clarke had never watched him play before. However, giving Yacob his favoured number 5 shirt says it all about the important role he had in manager Steve Clarke’s plans for the coming season.

“I saw Albion playing when I was living in Argentina, even before I knew I was going to sign. And then, when I knew about the interest, I found out more. What I really like is that it is an old club with a lot of history.”

Claudio Yacob’s interest in WBA

“He is an Argentina international with a real desire to prove himself in the Premier League”

WBA Manager Steve Clarke upon signing Claudio Yacob

“I’m really pleased we’ve been able to recruit a player of Claudio’s calibre. He’s been a one-club man in Argentina up to now, having broken into Racing’s first team at 17 and being appointed as their captain while still in his teens. To achieve that at Argentina’s third or fourth biggest club, and then break into the national team with the wealth of talent his country have to choose from, is no mean feat.”
WBA Sporting Director Dan Ashworth on his new signing
After a man-of-the-match performance in a shock 3-0 home win over Liverpool on the 2012/13 campaign’s opening weekend, Yacob hasn’t looked back. After consistently impressive displays in the Premier League, with the exception of an inconsistent 3-game spell when Mulumbu was out, Yacob won the award for West Brom’s Player Of The Month for March 2013. Again, he spoke like the team-player he is – “I’m really happy with this award – it is my first here and very important to me. But most of all I want us to finish as high as possible and get used to being one of the top teams in the league.”

Having gone on to form a strong midfield partnership with Youssouf Mulumbu, the tenacious Argentine has been 1 of the key players in the Baggies’ brilliant season and a top half finish looks likely, with 2 league matchdays remaining.

Overview:

(Statistics from WhoScored.com – “minimum appearances”. Accurate at the time of writing)

181cm tall and weighing 77kg, Claudio Yacob is of a decent size for a holding/defensive midfielder. What first stands out about his game is his game-reading ability and tenacity.

Though he’s not one for the “flashy” long-range “Hollywood pass”, Yacob is technically proficient on the ball. The Argentine’s 87.5% passing accuracy, placed 34th in the league, is only 0.6% lower than Michael Carrick’s 88.1% and is better than the likes of Arsenal star Jack Wilshere, Yacob’s midfield partner Youssouf Mulumbu, Manchester City’s Gareth Barry and Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote.

Strong in the tackle, Yacob can sometimes be too aggressive, which is evident in his joint-4th highest yellow card count thus far – 7. That said, Yacob has good tackling ability and, at 3.6 tackles per game, is placed 6th in WhoScored’s list. That’s a higher figure than the likes of Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, Tottenham duo Sandro & Ramires, Newcastle dynamo Yohan Cabaye and Chelsea’s “Blue Kenyan” Ramires.

Other than being good in the tackle, players in Yacob’s preferred defensive midfield position need to have good game-reading ability – ie the ability to make timely interceptions. While the tenacious Baggie has shown flashes of being a good interceptor, that is something he does need to work on. At 1.5 per game, he’s currently placed 96th on WhoScored’s “interceptions” list. That value is on par with the likes of Nigerian international John Obi Mikel and the aforementioned Barry and Dembele, as well as being slightly better than Spain international Javi Garcia, Liverpool stalwart & captain Steven Gerrard and West Ham star Mohamed Diame. However, Yacob should improve on his interceptions over the course of next season, as he’ll have 1 season in English Football under his belt.

On the bright side, Yacob isn’t easily beaten in 1-on-1 situations, with that occurring on an average of only once per match.

“Claudio’s a typical Argentinian No 5. In his homeland, that is someone who breaks up play and keeps the ball.”

WBA Manager Steve Clarke on Yacob

Yacob’s game-reading ability and selflessness allows West Brom’s fullbacks to get forward and join the attack. Yacob shifts slightly over to either flank when a fullback pushes forward, so as to provide cover against a potential counter-attack from the opposition. The added security at the back has given his team-mates more confidence in attack.

On the whole, Yacob plays a key role at the Hawthorns, being both a key screen in front of the defence and also a link in the transition from defence to attack after WBA have regained possession. With his adeptness at short passing, Yacob is able to hold the ball and start attacks by effectively releasing the ball to his athletic central midfield partner Mulumbu or his more attack-minded team-mates – James Morrison, Chris Brunt & Graham Dorrans, to name a few.

International objectives:

Yacob’s next target will be to get himself in Argentina Head Coach Alejandro Sabella’s plans for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Playing in England has certainly boosted Yacob’s visibility. Conversely, the competition for the holding midfield spots in Sabella’s 4-2-3-1 system is stellar – such as Valencia playmaker Ever Banega, Argentina’s ex-captain Javier Mascherano, the enigmatic Fernando Gago and veteran Pablo Guiñazú. Sabella might look at a formation change as the Albiceleste defence has had problems.

Long story short – Claudio Yacob needs to focus on his club Football and at least replicate his performances of this season. Do that and he’ll have no regrets. Do that, and he might get a seat on the flight to Brazil next year.

“It’s a difficult job to get into the Argentina side but he can do it if he produces performances consistently.”

WBA Manager Steve Clarke on Yacob’s international prospects

Look to the future at West Brom:

Where his future at the Hawthorns is concerned, La Flaca has been talked about as a possible future captain at the Midlands outfit. He has shown that he has leadership qualities, as seen in his time at Racing, and he’ll gradually assert himself(in a good way) in the squad as each week passes.

“I can see sometimes in training that he’s really wanting to say some things and he can’t quite communicate that at the moment, but he is working really hard at his English and I think within six months he will be able to get his ideas over a lot better. I do think there is a possibility of a future captain there. Having been captain of Racing Club, I think he’s got ideas and leadership qualities about him that will progress even more when his English becomes even better.”

WBA Assistant Manager Kevin Keen on Yacob’s prospects

Transfer front:

With his Spanish roots, he wouldn’t count as a non-EU player. That makes him an attractive target for European clubs who are looking for a holding midfielder, as the Argentine wouldn’t take up a non-EU spot on the squad list. Valued at €4.5m on Transfermarkt, at the time of writing, that would be a probable transfer fee interested clubs would have to pay.

That said, the precarious financial situation in most major European leagues, coupled with the bumper new Premier League TV deal(which takes effect in 2013/14), makes it unlikely that most interested parties will meet the Baggies’ demands. Financially, WBA do not need to sell.

“I just think I’m doing my job. It’s easy to play for the Albion because I’m happy and I’m at home here.”

Claudio Yacob’s opinion on WBA

Quite clearly, Claudio Yacob is happy to play for West Brom. However, the opportunity to play UEFA Champions League Football is sure to entice Yacob to leave The Hawthorns. The Argentine has been linked with a move to Atletico Madrid, who will be in the Champions League next season(2013/14). Furthermore, Atleti’s Head Coach Diego Simeone has built up such strong foundations at the Vicente Calderon that Atleti are likely to be a fixture in La Liga’s UCL spots for at least the foreseeable future. There’s another angle to this link. Diego Simeone has managed Yacob before, when the former had managerial spells at Racing Club in 2006 & 2011.

With Yacob’s aforementioned hopes of wearing the Albiceleste colours in next year’s World Cup, a move to Atletico Madrid and the prestigious stage of the Champions League will definitely increase his chances.

If Los Colchoneros do indeed formalise their interest in La Flaca, no one can begrudge him making a step up.

Regardless of whether he stays, Claudio Yacob has been a bargain buy for the Baggies.

“Claudio joins us with a great CV and is a terrific passer of the ball. He’s a holding central midfielder who sits in front of the back four and controls the play. Claudio’s also good at breaking things up. I believe he will be a great asset for us.” – Steve Clarke couldn’t have been more right.

Marquinhos – Defensive prodigy, a rare breed in Calcio

Every year, upon the start of the European Football calendar after each Summer, names are touted around of suggestions and hot tips for the new campaign’s “breakout stars”. 8 months ago, few people would’ve paid any attention to the name – Marcos Aoás Corrêa – on Italian outfit AS Roma’s “Transfer Ins” list.

Signed on a loan deal with a permanent option, the young Brazilian with his moniker – Marquinhos – is now an in-demand starlet and highly tipped to be a future Seleção star.

Background:

 

Marquinhos joined Cornthians in 2002, at the age of 8, and proceeded to move up the youth ranks of the Timão over the next 10 years. Marquinhos impressed so much during his time in Corinthians’ youth ranks that he was called-up by and made captain of Brazil’s U17s in the 2011 South American Under-17 championship. With Brazil winning the South American U17 title, they qualified for the U17 FIFA World Cup that year, with Marquinhos again being handed the captaincy.

In Mexico, Brazil finished 4th, with Marquinhos playing 6 of their 7 matches and earning only 1 yellow card. After a stellar 2011, Marquinhos continued to shine in 2012. In the 2012 edition of the prestigious Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior(São Paulo Youth Football Cup), the young Brazilian added more impressive displays to his CV, culminating in a 2-1 win over Fluminense in the Final. Marquinhos was clearly banging on Corinthians’ 1st-team door.

With his maturity and leadership qualities, and not forgetting his on-pitch quality, it was of no surprise that Marquinhos eventually broke into Corinthians’ 1st-team.

Breakthrough at Corinthians:

With his impressive performances at youth level, Marquinhos’ form in the aforementioned prestigious Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior proved to be the final piece in the jigsaw of proving to Corinthians 1st-team Head Coach Tite that he was ready for a shot in the 1st-team. A 1st-team debutant at the age of 18, Marquinhos went on to make 6 1st-team appearances in the 2012 Brasileirão, playing the full 90 minutes on 5 occasions, and providing 1 assist.

While impressive when given the chance, the youngster also showed some versatility – playing in central defence in 2 full matches and as a defensive midfielder in 3 full matches. Coach Tite was so impressed with Marquinhos that the young Brazilian, then aged 17, was on the 1st-team bench for each and every one of the knockout stage matches of Corinthians’ victorious 2012 Copa Libertadores triumph.

Just look at that, within the span of 6 months, Marquinhos had become a Copa Libertadores champion and also turned 18 along the way.

Into the big time – AS Roma:

After catching the eye of Roma’s South American scouts, they took the gamble of signing the then 18-year-old in the summer of 2012, despite him having just 6 months of 1st-team experience in Brazil. The deal was a loan(€1.5m fee) with a €3m permanent option – with the trigger being Marquinhos making 8 1st-team appearances of 45 minutes apiece.

Barely a few weeks after his signing was formalised, Marquinhos made his 1st-team debut on 16 September 2012, playing the last 16 mintues of a 3-2 loss to Bologna. A fortnight later, the young centreback came off the bench to play an hour of a catastrophic 4-1 thrashing at the hands of defending Italian champions Juventus. Slowly but surely cementing his spot in the Giallorossi Starting XI, Marquinhos has gone on to make 23 Serie A appearances(all but 3 as a starter) and 3 in the Coppa Italia. The only thing that broke his string of 12 consecutive 1st-team appearances is a suspension from being sent off, following a late handball, in a 3-1 win over Milan just before the winter break.

Roma’s summer signing became such as crucial 1st-teamer that the club withdrew him from international duty at the South American Under-20 championship, held in January 2013.

Overview – Majestic debut season in Calcio:

An 18-year-old holding a starting spot Serie A is most rare, let alone at a team as big as La Maggica. Marquinhos is a rare breed, such is the unforgiving nature of Calcio, what with the intense scrutiny of TV pundits on the various well-followed match review shows. Leandro Castan, Marquinhos’ former Corinthians team-mate, has been left to fight for the other starting spot in central defence with Nicolas Burdisso. Ironically, 2012 summer signing Leandro Castan had insisted upon Roma signing Marquinhos. In light of Roma’s much-talked-about defensive problems – a negative of Zdenek Zeman’s gung-ho offensive tactics – this season, Marquinhos has more-or-less escaped criticism, a result of the 18-year-old consistently delivering impressive performances every week. Despite still being only 18, Marquinhos has been Roma’s most important defender since cementing his starting spot in the middle of the Giallorossi defence.

(All stats are from WhoScored.com)

At first glance, standing at 1.83 metres, the lean Marquinhos is not the most intimidating of central defenders. That said, he does win his share of aerial duels, at 2.3 per game. That figure is the best at Roma and, league-wise, is better than that of bigger names like Philippe Mexes. Being still only 18, the Brazilian still has room for more physical growth, which can only be a good thing. However, his natural athleticism does more-or-less cover for that, as they enhance his key attributes – his maturity and game-reading ability. Marquinhos evidently has, as the saying goes, “an old head on young shoulders”.

He is currently 18th in the Serie A interceptions chart, on par with veteran Andrea Barzagli, and better than the highly-rated Facundo Roncaglia and Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro. With only 19 fouls(0.8 per game) at the time of writing, Marquinhos is currently 352nd on the “Most Fouls” chart. As with all modern day central defenders, Marquinhos is good on the ball and playing it out of defence, with an impressive 88.8% passing accuracy. Almost every Serie A centreback would like to have Marquinhos’ statistics, which makes the fact he’s still a teenager all the more staggering.

“No Serie A player has made more last man tackles this season than the teenager (10), who leads his side for both interceptions (2.9) and aerial duels won (2.2) per game, proving that his reading of the game is at the level of a far more seasoned pro.”

Martin Laurence of WhoScored

A look to the future:

Marquinhos has thus far shone, not just adapted, whenever he’s been pushed to the next level – youth team to 1st-team, Corinthians to Roma. This bodes well for the young Brazilian’s career prospects, as Football has seen all too many a promising youngster fail to make that “next step”, rendering him unable to realise his full potential. I’m confident that Marquinhos will not fall under the “what could’ve been” category. With his leadership qualities, maturity and talent, and not forgetting his current high performance level in such a prestigious league, long story short – the sky’s the limit for Marquinhos.

Roma are currently looking to upgrade the youngster’s current €0.8m(per year) wage to fend off interest from elsewhere. With his impressive and mature displays in his debut season in Italy, some of the Football’s biggest clubs are looking to sign him. Among others, FC Barcelona and Manchester City have been linked as potential new employers. However, the Roma stopper is unlikely to leave the Stadio Olimpico anytime soon. There is still much room for improvement and staying at Roma for at least the next few years will provide the stable environment that promising youngsters like Marquinhos need to develop and, eventually, realise their potential. Considering the ambitions of this AS Roma “project”, Marquinhos could possibly play out his peak years in the Capital club.

Marquinhos told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “I am not thinking about a transfer. I owe Roma a lot for the chance they gave me.”

Whether Marquinhos eventually leaves Roma or stays for the long haul, 1 thing’s are for sure – Marquinhos will become a Seleção star sooner rather than later. Furthermore, with his past as Brazil U17 captain, Marquinhos could eventually captain Brazil at senior level.

Over the course of this 2012/13 season, Marquinhos has proved his worth enough to be rated as the best young central defender in the World at the moment, alongside Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane.

Of all the possible “breakout stars” that had been tipped to emerge in the 2012/13 Serie A season, few would’ve bet on an 18-year-old Brazilian centreback being on that list.

Marcos Aoás Corrêa is indeed a rare breed in Calcio.

Gaël Bigirimana – More than an amazing story

For someone who lived the first 11 years of his life in fear, Gaël Bigirimana has surprised many with his selfless attitude and optimism. Since arriving in England from war-torn Burundi, via Uganda, Bigirimana’s life story thus far has amazed all who’ve read about it. However, he is more than just a “fairytale-esque story of humble beginnings”.

Humble Beginnings:

Gaël Bigirimana left his homeland(Burundi) as a refugee during a civil war, with the Burundi Government fighting against the rebel forces. Gaël’s mother fled first, making her way to Coventry, England, where the Bigirimana family would be reunited 4 years later.

Walking to the supermarket with his brother, Gaël spotted Coventry City’s youth academy. The determined youngster, then aged 11, went over the next day to ask for a trial. Though Coventry scouts were forced to turn him down, they were so impressed with the turn of pace he showed as he left the training facility that they made sure they gave him a chance.

In Gaël Bigirimana’s own words(in an interview with BBC Sport):

“They asked if I had all the equipment, boots, shin pads and stuff like that. I said ‘yes’ but I did not. They said they saw me running fast but to tell you the truth I was jogging. The next day they gave me a trial. It was near the end of the season but they took me on for the following campaign. It must have been a miracle.”

Coming good at Coventry City:

After signing youth forms at Coventry City in 2005, Bigirimana developed so well that, aged 16, he was named on the 1st team’s bench for a League Cup tie against Morecambe. In that same 2010/11 season, he again made the bench – this time in a Championship fixture away to eventually-promoted Norwich City. With such progress, he naturally signed a professional contract in the summer of 2011. After being involved in the 1st team’s pre-season preparations ahead of the 2011/12 season, Bigirimana made his debut on the 8th of August 2011, playing every minute of a 0-1 home defeat to Leicester City. Bigirimana – who made an impressive total of 28 appearances that season – proceeded to play at such a level that he was named the Championship’s “2012 Apprentice of the Year”, beating off competition from other highly-rated youngsters – most prominently Jonathan Williams(of Crystal Palace) and Jordan Obita(of Reading).

In his 2011/12 debut season at Coventry, The Sky Blues were relegated from the League One, finishing 2nd from bottom. Considering that Coventry had been involved in relegation fights for the previous few campaigns, the fact that then manager Andy Thorn was willing to place his faith in an 18-year-old Bigirimana speaks volumes of the Burundi youngster’s maturity. After all, the Championship has been referred to as “the hardest league to get out of and the hardest league to stay in”. It is most definitely not a league where just about any raw youngster can be thrown into and expected to survive, let alone shine.

Big step up:

After such an impressive debut season, it was of no surprise that Coventry were not able to keep hold of Bigirimana, especially after their relegation. Newcastle United snapped him up for a relative bargain fee – rumoured to be between £500k and £1 million.

“Bigi has done really well. He has impressed us. He has come in from Coventry with a season of first-team football under his belt at 18. He is exactly the type of player we should be bringing to Newcastle United. And he will get better here – 100%. Oh, and he gets Bigi as a nickname being as he’s 5ft 4in! He has looked really fine in training with guys who are at a higher level than he’s been used to. Bigi has looked really good and that’s great credit to him.”

Newcastle boss Alan Pardew on Gaël Bigirimana after NUFC’s pre-season preparations

Despite low expectations of Bigirimana’s 1st season on Tyneside, in the sense that he wouldn’t be a 1st team regular, he has gone on to make 23 1st team appearances and 1 U21 Premier League appearance at the time of writing. ‘Bigi’ has held his own over the course of this 2012/13 campaign, be it in the UEFA Europa League or in the English Premier League, scoring 1 goal – a brilliant strike from outside the box against Wigan Athletic – in the process.

Want an example of Bigirimana at his current best? That came in a pulsating fixture – A 4-3 loss at Old Trafford, where he held his own in central midfield before being replaced in the 65th minute. The fact that his direct opponents that day were Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick simply makes it all the more impressive.

Overview:

(2012/13 stats from WhoScored, accurate till the time of writing)

Bigirimana is not afraid to put in a shift defensively and “get stuck in”, with per game averages of 1.3 tackles, 0.9 interceptions and 1 clearance. Additionally, ‘Bigi’ has, per game, blocked 0.3 shots and has been dribbled past just 0.6 times. Though he might not be the biggest of players, he has won an average of 0.4 aerial duels per game. Qualitatively, the Burundi youngster has the pace, aggression and tenacity needed to survive and, possibly, thrive in the Premier League.

Offensively, ‘Bigi’ has shown his talent. This season alone, he has averaged(per game) 0.9 key passes. Though he has shown his inexperience at times, such as losing the ball 0.5-0.6 times per game, that should improve with experience.

An overall passing accuracy of 87.7%, is a startling statistic for a young debutant in the English top flight.

Holistically, Gaël Bigirimana has shown that he has the potential to be a good box-to-box central midfielder – what with his high energy levels, tenacity, work ethic and willingness to get forward et al.

Look to the future:

Where his future at International level is concerned, Bigirimana could play for England, Rwanda or Burundi. Currently without any international caps to his name, not even at youth level, perhaps England should call him up at U21 level to take a good look at his current ability and potential. Though he might end up playing for Rwanda or Burundi, it’d be a win-win situation for both England and Gaël Bigirimana as they’d possibly gain a future senior international while he’d gain more valuable experience regardless.

Having looked at his career thus far, I’d say that ‘Bigi’ could develop into a consistent Europa League-standard midfielder. With the plan at Newcastle United being consistent qualification for at least the Europa League, and having looked at the NUFC squad, Bigirimana could eventually become a stalwart player in the Toon’s central midfield. My expectation is that his peak years will be spent plying his trade on the hallowed turf of St James’ Park.

Then again, I could be wrong and Bigirimana goes on to feature regularly in the UEFA Champions League, be it for Newcastle or a bigger club.

Considering all that he’s been through thus far in his fledgling football career and, more importantly, his life, anything is possible for this Burundi Footballer.

As has been seen, this God-fearing (young) man will face all challenges head-on, with a ‘Bigi’ smile on his face.

Raphaël Varane – The Zidane of the Defence

30th January 2013. The Santiago Bernabeu. El Clasico – The biggest headline-grabbing fixture on the World Football calendar. Barca are already leading 0-1. Lionel Messi has just played Francesc Fabregas in behind the Real Madrid defence. Fabregas is 1-on-1 with Diego Lopez. The Catalan shapes to shoot… Does he score to make it 0-2? Long story short – No. Raphaël Varane slides in to make a brilliant heart-stopping last-ditch tackle to knick the ball away from Fabregas. 25 minutes later, Varane scores an equaliser(a bullet header) for Los Blancos.. This young Frenchman has just announced himself to the Football World on 1 of the grandest of stages.

The beginning:

After 2 years at his local team AS Hellemmes, a 9-year-old Raphaël Varane joined the youth academy of nearby professional Football Club RC Lens. Lille were also interested in signing him. During his youth team days at Lens, Varane impressed enough to train at the Centre de Préformation de Football in Lievin – an exclusive facility for the most promising youngsters from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Returning to full-time Football at Lens after 2 years of dividing his time between the Lens academy and the aforementioned regional academy, Varane shot up the former’s youth ranks.

Progression to the first team:

Varane was a key part of Lens’ U16 side that won the Championnat National des 16 ans in 2008/09. Varane was subsequently promoted, 2 years above his age group, to the Lens U19s. After a season at U19 level, Varane, then aged 17, signed his first professional contract. After just 3 months with the Lens Reserves, Varane was called up to train with the Lens senior team and, due to an injury to 1st teamer Alaeddine Yahia, proceeded to make his full debut in a 2-0 victory against Montpellier on 6th November 2010.

Breakthrough:

Taking his 1st team opportunity with both hands , Varane hasn’t looked back since. A point to note is the fact that Varane did not lose his 1st team spot despite the sacking of the coach that Varane debuted under – Jean-Guy Wallemme. Wallemme’s successor, László Bölöni not only kept Varane in his 1st team squad, but proceeded to further his 1st team education. Too often has it happened that an emerging young talent is pushed back down the ranks when a new 1st team head coach is appointed. It speaks volumes that Varane was kept on when Bölöni was tasked with staving off relegation to Ligue 2.

In that 2010/11 campaign, Varane produced composed performances whenever he featured for relegation-threatened Lens. He also showed versatility, playing as a defensive midfielder when required. Add his young age to the equation, it’s of no surprise that Varane quickly caught the eye of European Footballing giants, whose scouts are always scouring the globe for the “next big thing”. Among others, Varane was linked with a move to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal.

Despite him signing a contract extension with Lens valid till the summer of 2015, relegation meant that Lens were in a losing fight to keep their young star.

The Grandest of all stages – Santiago Bernabeu:

With the intervention of Zinedine Zidane, Raphael Varane signed for Real Madrid for approximately €10 million, snubbing Manchester United in the process.

“He is a very promising player and was an obvious target for a club such as Real Madrid seeking talent. He is a player I like very much and in many ways resembles Laurent Blanc. I haven’t seen many players like that.”

Zinedine Zidane on the Madrid’s signing of Raphaël Varane.

Firstly, Varane was immediately placed in Real Madrid’s 1st team, instead of adapting to Spanish Football through some time in Madrid’s Castilla side. Jose Mourinho – 1 of the most demanding coaches in World Football – placing his trust in a largely unproven youngster who was signed from a recently relegated team simply speaks volumes of not only Varane’s potential but also his performance level then.

Over the course of his first season(2011/12) at Real Madrid, Varane made 15 starts and 3 substitute appearances, committing just 10 fouls and receiving no bookings. While the appearance stats might not seem impressive, once we consider that he turned 19 towards the end of that season, it does make for pretty impressive reading. Scoring the first of his 2 goals in that season against Rayo Vallecano, Varane became the youngest player(aged 18 years and 152 days), up till the time of writing, to score a goal in a competitive match for Real Madrid. After a 3-0 home win over Ajax in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage, Sergio Ramos was quoted as saying on the Madrid’s official website,”Varane is very young and he played at a high level. He proved he has a place on the team. He is a great footballer despite his young age and may go very far.”

Even Jose Mourinho has praised the young defender, saying that the fans will fall in love with Varane, also singling the 18 year old out due to his ‘humility and work ethic’ not to mention the potential he has to become a ‘great player.’

This 2012/13 season, Varane has come into his own. Like he had done at Lens, Varane has very much taken his opportunity to prove himself at the Santiago Bernabeu, effectively cementing his place for both the near and distant future. From the start of the season till today, Madrid have faced an inury crisis at fullback and have often not had all their 1st choice pairing, Sergio Ramos & Pepe, available for selection due to injuries and/or suspensions. Ricardo Carvalho has been more-or-less excluded from Mourinho’s plans, with the latter urging the veteran to leave the club for regular playing time. Raul Albiol, the only other experienced option, has made less appearances than Varane. In fact, Varane has played in every single one of Los Blancos’ matches in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage.

Quite clearly, Varane has been a constant in Madrid’s defence this term.

Overview:

With athleticism, strength, aerial ability and a good amount of pace, Raphaël Varane has all the physical tools required to make it as 1 of the World’s best central defenders. Equipped with self-confidence, a good passing ability and, most importantly, a precocious game-reading ability, Varane definitely fits the mould of a “modern day central defender”.

Raphaël Varane with a well-timed slide tackle on Lionel Messi.

Raphaël Varane celebrating after scoring the aforementioned crucial equaliser in El Clasico.

Varane has also shown his “big game” credentials, most prominently in the recent Clasico, a 1-1 home draw in the Copa del Rey. Varane put in a man-of-the-match display – calm defending, producing the aforementioned world class tackle on Fabregas and also scoring a crucial equaliser. While we shouldn’t discount the performances of his team-mates in that fixture, one could say that Varane single-handedly saved Madrid and kept their Copa del Rey hopes alive.

“It’s not time for that or for any other comparisons. Varane is very good, he’s magnificent and he’s got it all,”

“He’s a player with good ball control, good positioning and he’s very fast. He’s also strong in the air in both boxes.

“But he must be left to grow, so he can be taken care of, creating the ideal environment for him to develop and show what he’s got.

Real Madrid Legend Fernando Hierro on Raphaël Varane

As his current momentum has shown, we are, in all likelihood, currently watching a true star in the making. Varane is a future world leader in his position.

Thus far, with the coolness and composure with which Raphaël Varane has handled and adapted to anything and everything both on and of the pitch,one could, in a way, say that he is a “Zidane of the Defence”.

Dries Mertens – Time to move up

Pace. Flair. Tenacity. A low centre of gravity. An eye for a pass. Imagine those attributes in a diminutive attacker. Lionel Messi? No. Franck Ribery? Again, no. Another hint – He’s Belgian. Are you thinking of Eden Hazard? Wrong answer. The player in question is Dries Mertens, who, at the age of 25(turns 26 this year), has now reached the point in his career where he is ready to step up into the big time.

The Football World has been watching in great suspense the imminent rise of a Belgian “Golden Generation”, rated to potentially be at least as good as the generation of Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff & Eric Gerets. Considering that the 1980s’ Belgian “Golden Generation” reached the final of the 1980 European Championships and the last four of the 1986 World Cup, it has naturally been the case that many of the current Belgian internationals have been much talked about, especially those that currently play in the EnglishPremier League. With his performances in recent years, it is about time that Dries Mertens steps out of the shadows of some of his more talked-about compatriots – Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel et al. Dries Mertens is much more than just yet another Belgian in the transfer rumour mill.

Statistics and progress over the years:

Dries Mertens celebrating after scoring for AGOVV Apeldoorn.

Since making his debut, aged 20, for AGOVV Apeldoorn in Dutch Football’s 2nd tier on the 10th of August in 2007, Dries Mertens has come a long way in his career. Doing well enough in the Jupiler League to earn an upward move to FC Utrecht, it has only ever been onwards and upwards in this Belgian livewire’s career thus far. The thing is, that doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

Season

League

Cup

Europe

Apps Goals Assists Apps Goals Assists Apps Goals Assists
2007/08 38 15 6 0 0 0 0 0 0
2008/09 35 13 7 2 1 1 0 0 0
2009/10 38 7 10 1 0 0 0 0 0
2010/11 31 10 17 4 1 2 12 3 5
2011/12 33 21 16 5 3 1 11 3 7
2012/13 18 10 13 2 1 1 6 1 3

Season

Total

Apps Goals Assists
2007/08 38 15 6
2008/09 37 14 8
2009/10 39 7 10
2010/11 47 14 24
2011/12 49 27 24
2012/13 26 12 17

*correct as of 8th February 2013. “League” includes – Jupiler League(2007/08 & 2008/09) + Eredivisie playoffs(qualification for UEFA competitions). “Cup” = KNVB Beker + Johan Cruyff Schaal. “Europe” includes – UCL & UEL qualifiers(qualification playoffs).

As seen in the statistics tables above, Dries Mertens has been a consistent performer thus far in his career, scoring at least 10 goals in 4 of his last 5.5 seasons and providing a minimum of 10 assists per season since the start of the 2009/10 campaign. Perhaps you’re questioning that and pointing out Mertens’ 2009/10 stats. The 2009/10 campaign was Mertens’ debut season in Dutch Football’s top flight, hence a transition year is to be expected. Mertens has proven himself to be more than just a team player, but an effective one at that. 24 assists across all competitions for the 2010/11 is no mean feat, even if a portion of Football fans consider his platform to be “only” the Eredivisie. In his last season at FC Utrecht, Mertens arguably did enough to prove himself in continental competitions, making 8 contributions(goals + assists) in that stellar 2010/11 campaign.

Dries Mertens after scoring for FC Utrecht.

Step up to the international stage:

Season

Total

 INTERNATIONAL Apps Goals Assists
2007/08
2008/09
2009/10
2010/11 5 0 2
2011/12 5 0 1
2012/13 7 2 4

*Correct as of 8th February 2013

Unsurprisingly, Mertens’ senior debut for Belgium came after he proved that he had indeed successfully made the step up from the Jupiler League to the Eredivisie – in February 2011. Granted, he does not have impressive stats at international level – save for his 2012/13 thus far, with him scoring 2 and assisting 4 in 7 appearances. This is to be expected, as this emerging crop of brilliant Belgians have to be moulded into a well-oiled Football machine before we can expect any fireworks from any of the players on the international scene. Marc Wilmots needs time to form a successful system in which Belgium’s talents can shine.

Dries Mertens taking a shot against Wales in a qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Mertens’ step up:

While some players could be daunted by a move from Utrecht to PSV Eindhoven, Mertens has simply stepped up and thrived under the increased demands and pressure of the Philips Stadion. The Belgian attacker not only matched his aforementioned 24 assists in his debut season at PSV, but also scored 27 goals across all competitions – which is almost double his tally the year before. Astoundingly, Mertens is not done yet.

At the time of writing, he is on course to smash his current personal best of 24 assists. With 12 goals and 17 assists in 26 appearances across all competitions at the time of writing, Mertens would, hypothetically, finish the season with 23 goals and 32 assists if he makes as many as his 49 appearances in 2011/12.

Overview:

The Dries Mertens-Gary Cahill incident.

Considering his stats, versatility and skill set, Mertens is a player that can be expected to fit well into the playing systems of the top European clubs. Having been previously linked with Bayern Munich, I could very well see him shining under the bright lights of the Allianz Arena. The tenacity that Mertens possesses will also stand him in good stead for a move to a club that uses a high pressing system – FC Barcelona and Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs side come to mind.

A look to the future:

With Transfermarkt rating him at €12 million at the time of writing, that would probably be the amount that interested clubs would have to spend to acquire this Belgian star’s signature. However, with PSV being somewhat difficult negotiators – see their hefty demands in unsuccessful negotiations over Ola Toivonen’s potential sale), and Mertens’ contract expiring in the summer of 2016, he’d probably cost more than that €12 million – perhaps closer to €15 million.

Considering this Belgian’s development thus far, he would be worth the price, even at €15 million.

With Dries Mertens, it has only ever been onwards and upwards.