La Masia and Barcelona’s reliance on teenage talent

La Masia and Barcelona’s reliance on teenage talent

In the early 2000s, Barcelona’s La Masia academy was widely regarded as the best in the world, and it was hard to argue against it. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and the great Lionel Messi are just a few to have made their mark on world football, thanks in no small part to their time at the academy.

By Alex Roberts

Since then, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the Premier League and other European powerhouses, Barça’s policy shifted from producing talent to purchasing it. It doesn’t matter how big the club is, spending over €100 million on three separate occasions over the span of three years isn’t sustainable.

The club’s dire financial straits have been well documented. They’ve had to pull countless ‘Economic Levers’, selling the naming rights of the Camp Nou to Spotify as well as pieces of the turf to fans wanting to feel even closer to the club they love.

After the very real threat of no longer existing, Barcelona’s transfer policy has done another 180-degree turn, and they’re now reliant on teenagers like never before. 

Xavi was the perfect man to come in and guide the ship through choppy waters, he lives and breathes Barcelona’s ethos of trusting their own. As a result, the most exciting crop of young talents since the days of Pep Guardiola have come through the first team.

Lamine Yamal doesn’t have the right to be as good as he is at the tender age of 16, he still has braces for goodness’ sake. Not only has he established himself as an important player at Barca, but he also became the youngest player in Spanish national team history, scoring on his debut.

President, Joan Laporta, even came out and said he had rejected a staggering €220 million offer from Paris Saint Germain for the youngster. That’s a very significant amount of money that would go a long way to elevating the club’s financial burdens.

But Laporta wasn’t interested, and he’s hedged his bets on Yamal’s huge potential.

The young forward isn’t the only unexpected breakthrough at Barca this season. Centre-back Pau Cubarsí has been a revelation since coming into the side, notably pocketing Victor Oshimhen during their triumph against Napoli in the Champions League round of 16.

It’s a position that Barca are relatively blessed in. Ronald Araújo, Andres Christensen, and Jules Koundé are all very capable centre-backs, although Koundé has mostly operated on the right-side of defence this season. 

Despite this serious competion for places, Cubarsí has looked completely at home in the first team, making twelve LaLiga apperances and playing a significant role in the club’s Champions League campaign.

Unfortunately, nothing in football is an exact science. The amount of professional football these youngsters are playing while their bodies are still developing could have dire consequences. All you need to do is look at the injury records of fellow Barça prodigies Pedri, Gavi, and Ansu Fati.

Each of those players either has or has had the ability to become one of the best in the world, but serious injuries have curtailed their development. 

In 2021, Pedri was named the best under-21 player in Europe, winning the prestigious Golden Boy and Kopa trophies. Since then, he’s been out for 372 days with various muscle and hamstring injuries. 

Yes, injuries are an unfortunate inevitability in football, but missing that amount of football before the age of 21 due to injury isn’t normal, and he’s not an outlier. It begs the question, should Pedri have been playing that much in the first place? 

Thankfully for Pedri and Barcelona, he’s fit once again, coming on as a substitute in their 3-2 win against Paris Saint Germain and assisting Raphina’s goal. Let’s hope he’s finally able to stay fit for a significant amount of time. 

Gavi is another of the club’s young heroes to have suffered another grievous injury. The 19-year-old fell victim to football’s ongoing epidemic of ACL tears in November 2023, and has been forced to sit on the side-lines for the entirety of this season. 

It’s the kind of injury that many players never really come back from. Time is on Gavi’s side, he may well come back like his ACL tear never happened, it’s up to his club to rehabilitate him in the proper manner, ease him into it. Given how important he is, it’s unlikely that will happen.

Barcelona will need to learn from their past and look to Ansu Fati as a lesson on how not to treat a young player after injury. 

In 2019, Messi had one foot out of the door at Barça. The club could no longer afford to keep their greatest ever player, they were simply in denial about it. Like Yamal, Fati burst onto the scene at 16-years-old and was tipped to be the one to replace the legendary Argentine. 

Then, in November 2021, Fati tore his meniscus and was ruled out for 305 days, missing 64 games for club and country. When he was finally fit again, Barça rushed him back, with more senior forwards failing to perform. 

Fati hasn’t been the same since, unable to shake the damage done to his knee. He now finds himself unable to break into a struggling Brighton side, with manager Roberto De Zerbi calling him out, saying Fati is ‘not doing enough for the team’. 

Xavi has confirmed he’ll be leaving Barcelona at the end of the season, so with no replacement confirmed as of yet, chances for La Masia graduates may dry up. The Socios tend to be less forgiving of coaches that aren’t one of their own. 

Trusting in teenagers like Barcelona currently appear to be doing produces immense value for minimal financial input, it’s now just a case of management. Running these youngsters into the ground like they have done in the past could prove disastrous.

Winning silverware this season is looking unlikely, but it could be a stepping stone to yet another golden era for La Masia and Barcelona. Only time will tell.  

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every Barcelona game live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage including xG, shot maps, and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Analysis: Aston Villa’s Champions League Charge led by Unai Emery

Analysis: Aston Villa’s Champions League Charge led by Unai Emery

Aston Villa’s win over Arsenal may yet go down as the result that decided the title race, but it was an equally crucial win for their own Champions League hopes. The Villains currently have a three-point buffer to fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur as they seek to return to Europe’s premier club competition after over four decades.

By Neel Shelat

Prior to their Europa Conference League qualification for this season, Aston Villa’s last European tour came back in 2010. It was a very short one too, as Rapid Vienna sent them packing in the qualifying round of the Europa League. The club’s fortunes took a downward turn thereafter, as they became regular relegation-battlers in the Premier League before eventually going down in 2016.

After a disappointing first season back in the Championship, Villa began to rebuild. Their second stab at the play-offs proved successful as they defeated Frank Lampard’s Derby County at Wembley to return to the big time. After surviving by the skin of their teeth in their first season back, they aimed to keep pushing on.

The likes of Dean Smith and Steven Gerrard could not get the team into the top half of the table, so the club decided to make a statement appointment in November 2022. Unai Emery, a man with a great European pedigree as well as a big five league title on his CV was brought in from Villarreal, and he has gone on to transform the club’s fortunes in just a couple of years.

In his very first season, he took the Villains from a relegation-battling position to a seventh-placed finish that earned them a ticket to the Europa Conference League. This term, they are balancing a continental knockout run with a brilliant league campaign that has them in the Champions League places with five games left to play.

If England do earn a fifth Champions League spot for next season, Villa might as well start celebrating now. Such an incredible campaign certainly deserves a closer look, so that is what we will focus on in this week’s analysis column.

Bold Defensive Approach

The first thing that stands out about Unai Emery’s Aston Villa is their commitment to holding an incredibly high defensive line, regardless of the opposition they are facing. Whether they are at the Emirates Stadium or hosting Sheffield United, their back four starts and tends to stay as close as possible to the halfway line for as long as possible.

As a result, Aston Villa have unsurprisingly caught their opponents offside more than any other team in the league. Their tally of 147 translates to almost 4.5 offsides per match, while only one other team in the league has managed to crack 100 so far. By setting up their 4-4-2 block very high and yet quite compact, they are able to keep their opponents far away from their goal for long periods. That is why Villa have had to make the fourth-fewest clearances in the league this season.

Of course, this is a high-risk high-reward approach. So, while Villa might be the fourth-best team in the league as far as preventing shots from being taken is concerned, the average chance quality they concede is by far the highest. All things considered, since Villa don’t press overzealously. these things seem to average out as Emery’s side are perfectly mid-table when it comes to xG conceded.

When adopting such a high defensive line, it is imperative to have a brave goalkeeper who is comfortable at sweeping outside the box and can unsettle opponents one-on-one. In Emiliano Martínez, Villa have just that. The Argentine international has been the league’s best goalkeeper by goals prevented, based on the xGOT model, meaning he has been the difference-maker in taking his team’s defence from being mid-table-level, by the underlying numbers, to top-six in terms of actual goals conceded.

All this effort just to have the league’s sixth-best defence might not seem worth it, but what the overall numbers do not show is the Villains’ ability to compete with the very best teams. Thanks in no small part to their disciplined defending far away from goal, Villa have won three of their four matches against the top two, keeping clean sheets in all of those triumphs.

Tailor-Made Attacking System

Regardless of what one thinks is the “right way to play”, most would agree that a head coach’s job is to make the most of the resources at their disposal. Chief among these resources are the players, so setting up a system that gets the best out of the profiles in the squad has to be paramount in the list of a head coach’s priorities.

Seen this way, Unai Emery’s job at Aston Villa looks absolutely stellar. The squad he inherited was hardly among the best in the league, and even after a fair bit of transfer business, Villa certainly do not have the quality of serious Champions League contenders, on paper at least.

Right from day one, the Spanish tactician implemented a relatively unique in-possession system to suit his squad. When building up from goal kicks, Aston Villa’s four defenders and two central midfielders start very deep to help build up and beat any attempted press, while the front four is incredibly narrow in a box-like shape. Two players offer passing options out of the build-up, while striker Ollie Watkins peels to the left where he poses a constant threat in behind and Moussa Diaby/Leon Bailey is on the right with dynamic movement on and off the ball.

This build-up approach is suited to play to the players’ strengths while maintaining a multidimensional threat. The confident ball-players at the back can look to slice through a press and feed the two attackers poised to link play, or they can directly go to the front men in a bid to get in behind.

In settled possession further up the pitch, Villa usually move into a 3-2-4-1 shape created by asymmetric movements of the full-backs and wingers. The right back stays deep to form a back line of three, freeing up the left back to push forward as the left winger tucks inside. Again, this is suited to the player profiles in the squad such as Ezri Konsa (RB), Lucas Digne (LB) and Jacob Ramsey (LW).

It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that many of Villa’s attackers are enjoying their best-ever seasons. Five players are in double digits for goal involvements in the Premier League already, and Watkins is a league-leader by this metric.

Bailey has enjoyed a brilliant campaign too, contributing 9 goals and 8 assists to his team’s tally showing exceptional attacking output despite limited touches due to the positional demands of his role.

Diaby’s five goals and seven assists in the league have also been very handy, with his creation shining the most as he is the squad leader in terms of big chances created.

Perhaps the most surprising name on this list is versatile midfielder John McGinn. The Scottish international has made the most of the more attacking responsibilities he often gets in Emery’s system, racking up 16 goal involvements in all competitions, including a crucial goal and assist in the UECL quarter-final first leg against Lille. In fact, Villa have lost just one game all season when he has managed to get on the scoresheet.

Thanks to these consistent attacking contributors as well as Emery’s well-crafted tactics in and out of possession, Aston Villa are flying on two fronts with just over a month left until the end of the season. They are arguably favourites to lift European silverware and qualify for the Champions League, and if they manage to do that, this will surely go down as one of their greatest seasons.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every Aston Villa game live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage including xG, shot maps, and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Hulk: Maturing with age but still bulldozing defences in Brazil

Hulk: Maturing with age but still bulldozing defences in Brazil

Glory in the Campeonata Mineiro was the perfect way for Atlético Mineiro to start the season. The Belo Horizonte outfit couldn’t be stopped as they swept aside rivals Cruzeiro in the competition’s final with expectations high ahead of the 2024 Brasileiro campaign. Hulk scored in both legs and is still delivering regularly in his homeland.

By Graham Ruthven

Hulk enjoyed a distinguished career in Europe. He was a key part of the Porto team that won three straight Portuguese titles and went the entire 2012/13 season unbeaten. After that, the Brazilian attacker joined Zenit Saint Petersburg for €60m as one of the most expensive forwards in the sport’s history.

Since 2021, though, Hulk has been at Atlético Mineiro where he has enjoyed a renaissance. His goalscoring display against Cruzeiro in the Campeonata Mineiro final wasn’t an exception – it was the sort of thing Galo supporters have come to expect from one of their team’s most consistent performers. 

In each of the last three Brasileiro seasons, Hulk has reached double figures. In all competitions, he has scored an impressive 102 goals in 185 games for Atlético and has started the 2024 season with seven goals in 13 outings. After finishing third in the Brazilian top flight last season, Galo want to push themselves even higher up the table – and Hulk could help them achieve this.

While the 37-year-old might have lost a yard or two of pace since his Porto and Zenit Saint Petersburg days, he has grown more intelligent with his movement. Hulk now sees more of the ball than was the case in his younger years with Atlético Mineiro known to use him as a creative hub in a central area. Most commonly, he is deployed as a number nine. 

Former Argentina centre-back Gabriel Milito has taken charge of Atlético Mineiro for the 2024 season and has quickly implemented a more energetic style of play. As Galo manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari was accused of being too conservative for the attacking talent at Arena MRV, but Milito appears ready to unleash his forwards – including Hulk.

Under Scolari, Hulk’s physicality was useful as it frequently allowed Atletico to easily gain a foothold up the pitch. Long balls were directed into the veteran who would bring the likes of Matias Zaracho, Hyoran Dalmuro and Christian Pavon into the game. Now, it seems Milito wants his team to build from the back.

“I had a lot of good coaches,” said Milito when asked to elaborate on his coaching identity. “[Pep] Guardiola was undoubtedly one of the best. I learned a lot of concepts from him, a lot. And then, with my own ideals of the game, of football, I try to apply them. The first thing we have to do is be authentic. We cannot imitate another coach.”

Hulk isn’t the first Brazilian star to have enjoyed a resurgence at Atlético Mineiro. Indeed, Ronaldinho spent two seasons in Belo Horizonte and helped inspire the club to win the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 2013. The hope within Atlético is that Hulk can also push them towards continental success this season.

Brazilian clubs have dominated the Copa Libertadores in recent times. Indeed, Brazil has produced each of the competition’s last five winners with all-Brazilian finals in three seasons since 2019. The gulf is growing between the Brasileirão and other South American domestic leagues and that is illustrated most starkly in the Copa Libertadores.

Many clubs have spent big to lure Brazilian stars back to the country. Last season, for example, Fluminense won the Copa Libertadores with a squad that included Marcelo and Felipe Melo. The season before that, Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa scored the winner in the final for Flamengo. Hulk is just one part of a wider trend right now.

After winning the Brazilian title in dominant fashion back in 2021, Atlético Mineiro have endured two challenging seasons, finishing seventh in 2022 and third in 2023. This is a club with greater ambitions than that and the early signs this year have been encouraging. Galo appear rejuvenated. There has been a lot of change at Arena MRV since the end of last season. Hulk’s goals, however, are a constant.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every Brasileirão game live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage including xG, shot maps, and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Premier League Team of the Week: Round 33

Premier League Team of the Week: Round 33

The FotMob Team of the Week for Matchday 33 is dominated by Manchester City and Newcastle United players, with each team having three included in the XI. But who else joins them and why did they make the cut?

By Sam McGuire, Premier League expert

Goalkeeper: Emi Martínez 

The World Cup winner was in fine form against his former employers as Aston Villa stunned Arsenal at the Emirates to pick up all three points. Martínez made just four saves but faced shots with an Expected Goals on Target total of 1.98. The 31-year-old just couldn’t be beaten as he claimed a clean sheet in what was a vital win for Unai Emery’s men in their hunt for Champions League football. 

Right-Back: Rico Lewis

Deployed at right-back by Manchester City in their emphatic win over Luton Town, Lewis impressed as the champions returned to the top of the Premier League table. The 19-year-old was the most accurate passer at the Etihad, finding a teammate with 98% of his attempted passes, while he also carved out three chances for teammates in what was a confident and assured outing in an unfamiliar role. Lewis also won all of his tackles and 75% of his ground duels. 

Centre-Back: Fabian Schär

Schär was barely involved against Spurs as Newcastle United racked up a surprise 4-0 win at St James’ Park on Saturday afternoon. The defender attempted just 19 passes and had 36 touches. But he was involved in 12 duels, he won 50% of his tackles and he did carve out a chance for the rampant home side. The 32-year-old also scored the fourth goal for the hosts on his way to a FotMob rating of 8.3.  

Centre-Back: Marcos Senesi

The Bournemouth centre-back certainly caught the eye against Manchester United, earning himself a FotMob rating of 8.8. Not only did Senesi win 100% of his tackles, recover the ball on eight occasions and win 50% of his ground duels, but he also assisted both goals for the Cherries and completed close to 80% of his passes. 


Left-Back: Joško Gvardiol

Gvardiol now has two goals in two games for Manchester City. He scored in midweek against Real Madrid and followed that up with a goal against Luton in the 5-1 win. The versatile defender also claimed an assist in what was a dominant attacking display, having created two chances and taken four shots. The 22-year-old also completed 90% of his passes and won five of his eight duels on his way to an 8.7 rating.  

Midfield: Cole Palmer 

Palmer is a regular in the FotMob Team of the Week after an outrageous first season for Chelsea. He earned a rating of 9.7 against Everton on Monday night after his four-goal showing. He’s now level with Erling Haaland in the race for the Golden Boot. The former Manchester City youngster also won the penalty for the Blues in the 6-0 home win over the relegation threatened Toffees. 

Midfield: Bruno Fernandes 

Fernandes scored in his third successive game for Manchester United as the Red Devils twice came from behind to claim a point against Bournemouth. The skipper found the back of the net either side of half time to help United salvage a point in a game they probably deserved to lose. Fernandes was just as influential without the ball, winning 83% of his ground duels and 67% of his aerial duels, while also recovering the ball on eight occasions. His 9.3 rating was deserved as he almost single-handedly kept the visitors in this game. 

Midfield: Jérémy Doku 

Doku put on a performance against the Hatters on Saturday afternoon. The nimble winger attempted 11 dribbles and completed the most of any player on the pitch (six). The 21-year-old also scored and assisted in what was a devastating showing in attack. The Belgian won the penalty and completed an astonishing 96% of his passes at the Etihad in what could only be described as a relentless display. 

Attack: Anthony Gordon 

Gordon ran riot in Newcastle’s 4-0 win over Spurs in the early kick-off on Saturday. The former Everton winger claimed two assists and scored his tenth of the season in a dominant showing for the hosts. The 23-year-old created a remarkable eight chances, won 100% of his tackles and five of his nine ground duels. He was a one-man wrecking ball in the attack for the Magpies. 

Attack: Alexander Isak 

But Gordon wasn’t the only Newcastle forward to catch the eye. Isak scored twice to make it 17 for the season in the Premier League. The 24-year-old Swede had a total of six shots at St James’ Park and created one chance for the hosts. He was responsible for 1.51 Expected Goals, over half of the haul carved out by the Magpies (2.88). 

Attack: Nicolas Jackson 

The penalty drama has swayed opinion of Jackson but he certainly did enough to justify his inclusion in this XI after an impressive showing against Everton. The 22-year-old forward scored and assisted in the 6-0 win. He also carved out two chances and had a total of five shots while completing five of his seven dribbles. The former Villarreal man is now into double figures for the campaign. 

(Images from IMAGO)

You can follow every match from the Premier League live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
The MLS Team of the Week: Matchday 9

The MLS Team of the Week: Matchday 9

Our MLS expert James Nalton picks five of the standout players from Matchday 9 in Major League Soccer, including his two North American Soccer Reporters (NASR) Player of the Matchday votes.

By James Nalton

Lionel Messi’s injury problems at the start of the year have meant the 2024 MLS season hasn’t been as much about him as might have been expected, to date.

Other players have stepped up as the stars of each Matchday, and many did this week, too, but this weekend also witnessed what will go down as one of MLS’s Messi moments.

Not just for his performance for Inter Miami against Sporting KC, but for the fact that 72,610 fans packed into the Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, and were treated to an entertaining game of football in which their own team played its part.

Elsewhere, LA Galaxy continued their own entertaining and impressive start to the season, while Philadelphia Union remained the league’s only unbeaten side after coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Atlanta United.

Here are some standout players from the latest round of MLS action.

The Top Two

9.4 FotMob rating: Rafael Navarro – Colorado Rapids

The Rapids caught the eye in the offseason with a couple of notable transfers. There were signs of ambition from the team that finished bottom of the Western Conference in 2023.

It has been intriguing to see how that is converted into performances on the pitch, and there have been encouraging signs so far.

There have been notable wins against Los Angeles FC and Real Salt Lake, but this weekend’s 3-0 win at San Jose was arguably their most convincing yet.

Navarro played a big role in it. He won and scored the penalty to kick things off for the Rapids, before adding a second by being in the right place at the right time as San Jose’s defence failed to clear.

Some nice hold-up play set up Cole Bassett and sealed the win for Colorado and rounded off Navarro’s individual display with an assist.

9.0 FotMob rating: Diego Gómez – Inter Miami

It is always interesting to see how Messi’s teammates react to playing alongside him, and Gómez, like Robert Taylor at the end of last season, has revelled in Messi’s presence in Miami.

The 21-year-old Paraguayan just edged Messi in my Soccer Reporters vote this week, taking a place alongside Navarro in the top two.

Gómez was a major player in the 3-2 win against Sporting KC.

He latched on to Messi’s through-ball to tie the game at 1-1. It was a scything pass through the Sporting defence from Messi, but it still needed finishing.

Inter Miami were without a win in five games in all competitions, and with the scores at 2-2 it looked like they might have to wait a little longer for a victory.

But Gómez’s work rate down the left wing, winning the ball high up the field before crossing for Luis Suárez to score the winner, put their season back on track.

Three more standout performers

8.9 FotMob rating: Lionel Messi – Inter Miami

Messi’s pass for the opener against SKC would probably have been good enough in itself to make him one of the players of the matchday.

But on top of this, he added a goal of his own from outside the area. SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia may be disappointed not to reach the shot as it dipped into the middle of the goal, but it was still a well-hit strike from Messi.

Last week, Inter Miami were knocked out of the Concacaf Champions Cup — the equivalent to the Champions League and a tournament they had prioritised this season.

But now they can focus solely on MLS and trying to keep Messi fit in order to maintain their position at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.

8.9 FotMob rating: Erik Thommy – Sporting KC

For Messi’s move to MLS to be more of a long-term success for the sport in the region, his impact needs to spread beyond Miami, beyond Messi himself, and attract people to their local teams across the country.

Sporting KC played their part in this, moving the game from their usual home stadium of Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas to the larger capacity Arrowhead Stadium, home of NFL champions Kansas City Chiefs, across the state line to Missouri so more fans could attend.

And the spectators weren’t disappointed. Sporting KC played their part, and one of their players, in particular, Eric Thommy, lit up the game with two goals.

He pinged one in from the right to open the scoring and then volleyed another in off the post after the ball deflected his way from a corner.

Messi’s goal was special, but Thommy’s strikes edged Messi’s as the standout goals of this dramatic game.

From Sporting’s point of view, it’s disappointing they couldn’t hold on to at least a point, but the drama of the match itself might encourage some of the 70,000 in attendance to return for future games.

8.8 FotMob rating: Josef Paintsil – LA Galaxy

The Galaxy top the Western Conference at this early stage in the season, and in Paintsil have found a new star of the league.

He helped his side to a 3-1 win at Vancouver Whitecaps — one of the West’s other outstanding teams so far this season.

The Ghanaian arrived at the team this season as a Designated Player and has already featured as one of the stars of the week.

It looks like he will be a regular inclusion, as his speed in behind defences will cause trouble for opposition teams in every game.

His movement off the last line of defence led to his goal in this game. When you combine that movement with Riqui Puig’s vision and passing from midfield, you get goals like this one.

They linked up again for the Galaxy’s third goal. Puig set Paintsil through down the right and the winger found Diego Fagúndez with a perfectly weighted pass into the box.

This Puig-Paintsil combination looks set to be an exciting prospect for LA Galaxy fans in this 2024 season.

(Cover Image from IMAGO)

You can follow every match from MLS live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage including shot maps, xG, and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
MLS: Five storylines from Matchday Nine

MLS: Five storylines from Matchday Nine

Inter Miami finally got back to winning ways by beating Sporting KC in front of a record-breaking crowd to return to the top of the Eastern Conference while the LA Galaxy went first in the West. There was no shortage of drama and excitement across Major League Soccer with thrilling matches witnessed in Charlotte, DC, Kansas City, Portland and Vancouver. Here are five of the biggest storylines from the weekend in MLS.

By Graham Ruthven, MLS Expert

Lionel Messi put on a show for a record crowd at Arrowhead Stadium

72,610 people (including NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes) turned up to Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday to watch Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami take on Sporting KC and the World Cup winner put on a show for the largest crowd to ever attend a football match in the state of Missouri. Mahomes can only dream of producing this sort of magic in the same venue.

First, Messi set up Diego Gómez for a first half goal with a sliding through ball in between the lines. The real highlight reel moment, however, came when Messi unleashed a left-footed strike into the top corner from 25 yards out. Luis Suárez ultimately gave Inter Miami the 3-2 victory, ending the Herons’ five-game winless run, but the fourth-largest crowd in MLS history will remember this match for what Messi did.

Houston Dynamo are a force to be reckoned with – even without two DPs

Without Hector Herrera and Sebas Ferreria, it would have been forgivable had the Houston Dynamo suffered in recent weeks. They have also had to contend with the CONCACAF Champions Cup adding high-stakes fixtures to their schedule. Instead, Ben Olsen’s team have won four of their last five in MLS with their latest victory coming away at Minnesota United.

The way Houston finished last season hinted at the force they could become. In a sense, they have picked up where they left off this term, but the Dynamo have yet to reach their ceiling as a team. If they can get Herrera in particular back on the pitch soon, Houston could be among the frontrunners for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

Liel Abada is up and running with his first Charlotte FC strike

Charlotte FC edged a five-goal thriller over Toronto FC at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday with Liel Abada among the goalscorers. The Israeli winger arrived from Celtic in March with a big reputation (and a $8m price tag) and his performance – and first MLS goal – against TFC hinted at why Charlotte FC fans should be excited.

With 20 minutes left to play, Abada was quick to intercept a slack Toronto FC cross-field pass and even quicker to surge into the box and shoot across goal and into the far corner. Charlotte FC needed an efficient attacker to give them another dimension in the final third and the 22-year-old looks like being that figure.

A new position got the best out of Joseph Paintsil for LA Galaxy

Joseph Paintsil has made a profound impact on MLS since joining the LA Galaxy from Genk in the off-season, but Saturday saw the Ghanian produce his best performance in the league to date. Paintsil contributed a goal and an assist in a 3-1 road win over the Vancouver Whitecaps that pushed the Carson outfit to the top of the Western Conference.

Deployed in a central position, Paintsil was influential throughout. The 26-year-old had a hand in all three Galaxy goals and continues to look the part in a team that is increasingly playing to his considerable strengths. “It’s not a position he’s played a ton of, but I thought his movement was smart,” said Greg Vanney. 

CF Montreal’s evolution was clear in long-awaited homecoming 

Under new head coach Laurent Courtois, CF Montreal have made an eye-catching start to the season. Until Saturday, though, the Canadian club’s own supporters hadn’t had an opportunity to experience this in person. Back in front of a home crowd for the first time in 2024, CF Montreal showed how they have evolved.

The hosts controlled the majority of the possession against FC Cincinnati. They had more shots than last season’s Supporters’ Shield winners. The Expected Goals (xG) firmly favoured them. What’s more, Josef Martínez found the back of the net and looked somewhat like the player who lit up MLS for a number of seasons at Atlanta United. These are exciting times at Stade Saputo.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every match from MLS live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage including shot maps, xG, and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Nottingham Forest have one potential saviour – Nuno must get the best out of Morgan Gibbs-White

Nottingham Forest have one potential saviour – Nuno must get the best out of Morgan Gibbs-White

One win in their last nine in all competitions, no clean sheets in two months, only out of the relegation zone by a single point, four points deducted for financial threshold breaches and two of their remaining Premier League games against Manchester City and Chelsea. It’s not an ideal time right now for Nottingham Forest, but they have one ace in the pack who can still save their season.

By Karl Matchett

Amid a rotating cast of attackers and support forwards, Morgan Gibbs-White stands alone. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers man has become a must-have player in the team, a standard-bearer of consistency in terms of his technical play, but also an aggressive, committed member of the team who is fighting for the cause and carrying out the tactical roles required of him.

Gibbs-White has, in fact, played the most league minutes this term of any Forest player, by quite some distance: a little over 2,700 to his name, with centre-back Murillo next at fewer than 2,500.

A hard-working outlet, he takes up clever spaces, receives the ball under pressure and has the vision in his game to execute both more inventive, difficult passes…And the more frequent, necessary ones too, keeping possession and allowing his team to reset after, at-times, long spells of defensive pressure.

But when it comes to surviving the battle against relegation, goals are going to be everything in Forest’s last six, and he’s the one who can provide them. Three assists and two scored in his last five attest to his form, as much as his involvement. But season-long he has been a key figure for Forest, the conduit of the team and the man around who the rest of the attack must be built.

With 61 chances created this term, it’s not hard to see why. Not only is that over double the amount of the squad’s next-highest player – Anthony Elanga has made 29 chances – it’s also comparable with some of the finest creators in the Premier League: Phil Foden has created 61, Kieran Trippier 63, Cole Palmer 52. With 12 big chances included in those, Gibbs-White is fashioning high-value scoring opportunities, too.

Combine that incisive passing with the fact he’s fourth in the team for shots per 90 minutes (2.0), second for successful dribbles (1.4) and top for expected assists (5.7, to seven actual assists) and it’s no surprise that he is the man for all types of attacks, whether he’s at the heart of fashioning them or looking to play the final ball. Unsurprisingly, Gibbs-White tops Forest’s squad list for overall FotMob rating this season (7.22) and in comparison to other players in his role, ranks at 82% for chances created in total – not bad at all considering his place in a team battling relegation. 

While not a shot monster himself, Gibbs-White isn’t afraid to take on chances at goal when they are presented his way, but he understands his true value to the team has to be in creating large volumes of them for others – which also allows him to then be behind play should those efforts not pan out, able to again contribute in midfield. Notably, the 24-year-old ranks extremely highly for aerials – in the 92nd percentile for duels won among players in his role – and it’s this almost box-to-box ability to contribute where they will really need him over the coming weeks.

Gibbs-White was on the scoresheet, and perhaps poignantly, against his former club over the weekend, as Forest once again claimed a point against Wolves. It was another home game where they failed to secure back-to-back wins, though, after beating Fulham last time out at the City Ground.

Their remaining three games, aside from the two against bigger opposition, would then be against direct rivals for the drop: Everton, Sheffield United, Burnley. There is simply no question that Gibbs-White is one of the top performers out of any of those squads this season, and one of the best across the board from a technical and attacking output perspective.

Nuno’s job has to be to get the right players around him so that fewer of those chances created are spurned, and the right players behind him to both provide a platform of defensive resolve and to provide a constant supply line to him.

If Forest can do that, Gibbs-White can fashion enough goalmouth opportunities to give them a real chance of staying up…And then their toughest remaining job might be to keep him beyond summer.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every Premier League game with xG, deep stats, and players ratings, on FotMob this season. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Premier League Review: Round 33

Premier League Review: Round 33

Shock results, missed chances and dropped points. This weekend has the potential to season-defining. For some clubs, it might even be season-changing. We have new Premier League leaders, the race for a top-four finish took another abrupt turn while the landscape at the bottom of the table now looks completely different. Here is your weekend review.

By Sam McGuire, Premier League expert

Goals galore at St James’ Park…again 

Newcastle welcomed Spurs to St James’ Park for the early kick-off on Saturday afternoon. Not that long ago, it appeared as though the Magpies were going to settle for a mid-table finish. However, the second-half comeback against West Ham United seemed to give them a much-needed spark and following the win over Tottenham, they are up to sixth.  

Ange Postecoglou’s men had been inconsistent over recent weeks but seven points from three games had given them control in the race for a top-four finish. Nobody thought Newcastle would be so rampant, not when a win over Eddie Howe’s side would’ve given them complete control of the final Champions League spot with just a handful of games remaining.

Instead of a competent, composed performance from the visitors, they looked like a team who couldn’t deal with the pressure as the hosts ran riot in a 4-0 win. 

Alexander Isak continued his fine form in front of goal by finding the back of the net on two occasions while Anthony Gordon added to his impressive tally of big goals and Fabian Schär added an exclamation point with a fourth late on. It was a scoreline that reflected their dominance. Newcastle are now up to sixth.

The champions claim top spot

It could’ve been a tricky game for Manchester City. 

It wasn’t though. 

Pep Guardiola’s men played host to Luton Town on Saturday afternoon and it was a clash that had the potential to be a bit of a banana skin, especially after their exploits in the Champions League in midweek. 

In the end, however, it was a routine victory for Manchester City. The home side romped to a 5-1 win over the Hatters after a glut of goals in the second half. 

City took the lead inside of two minutes when Daiki Hashioka put the ball into his own net. Despite racking up an xG of 2.03 before the break, the hosts couldn’t add to their early lead. 

Then the floodgates opened just after the hour mark as Mateo Kovačić, Erling Haaland, Jérémy Doku and Joško Gvardiol all scored.

Ross Barkley had made it 3-1 in the 81st minute but City were in cruise control at that point. The hosts carved out chances worth a staggering 4.32 Expected Goals as they climbed back to the top of the table.

Manchester United fail to build momentum 

Last weekend, Manchester United rallied against Liverpool to claim a point. They looked like a completely different team in that second half and many wondered whether this might be a sign of things to come for the Red Devils. 

It was just another false dawn though. 

United could only take a point back to Old Trafford on Saturday evening following their match against Bournemouth. In truth, they probably didn’t even deserve that. 

The visitors created very little in open play and needed a controversial penalty decision to level things up in the second half after the Cherries had taken a 2-1 lead into the break. 

Adam Smith was adjudged to have handled the ball after a shot deflected his way. It was extremely harsh. 

Bournemouth thought they had a stoppage time penalty of their own only for VAR to intervene and decide the incident occurred outside of the penalty area. It was a fortunate point for Manchester United and for the second successive time this season they have failed to build on a positive result against Liverpool.

Fortress Anfield falls 

Liverpool hadn’t lost a league game at Anfield since October 2022. It had been a safe haven for them during this unlikely title challenge and though they’d fallen to defeat in midweek in the Europa League, everyone expected a reaction from Jürgen Klopp and his players. 

A win over Crystal Palace would’ve taken them to the top of the Premier League.

However, it was the Eagles who claimed all three points. It lifted them clear of the relegation battle. 

Eberechi Eze scored what turned out to be the winner in just the 14th minute, taking full advantage of some poor Liverpool defending. 

The visitors looked dangerous on the break but only escaped with three points due to some excellent defending and a number of poor from those in red. 

For the second successive week, the misfiring Liverpool attack has cost them all three points. The Reds missed all four of their big chances and lost ground in the title race. 

Villa stun the Emirates 

Arsenal hosted an out of form Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon knowing a win would see them return to the top of the Premier League table. 

Heading into this game, Unai Emery’s men had won just one of their last five in the Premier League and their grasp on the final Champions League place had slipped. 

By comparison, Arsenal had been ruthless, winning 10 of their last 11 in the English top-flight. They’d only failed to beat Manchester City during this run. 

They started well but allowed the visitors to grow into the game and eventually, Aston Villa broke the deadlock. Leon Bailey opened the scoring and two minutes later Ollie Watkins doubled the lead to stun the hosts late on.

Arsenal are now two points off leaders Manchester City while Villa have a three point advantage over Spurs. 

(Cover Image from IMAGO)

You can follow every match from the Premier League live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
WSL title race: Will Chelsea or Manchester City lift the trophy?

WSL title race: Will Chelsea or Manchester City lift the trophy?

It’s crunch time in the Women’s Super League – after six months of spectacular goals, brilliant individual performances, and shock results, the season is coming to an end.

By Nancy Gillen

Three teams are still vying for the title, but it’s Manchester City who are currently top of the WSL table. They lead with 46 points, three points ahead of Chelsea, who have a game in hand. To make matters even more exciting, City also have a superior goal difference of just one.

Arsenal sit in third, nine points behind City but with a game in hand. While it’s very unlikely the Gunners will be lifting the WSL trophy at the end of the season, only a couple of unexpected results would put them right back into contention. 

Will City prevent Chelsea from clinching a fifth successive league title, will Emma Hayes be leaving the Blues with another WSL winners’ medal in her pocket, or could Arsenal spring a massive surprise?

Emma Hayes’s farewell tour

While City are currently top of the table, Chelsea remain favourites to win the WSL for the fifth season in a row. This would be a fitting farewell to Hayes, who announced in November she would be leaving the club at the end of the season to take charge of the United States women’s national team. 

It’s been a difficult last season for Hayes, who has had to deal with a spate of injuries to her key players. Strikers Sam Kerr and Mia Fishel are both sidelined with ACL injuries, while captain Millie Bright has missed the majority of the campaign with a knee problem.

But Hayes has the ability to nurture players into crucial components of her team when she needs them most. Young forward Aggie Beever-Jones has been a revelation for Chelsea this season, making the most of her limited time on the pitch with a WSL-leading 1.75 goals per 90 minutes. 

Midfielder Johanna Rytting Kaneryd has also stepped up her game this season, recording five assists so far. This, combined with her three goals, puts her top of the WSL assist rankings. Meanwhile, the effervescent Lauren James is Chelsea’s highest scorer this season with 13 goals. 

These players have softened the blow of multiple injuries among the Chelsea squad and have ensured the side have only dropped points on three occasions this season – a draw and a loss to Manchester City, and a defeat to Arsenal. 

The Blues have a slightly easier run-in as the season comes to an end, coming up against Aston Villa, Liverpool, Bristol City, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. 

Manchester City will need Chelsea to drop points against one of these teams to have a chance of winning the WSL.

Manchester City back on top

City have fallen short in the WSL title race in recent years, last winning the title in 2016. But they have benefitted from a settled squad this season, putting them in contention to end Chelsea’s league dominance. 

Gareth Taylor’s side have been impressive in both attack and defence. Bunny Shaw has been on fire, scoring 19 goals and setting up three more. In fact, she is the WSL player with the highest average FotMob rating this season, achieving 8.15. 

Alex Greenwood has not only been a rock in the heart of City’s midfield, but has often been the starting point as her team progress the ball up the field. Boasting a league-high 86.3 accurate passes per 90 minutes, she is crucial to City’s composed build-up play. 

Khiara Keating, just 19 years old, is another supreme talent for City. She has kept seven clean sheets so far this season, the highest in the WSL. She also tops the league for her save percentage of 81.3%.

City evidently do not have many weaknesses, but they still must play Arsenal at home. This is the trickiest game in their run-in, which also includes West Ham, Bristol City and Aston Villa, and it really is a must-win if City want to stun Chelsea and lift the WSL trophy at the end of the season.

Arsenal’s role to play in the WSL title race

Despite victories against Chelsea and Manchester City this season, Arsenal only have themselves to blame for crashing out of the title race after shock losses to Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham.

Defender Lotte Wubben-Moy has been Arsenal’s standout player this season, earning an average FotMob rating of 7.49, but the team’s attack has often misfired during crucial games.

It seems very unlikely the Gunners will be able to catch the two teams above them in the table, but they could still be pivotal in determining where the WSL title goes this season. 

If Arsenal were to beat City on the penultimate weekend of the season, Chelsea would gain crucial breathing space at the top of the table and would likely be gifted that fifth successive WSL title. 

But if City overcome Arsenal, it could set up a mouthwatering final day of the season. The pressure will be on Chelsea, who must travel to Old Trafford to take on United. This could be where they slip up, handing the initiative back to City.

Whatever happens, it’s set to be one of the most thrilling conclusions to a WSL season yet.

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can follow every Women’s Super League game live with FotMob — featuring deep stats coverage and player ratings. Download the free app here.

Posted by Bill Biss
Premier League Quiz: Test your knowledge

Premier League Quiz: Test your knowledge

As part of our new collaboration with our friends at FC Quiz, we’ll be posting a regular Premier League quiz every Friday. Can you top the leaderboard?

(Cover image from IMAGO)

You can play more football quizzes like this one by downloading fcQuiz.

Posted by Bill Biss