No matter what the competition is and in which sport, spectators want to see the best competitors taking the field. In football this is no different. All of the squads have now been announced for Euro 2016 and there are numerous high-profile absentees from this year’s tournament.

Out of all of the players that will be absent from the 15th edition of the European Championships, you can compile a very competitive squad and one that would probably challenge for the trophy.


England’s Jack Butland fractured his ankle during England’s 3-2 win over Germany in March, just after he had been given his chance by Roy Hodgson to stake a claim to become first-choice. Our other two keepers, Ron Robert Zieler and Kevin Trapp, haven’t missed out due to injury, but because of the shear wealth of talent that Germany have in goal.


Real Madrid team-mates Raphaël Varane and Daniel Carvajal were both called up for France and Spain respectively. However, Varane picked up an injury in training ahead of the Champions League Final and Carvajal limped off in the aforementioned game with a muscle injury. Belgium’s captain, Vincent Kompany, sustained a thigh injury during the Champions League semi-final second leg and will be a big miss for the Red Devils. 20-year-old Luke Shaw suffered a double broken leg during Manchester United’s Champions League defeat last September and isn’t yet fully recovered. Bayern’s Javi Martínez has had a season disrupted by injury and there were question marks over his fitness ahead of the Euros.


Spain are blessed with a wealth of talent in midfield and that is why Juan MataIsco and Saúl Ñíguez have been omitted. If the trio were of another nationality, then you would have seen them playing in the Euros this summer. Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla was excluded having just returned from a long-term knee injury. Lass Diarra has enjoyed a renaissance this season and was part of France’s squad for the Euros. Unfortunately he had to pull out of the squad after suffering a knee injury during a 3-2 friendly win over Cameroon last week. Italy have arguably been hardest hit in midfield with certain starters Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio missing through injury, significantly weakening their squad. New Manchester City signing, İlkay Gündoğan, will be missing his second successive tournament due to injury.


Gündoğan’s former team-mate, Marco Reus, is also set to miss out on a second consecutive tournament due to concerns over his fitness. Germany will also be missing Karim Bellarabi who was cut from the provisional squad as Joachim Löw has gone for the more experienced Lukas Podolski and André Schürrle. Chelsea’s Diego Costa was omitted from Spain’s squad due to not fitting their style of play. Danny Welbeck scored 6 goals for England during the qualifiers but a knee injury that will keep him out until early 2017 has forced him to miss the Euros. Hosts France will be missing the attacking trio of Karim BenzemaAlexandre Lacazette and Hatem Ben Arfa. The former has been omitted due to an impending court case, whereas the other two miss out due to the wealth of attackers at Didier Deschamp’s disposal.


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With Barcelona dominating the club game and Spain bossing the international scene, the period between around 2008 and 2012 saw many teams across Europe attempt to replicate the pair’s proactive, possession-based style of play.

Stoke City under Tony Pulis were always an exception to that trend. Their football was invariably based on keeping things tight at the back, launching long balls forward to a targetman striker and making the most of attacking set-pieces. It was common for the defence to be made up of four centre-backs, while experiments with more technical players –Tuncay Sanli and Eidur Gudjohnsen to name but two – generally did not work out. The defining image of Pulis-era Stoke was probably Rory Delap drying the ball on a towel while preparing to unleash one of his wicked long throws into the penalty area.

It was not football for the purists, but there was something enjoyable about the variety that Stoke’s differing approach provided. When Mark Hughes took over from Pulis in 2013, the Potters began to play more expansively, their possession figures increasing and the emphasis shifting from the physical to the technical.

That transformation looked to have been completed this summer, when Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi, Chelsea’s Marco van Ginkel and Inter’s Xherdan Shaqiri were added to a squad that already contained the likes of Bojan and Marko Arnautovic.

Curiously, though, a glance at Stoke’s results show that their season so far has been based on defensive solidity rather than attacking firepower. Only Manchester United (nine), Arsenal (11) and Tottenham Hotspur (11) have conceded fewer goals than Hughes’ men’s 12, with five clean sheets in 13 matches evidencing their terrific ability to keep the opposition out.

Stoke have lost just one of their last eight games to climb away from the relegation zone and into mid-table; even more impressively, they have recorded five defensive shut-outs in their last six outings, keeping out the various threats posed by Chelsea, Southampton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Swansea City. Such statistics were common in Pulis’ tenure, but it is interesting that they have continued this term despite Hughes encouraging and developing a more attack-minded philosophy in the last couple of years.

There is a fine blend and balance to the side at present, with the aforementioned flair players such as Bojan and Shaqiri part of a team that also features its fair share of strength and aggression in Ryan Shawcross, Erik Pieters and Glenn Whelan. Many believed the Potters had attempted to overhaul their squad too quickly in the summer, but it was sensible of Hughes and the club’s hierarchy to retain some of the men who are more associated with the ‘old Stoke’ as they attempt to create a new identity and way of doing things at the Britannia Stadium.

Ahead of Saturday’s clash with Sunderland – whose backline, conversely, has been breached on 26 occasions, more often than any other Premier League outfit but Bournemouth – Stoke find themselves in a positive position, with another top-half placing the likely target this campaign after a ninth-place finish last time out. They are likely to become more expansive as the season goes on but, for now, Hughes’ charges are showing many of the qualities – solidity, commitment, organisation – that were common under Pulis.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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For a man who scored 16 goals in 76 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, Roberto Soldado’s late-career revival never seemed as it would happen by a mere switching of settings – even if it did include a return to his home region of Valencia.

At 30 years of age, the best version of Soldado is likely already in the history books. His international prospects have been and gone, as has his chance to affirm himself as one of Europe’s most feared sharpshooters. However, what now remains is an opportunity to rubber-stamp his status as one of the finest domestic strikers in Spain’s recent memory, following on from his time with Valencia and Getafe previously. And even with a modest two goals in eight games, the early signs are good.

It took him just 30 minutes to find the back of the net in the league opener at Real Betis, while in the corresponding weeks, Villarreal also rocketed to the summit of the table thanks to a string of free-flowing attacking performances. Nine goals were notched in three games, while for added effect; Marcelino’s team took the scalp of Atletico Madrid in September. In a team headed by Soldado, one would thus assume that the 30-year-old has remained a centrepiece of their successful start. And he has, albeit in a rather covert manner that has seen remnants of his true impact lost within the flurry.

While Villarreal’s overall statistics may make for pleasant reading, Soldado’s contribution of two league goals within the team’s 13 appears rather meager. After scoring in week one and two, the goals have dried up. And as of week eight, the Real Madrid youth product has now gone 450 minutes without finding the back of the net, to draw parallels with the two-year dry spell which he appeared to have emerged from.

To look beyond his goal tally however, a much different picture quickly reveals itself. Nobody has assisted more goals in Spain than Soldado so far, and when coupled with his own strikes, it means that his contributions have accounted for just under half of Villarreal’s production in the final third.

The blistering start made by the Yellow Submarine has gone some ways to masking their underlying deficiencies, and it has been Soldado who has taken it upon himself to help cover them up in the name of their cause.

In the 4-4-2 that Marcelino remains loyal to, much of the team’s product comes from wide areas due to a lack of a central creative source. Although midfield pairing Bruno Soriano and Manu Trigueros are exceptional players in their own right, the link between midfield and attack through the middle isn’t an innate feature of Villarreal’s game, meaning the buck has somewhat fallen with Soldado.

Given the 30-year-old’s ability in protecting and distributing the ball with his back to goal – which has been consistently on show since he returned to Spain – a large feature of his game has been based around his willingness to occupy the space between central midfield and the tip of Villarreal’s attack. And while that has facilitated the team’s serenity in the final third, it has come to the detriment of his own goalscoring exploits.

Instead of being the man Villarreal look to for the final touch of the attack (as many had expected), Soldado has been doing very much the opposite due to the nature of his skillset and the team’s immediate options. Unlike strike partners Leo Baptistao and Cedric Bakambu who have cashed in on the goals more than Soldado, neither possesses the ability to occupy spaces in between the lines like he does. And as a result, it means the former two find themselves bearing down on goal at much more regular intervals than the former Spurs man, who in turn is doing much of the foundation work for his teammates.

In many ways, the variety of his attacking attributes has sentenced him to a role which doesn’t reflect his contribution in its full essence – at least to the naked eye. At the moment, Soldado is doing positive work for the team that flies under the radar of tangible notoriety and leaves him susceptible to the recurring jibes of his loss of a ‘goalscoring touch’.

For a man who is imaginably desperate to recapture just that before further time elapses on his career, he should be commended if anything.

About the author – Jamie Kemp

Jamie is a freelance sportswriter, who writes on English and Spanish varieties of football in the main. He is also the creator of the popular blog El Rondo; a spot where you can find regular musings on the world of La Liga.

twitter: @jamiekemp


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This Saturday’s issue of the ‘i’ newspaper had a feature entitled ‘Mata shines in the Van Gaal revolution’ in recognition of the integral part that the Spaniard plays in Manchester. Two years ago Mata became Manchester United’s club record transfer when he flew into Carrington in a helicopter with a £37 million pound tag around his neck. Before that, Mata had transferred from a Valencia team that gained so many plaudits with talents like David Silva and David Villa, to Chelsea as the Premier Leagues infatuation with the ‘Number Ten’ really started to hit the heights of sheer romanticism.

The past decade has seen a massive shift in the way that Premier League teams operate on the pitch, and this has been largely influenced by the continental game. Gone are the days of orthodox 4-4-2 formations that relied largely in athleticism and brute strength – think about the Manchester United team that won the treble in 1999 with Roy Keane at the helm – they have been ousted by the 4-2-3-1. As mentioned the 4-2-3-1’s origins are from the continent and relies on movement, dynamism and precision passing to create overloads and passing triangles across the pitch. But most importantly the formations effectiveness rests largely on the shoulders of the individual who plays behind the striker.

This position is largely known as the ‘Number 10’ and is home to some of the world’s most revered players, those who immediately draw the eye with their intellect on the pitch, fantastic movement and passing range. This individual controls the game from his advanced position and Mata is one of the best at it as this season shows. His ability to control the game fits perfectly with the Van Gaal system of football, one that relies so heavily on possession. Manchester United struggled massively after the departure of Alex Ferguson, they had a squad that was bereft of creative players and midfield that was slow and one-dimensional. The arrival of Mata was meant to steady the sinking ship under David Moyes, but the Scotsman pushed his main creative hub out on to the right hand side and as such the ship eventually sunk for the man who finds himself in San Sebastian.

United’s number 8 is the prime example of how a playmaker should operate; using movement to cycle possession and create gaps. The position can be wholly underrated, and when a playmaker is left out of the team it is almost as if a team lacks any creativity going forward. Mata is the ultimate ‘connector’ providing creative flair to any team he plays in, which invariably makes those teams all the more threatening. After being used out wide he is now at the centre of the pitch, and Mata is much more beneficial to his team as a result. His goal scoring return further demonstrates that he should play a more central role, with 9 goals last term was the best since his 12 for Chelsea during his debut season.

Since then Chelsea themselves has really struggled without a naturalised Number 10, their success has largely come from wider areas of the pitch after the departure of Mata. Whilst Oscar is an extremely talented footballer, the question that is raised is whether he can replicate the delicate, intelligent play that a Number 10 can bring. The same question was posed to Shinji Kagawa who ultimately failed to live up to his sparkling reputation in Dortmund when playing down the middle for Manchester United. The position is an incredibly difficult one to master, hence why the players who play there are held in such high esteem – almost as if they are fantasy characters. When thinking of the likes of Zidane, Riquelme, Ronaldinho the football fan always becomes misty eyed, emotional and a large smile will appear on their faces because they are capable of magic on the football pitch.

There should be no doubt that when Juan Mata retires that he should bring those same emotions to the ordinary football fan because he is capable of the same things. Imagine Mata in a wizards hat casting a spell over the ball as he tricks his way past the opposition midfielder before picking out a wonderful through pass for the striker. Equally as effective floating in from the right hand channel as well, his intelligence is exactly what is needed to succeed at the highest level. In the modern game, every team craves a player who can create something out of nothing and Manchester United fans should feel incredibly happy that one of those players is in one of their shirts.

About the Author – Ben Jarman

Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.

Twitter: @sonikkicks


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La Liga Three to watch


Pace Alcacer 1

Paco Alcacer, Valencia

Spanish football has become famous for its almost ceaseless production line of diminutive, technical midfielders, but in Alcacer, they have managed to unearth one of the most promising young strikers on the continent.

The 21-year-old made his senior Valencia debut in 2010 having progressed through Los Che’s youth ranks. A loan spell at Getafe in 2012-13 served him well, with Alcacer returning a better and more experienced player. In the two seasons since then, the youngster has netted a respectable 17 La Liga goals in 43 starts, with seven strikes in 11 Europa League appearances in 2013-14 further evidence of his potential.

While Alcacer is a good finisher, his off-the-ball movement is arguably his best trait. Able to both drop deep and sprint in behind, the Valencia man has a knack for finding that vital yard of space even in the tightest of areas.

Valencia are back in the Champions League this season following a two-year absence, which gives Alcacer a chance to demonstrate his talent on the biggest stage of all. Though Nuno’s side have completed the permanent signing of Alvaro Negredo from Manchester City this summer, No. 9 Alcacer looks set to be Valencia’s main man up top this term.7



Aymeric Laporte 1Aymeric Laporte, Athletic Bilbao

Athletic Club supporters will have been delighted with the news that Laporte had extended his contract until 2019 in June, despite rumoured interest from the likes of English giants Manchester United. Should he replicate his recent performances again this term, though, the Basque side may find it difficult to resist bids from some of Europe’s top clubs in the years to come.

Laporte is an ultra-modern centre-half: strong in the tackle, quick across the ground and happy to bring the ball out of defence, the 21-year-old has all the qualities needed to play in the heart of the backline.

Having made 49 appearances in all competitions in 2014-15, Laporte is already an integral member of Ernesto Valverde’s squad. With Euro 2016 on the horizon, the Frenchman will be hoping that another successful campaign in La Liga could earn him his first senior cap and a place in his country’s squad as they host the competition in 10 months’ time; though Didier Deschamps’ France have the likes of Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho to call upon, Laporte certainly has the ability to muscle his way in.



Sergi SamperSergi Samper, Barcelona

Samper has been linked with a move to Arsenal in recent weeks but looks set to stay at Camp Nou for the season ahead. The 20-year-old midfielder made four appearances for the treble-winning Barcelona first team last time out – three in the Copa del Rey and one in the Champions League – and will look to build upon that base in the months ahead, with Barca perhaps mindful that a complete lack of action could see him push for a move away.

Samper operates as a holding midfielder, a role that allows him to use his superb range of passing to dictate his side’s play and help control the tempo of game. He also has good awareness and positions himself well, vital attributes for someone deployed deepest in the engine room.

The strength of the options available to Luis Enrique makes it difficult to imagine Samper starting week in week out but, with the Catalans unable to field any new players until 2016, the midfielder could be called upon should Barcelona encounter any sort of injury crisis. Labelled by some as the long-term successor to Sergio Busquets, Samper certainly has the talent to make the step up.


About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.
Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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