A long off season was over and we went into La Liga all needing to improve on last years showing.
With no European football and the board not bothered with the cup our focus was laser pointed on the league. We got out to a little bit of a flyer, knocking off Villareal at their joint, followed by a victory over Almeria.
Our ability to progress in this league will be dependent on how we perform against the big guns in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Third game up we perform reasonably but are done in by a world class strike from Anthony Martial.
Solid results continue for the first half of the year, capped off by an eight game unbeaten run from through November and December . The driving force behind this is our star midfielder and captain, Alex Witsel. Scoring three times in eight matches he was leading the way from the middle of the park.
The run was strong enough for us to stick around the top 4. With Athletico Madrid having a down year, it was the super powers, Sevilla and us dueling it out.
We hit the winter transfer window with plenty of interest around first team keeper Mat Ryan. In the end he was the most significant departure, leaving on deadline day. It was a disappointing fee in the end as equal quality replacements were much more expensive. This meant a bit of scrambling to find an appropriate replacement and Leandro Chichizola was the man.
In terms of bodies in Dragan Maksimovic comes in very highly rated and La Liga team Osasuna were keen to give him some first team time. The other significant transfer was a loan in Olly Zinchenko. Iuri Medeiros wasn’t at the level required, didn’t get the games and asked for his loan to be terminated. Zinchenko was the best talent available.
The transfer window was slammed shut with another loss to Real Madrid, conceding twice from set pieces. It was only a short term issue as we then turned reeled off 6 wins in 7. This time it was new man Zinchenko notching three times throughout the streak playing on the right hand side whilst Dembele was out injured.
After Vigo knocked us off, we had eight games to go and 19 points to secure some level of Champions League football. Third would be straight into a group, fourth and we’d be off to playoffs.
A tricky away match against Real Sociedad ended nil-nil but could and should have been a win. Zinchenko and Batshuayi spurning clear cut chances in the first and second halves respectively. This was followed up with a huge test up against Real Betis, a team who had been a tough opponent over my short time in charge. It looked like more of the same as they grabbed the lead after 36 minutes. A formation switch to the 4-1-2-3 changed the course of the game and possibly the season. Five clear cut chances created with Suk scoring a brace and Witsel once.
If those two were tough, Barcelona at the Nou Camp next was the cherry on top. What conspired was likely the game of the season. Suk continued his stellar form netting within 3 minutes but we were brought level after 10. Alex Witsel then tucked away for 2-1 in the 21st minute. The team held on until the 77th minute when Barca equalised and then five minutes later ahead. We pushed on looking for something out of the game and when Juan Iturbe was put through by Ousmane Dembele we were back tied. The gut punch was provided by who else than the little master Messi in the 91st minute.
Rather than discouragement, the team pushed on winning its next two, Suk scoring in both with critical contributions from Zinchenko, Abdennour, Correa and that man Witsel. Results elsewhere meant we had locked in Champions League football, it was just our starting point to be determined.
A struggle away against Bilbao, conceding early and then spurning chances meant we still needed points going into the last two. Three points against a disappointing Athletico Madrid put us a step closer with the last game of the year 3rd vs 4th a playoff for the group stage.
Sevilla opened the scoring in the 8th minute with Bongonda but we responded immediately through Zinchenko. That took the gas out of Sevilla and the game petered out to a 1-1 draw.
Redemption and Champions League Football!
We were still miles off the pace in terms of the top two but to finish third and obtain access to the riches of continental competition felt like a superb result. The driving factor was being solid at the back and hard to beat. In some ways it makes sense, but we finished third in goals against and third in losses. We rarely moved away from defensive or counter risk ratings. We relied on this to control the ball and reduce opportunities for the opposition to get cheap goals off us.
The most immediate question in this space would normally be, what will it take to crack the top two. However they still have their Messi and Ronaldo’s performing at a high level. the immediate aim was therefore to consolidate in the top 4.
By keeping things tight, we did reduce the potential goal scoring output. So much so that the leading goal scorer was midfielder Alex Witsel. He ended up being the pick of the squad appearing 34 times including 3 substitute appearances he scored 11 times, assisted on 5 and averaged a 7.23. He did take and score 4 penalties within this, but was without a miss.
The two men upfront Suk and Batshuayi scored 8 a piece, with Batshuayi being the pick assisting 9 times to Suk’s 3. Olly Zinchenko played a significant role towards the end of the season with 11 starts, 5 subs but producing 5 goals and 3 assists.
In defence, our solid performers were the fullbacks, Fede Mattiello appearing 31 times for an average rating of 7.06 whilst Figgy and Nicoletti combined on the left side for 7.05 and 7.10 respectively. It is likely that Nicoletti will become a first teamer in the 2020/21 season.
So the objective is consolidation for the upcoming season.The board have provided some additional transfer funds, but not a high amount. The wage budget is being managed closely, with the spend under the normal budget of 1.6m per week. We’ll need a replacement for Eze Garay whose wages completely outstripped his worth to the team.
We’ll maintain the approach of plenty of preseason games making sure the team is familiar and fit so we can hit the ground running. There are no major plans to change formations, although the 4-1-2-3 will become the primary shape as it offers just a little bit more going forward.
But we should still bask a little in the afterglow of this season. The board are well and truly on side now and the fans are right behind the team. It was a hell of a satisfying year.