The Current State of Play in the European Club Game and What 2023 Could Bring

After many months of waiting, debate and a very peculiar Northern Hemisphere summer without the world’s second biggest sports event behind the Summer Olympic Games, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the first to be staged outside of the tournament’s traditional summer months has begun.

 

Over the duration of five weeks, the eyes of all football fans everywhere will be glued to the 22nd edition of world football’s most famous international competition. Who will follow in the footsteps of past World Cup greats such as Pele, Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and the late Diego Armando Maradona in taking home the most famous prize in the sport?

 

For the very first time in the competition’s history, the FIFA World Cup takes place part-way through a European club football season, which at the top level is embarking on a unique four to five week pause for a variety of different elite leagues, which are near the halfway stage of their season.

 

Therefore, as the action gets underway in Qatar, here is a rundown of the major talking points and state of play in the European club game. In addition, here is also a look forward to fascinating upcoming developments in the European club game in 2023 and what the remainder of the 2022/23 season could bring.

 

Intriguing Title Races in Both England and Spain, Where the Pre-season Underdog Currently Leads the Favourite

 

The first talking point to analysis as the European club season pauses for the 2022 FIFA World Cup is the title races that are currently ongoing in both the English Premier League and La Liga. Whilst one league is currently demonstrating a much higher level than the other league when it comes to performances in European competition, there is a strong similarity in both competitions. That being both pre-season underdogs are currently leading the standings over the pre-season favourites. In the Premier League, it is Arsenal, currently undergoing their third full season under the management of Mikel Arteta who lead the table by a margin of five points ahead of 2nd placed Manchester City after 14 matches.

 

The dynamic of The Gunners leading The Cityzens at the time of the World Cup is further enhanced by the fact that Arteta himself served as Pep Guardiola’s assistant for the first two of legendary managers Premier League title wins in 2017/18 and 2018/19. It was Arteta, tempted by a desire to become a number one after serving an apprenticeship under Pep who opted to leave the Etihad Stadium partway through the 2019/20 campaign to succeed Unai Emery in the Arsenal dugout. 

 

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After a well-below par first full season at Arsenal in 2020/21 which yielded an 8th place finish and no European club competition qualification, 2021/22 saw a considerable improvement from Arteta and The Gunners. However, there was still a feeling of disappointment at its conclusion as away losses at arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United on Matchdays 36 and 37 saw Arsenal slip to 5th place in the final Premier League table. A classification which saw them miss out on the Champions League riches.

 

However, if there was any hangover from the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League, Arteta and Arsenal have not demonstrated it during 2022/23 so far. It’s a campaign which has yielded just one loss so far, a Matchday Six 3-1 away loss to Manchester United, where it was widely stated after the game that Arsenal had played well despite the loss. By comparison, after 14 games at the same stage in 2021/22, Arsenal had already lost five Premier League matches and sat 5th place in the Premier League compared to the 1st place they currently occupy. 

 

Arsenal have shown financial backing to Arteta since he arrived at the club, especially over the last two summer transfer windows, signings such as Ben White, Martin Odegaard, Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Fabio Vieira representing a youthful core which Arteta has built around.

 

Combine these additions with the arrival of two other 2022 summer signings, Gabriel Jesus & Oleksandr Zinchenko from Manchester City fresh of the back of so much success plus an experienced central midfield duo of 30 year-old Granit Xhaka & 29 year old Thomas Partey and the rebuilding job set in motion after a transitional period post-Arsene Wenger is finally baring fruit.

 

So many fully-deserved superlatives and praise have been said about Pep Guardiola and the Manchester City side he has built since the legendary manager arrived at Etihad Stadium in the summer of 2016. Four Premier League titles, four EFL Cups and one FA Cup are evidence of this, with only the absence of a Champions League title preventing the cementation of one of the best ever dynasties in English footballing history.

 

Yet, despite the arrival of star striker Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund this summer, recent one-goal defeats away to Liverpool and at home to Brentford has seen The Cityzens go into the World Cup break chasing a five point deficit to Arsenal. 

 

Throughout Guardiola’s time at Manchester City, his sides have specialised in mid to late season power runs of form. Surges which allow them to get to the top of the league & then either blow away the trailing pack or force a challenger to be almost as brilliantly consistent as they are just to take a title race to the final day, as Liverpool have done twice in 2018/19 and 2021/22.

 

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In four of Guardiola’s six fully-completed seasons at Etihad Stadium where Manchester City eventually won the title, in only two of those seasons, 2020/21 and 2021/22 have Manchester City not been leading the league after 14 games. The deficit in the first of those campaigns was five points to Liverpool and just a solitary point to Chelsea in the second of those aforementioned campaigns. 

 

The sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II in early September led to the eventual postponement of the first league clash between Arsenal and Manchester City this season which had been scheduled to take place at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on Premier League Matchday 12. Upon the return of the Premier League from its World Cup break on Boxing Day, both the top two sides will still have to play each other twice.

 

With Manchester City trailing Arsenal by five points, there is pressure on Guardiola’s side to take either 4 or 6 points from the two matches against Arsenal, especially taking into account the impressive consistency of The Gunners so far, who seem more mentally strong comparative to past seasons.

 

Will Manchester City do their usual power-surge over December to February to take the lead of the title race just like in past seasons to alleviate possible fears from their supporters? Or will Arsenal, arguably a year ahead of expectations when it comes to putting together a title challenge considering where the club was upon the arrival of Arteta just short of three years ago hold their nerve and triumph come season’s end? Can they topple Guardiola’s relentless title winning machine just like Jurgen Klopp was able to do with Liverpool in 2019/20? Will apprentice topple master?

 

Meanwhile in Spain, after several years of Spain’s traditional El Clasico duo of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona being joined in title races and stature by the brilliant work of Atletico de Madrid under Diego Simeone’s management, 2022/23 has seen a firm return to a two-way title fight of old.

 

Going into the World Cup break, Barcelona sit top of La Liga with 37 points from 14 matches, Real are just two points behind them in 2nd place with 35 points and there is a nine point gap to 3rd placed Real Sociedad who have accumulated 26 points from their 14 matches so far.

 

A club like FC Barcelona are always under strong media spotlight, however, one would say that this spotlight has been stronger than ever before after the club dominated the headlines over the summer. Despite a precarious looking financial situation, the club was able to activate various economic levers by selling off club assets to raise revenues in the short term.

 

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Revenues which can be used to finance much needed player transfers to improve manager Xavi Hernandez’s squad. In came winger Raphinha from Leeds United, central defenders Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde from Chelsea and Sevilla FC respectively, central midfielder Franck Kessie from Milan and finally, the biggest capture of all, Polish superstar striker Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich.

 

Whilst all of these captures were impressive, question marks in the summer were raised over just how quick these players could gel at Barca. Xavi still possesses a lack of top-level managerial experience by learning on the job and Barca’s 13-point deficit to Real Madrid last season. Many pundits despite the pulling of these economic levers still had Real Madrid under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti as title favourites pre-season. A tag which Los Blancos firmly justified with a deserved 3-1 victory over Barca in the first Clasico of the season on Matchday Nine. 

 

However, since their defeat in El Clasico, Barca have been perfect with five wins out of five in La Liga, some of which with impressive margins of victory, such as home 3-0 and 4-0 wins over Villarreal and Athletic Club respectively. Despite late player registration issues and defensive injuries to the likes of Jules Kounde and Ronald Araujo, Barca have been very sound defensively in La Liga, only conceding five goals in their 14 matches so far.

 

Resilience was also on display from Xavi’s side in their final La Liga match before the World Cup break, a comeback 2-1 victory away at high-flying Osasuna despite playing the majority of the match with 10 players after Lewandowski was shown a first half red card. On the other hand, Real Madrid have been sloppy domestically since their home Clasico win.

 

A home draw against newly promoted Girona and a shock away loss against Rayo Vallecano saw Los Blancos surrender their lead at the top. It could be argued that the World Cup break has come at the ideal time for Carlo Ancelotti & Real. Much has been made of Barca’s early group stage elimination in the Champions League for a second straight season striking contrasts to their performances in La Liga where they have looked impressive.

 

However, it is important to caveat that Barca did have a very tough Champions League group with Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, a group which gave a realistic possibility for an early exit to a side still very much in transition despite all the summer lever pulling.

 

Like Manchester City in the Premier League, it can be argued that despite trailing at the time of the World Cup break, Real remain title favourites in La Liga. Ancelotti has far more managerial experience than Xavi, the gap is only two points and Real possess a more settled side. Yet all the pressure is on them.

 

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Even in spite of the lever pulling in the summer and the calibre of player Barca were able to attract, closing a 13-point gap to Real in one season remains a challenge. Had anyone pre-season offered Barca the chance to be two points ahead of Real at this point, the person making the offer would have had their hands snapped off.  Will Barca president Joan Laporta’s massive double gamble comprised of appointing Xavi as manager part-way through last season and economic lever pulling pay off?

 

Can Napoli Hold Their Nerve in a Potentially Decisive January to Set up a First Scudetto Since 1990?

 

Whilst both England and Spain currently see two-way fights for the title, currently, Italy’s Serie A sees one side racing clear at the top of the standings, SSC Napoli. The past golden era for the Neapolitan outfit came in the mid to late 1980’s when inspired by the late Diego Armando Maradona, the Partenopei won two Serie A titles (1987 & 1990), a Coppa Italia (1986/87) and a UEFA Cup/Europa League title (1988/89). For a solitary season in 1987/88, Maradona was paired up in attack with Bruno Giordano and Brazilian forward Careca in the famous Ma-Gi-Ca front line. 

 

The 1990’s and early 2000’s were a difficult time post Maradona for Napoli, a big on pitch decline was followed by relegation to Serie B and eventual bankruptcy in 2004. Film-maker Aurelio de Laurentiis re-founding of Napoli shortly afterwards has seen the club enjoy a meteoric rise once again with three Coppa Italia victories & frequent Champions League qualification.

 

A third-ever Serie A title has remained elusive though under De Laurentiis’ ownership. The closest Napoli have come being the legendary title fight with Juventus in 2017/18, they eventually finished 2nd with 91 points, just four points behind their fierce Northern rivals.

 

There is an ever-growing belief amongst Napoli and their supporters, however, that 2022/23 will be the year where the club’s 32 year title drought ends. Partenopei have accumulated 41 points from their 15 matches so far, sit at the top of the Serie A table and have an 8 point advantage over defending champions AC Milan in second place.

 

So far, everything is nicely in place, Napoli remain unbeaten in the league & new signings such as South Korean international defender Min-Jae Kim and Georgian attacker Kvicha Kvaratskhelia have settled in well with their performances so far. 

 

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Most impressive of all though, has been how all the attacking talent in Napoli’s squad have stood up, weighing in with goals and assists to share the workload out amongst each other. Victor Osimhen is the club and the league’s top scorer with 9 from 11 games. Kvaratskhelia has weighed in with 6 goals and 7 assists from 12 games, Hirving Lozano & Matteo Politano have chipped in with 3 goals and 3 assists each from 14 matches. Finally, Polish midfielder Piotr Zielinski has 5 assists & 3 goals from 15 matches.

 

As the World Cup break kicks in and Serie A takes a pause until the first weekend in January, Napoli will have some time off to prepare for what could be a potentially decisive January. Their first league game back after the break is Inter Milan away on January 4th, it is followed later in the month by home matches against both Juventus and Roma.

 

Their Serie A matches in January are worth following to see whether Napoli can hold their nerve and secure a first Serie A title in 32 years. The stakes are also high for Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti. Despite an impressive & much-lauded coaching career at the likes of Udinese and Roma in the past, Spalletti, who turns 64 in March 2023 has never won a Serie A title as a coach. Will 2022/23 finally be his year?

 

European Club Competition Draws With No End to the Intrigue, Including a Europa League Knockout Play-off Round of Death

 

If one had to pick three words to describe the group stages three UEFA club competitions, the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Europa Conference League: Drama, Tension and Surprise would be good choices. In the Champions League, one noteworthy feature of this season’s edition was vastly improved performances amongst the sides not in the so-called “Big Five European Leagues” comparative to past seasons.

 

The first noteworthy feat was conducted by both Portugal’s FC Porto and Belgium’s Club Brugge KV as both clubs progressed through the group stage as winners and runners-up respectively. Both clubs prevailed despite the presence of past finalists from the Champions League era of this competition in their group in the shape of Atletico de Madrid and Bayer 04 Leverkusen.

 

The qualification of two “non-big five league” sides from a specific group to the knockout round is only the 7th time this feat has happened in 160 groups over a period of 20 seasons since the Champions League adopted its current format in 2003/04. Another side to impress in the Champions League were SL Benfica.

 

Portugal’s record championship winners were handed a tough assignment when the group stage draw happened after being pitted in a group with Juventus FC and Paris St Germain. However, O Glorioso, coached by highly-rated German manager Roger Schmidt impressed throughout the group stage.

 

Home & away draws against Paris St Germain in addition to home & away victories over both Juventus and the third team in the group Maccabi Haifa saw Benfica finish on an impressive 14 points, comfortably qualifying for the Round of Sixteen. Even more impressively, Benfica topped the group over high-budgeted PSG, both sides were tied on points & on the first tie-breaker of head-to-head results. Yet, Benfica finished ahead of the Parisians’ courtesy of away goals scored (9 compared to PSG’s 6).

 

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In the Europa League, noteworthy stories included the double headed contest between Real Sociedad and Manchester United in their group. Both sides finished on fifteen points, comfortably qualifying for the knockout round of the competition.

 

However, because they were also tied with 1-0 away wins against each other for head-to-head results, it was Los Txuri-Urdin (The White & Blues) who won the group over the Red Devils on goal difference. Manchester United’s failure to take more of the many chances they created against Cypriot side Omonia Nicosia at Old Trafford cost them the chance to win their group and to avoid the knockout play-off round.

 

Also noteworthy in the Europa League group stages was Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma being pushed all the way for qualification for the knockouts by 11 times consecutive Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad and only being able to finish 2nd place in their group after taking only one point from their two matches against eventual group winners Real Betis Balompie. Hungarian outfit Ferencvaros also impressively won a group containing AS Monaco, Turkish champions Trabzonspor and Red Star Belgrade. 

 

Finally, there was the remarkable group F containing Feyenoord Rotterdam, FC Midtjylland, SS Lazio and SK Sturm Graz. A group where all teams finished on 8 points from their 6 group games. Head-to-head results were tied in this group and were therefore taken out of the equation for determining qualification, so goal-difference then became the decisive factor.

 

It was Feyenoord & Midtjylland who qualified for the knockout round with Feyenoord winning the group over the Danish side courtesy of overall goals scored as both sides were tied on goal difference. This unique situation will bring back memories for older readers of the 1994 FIFA World Cup when Mexico, Ireland, Italy and Norway were all tied on 4 points each in their group.

 

The Europa Conference League group stage also provided some memorable stories & talking points. West Ham United put aside their struggles domestically in the Premier League to underline their status as competition favourites by recording 6 wins out of 6 from their group containing Anderlecht, FCSB and Silkeborg IF.

 

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The next best group stage record after The Irons surprisingly went to Swedish Allsvenskan outfit Djurgardens IF as they topped a group containing Molde, Gent and Shamrock Rovers with five wins and a draw from their 6 group stage games. Finally, another noteworthy feature of the group stage was the impressive performance of Turkish Super Lig clubs.

 

After a number of tough seasons in European competition which had seen Turkey drop out of the top 20 ranked UEFA leagues according to the UEFA Coefficient, Sivasspor and Istanbul Basaksehir both topped their Europa Conference League groups ahead of sides fancied to do well. Istanbul Basaksehir, coached by former Galatasaray, Inter Milan, Newcastle and Fenerbahce midfielder Emre Belozoglu topped their group impressively ahead of Serie A outfit Fiorentina.

 

Whereas Sivasspor topped a group which included Kosovan side FC Ballkani, Romanian champions CFR Cluj and Czech side Slavia Prague, who in many people’s eyes pre-group were considered strong favourites to finish top. With this season’s final of the competition set to take place at Slavia’s own Sinobo Stadium in the Czech capital, a tame group stage exit in a relatively good looking group for Slavia will be viewed as a disappointment.

 

The draw for all three UEFA club competitions certainly has not disappointed with so much to look forward to in the new year when the knockout rounds begin. In the Champions League, the two ties of the round look to be a repeat of last season’s final between Real Madrid & Liverpool FC in addition to Paris St Germain, perhaps now rueing not winning their group against FC Bayern Munich.

 

Ties such as Tottenham Hotspur vs AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund vs Chelsea look well-balanced on paper. Finally, SL Benfica vs Club Brugge and SSC Napoli and Eintracht Frankfurt are two ties where there is a favourite in both in the shape of Benfica and Napoli, however, both Club Brugge and Frankfurt are capable of causing an upset.

 

The knockout playoff round of the Europa Conference League is also packed with some even and difficult-to-predict ties. The highlight of which looks to be SC Braga of Portugal vs AC Fiorentina of Italy. Braga, perennial 4th placed finishers, best of the rest behind Portuguese football traditional “Os Tres Grandes” clubs will be disappointed to drop into the Conference League after being top-seeded for their Europa League group which contained Union St Gilloise, 1 FC Union Berlin and Malmo FF.

 

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Whilst Fiorentina will also be disappointed to have only finished 2nd in a Europa Conference League group they were expected to win. Other ties that stand out in this round include Trabzonspor vs Basel, SS Lazio vs CFR Cluj and Ludogorets Razgrad vs Anderlecht.

 

However, the most intriguing part of the European club competition draw has to be the Europa League Knockout Playoff Round, which can be termed a “Knockout Playoff Round” of death given the size and reputation of the sides in it. Sporting CP v Midtjylland, Shakhtar Donetsk vs Stade Rennais, Ajax Amsterdam vs Union Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen vs AS Monaco, Sevilla FC vs PSV Eindhoven and Red Bull Salzburg vs AS Roma are a delicious starter and dessert for this feast of a Europa League Knockout Playoff Round.

 

However, the main course comes courtesy of the other two ties in the round. Juventus FC vs FC Nantes is a repeat of the 1995/96 UEFA Champions League semi-final where when en-route to their second European Cup/Champions League triumph, Juventus defeated Nantes, who had embarked on their best run in European club competition. Nantes haven’t had a chance to have revenge on Bianconeri since, yet now that possibility has occurred. 

 

However, the tie of the round without question is Manchester United vs FC Barcelona. Two famous giants of European and World football both currently in transition. Two recently appointed coaches in Erik ten Haag and Xavi Hernandez who are desperate to return these giants back to the top under feverish pressure from demanding supporters. It has all the ingredients to be a tie for the ages in what looks to be an unmissable mouth-watering round of Europa League action

 

Tiers Three, Four and Five Continue on in English Football and All Look Set for Fascinating Promotion Battles

 

Whilst Qatar 2022 does see all sides in the English Premier League and the EFL Championship take a pause for the biggest event in the sport, the show must very much go on for level three of the English football pyramid, EFL League One and all other levels below. All of these leagues are continuing to play on throughout the entire duration of the World Cup and levels three, four and five are seeing fascinating promotion battles develop.

 

If one sentence could describe the current state of play in League One nineteen games into the season and just four games away from the official halfway point of twenty three games it is the following: A runaway three at the top, a cut adrift four at the bottom and a large congested batch of sides in the middle.

 

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Top of League One after 19 games played are Plymouth Argyle with 43 points, second placed Ipswich Town have 41 points from their 19 games so far whereas Sheffield Wednesday in third place have 40 points. It’s a long way back behind those three to the next team, 4th placed Peterborough United with 31 points.

 

Of the current top three, two of the sides were heavily fancied to do well and challenge for automatic promotion at the campaign’s beginning, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday. Plymouth Argyle’s pre-season expectations were probably more likely to challenge for a place in the playoffs. Yet, it is The Pilgrims who surprisingly lead the way and some predictions that they may drop off after their promising start have been confounded so far. 

 

Continuity has been a key factor in Plymouth’s promotion challenge. Part-way through last season, The Pilgrims lost talented manager Ryan Lowe to EFL Championship club Preston North End. Lowe’s assistant manager at Plymouth, Steven Schumacher was promoted to the full managerial position to replace Lowe, so far, Schumacher has continued Lowe’s good work. Despite missing out on the promotion play-offs on the final day of the 2021/22 League One campaign, Plymouth have shown no signs of a hangover as their current position shows. 

 

Ultimately, when it comes to who will secure the two automatic promotion places in this three-horse race, Plymouth are the side who can play with much less pressure on their shoulders as they are not expected to last the automatic promotion pace with high-budgeted favourites Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, the two sides expected to occupy the top two spots come the season’s end. Can Argyle defy the odds and secure a promotion to the second tier Championship for the first time since the 2009/10 season?

 

Below the top three in League One, a fascinating situation is unfolding whereby just 11 points separates 4th placed Peterborough United and 20th placed Cambridge United. Positions 3rd to 6th at the end of the campaign go into the promotion playoffs, expect a tight fight between a wide variety of sides such as former Premier League clubs Portsmouth FC, Bolton Wanderers, Barnsley FC & Derby County, clubs seeking either a return to English football’s second tier after a medium/long-term absence such as Lincoln City, Oxford United & Port Vale and clubs seeking a first-ever promotion to the second tier such as Exeter City.

 

In fourth tier EFL League Two, a case can be made for a whole host of teams, perhaps stretching as far down as 15th placed Crewe Alexandra to make a bid for either automatic promotion (the top three positions in League Two) or the promotion play-off positions (4th to 7th positions in League Two).

 

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Currently leading the way are Ritchie Wellens’ Leyton Orient FC, who with 45 points from their 19 matches so far are currently five points clear of 2nd placed Stevenage FC and 11 points clear of 4th placed Barrow, who occupy the first position outside of the three automatic promotion spots. When it comes to the playoffs, 4th placed Barrow have currently accumulated 34 points, 15th placed Crewe Alexandra sit just 9 points behind them with 25 points.

 

Many of the clubs involved in both the League Two automatic promotion and promotion playoff races currently either have a vastly experienced manager who has successfully managed several tiers above League Two or an up-and-coming young coach with promise.

 

In the corner of experience sits former Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Stoke City & Wales national team manager Mark Hughes, currently Bradford City manager and former Derby County manager Nigel Clough, currently manager of Mansfield Town. In the corner of youth sits 38 year-old Barrow manager Pete Wild, 42 year-old Doncaster Rovers manager Danny Schofield and 39 year-old Salford City manager Neil Wood, who served as Manchester United Under 23’s manager for the last three seasons.

 

The Vanarama National League, the fifth tier of English football and the highest division outside of the English Football League (these divisions below the Football League are termed “non-league” in England) is also seeing a fascinating promotion race develop. Three clubs look the favourites to fight it out for the only one automatic promotion place with the other two clubs very likely to have to settle for a place in the promotion playoffs.

 

Unlike in the Championship, League One & League Two, whose promotion playoff spots involve four teams & have two-legged semi-finals, the promotion play-offs in the Vanarama National League involve six teams and are just one-legged affairs. The three aforementioned clubs most likely to be fighting it out for the one automatic promotion spot are 2nd and 3rd placed Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire-based respective local rivals Notts County FC and Chesterfield FC.

 

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The other club are heavy pre-season promotion favourites Wrexham AFC, now very well-known to football fans everywhere after their recent takeover by acting duo Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. All three of these clubs are former Football League clubs with Wrexham & Notts County being amongst the oldest professional football clubs in the world having been founded in the early 1860’s.

 

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The final footballing talking point discussed here to take into 2023 is the recent news that two famous recently retired names, who as it transpires have had very similar coaching trajectories in their careers so far have taken their first steps into full-time senior management.

 

Both players also share the same year of birth (1981) and both made their first-team debuts in either league or cup or both competitions in the same season (1999-00). Those two players are Michael Carrick and Xabi Alonso, who have recently become the new managers of Middlesbrough FC and Bayer 04 Leverkusen respectively.

 

Michael Carrick has of course had a period managing Manchester United’s first team as he oversaw a three-game caretaker stint in charge of The Red Devils last season in-between the firing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the hiring of interim Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick.

 

After Rangnick’s interim managerial hire at Manchester United, Carrick opted to leave Old Trafford having served Manchester United for 15 years both as a player and a member of the coaching staff under both Jose Mourinho & Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to take a break out of the game. 

 

However, after Middlesbrough’s sluggish start to the 2022/23 EFL Championship season, which saw them lying 22nd and in the relegation zone after 11 games, manager Chris Wilder was fired. A four game caretaker spell followed for Leo Percovich, the club’s Head of Player Pathway & Development, which yielded two wins and two defeats before Carrick was appointed new manager at Boro on October 24th.

 

His opening match in charge saw a 2-1 away loss to Preston North End, however, three wins and a draw in the four games afterwards have seen Middlesbrough rise up to 14th in the Championship table, just four points off Millwall FC in the final promotion playoff position.

 

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After a brilliant trophy-laden career with the likes of Liverpool FC, Real Madrid & FC Bayern Munich and a 2010 World Cup winners medal with the Spanish national team, Xabi Alonso hung up his playing boots at the end of the 2016/17 season and immediately turned his attention to coaching. After a brief period coaching Real Madrid Under 14s, Alonso was unveiled as the new coach of Real Sociedad’s reserve team (Real Sociedad B or Sanse as they are colloquially known) in the summer of 2019, just in time for the 2019/20 season. 

 

In the second of his three seasons at Real Sociedad B, Alonso won promotion to the second tier of Spanish football, the first time since 1961/62 that Sanse had played at such a level. They were unable to survive in Segunda Division and were relegated back to the third tier after just a single season at the end of the 2021/22 campaign. Alonso opted to leave in the summer and with no coaching offers coming in from Spain for his services, Alonso’s senior coaching career will begin outside of his homeland with Bayer 04 Leverkusen.

 

Alonso has signed a contract with Werkself until June 2024, succeeding Gerardo Seoane in the managerial hotseat at BayArena. Alonso had as Sanse manager previously been linked with a vacancy when it was available at Borussia Moechengladbach but turned it down to remain coaching the reserve side of his former club. Leverkusen were in the relegation zone upon Alonso’s arrival, however, he endured a good start in the dugout in his first game as a senior team manager with a 4-0 victory over Schalke 04.

 

Two losses in the next three league games occurred as Werkself were downed 5-1 away at Eintracht Frankfurt and 2-0 away at RB Leipzig. However, Alonso is unbeaten in four home games as Leverkusen boss and prior to the World Cup and Winter break in Germany, Leverkusen go into the pause on the back of three straight Bundesliga wins which have lifted them to 12th in the table.

 

Qualification for European football next season still remains an attainable objective for Alonso at Leverkusen. If a side already qualified for the Champions League were to win the German DFB Pokal, then 7th place in the Bundesliga would be a Europa Conference League qualification spot for the following season. Leverkusen’s current classification of 12th sees them on 18 points from their 15 league games so far. The team currently in 7th, VfL Wolfsburg sit only five points ahead of Leverkusen in a congested mid-table in German football’s top flight. 

 

Alonso and Carrick retired within one season of each other as players, spent time either as assistant managers or youth/reserve coaches at clubs they have a close affinity with and are now embarking on very different coaching careers away from said clubs. Many a club boardroom will be monitoring their progress and it will be intriguing to see if both can follow in the footsteps of the likes of Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti in making a seamless transition from playing to managing not so long after their playing retirements.

 

By: Richard David Pike / @RichDPike89

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / David Ramos – AFP