Famous for his Team of the Season cards on FIFA a few years ago, Nainggolan has quietly been getting back to his best following a return to Cagliari. Radja, an all action midfielder possesses some attacking flair and has even started to change people’s opinions of him as a player with a bad attitude.
Radja joined Tubantia Borgerhout at just 5-years-old, he stayed there for seven years before he moved onto Germinal Beerschot’s youth side. He stayed there until 2005 when he moved to Serie B side Piacenza after being recommended by Alessandro Beltrami.
In May 2006, Nainggolan made his senior debut at the age of 18 but didn’t become a regular starter for the Emilia-Romagna side until the 2008/09 season. In that season he played 38 of the 42 matches and his three league goals helped his side avoid relegation to the Italian third tier.
January 2010, the Belgian left thePapaveri for Serie A club Cagliari. Nainggolan found his opportunities few and far between as he started in the absence of Daniele Conti. Although by October 2013 he had been a regular starter for the Sardinian club for three seasons which led to the Rossoblu faithful naming him in a list of their best 11 players in history.
January 2014 saw Nainggolan on the move again, this time to Rome. It was with Roma that the Belgian midfielder began to gain plaudits as he had the ability to do anything in the midfield which saw numerous Roma managers try him in almost every role within the midfield and even in the front line. Whilst with the Giallorossi, the Antwerp born midfielder impressed in both the Europa League and Champions League which led to interest from clubs like Chelsea and Man United.
Across his time in the capital, Nainggolan averaged an xG of 0.12 and an xA of 0.15 per 90, this means he would be expected to be directly involved in a goal every three or four games, very good for a midfielder. With this he also averaged 3.4 tackles and interceptions per 90 whilst only being disposed 1.8 times per 90. This showcases some of his skills, but he was renowned for incredible fitness and ability to do anything.
The summer of 2018 saw Nainggolan join up with former manager Luciano Spalletti at Inter Milan. The then 30-year-old cost the Nerazzurri a reported €38 million. Despite his xG and xA both sitting at 0.17 per 90, it has been a down year for the Belgian.
His then career high 0.34 xG and xA per 90 is due to him playing a more advanced role. This has seen his tackles and interceptions drop to 1.5 per 90, a career low. He averaged 33.1 passes per 90, only in 2009/10 with Cagliari was when he averaged less, but only 0.1 are through balls compared to 0.3 in his last season at Roma.
Since his loan move to Cagliari, Nainggolan has rediscovered his form despite playing in a weaker side. His xG and xA are up to 0.39 per 90, 0.26 of that is xA showing his creative brilliance, this would rank him 12th in the La Liga and 12th in Ligue 1 for players who have played 500+ minutes for xA per 90 whilst playing in a side that sit in 12th in Serie A.
This has led to Radja scoring five and assisting his teammates six times in the league this season. It looks like he has rediscovered his Roma form that caught the eye of super clubs across Europe.
When Atlético Madrid replaced club legend Juanfran with Kieran Trippier in the summer of 2019, eyebrows were raised. Not only as he was perceived as a bad tactical fit, but Trippier was coming off a bad season with Tottenham.
Kieran Trippier was born in Bury and joined the Man City youth academy in 2009 when he was just nine years old. After ten years in the youth sides, Trippier joined the first team in 2009. Kieran enjoyed two and a half seasons on loan at Barnsley in which he made a total of 67 appearances for the Yorkshire outfit in the Championship. Following this loan spell, Trippier left Man City without making a single senior appearance as he joined Burnley in 2012.
In his first two seasons under Sean Dyche, Trippier was named in the Championship PFA Team of the Year and in his second season Burnley won promotion to the top-flight. In this campaign, Trippier was part of the best defence in the league as the Clarets conceded 37 goals in 46 games to finish second.
Burnley got relegated the following season but Trippier moved to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham for a reported £3.5 million. He enjoyed a very successful first three seasons in London as the Lily Whites finished second in Trippier’s first year and replaced Walker seamlessly when the former Sheffield United player left for Man City in 2017. The summer of 2018 was arguably the highlight of the Bury born defender’s career as he helped England get to the semi-final of the World Cup and Kieran even scored in that semi-final loss. The following season was bad for Trippier despite helping Tottenham get to the Champions League final. The media and fans all saw Trippier’s career as good as over following a bad season that saw Tottenham’s last away league win come in January.
Kieran himself admitted he wasn’t at his best and he was looking to move on, his 3.6 tackles and interceptions per 90 in the league being the fourth best in his career. Trippier created 1.9 chances per 90 but those doubled when playing in the Champions League.
The following summer saw a shock move to Madrid for the former Barnsley defender. Many saw this as misfit due to Trippier’s defensive deficiencies and he was joining a Diego Simeone side renowned for their strong defence. But the transition was made easier by his time in a similar system at Burnley. Since moving to Spain, Kieran Trippier has been back to his best as although Atlético Madrid sit in sixth place. At the time of writing they have the equal second-best defence in Europe’s top five leagues. Their 14 goals conceded is only one more than city rivals Real Madrid.
Despite being Inter Milan captain for most of last season, Mauro was stripped of captaincy after a match against Rapid Vienna as he refused to travel with the squad. When asked about the decision, then Nerazzurri manager Luciano Spalletti said it was “taken exclusively for the good of Inter”. Whether this was done to force a move away from the San Siro or not, it led to Icardi being exiled from the first team for the next six league matches.
At the end of the season Spalletti was sacked and replaced by Antonio Conte. Mauro Icardi has been notoriously hard to manage, and Antonio Conte has never stood for any bad behaviour, so it was no surprise that Icardi was loaned out. PSG loaned in the Rosario born striker and the former Inter Milan captain has hit the ground running. In Ligue 1 he has played 1269 minutes and has 15 direct goal involvements whilst in the Champions League he has fared even better, scoring five in 401 minutes.
The former La Masia player may only rank tenth in the PSG squad for league minutes played but he has played over double the minutes Cavani has. Mauro Icardi has shown he can play in different systems having flourished under many managers like Thomas Tuchel, Walter Mazzarri, Stefano Pioli, Roberto Mancini and many more.
Icardi may have been a star in many different systems however, his play style is very much consistent. Mauro is a penalty box specialist that doesn’t get involved in much build up play. Throughout his career he has averaged 16.8 passes per 90, in comparison fellow South American Roberto Fimino has averaged over double, as the Liverpool forward has averaged 41 passes per 90. One thing Icardi is world class at is getting chances in the box. In his career he has averaged 2.9 shots with only 0.4 coming from outside the box per 90, although the shot quantity isn’t high, the quality certainly is. A sensational 86.2% come from inside the penalty box and 13.8% come from inside the six-yard box and this is reflected in his 0.69xG per 90 in the last three seasons.
In just over a year, the 27-year-old has gone from having the captain’s armband at Inter taken off him, a responsibility he has held since 2015 when he was only 22, to being a prolific striker at a club that is one of the favourites for the Champions League. A remarkable turnaround in such a short period of time.
Mikel Merino was born in Pampola in Spain and didn’t leave the Basque region until his 2016 move to Borussia Dortmund. Merino joined Osasuna’s under 19s team in 2012 before joining their second team in 2013. After working his way up to the first team at Osasuna in 2014, Merino spent two years with the first team in which he made a total of 63 appearances.
The 63 appearances were enough to persuade Borussia Dortmund to part with a reported £3.38 million. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Merino struggled to make an impact. In his one and only season to date in Germany, Mikel played 293 minutes from two starts and six substitute appearances. In the very limited minutes he was given, Merino impressed as he averaged a huge 9.5 tackles and interceptions per 90 for a Tuchel side that averaged 58.5% possession.
Tuchel left and his replacement Lucien Favre wasn’t a fan of Merino either however, the performances in Germany earnt Mikel loan move to The Toon. Under fellow Spaniard Rafa Benítez, the defensive midfielder became a more integral figure. Merino played 1343 minutes in the Premier League for a side that were more defensive than Tuchel’s Dortmund. Newcastle averaged a poultry 40.8% possession as the former Osasuna midfielder’s defensive actions fell to 6.1 tackles and interceptions per 90. Although this number looks substantially worse despite playing in a team that averaged less possession, this is a more accurate representation of how good he is as he played 1050 more league minutes. In comparison Idrissa Gueye averaged 6.2 tackles and interceptions per 90 acorss his Everton career.
Merino became a favourite at Newcastle due to the steal in midfield he brought, something they lacked in their previous season in the Championship. However, despite Newcastle made the loan move permanent, Merino was on the move again. Real Sociedad had bought the Spanish midfielder meaning Mikel was going back to the Basque Country. Once again, Merino played more minutes than the season prior.
In his first season back in Spain, the former Newcastle favourite appeared in 29 of their 38 league games which led to 2061 minutes. At the time of writing he’s played 2252 minutes in 2019/20 showing the trend continue as he keeps increasing the minutes played every season. His total of 4313 minutes played for Real Sociedad shows his importance to the side and he’s made the headlines. Asier Illarramendi’s injury at the end of August kept him out until March, this gave Merino a chance to prove his worth.
Illarramendi hasn’t been missed at Sociedad thanks to Mikel Merino and at seven years his junior, Merino has the potential to become a legend at Real Sociedad. With the Basque club sitting in fourth, many of the plaudits go to their young attack however, Merino has anchored their midfield and protected their defence. He may be the unsung hero of their magical season and after two stop and start seasons in Germany and England, the 23-year-old is back to his best.
A well-known name especially to Premier League fans, Romelu has endured a few tough seasons in his career but has always bounced back doing what he knows best, scoring goals.
Romelu Lukaku was born in Belgian city Antwerp. At the age of five, Lukaku joined local side Rupel Boom where he spent four years before being scouted by then Belgian Pro League side Koninklijke Lierse Sportkring who are more commonly known as Lierse. The Antwerp born striker played for Lierse’s well renowned youth academy from 2004 to 2006 in which he scored 68 goals. Lierse were relegated from the Belgian Pro League which prompted Anderlecht to buy 13 of their youth academy prospects, this included Romelu Lukaku. He spent three years in Anderlecht’s youth system which saw Lukaku score 93 in 131 games.
11 days after turning 16, Lukaku made his first team debut. He came on in the 69th minute in a 1-0 loss to Standard Liège on the 24th of May 2009. The following season saw Lukaku become a first team regular. This saw him finish as the league’s top scorer and help Anderlecht win their 30th league title. The following season Lukaku went from 15 league goals to 20 however, this wasn’t enough for Anderlecht to retain their title despite finishing first in the regular season.
August 2011 saw Lukaku switch Lotto Park for Stamford Bridge in a deal reportedly worth an initial €12 million which could have risen to €20 million with add-ons. 2011/12 was not Lukaku’s season despite his side winning the Champions League. This is because he spent most of the season in the reserves and didn’t make his first league start until 13th May 2012. It was his birthday and he assisted Terry’s opener as he won Man of the Match in a home win over Blackburn which was the final game of the season.
2012/13 was a lot more positive for the Belgian striker as he was loaned out to West Brom. He ended as the sixth-highest scorer that campaign as he netted 17 which helped the West Midlands club finish in eight place. On the final day of the season, Lukaku scored a hat-trick against the confirmed Champions Man United as Lukaku ruined Ferguson’s last game before retirement with the game ending 5-5.
This earnt him a loan move to Everton the following season as he found the net 15 times in 31 appearances as Roberto Martínez’s side got 72 league points, a Premier League club record. This prompted the Toffees to fork out £28 million to keep Lukaku at Goodison Park. Over the next three seasons in Merseyside, Lukaku scored 53 in 110 games as he averaged an xG of 0.47 and an xA of 0.13 per 90. These performances meant Man United and Chelsea locked horns in a battle to sign him. Man United won and he cost a reported £75 million.
It was at Old Trafford, Lukaku got more criticism which may have been because of the amount he went for. The Belgian gained a reputation for having a bad first touch and for going missing in games against the ‘top 6’. Whether these are fair reputations or not, across his career at Old Trafford he averaged an xG of 0.52 per 90. This shows no matter what, he can always get on the end of chances despite the majority of that time, playing in a very defensive system under Mourinho. When the Portuguese manager was sacked, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was in charge and favoured Rashford as the striker which meant Lukaku was often dropped or stuck on the right wing.
That summer, Lukaku left for Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan. Since joining Italy, he has been one of the best players in the league. Romelu has been taking more shots than at any point of his Man United career with 3 shots and 0.5 coming from outside the box per 90 showing the quality of chances. He has also been creating more with 1.5 chances created for his teammates per 90.
His partnership with Lautaro Martínez has put Inter Milan in their first serious title challenge for years. Lukaku has rediscovered the form that made him one of the most sort after strikers in the world. He is Belgium’s all-time top goal scorer and doesn’t turn 27 until the 13th May, Lukaku has been scoring goals at the top level for a long time and still has a plenty of years left at the top.