With the 2019/20 UEFA Europa League done and dusted, The Hard Tackle aims to pick out the Team of the Season.
After a long, winding and chaotic season, the UEFA Europa League came to a close last week, with Sevilla coming on top as victors for the sixth time in their history following an exhilarating final against Inter Milan.
The game exuded energy from the get-go with a brace of chances through a throw-in. Before they knew it, though, Inter Milan hit Sevilla with a well-worked counter courtesy of Nicolo Barella’s impressive ball-winning skills.
The said counter resulted in a penalty after Diego Carlos brought down Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku took responsibility of the spot-kick and delivered for the 34th time this season – equalling Ronaldo’s incredible tally of 34 in his maiden campaign with Inter Milan in 1997/98.
In the next half an hour, the game saw three more goals – a hat-trick of incredible headers, two from Luuk de Jong and then one from Diego Godin. The first half was so good, it almost set up the second to fail.
The man who game who gave away a penalty in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and then the final – Carlos – got his shot at redemption when his audacious bicycle kick attempt (2nd endeavour of the game) found the foot of Lukaku and bulged the Inter Milan net, serving as the winner for Sevilla.
While we did not see quite as much action post the interval, it turned out to be a final to remember. Ever Banega got the perfect swansong; Jesus Navas won his third Europa League; and Julen Lopetegui won the first major trophy of his career, something he’ll remember for life, ask Maurizio Sarri.
To be fair, the tournament was quite fantastic, as well – especially for neutrals. One-legged knockout ties, early disappointments (read: Arsenal), some incredible individual performances and unpredictability on every step of the way. It might not be feasible to do this every year, but we did get to witness an incredible campaign – even if it was for one season.
The Hard Tackle now sums up this season’s Europa League campaign by picking the Best XI and the manager of the tournament. It was chosen by narrowing individual battles in each zone, for example: right-backs and right wing-backs have been classified all the same, which is why we have decided to go with a 4-2-3-1, a formation which covers all zones in attack and defence.
Goalkeeper: Sergio Romero (Manchester United)
The Europa League hosted a set of brilliant goalkeepers – as it usually does. This included the early heroics of Emiliano Martinez, the game-winning performances of Bono & Karl-Johan Johnsson, Rui Patricio’s reclamation of top form and the undying experience of Diego Lopez. However, our pick for this spot is Manchester United’s second-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Romero was Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s first choice in the Europa League from the very beginning – a 1-0 win over Astana where he did not get to chance to make a single save. He did, however, go on to keep seven clean sheets in nine games – the most in the competition, boasting an 85% save rate.
He conceded just two goals, one against Club Brugge in the Round of 32, and one against LASK in the Round of 16. Despite remaining untroubled in the quarters against FC Copenhagen, Romero was dropped for David de Gea – a mistake Sosjkaer made in the FA Cup semi-finals as well.
While the Spanish shot-stopper could have only done so little against the two goals he conceded, the argument dictates that there was no need to bench Romero – the best in the tournament this season.
Right-Back: Jesus Navas (Sevilla)
Thirteen years ago, a particular 20-year-old, lanky and pacy Jesus Navas was part of the incredible Sevilla team that took on the Europa League as underdogs and went on to win the competition twice in a row. He then departed Sevilla, returned and won it again.
Between his second and third win, however, Navas had to carry the coffins of two of his closest friends – the late Antonio Puerta and the late Antonio Reyes. He returned to Sevilla, and took up the #16 in honour of the former, a jersey number Sevilla only gave out to youth players.
The World Cup winner started six games for Sevilla during the campaign, giving two assists – Luuk de Jong’s winner against Manchester United in the semis, and de Jong’s equaliser in the final. His sublime crossing means he completes 1.2 key passes per game, 3 long balls per game and created 3 big chances as well.
He did his part in defence as well, making 0.7 tackles, 1.3 interceptions, and 1.7 clearances, all per 90. Thanks to his blistering pace, he has been dribbled past no more than 5 times throughout the tournament, despite coming up against the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez.
Navas lost his godfather last week, but did not mention it to anyone until after the match when he went to collect his trophy with tears in his eyes and pride in his heart. This one was for Reyes, for Puerta and all of Seville.
Centre-Back: Jules Kounde (Sevilla)
No one quite expected Jules Kounde to break out on the scene in Spanish top-flight quite like he did, replacing Sergi Gomez to earn the first-choice spot alongside Diego Carlos. The 21-year-old was the perfect addition to the team; he became the poise to Carlos’s ruthlessness.
Kounde played nine 90-minute games and delivered top-notch performances in every game, keeping a clean sheet in six of them. He was one of Sevilla’s most involved player against each opposition, keeping a calm head each time he received the ball, almost as if he had been playing in the Europa League for decades.
Jules Koundé vs Wolves
95% pass accuracy
1 key pass
1 successful dribble
6/6 accurate long balls
2 tackles won
5/5 aerials won
9/10 duels won
Calm and confident display. No wonder Zidane wants him so badly… pic.twitter.com/SBzQu2YUaW
— Football Talent Scout – Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) August 11, 2020
Kounde averaged 83 touches and 68 passes per game with an accuracy of 93% – the join fourth-highest in the competition. This included 4.1 long passes per game, with a stellar accuracy of 74%. His defensive actions include 0.8 interceptions, 0.8 tackles and 2.1 clearances per 90. He has been dribbled past just once all competition – a testament to his pace and reading of the game.
Kounde was on show again in the final, making 1 successful tackle, 1 block, 5 clearances, all while winning 4/5 aerial duels and 2/3 ground duels. His best moment in the game came when he scrambled across goal to make a clearance off the line from an Alexis Sanchez shot to keep the score at 3-2. He’s clearly destined for greatness, no wonder Zinedine Zidane has been keeping tabs on him.
Centre-Back: Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Speaking of calm and confident defenders, Conor Coady enjoyed a tremendous season with Wolverhampton Wanderers after they qualified for the Europa League in their first season back in the Premier League after six years. Coady ended up playing every minute of their 2018/19 league and cup campaign (3580 minutes), and bettered that by playing 4090 minutes this season.
He did not lose his focus once despite his bizarre run of games. He has been playing exactly how he likes it best, keeping it simple, abiding by the book, all while marshalling the team using the power of the captain’s armband. In his 11 starts in the Europa League, he managed to keep 5 clean sheets, coming through one of the more robust groups, consisting of SC Braga, Besiktas and Slovan Bratislava.
Our captain's @premierleague stats 👌
— Wolves (@Wolves) August 21, 2020
Coady is one of the best ball-playing centre-halves in the world and showed the same in the Europa League, completing 6.5 long balls per game with a 68% precision – top five in the tournament. This is part of the incredible 90% passing accuracy he had mustered up across the campaign.
Since his arrival in the top flight, the Englishman has gone from strength to strength, improving his examination of the game before anything else. He lives his life on the pitch by Paolo Maldini’s ethics, rarely diving into challenges and getting ready for the rival’s next move even before the opposition knows it. No wonder the number of fouls he has conceded (0.5 pg) nearly matches the number of fouls he has won (0.3 pg).
Left-Back: Sergio Reguilon (Sevilla)
Real Madrid left-back Sergio Reguilon has taken the world by storm since his introduction in the Spanish top-flight last season. After playing for his parent club as the first choice left-back throughout the campaign, Reguilon was loaned out to Sevilla this season. Not only has he genuinely taken his game up a notch, he ends his season as the best left-back in the Europa League.
In five appearances in the tournament, he has two direct goal contributions – a brilliant solo goal against AS Roma to open the scoring and then an assist that set up Suso’s equaliser against Manchester United. He has been excellent with the ball at his feet, playing 1.4 key passes per game, 1.2 dribbles per game, getting dispossessed no more than once throughout the competition.
He has been quite stable at the back as well, boasting top-notch positioning and undying stamina. Reguilon makes 2.4 interceptions, 1.8 tackles per game and has averaged a turnover .5 times per game after the opposition has reached the final third. The 23-year-old was fouled nearly twice every game, but gave away only 0.6 fouls every game – a total of three times in five games.
Reguilon’s rise to prominence is truly the tale of the complete full-back – a player who is active on either side of the pitch and rests only at the final whistle. His colossal campaign with Sevilla this season is only the first chapter in the book of a player who is onto bigger and better things.
Defensive Midfielder: Zeca (FC Copenhagen)
Zeca has been Copenhagen’s dictator of the game in the middle of the pitch, acting as a 6, 8 and 10 all in one game. However, his best abilities were on display this season in the Europa League, as he took on the likes of Celtic, Dynamo Kyiv and Manchester United.
Over the course of 10 games, Zeca averaged 2.4 interceptions and 4.5 tackles per game (third-best in the Europa League) while screening his defence and helping the team keep 3 clean sheets. He is a rock in 1v1 situations and lets either the ball or the player get past him. This was also evident against Manchester United, when he was dribbled past just twice despite locking horns with Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial.
Not only is he an exceptional tackler, Zeca is famous for his ability to retain the ball while dodging tackles. No wonder his tally of times fouled and fouls conceded every game come up to an exact 1.6 each. His 2019/20 campaign ought to earn him a move to a better club, but at 31, Zeca might have to play his final years in the Danish capital.
Central Midfielder: Ever Banega (Sevilla)
Argentine midfield maestro Ever Banega has called quits on his time in Europe after five splendid seasons with Sevilla split into two. During this time, he won several accolades, including a trio of Europa League titles, the latest one against Inter Milan, capping off his campaign with an exceptional game.
Éver Banega's #UELFinal game by numbers vs. Inter:
🔘 Most touches (82)
🔘 Most passes completed (50)
🔘 Most ball recoveries (7)
🔘 Most chances created (5)
🔘 Most successful crosses (5)
🔘 Most fouls won (4)
Numbers worthy of winning any Final. 🏆 pic.twitter.com/1M79y4doXs
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 21, 2020
Banega played a part in seven games in the Europa League this season, assisting four goals – three of them in the knockout stages, including one in the final. On top that, he has played 2.6 key passes per game, creating 4 big chances. Banega is in contention of being the best midfielder on most pitches and was awarded the Man of the Match for his exploits against Athletic Bilbao.
The 32-year-old is almost second to none in his ability to play long passes and his numbers are proof of the same. He attempted 11.5 long balls per 90 minutes, completing 8.4 (73%), more than any other midfielders in the Europa League. He has taken his final bow from European football and will go down as one of the greatest the game witnessed in the centre of the park.
Attacking Midfielder: Bruno Fernandes (Sporting CP/Manchester United)
There is little doubt over who occupies the attacking midfield slot; it is Bruno Fernandes, who is also coincidentally, the Europa League Player of the Season.
Bruno spent his time this season playing for two different clubs in the Europa League – Sporting CP, and Manchester United, thanks to the change in rules. After scoring five goals for Sporting in as many games, he continued his pursuit of the trophy in colours of red after his January move to Manchester United in the summer.
He added three goals and an assist to his tally during his time with United in the competition. Courtesy of eight goals in ten games, the Portuguese midfielder finished the tournament as the top scorer, one clear of Romelu Lukaku. He was also the joint second-highest assist provider in the competition with four, one adrift of Juan Mata and Bukayo Saka.
Bruno managed to alter the fabric of the United’s season completely and was able to push them so close to the title, denied only by Luuk de Jong. In fact, he was on target from the 12-yard spot for his club after Marcus Rashford won a penalty, full credit to Diego Carlos. Nevertheless, it is clear that with Bruno Fernandes as the linchpin, the only way for the Red Devils is up.
Right-Winger: Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen)
One of the hottest properties in world football at the moment, Kai Havertz put on an exhibition for Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League, singlehandedly making them one of the favourites for the crown.
In just five appearances in the competition, Havertz registered four goals and two assists, cementing his place as one of the best young talents on the planet. He played 2.2 key passes per game, creating 2 big chances, all while averaging a passing accuracy of 85%.
The 21-year-old is famous for his intelligence off the ball and his understanding of space, which is what makes him capable of playing just about anywhere in the midfield and attack. The best evidence of his genius came against FC Porto in the second leg of the Round of 32. He ended the game with two assists and a goal, taking the tie far out of the reach of Porto who were already overcoming a 2-1 deficit.
Havertz was faced with the challenge of Juventus and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, but was able to turn his season on its head with the change of the year. Currently heavily linked with Chelsea, we might see an even more improved version of the German international with the help of players like Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic with him.
Left-Winger: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Possibly the biggest breakthrough star of the year, Bukayo Saka made a name for himself in the Europa League this season before he was trusted with the pressure of the Premier league.
He played six games, all on the left side of the team, three as a winger, two as a full-back and one as a wing-back. There is little doubt over the damage Saka can cause from just about anywhere on the left side thanks to his devilish left foot. In the span of these six games, Saka scored twice and assisted five times.
He ended the season as the joint highest assist provider. Not only that, the teenager created 7 big chances, playing 2.3 key passes per game. His best outing came against Standard Liege in the group stage, when he ran riot from the wing, creating 4 chances. He was responsible for assisting Alexandre Lacazette’s goal, before scoring the equaliser in the space of three minutes.
Saka has shown what he is capable in the second tier of Europe and with the success of the FA Cup, he will return to the Europa League next season, with a much tighter stronghold in the team.
Striker: Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan)
After being labelled a flop at Manchester United, Romelu Lukaku took his bags to Italy to play under Antonio Conte and has since found his feet in the team. He was, however, unable to win his first-ever major title with Inter Milan as they finished second in the Serie A and then lost the final against Sevilla in the Europa League.
Inter Milan and Lukaku made their way to the Europa League after finishing third in the toughest group in the Champions League, faced with an uphill battle against Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. His stay in the competition, though, was quite pleasant.
Inter stayed in the Europa League till the end and Lukaku played in every single one of these games, scoring seven goals – the second highest in the tournament – while setting up two goals for his teammates as well.
Not only did the Belgian play every single game, he scored in each of them, too, becoming the only player ever to score in 11 Europa League games in a row. In the process, he also matched Ronaldo Nazario’s incredible tally of 34 goals for Inter in their debut season.
Lukaku was inches away from silverware, playing the most crucial match in his career. He helped Inter take the early lead after winning and scoring a penalty. He was then the victim of a bizarre own goal after Diego Carlos’s overhead attempt hit his boot and bulged the top of the net. Despite that, with a scoring rate of a goal every 63 minutes, there is no doubt over who our striker is.
Manager of the Tournament: Julen Lopetegui
There are very few tournaments where the winning coach is not honoured with the title of the best. So is the case with our team as well. Presenting our Europa League Manager of the Season: Julen Lopetegui.
2018 was a disaster for Lopetegui. He was the coach of the Spanish national team that went on an unbeaten run. However, after being announced as the new Real Madrid coach on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup without prior information to the Spanish FA, he was relieved of his duties with Spain – one day before the tournament began.
After a decent run of games, Lopetegui went on a disastrous run and was fired from his post after losing 5-1 against Barcelona. After not taking any management roles for the rest of the season, he took over a Sevilla squad in transitio.
With the help of Monchi, Lopetegui added several new names to the team: Jules Kounde, Diego Carlos, Sergio Reguilon, Lucas Ocampos and Suso to name a few. But thanks to his incredible man-management, he was able to fit these players into the most suitable roles.
There is no one more deserving of this Europa League crown than Lopetegui, who possibly went through the worst year a coach can go through, but then found redemption with the help of a supremely talented squad.