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The Reflection

Levante U.D.: Taking on the Past to build for the Future

After an uplifting season last time, the memory of the first half of this campaign has been one worth forgetting. Levante have seen fit to re-adjust their sporting strategy, seeing a fresh-faced newcomer to senior management tasked with trying to take the club out of their relegation-threatened predicament and salvage their top-flight status for another season against the odds.

The relief is that one notably unwanted record has been snapped, with a platform to build from familiar to the setup behind their success of last season reinstated. The team is back with an identity, and a pathway again exists between the youth and senior setup for that sense of integration, a spirit and a fight, albeit not totally structural secure and with a considerable gap still to make up. The excitement of their current end-to-end brand may not be sustainable in the context of their current situation, but no reason why not to follow them as they go.

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The Reflection

Valencia C.F.: Bordalás’ Evolution

With the return of supporters to stadiums, and the vibrance it gives to figures in the Spanish game like José Bordalás, there has been a good upward turn in fortunes for Valencia after an underwhelming campaign last season. Some question marks hung over their new manager’s head regarding how well he could adjust facets of his game to a more technical squad, but his tenure has started brightly.

The club is back where they feel they belong, back in the hunt for a European finish and biting at the heels of a top-four place rather than staving off the threat of relegation. Bordalás has showed adaptability in the right areas, deploying some altered stylistic traits from his previous job at Getafe, but not at the detriment of certain longer-standing fundamentals of his brand either. He is a top-division coach on merit and demonstrating that in his formative days at a big club.

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Tales From The Homeland

The Steel and Sons Cup: Northern Ireland’s Christmas Cup Competition

Christmas is nothing if not grandiose. A day that for children starts with chancing their luck in convincing their parents to let them down to the tree at as early an hour as possible and discover what gifts and desires the red man with the sack has given them.

In Northern Ireland though, there is a major festive event to appeal to football followers. Many risk relationships and marriages with worked excuses to get out of the house for a few hours, making the trip up to Belfast and see a yearly on-pitch spectacle, hoping ideally to be back for Christmas lunch and avoid a stern telling-off.

They may return delighted or despondent before they have to explain why they weren’t there to welcome the in-laws, then acting like the rest of the day is normal and hoping that thereafter that it is left to the confines of time and history. Joking aside, it really is an event to savour for sporting enthusiasts on this island.

With a look ahead at this year’s edition and the history of the competition to date, a history that backs one of the world’s most unique footballing traditions, the Steel and Sons captures attentions.

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The Reflection

S.C. Freiburg: How Commitment to Structure Pays Off

It has been a superb start to the season for Freiburg, with many surprised to see them as high up as they are in the table. They approach games with resolve and application, putting themselves right on the level of some of Germany’s very best squads.

Yet that they are so high is no fluke. Given the coaching carousel in the summer, a commitment of almost a decade to the same coach has paid dividends for them, and a dedicated and well-oiled structure has brought an optimal performance out of the team. They’ve knocked on Europe’s door for a while, retaining their ethos and keeping all departments of the club interlinked; little has really changed in their plan but it is an excellent one which is reflected in results.

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Game Ethics

F.C. Midtjylland: Data-Driven Delight and Sporting Success

The trajectory of Danish football is one of developing the ranks innovatively, as squads in the division grow younger and younger in line with much of the rest of Scandinavia.

The situation at Midtjylland is one of the most captivating for the sheer meticulousness of their overall strategy, and the many facets formulating their road to success that has seen them hit their most significant milestones in 22 years of existence. Modern values both on and off-pitch have been at the heart of proceedings, yet when first instilled were viewed as ahead of their time.

Now collaborating with a Premier League partner and supporting each other across their respective rises, new inventions have been tried and transferred and new innovations instilled to try and stay ahead of the pack. They have sought not to out-spend their competitors and distort the Superliga’s balance, but be intelligent about the ways they advance and allow for a base both sporting and financially to build from going forward.

The influence of this has been wide-ranging and wing-spanning to the point where many large clubs have taken their methods on board, a humble club from Herning making their stamp on the global game and the future of it.

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Rising Stars

Russian Premier League: Three of the Finest

Many sides in Russia, including the clubs the three players listed in this article, are investing in young talent to drive them to sporting success. Both through youth academies and recruitment, there is a drive within Premier Liga clubs and executives to make more of a stamp on the European football scene.

The types of projects ongoing are centred in trying to push for titles, getting closer to Zenit in the push for the top-tier crown and convince their highest-value assets to stay for longer with the lure of European football and a refined place of development. Both Russian-born and afield talent have been welcomed into the league for their career development, the chance to grow in stature and skill.

It is likely that they will sell on the asset to a higher-profile league at some stage, but the intention to at least close the gap is abundant in the time and resources spent on these players. A higher price of sale means more can be reinvested into the squad going forward, playing ‘moneyball’ in order to upset the elites in the global game.

These three young, fine recent emergers have each elevated to the level they are now in different ways, yet potential both for themselves and their clubs is equally as exciting.

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The Reflection

F.C. Internazionale Milano: Underestimate With Peril

Transition is a term widely-used and with many meanings in this sport, with this case seeing a title-winning manager departing and a similar type of coach stylistically coming in with the aim of continuing their displays from the past season. Two key first-team cogs considered among the best in their positions in the global game left, but this does not distract from the way the club wants to be headed.

By the third international break of the season, Inter sit seven points from the Serie A summit, yet there is more than meets the eye within their efforts to this point. It could be that the best is yet to come, that a relatively slow-burning start by their heightened standards is soon to translate to a genuine and gallant title fight in a division where the next move is most hard to predict. Following the weekend’s game, signs point that they are in to make a statement, though a big-game scalp as far as they are concerned would be welcomed.

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South America

River Plate: The Bounce-Back from Demotion to Domination

The past decade has been an eventful one for River Plate, the historic white-and-red outfit from the Núñez district of Buenos Aires, with a forced re-structuring and a necessity to take a new approach in the wake of problems leading up to the start of the 2010s.

Yet by the last decade’s conclusion, their head coach had turned out as the most successful in terms of trophies won in the club’s history, thriving and holding his own despite the challenging and changeable environment for coaches in South American football.

Playing with style and swagger, and grit and grind, blended with an intelligent transfer policy and trust in those coming through the ranks, the team of late has been one of the country’s best-run and one of the most connected in the relationships between respective departments of the team. It has meant a sense of harmony has been re-established, and the results of this are reflected on the pitch and the many highs of recent years.

Focusing particularly on the period between 2011 and 2018, River played their cards right and worked their way from their lowest ebb to the highest of highs, with several factors at play.

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The Reflection

Borussia Mönchengladbach: Frustration Yet Potential

Under new management as of this season, Gladbach have found themselves tested in the early months of the 2021/22 campaign, settling into a new direction that they will hope brings them long-term gain and sustained challenge for the European places.

Despite some good performances, holding their own and gaining impressive results against both Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund, not everything has been the definition of perfection, and they have been left annoyed especially on the road by results and points that they felt they earned not going in their direction by the end. Following defeat at the weekend, it is worth looking into what they have done well and not so well, and how the situation could soon improve.

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The Reflection

Strasbourg: The Pride of Réunion and Key Behind Their Early-Season Success

This summer, Strasbourg signalled their intent for bigger things, appointing a coach who under 18 months earlier helmed an unexpected 3rd-place finish for Stade Rennais and moving on from the manager who helped build the platform for where they are today. A fairly disappointing season last term has been followed by an encouraging beginning to this campaign, with an attractive brand.

Spearheading this start is a striker who has established himself as a footballing hero of his homeland, the island he grew up in based several thousands of miles away from where he plays today, who has impressed courtesy of his altruistic playstyle and ability to work aptly in tandem with his teammates, while still finding the net himself.

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Scout Report

Maxence Caqueret: The Fine Treasure of Lyon’s Midfield

Lyon have managed to recover from a rough start to put themselves in European contention again, although amid a congested mid-section of a competitive Ligue 1 table this term.

They were in the title hunt for most of last season, and though this fluttered away by its zenith, every touch of one of their prized products from their esteemed youth setup was met with adulation. A player who feels a distinct cut above the usual in the ‘Ligue des Talents,’ a player who, growing up a Lyonnais, is living his dream.

His reputation as one of the best French midfield prospects from the class of 2000 has been realised in the years since making his senior bow, revered now as a highly-efficient, cool-headed and composed young player who does his work for the shirt and badge. He has been in the starting selection more often than not since a change in management over the summer, and is justifying it in the way he knows how.

Enter a jewel, a prized asset with the ethic to match his ability, a hard-grafter who gives his heart; enter Maxence Caqueret.

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The Reflection

Borussia Dortmund: Showing Promise So Far

In February, with Edin Terzić in interim charge following the sacking of Lucien Favre, Borussia Dortmund took the step of announcing Marco Rose’s arrival as their new head coach for next season early. He would be coming in from the other Borussia, Mönchengladbach, where he had continued his reputation of coaching structured high-pressing units who could force transitions and exploit space swiftly.

To that point die Schwarzgelben’s approach had been less cohesive, unsure of when to stay in the mid-block or trigger high up, which left holes for teams to play through and break them down enroute to creating goalscoring chances with a little too much ease.

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The Reflection

R.B. Leipzig: Signs of an Upward Trajectory

After the departure of head coach Julian Nagelsmann to the German record champions Bayern München, R.B. Leipzig took a new direction by hiring Jesse Marsch from sister club R.B. Salzburg.

Despite a tough start to the season, Red Bull’s Head of Global Soccer Oliver Mintzlaff has consistently re-affirmed his backing behind the American coach, but that is not to say some things have needed to be changed tactically; Marsch though has responded with some new methods instilled within his ideal system to guide him to success, and as the weekend’s action showed, in some capacity it is starting to pay off.

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Season Review

Parma Calcio 1913: The Fall and Rise

In 2015, this proud football club found itself in a pretty sticky situation, with their days in the top-tier numbered as relegation loomed and ownership changes off the pitch doing little to offset the well-documented fears over finances and the threat this posed to their future. It led not to a drop-down to Serie B as would usually be the case, but to Serie D, the fourth-tier.

From here, it would be a rise back up, requiring cohesion on the pitch and a dedicated support off it, and with both offered in abundance, as well as a pair of intelligent, inspired managerial appointments and growing financial backing, positive results came regularly and the new phoenix of Parma proved promising in its ‘formative’ years.

Now under new ownership, they suffered the pain of relegation again following last season’s display, but fortunately with a dedicated top team there is a plan in place for sporting success and it could only prove an inconvenient bump in the road to bigger things. In short, an exponentially better situation than it was in years gone by.

Focusing particularly on the period between 2015, their effective re-birthing, to 2019, the confirmation of survival on their first season back in Serie A, this is the story of the newborn Parma’s start from the bottom and subsequent rise.

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The Reflection

S.S.C. Napoli: The Start of a New Dawn

Dean Martin sang of his immense admiration of ‘old Napoli’, but the much newer Napoli of Luciano Spalletti is in itself proving a modern-day love story in its formative days with the way he has his side running, conventionally watchable and easy-on-the-eye with a 100% points tally after six matches to show the effectiveness of early results.

If Gennaro Gattuso laid the platform, getting the Partenopei to 5th-place last season following the crisis of Carlo Ancelotti’s final days and weeks in charge, then the former Roma, Inter, Udinese and Zenit coach who succeeded him, one with a proven rap of high levels of adaptability to new environments, is taking them to the next step.

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Season Review

Hamburger S.V.: The Life of Zwei

It is fair to say the past three and a bit years have felt quite like purgatory for Hamburger S.V., competing in the second-tier after several years of highs were succeeded by some of the lowest lows.

The days of Ballon D’Or-winning Englishmen and being in top-tier Bundesliga title contention are now comfortably in the past, as the club continues amid the frustrations of previous failed attempts to secure a place back in the Bundesliga that they graced for so long, to finally be looking upwards and play it out with the best of the best in Germany before too long once again.

Right now though, they are in the midst and mire of one of the most unpredictable footballing divisions around, where nothing is set in stone and where even the wildest fantasies can forge into reality. Since their relegation, teams have came and gone around them both up and down, but they continue fighting for their ultimate aim in the near-term with alterations of their approach off-pitch that supporters want to see translate to the 1. Bundesliga.

Here is a documentation of how the past three seasons have shaped this historic institution, how delight has almost always been a pre-cursor to despair and how disappointment has dominated, but also how they have set up and why if they did get promoted at some stage, their squad-building ideas could have them in good stead.

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The Football Archives

Hugo Meisl: The Mastermind of a Wonder Team

There are many contrasting ways and beliefs on how a football match can be approached, ways which the opponent will attempt to counter with modern-day coaches constantly on the hunt to find new ways to win in this always-evolving sport.

It was the same during the sport’s formative years, during which the popular and physical brand in England was domineering while continental coaches experimented more ball-playing methodologies. In the pre- and interluding war periods, one figure set this plan in motion with new tactical plans and player roles on the pitch.

With the assistance of a handful of others, during which the most inspirational coaches of the day were closely-knit thanks to an embracement of multi-culturalism, the ideas implemented would ultimately go on to set the benchmark for football for decades to come, extending to the invention of new competitions as an important administrator away from the pitch. With this, and with other coaches also attempting their own tweaks, this new direction was solidified.

While time has somewhat eroded his pioneering status, his record and contribution should not be underestimated by any stretch in shaping the sport, making heroes out himself and his players while the older methods of the English disappeared as a result.

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Rising Stars

Austria: Three Talents To Keep Eyes On

Austrian football is an intriguing market for young players, and quite expansive at that with promising young players across all clubs from different parts of the country in the top division.

It is also ever-increasing, especially since the multiple-title-winner and defending champions are part of a division known in footballing terms for their meticulous scouting and assessing of the young players they recruit, proving highly-profitable in the process but this also should not neglect the work that other clubs in the league do too.

There are opportunities to experience a new culture with one of Europe’s most widely-spoken languages to speak in, and a hospitable climate outside the mainstream limelight to develop within, working on points of development ahead of future moves for the players to demonstrate their abilities on a stage more on the spotlight still with European experience to gain going forward.

Here are three slightly lesser-known players in the division, but who nonetheless are making notable and meaningful contributions to their team as standout performers to start the season.

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South America

Flamengo Under Jorge Jesus: An Unstoppable Force

At the beginning of 2019, Flamengo made the decisive, big-money, eye-catching sale of a prodigious teenager to one of the most illustrious football clubs in the world, saw their new president elected towards the end of the previous year take office, and deal with one of the most notable tragedies in the recent history of top-tier Brazilian football.

It formed the backdrop for a new season, one where certain players could have been forgiven for still feeling a little shaken from that aforementioned tragedy in which lives were sadly lost. Fortunately the players had faith in their new coach, yet it would not be long such is the changeable and combustible environment of the league that the club would be on the hunt for a new coach to lead them forward.

They would not have to search far for this coach, a revered name particularly in his native Portugal where he had won many trophies but who some suspected may have a hard time adapting to a new climate even if linguistically it would not be that different.

What followed was a glut of major honours not seen for some time, backed up by some big spending and that big-name European head coach helping hugely in getting this show on the road.

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Game Ethics

Athletic Club: The Origins and Development of the Basque-Only Policy

People often look at the policies of Athletic Club and wonder how they have remained a top-flight club for as long as they have, since the formation of LaLiga in fact.

People wonder how, in this increasingly global game, this curious club stays close-knit to its roots, and how for over a century it has survived with one of the smallest transfer markets in Europe. People look at said globalised game and wonder how this team has resisted temptation to tweak the philosophy when things are not so perfect on the pitch.

The reason lies in how they were originated, and how others viewed their unsportsmanlike methods unfavourably to the point where the solution was to only play those blooded in the region. The club is modernised now, but the values they have took to heart for their entire existence remain at the centre of their sporting project, and these values are relayed to the next generation to enhance them on their journey.

Consequently, having honed this through to the modern day, the line of talent is a long one and the focus on which areas and regions to develop young players are as clear as a crystallised lake.