Paul Lambert’s youth revolution sees five new faces arrive at Villa Park

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Last season Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert convinced chairman Randy Lerner to dole out £7 million for a relatively unknown 21 year old commodity out of Racing Genk. At the time the fee seemed a bit rich but fast forward nine months and there is not a club in the world that would pass on such a cut-rate price for Christian Benteke.

And while the Benteke deal is Lambert’s shrewdest to date, a deeper look at his portfolio suggests the Villa manager has a keen insight on picking up young, quality talent in the transfer market.

Last season he snapped up 22 year old Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United for a fee of £3 million, 21 year old Ashley Westwood from Crewe Alexandria for a fee of £2 million and 22 year old Yacouba Sylla from Clermont Foot for  £2 million. Lowton quickly established himself as one of the best young right-backs in the league while Westwood made the holding midfield role his own and Sylla impressed in the same position with a marauding style that brought bite to the claret and blue.

In addition to bringing in new players, Lambert has recently re-signed the talented youth in place before his arrival at Villa Park, penning 22 year old defender Nathan Baker and 21 year old winger Andreas Weimann to new deals this summer. And as the youth are locked down, the non-impacting veterans – James Collins (29), Jean Makoun(30) and Stephen Warnock (31) – have all been put to pasture.

It’s all part of Lambert’s youth revolution, which has continued this summer by bringing in five new faces all under the age of 23 – Antonio Luna (22), Aleksandar Tonev (22), Jores Okore (20), Leandro Bacuna (21) and Nicklas Helenius (22).

So, which one of these players could be the next Benteke or Weimann? Let’s take a closer look at each one and note their potential impact.

Antonio Luna

Luna signed with the West Midlands on a three year deal from Sevilla, where the left-back made his debut in 2010 and went on to make 20 appearances over three seasons. After a perceived drop in play he was sent on loan to Almeria in 2011 (making 13 appearances) and to Mallorca last season (making 10 appearances). Although not expected to come in and start for the Villians, if Luna hits form do not be surprised if Lambert’s plants the Spaniard at left-back and moves Baker into the center of the defense.

Aleksandar Tonev

Bulgarian midfielder Tonev comes to Villa from Lech Poznan where he netted seven times in three years. The winger played alongside Villa midfielder (and now assistant development coach) Stilian Petrov in the Bulgarian national team and hopes to emulate the impact of Petrov and fellow countrymen Dimitar Berbatov in the Premier League. Like Luna, Tonev is unlikely to start but will provide competition for Weimann and Gabriel Agbonglahor and is likely to be utilized by Lambert as a spark late in matches.

Jores Okore

Okore (pictured) is a big, physical center-back who played a key part of FC Nordsjaelland’s strong run in the Danish Superliga and earned vital experience in this season’s Champions League stint. He is fast, big, strong and good in the air but his youth makes him prone to positioning mistakes. Okore may not start immediately but he very well could prove the most valuable of the lot in a few years down the road. For this season, however, he’ll serve as serious competition for Ron Vlaar, Baker and Joseph Bennett.

Leandro Bacuna

Leandro Bacuna is a pacy and versatile Dutch midfielder came through the youth ranks at Groningen and spent four seasons with the senior side making 109 appearances and scoring 10 goals. At 6’1″ Bacuna is physically imposing player prone to more of a power orientated approach that sometimes finds his skill lacking. His engine could see him inserted anywhere in the midfield but Lambert is most likely to let him challenge Westwood, Sylla and Fabian Delph in the center of the park.

Nicklas Helenius

Helenius is a striker from Danish League side Aalborg BK, where he made 102 appearances and scored 40 goals. The Danish international is a threat in the air due to his towering height (6’5″) and also on the ground where he possesses a delicate touch in the box. The 22 year old would make a fearsome strike partner for Benteke, could be a wonderful target for both Weimann and  Agbonglahor and may be the man who prompts Villa to cut ties with Darren Bent.

 

3 things to look for in the Manchester derby in Houston

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Manchester City and Manchester United square off in Houston, Texas on Thursday in what will be the first-ever Manchester derby played outside of the UK.

[ MORE: Daley Blind chat to JPW ]

This game is never a friendly but with it being a preseason match-up in the International Champions Cup, we may not see as many challenges flying as we usually do when Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola lock horns. Maybe…

Here’s a quick look at three intriguing storylines heading into the game.


New kids on the block

This will be our first chance to see Kyle Walker, Ederson and Bernardo Silva in Man City shirts as Pep’s team kick off their preseason games. Walker is a big upgrade on City’s previous full back options and his pace and power will give them a new dynamic and balance. Ederson is now the go-to goalkeeper for Guardiola, even though he said Claudio Bravo will stick around and Bernando Silva is a true luxury player capable of slotting in wherever needed in attack. All three will have plenty to prove with big price-tags hanging around their necks, but perhaps Ederson is the most intriguing because the goalkeeper position has been a huge problem area for City and we know what to expect from Walker and Silva. First impressions can shape your future at a club and Ederson will be well aware of that.

Kompany vs. Lukaku

One big man against another, there’s no love lost between Belgium teammates Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. This battle will set the tone for the upcoming clashes this season and it is a pivotal one. Kompany can handle Lukaku’s power and aerial ability, but can he handle his pace in-behind? If United can set Lukaku free, there are still doubts over Kompany’s fitness and if the 31-year-old has lost a yard of pace over the years. A supreme defender, Kompany knows this is a massive year for him to stay fit as he will try to lead City to PL glory and then Belgium to World Cup glory next summer with Lukaku by his side. On Thursday in Houston it should be a titanic battle if they come up against one another.

3-4-3 system from United?

I spoke with Man United’s utility man Daley Blind earlier this week and he told me that preparations for a 3-4-3 system is going well. When this alternate formation is deployed, Blind will likely slot in as the left-sided center back with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof alongside him. Mourinho usually keeps it simple and plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, but now is the time to experiment and given the recent success of teams playing with wing-backs (Chelsea for most of last season, then Spurs and Arsenal towards the end) why not see if his team can do it?

United have been working on it in training and have already played that way against LA Galaxy in preseason. With United’s fans urging them to be more attack-minded, maybe Mourinho, like Wenger, could change his ways. If United do play wing-backs it will be interesting to see how City’s attackers cope with having to track back and having players in the space they’d usually roam free in.

Seattle’s wild four-goal comeback caps crazy MLS night

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The Seattle Sounders stole the show as Major League Soccer go back to work on Wednesday following a break for the 2017 Gold Cup.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Seven games took place in MLS on Wednesday, with the Sounders trailing 3-0 at home against D.C. United with 50 minutes on the clock.

They then scored four goals in 27 minutes with Cristian Roldan scoring the game-winner and the Sounders survived a late red card for Nicholas Lodeiro to grab a big win. It was in fact the first-time in MLS history that a team had fought back from 3-0 down to win in regulation. Majestic.

Watch the highlights of that crazy comeback above, while below is a brief recap on what else happened across MLS on a wild evening of action.

Other scores around Major League Soccer
New York City 2-2 Toronto FC – Stoppage time penalty kick grabbed a point for TFC at Yankee Stadium
LA Galaxy 0-1 Vancouver Whitecaps – Big road win for the Caps who move up to 4th in the West thanks to Tchani’s header
Montral Impact 2-1 Philadelphia Union – Blerim Dzemaili was the hero as he scored a spectcular winner in Quebec
New York Red Bulls 5-1 San Jose Earthquakes – A pummeling for the struggling ‘Quakes as Royer scored twice late on
Portland Timbers 1-4 Real Salt Lake – Portland finished with nine as Adi floored Beckerman, who also saw red. Two goals for Plata
Minnesota United 0-0 Houston Dynamo – The Dynamo could’t get it done on the road against the stubborn Loons

Alvaro Morata: Chelsea “the best club” to join

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Spanish international Alvaro Morata has arrived in London for his medical as he is set to become the most-expensive signing in Chelsea’s history.

[ MORE: Morata’s rank in PL strikers ]

The reported overall fee Chelsea have agreed to pay Real Madrid varies from $85-97 million when you calculate the add-ons, but one thing that’s for sure is Morata is eager to get going in west London.

Morata, 24, flew in from the U.S. overnight, as he was on Real’s preseason tour of the USA, and will now agree personal terms and undergo a medical before linking up with Antonio Conte‘s team who are currently on their preseason tour of China and Singapore.

“This is the best club,” Morata told Sky Sports. “Antonio Conte is one of the best coaches in the world and I’m so happy to work with Antonio.”

He was then asked how close he came to joining Manchester United, who chased Morata all summer, but the Spaniard said he had no idea how close that deal was and that “the most important thing is I’m here playing for Chelsea. Finally I’m here.”

Chelsea now have a predatory forward to replace Diego Costa who will surely leave this summer and re-join Atletico Madrid after falling out with Conte.

Having Chelsea’s boss commit his future to the Blues with a new two-year deal he signed on Tuesday clearly played a big factor in Morata joining, as the man who took him to Juventus in 2014 helped him to develop into a true center forward.

Morata’s movement, power, aerial ability and clinical finishing means he will slot perfectly into this Chelsea team and he’s already saying all the right things.

Jose Mourinho gives update on Man United’s transfer plans

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Jose Mourinho has already made two signings and spent over $135 million this summer.

But he wants more. He always wants more.

[ MORE: Daley Blind chats to JPW ]

With United back in the UEFA Champions League this season, the Portuguese coach said he wanted to add four new players to his squad to get them ready to challenge for the Premier League title and European silverware.

Speaking ahead of the Manchester Derby in Houston on Thursday against Manchester City in a preseason friendly, Mourinho revealed just how tough its been to get deals over the line this summer.

“Everybody knows because I said it, I would like four players and asked for four players,” Mourinho said. “I’m ready to go from four to three because the market is difficult, because some clubs they think the market is different from others.

“We are not a club that is not ready to buy and buy and buy non-stop. We are not a club that is ready to pay what clubs wants us to pay, so I am ready to go from four to three. With these three, I just give a better balance to the team, to the squad and better conditions to compete.”

United were just valued as the most valuable soccer team on the planet by Forbes, jumping ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid and only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees are more valuable than the Red Devils in the sporting world.

Mourinho can’t play the pauper card here, even if he tried to when stating his “surprise” that Kyle Walker cost crosstown rivals Man City close to $65 million.

The truth is, he’s probably put all his eggs in one basket with the signing of Romelu Lukaku for $96.5 million and that’s okay. United needed a center forward to be the focal point of the team after Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s serious knee injury, so they got what they needed and Victor Lindelof will also be a starter in central defense.

Those two players both improve United’s team drastically.

Now, it’s quite clear that Ivan Perisic, an out-and-out winger, and Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic were the final two players Mourinho wanted to get on board. The deal for Perisic appears to be dead in the water with Inter Milan not budging on their $56 million asking price, while holding midfielder Matic will surely arrive at Old Trafford after Tiemoue Bakayoko signed for Chelsea.

Even then, does Mourinho really need another winger with Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata around? Perisic should be no more than a luxury buy if they can get him for the right price, while adding Matic to the engine room will be vital to providing balance to their slightly top-heavy squad.

After putting down a world-record fee last summer for Paul Pogba and spending big on Lukaku this summer, Mourinho won’t have many people feeling sorry for him.