The Champions League is in full swing, and the attacks are out in force to make a difference.
Just last week we saw PSG, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool fire their way to glory, well, first-leg glory anyway. This week will see more heavy-hitters take to the stage, notably the defending champions Bayern Munich.
Attacking units come in all shapes and sizes, but the best teams in the Champions League usually have their attacks revolve around two key men. Sometimes it’s more, but the days of the ‘front three’ dominating Europe seem to be a thing of the past.
With that in mind we’ve had a look at how the most interesting attacks left in the Champions League ‘work’, by looking at their two most important forwards — and how those players complement one another.
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Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry
There’s nowhere better to start than with the champions of Europe, is there? Bayern took the Champions League last year by winning every single game and that was built on their brilliant attack. Robert Lewandowski has taken his goalscoring to new heights (no one has scored more than his 18 since the start of last season) and what’s more, he’s equally generous to his team-mates, chief of which is Serge Gnabry who, while struggling with a thigh issue of late, will be relishing a return to full fitness.
Gnabry has been Lewandowski’s most reliable foil, adding the kind of dribbling and thrust that the Polish striker obviously cannot provide. With Gnabry’s lethal off-the-ball movement facilitating Lewandowski’s movement, Bayern’s attack can penetrate with more than one player. And when you take into account Gnabry’s penchant for the spectacular (as well as the contributions of Thomas Muller, Kingsley Coman, etc.) you can see why Bayern Munich have the most feared attack in all of Europe.
Neymar and Kylian Mbappe
Neymar has, at one time or another, been marked as the heir to Lionel Messi’s crown as ‘the best player in the world’, while Mbappe, it has to be said, is now next in line for the throne after he exploits in Catalonia last week. These heirs are paired together for PSG and what can you say about them? They are absolutely spectacular, two of the five best players in the world when fit. Outstanding attacking talents capable of doing anything, from creating, to dribbling, to scoring (well, maybe they don’t win many headers).
Everything PSG do is centred on finding ways to get these two in motion and moving at defences. The only thing that can stop them is their own profligacy, as PSG found out to their detriment in the 2020 Champions League final. They’ll be looking to go one better in 2021, and would you want to bet against them?
‘The Wing Wonders’
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane
Liverpool’s two legendary wing-forwards carried the Reds to two straight finals, winning one, and are strikers almost perfectly built for knockout football. Possessing immense pace, skill and technique they are what turned Liverpool from also-rans into world-beaters (offensively, anyway, no one could doubt the contributions of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson).
Salah is a goalscoring giant of course, raining down shots on opponents and using his dribbling skill to get off space to take those shots. Mane, however, is a more combative dribbler. He picks the ball up deeper and runs at defenders more directly, which leads to him drawing a lot more fouls that, for a team blessed with competent free-kick takers like Liverpool, is a very useful skill. Mane is also surprisingly useful in the air for someone who isn’t even six feet tall.
‘The Next Generation’
Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho
Erling Haaland is a goalscoring freak of nature. At just 20-years-old he’s already got 18 Champions League goals… in just 13 Champions League games. His ability to score is almost literally without peer (only Lewandowski can match his goal tally since his Champions League debut). His speed, shot power and shooting technique make him unstoppable.
As if that wasn’t enough he’s also a formidable presser and target man. All he needs is a fellow forward who is more focused on creativity and generosity and, oh look, it’s Jadon Sancho. The Englishman is a superb creator, always getting the ball into the box from crosses, cutbacks and passes, and that usually sets Haaland away. And once he is away, you aren’t gonna catch him, leaving the poor goalkeeper, who has to test the tensile strength of his wrists against Haaland’s cannon shots, at the Norwegian’s mercy.
This duo are exhilarating and the only shame is that Dortmund’s financial situation means they may be broken up this summer.
Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden
In truth there’s any number of combinations we could have picked for Pep Guardiola. so much has the Catalan coach rotated his squad. The one constant would be Raheem Sterling, who has become a fixture in Guardiola’s XI no matter who else plays.
Phil Foden is our chosen partner for Sterling, both because of minutes played and also the fact that both players exemplify what Guardiola wants from his forwards. They are exceptionally generous with the ball and also confident dribblers, but they differ in key areas too. Foden is a more relentless pressing presence and fires off more shots, but Sterling, almost a decade older, is a more refined goalscorer. Needing less shots to rack up more goals, often appearing to tap the ball home after yet another intricate City attack.
Luis Suarez and Joao Felix
The final attack is perfectly balanced, as all things should be. Quite apt for a Thanos quote, they belong to footballing villains Atletico Madrid, and the arch-villain is of course Luis Suarez. The veteran striker who can barely run anymore let alone dribble pass opponents, yet, when you ask him to shoot, he is as prolific as ever. Currently top-scorer in La Liga, Suarez has shown (thanks to the power of revenge) that he can still get the job done when others do the running for him.
And Joao Felix does that running, and more. A sensational dribbler, this young Portuguese second-striker drifts off his Uruguayan team-mate superbly and conjures chances galore both for him and other players. Felix takes advantage of Suarez occupying defenders to find pockets of space, and his chance creation and expected assist numbers reflect this.
They really are the perfectly balanced striking partnership.