Relegated Best XI Players

Best XI of Players From Relegated Teams

It has been nearly 11 months since I wrote my article “5 Players Who Could Be Available For Bargain Prices” for BET Central. In the following weeks after the article’s publication, Matheus Pereira departed West Bromwich Albion for Al-Hilal, Simy left Crotone for newly promoted Salernitana, Ryan Gauld departed Farense for Vancouver Whitecaps, Javi Galán left Huesca for Celta Vigo, whilst Zinedine Ferhat remained put at Nîmes.

Today, we’re taking it a step further than a mere top five list: we’re taking a look at the best XI of players from relegated sides in the summer 2022 transfer window.

GK: Luís Maximiano

After rising through Sporting’s academy and waiting behind Rui Patrício and Romain Salin in the ranks, Luís Maximiano made his Primeira Liga debut on December 1, 2019, in a 3-1 defeat to Gil Vicente, but he’d nevertheless solidify a starting spot for the rest of the season before being relegated to the bench with the arrival of Spanish veteran Antonio Adán on a free transfer. Maximiano would play just twice as Sporting ended a 19-year title drought, with Adán’s superb performances seeing the Portuguese youngster head for Granada. Whilst he was unable to keep them up, Maximiano could be a bargain for several European clubs and, if he continues his development, could also stake out a starting spot for the Seleção in the years to come.

RB: Raoul Bellanova

It’s one thing to be relegated once in a season, it’s another thing to be relegated twice with two clubs, and this is precisely what happened with Raoul Bellanova. After spending 13 years in Milan’s academy, the Italian joined Bordeaux in 2019 but struggled to make an impact under Portuguese coach Paulo Sousa before leaving six months later for Atalanta, moving six months later to Pescara, and then joined Cagliari on loan with an option to buy in August 2021. Whilst Bordeaux, his parent club, finished bottom of Ligue 1, Cagliari would finish 18th, ending a 6-year spell in Serie A. This did not stop Cagliari from exercising their option to buy on Bellanova, a physically gifted and attack-minded right wingback who’s capable of beating his opponent down the byline and whipping in a deadly cross. Expect them to cash in on the 22-year-old with Simone Inzaghi’s Inter reportedly closing in on a four-year contract for a fee rising to €10 million, with the Italian providing depth at the wingback positions following Ivan Perišić’s departure to Tottenham.

CB: Boubakar Kouyaté

After spells in Mali and Morocco, Boubakar Kouyaté made the move to Europe in 2016, spending three years with Sporting’s B team before moving to Ligue 2 side Troyes and departing 19 months later to Metz. Whilst newly promoted Troyes have finished six points clear of the drop, Kouyaté’s side finished 19th, ending a 5-year spell in the top-flight for Les Grenats. Kouyaté could be part of a fire sale, with the 25-year-old proving to be an impressive force in defence with his reading of the game, physical prowess and aggression in the tackle and impressing for Mali in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations alongside Falaye Sacko.

“He’s a real athletic defender with pace to burn and who loves to press, an old school defensive type whose lack of ability on the ball is the only thing holding him back from being a top-class centre back,” said Liam Scahill, an Irish-born, Australia-based journalist who reports on Ligue 1 for Breaking The Lines.

CB: Nathan Collins

Finding a defensive partner for Kouyaté is easier said than done. Johan Vásquez has impressed for Genoa since arriving from Pumas in August 2021 on a season-long loan with an obligation to buy, but the Mexican defender has since been sent on loan to newly-promoted Serie A side Cremonese. James Tarkowski is set to depart Burnley on a free transfer in the coming weeks, but the Clarets may be able to get some much-needed financial relief by selling Nathan Collins, who is the subject of interest of Wolves, Leicester and various other Premier League sides.

After arriving from Stoke in the summer, Collins impressed at Turf Moor when standing in for either James Tarkowski or Ben Mee, making 19 appearances in a season that would see Burnley end two lengthy spells: their Premier League stay and Sean Dyche’s reign in charge. It remains to be seen whether the 21-year-old will remain at Burnley and learn under legendary centre back and former Anderlecht manager Vincent Kompany, but Collins could represent shrewd value for various teams in England’s top division.

“Collins is a great young talent, brilliant on the ball, relatively quick and good defensive instincts (mostly),” says Jonny Bentley, a Burnley journalist and VAVEL editor-in-chief. “He has an error or two in him but that’s to be expected. He would excel as one of the wide centre-backs in a back-three where he can take more chances in possession.”

LB: Fali Candé

Whilst I’m tempted to go with versatile French defender Fabien Centonze (26), who has played more at right-back in his three years at Metz, I’m going to go with a more natural left-back in 24-year-old Fali Candé. Born in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, Candé moved to Portugal at a young age and moved around from seven different clubs from 2009 to 2017 before joining Portimonense in 2018, making his Primeira debut during Project Restart, around the same time as other emerging stars such as Fábio Vieira and Nuno Mendes.

After scoring 2 goals in 22 assists in 2020/21, Candé began the 2021/22 season with a goal and assist in four appearances under Portimonense manager Paulo Sérgio, who converted him from his natural position of a winger to the left-back position, following a similar pattern to other Portuguese fullbacks like Nélson Semedo, Fábio Coentrão and João Cancelo. Candé would pick up assists vs. Sporting and Belenenses-SAD before jetting off for Cameroon to take part in the African Cup of Nations, but rather than returning to the Algarve, Candé was sold to Metz for €2.5 million, but despite quickly earning a starting spot and grabbing two assists in Ligue 1, he was unable to save Les Grenats from relegation.

“What stands out for me right now is that he’s improving his defensive abilities, his aggression and positioning are a lot better now, he’s making a lot of slide tackles and his sense of defending is improving and this is why he’s stepped up his game. We all like to see attacking full-backs, but they also need to learn how to defend,” said Manik Manuel Mané, a professional translator who was born and raised in Portugal to Bissau-Guinean parents.

CM: Luis Milla

Born in Madrid, Luis Milla bounced around various sides in and around his hometown before moving to Tenerife in 2018, where he would spend two years before heading to Granada, marking his debut by scoring a goal from the edge of the box in a 2-0 win vs. Athletic Club and impressing in midfield in Granada’s league play as well as their first European campaign in club history, before being sidelined for the final four months of the season with a muscle injury. Milla would return to full fitness by the start of the 2021/22 campaign and picked up 3 goals and 3 assists in La Liga, but he was unable to prevent Granada from suffering relegation in a season that would see them go through two managers after Diego Martínez’s departure in the summer.

“Milla is Granada’s best player, he’s absolutely fantastic,” says Sam Tighe, host of the Ranks FC Podcast and a Granada supporter. “Really creative and good on the ball but with a tenacious streak too. Great passer and set piece-taker, and scores the off howitzer too…he’s good enough to play for a team like Villarreal. We really struggled to win without him, and if he hadn’t gone off injured on the final day I bet we don’t go down.”

CM: Jean Onana

Bordeaux have been provisionally relegated to France’s third tier due to financial issues, a decision they are set to appeal, but one that nevertheless does not obfuscate the fact that for the first time since 1991/92, the club will not be playing Ligue 1 football next season. A fire sale seems inevitable, and one of the first to go could be 22-year-old Cameroonian midfielder Jean Onana, who arrived from Lille the prior summer.

“He’s quite a physical player, he is more than happy to embrace that side of the game. Equally, he’s a very intelligent player, great ability to read the play – averages approx 4 interceptions per game,” says Bethany Limb, a writer for Breaking The Lines. “He just has this ability to know when he needs to drop back into space to create a passing option for his teammates and when to push higher up. He is very adaptable, can play either as a single pivot or equally as effective in a double pivot.”

RW: Ismaïla Sarr

Whilst Bordeaux are ending three decades in Ligue 1, and whilst Saint-Ètienne will be playing in the second tier for the first time since 2003/04 next season, the Premier League has seen two teams relegated to the second division immediately after their return to the top-flight. Ironically, whilst Brentford, who won the 2021 promotion final, finished comfortably midtable, Norwich and Watford, who sealed the two automatic promotion positions, had their fates confirmed with weeks to spare. Both teams look set to lose some key players in the summer, and after spells at Metz, Rennes and Watford, Ismaïla Sarr could be set for a departure from Vicarage Road as he looks to avoid his second Championship season in three years, and with his contract set to expire in 2024, Watford may be inclined to cash in on him this summer.

“I really like Sarr and I’m surprised he hasn’t been picked up by a top-six club yet,” says Breaking The Lines journalist Sam Tabuteau. “His pace in behind combined with his directness makes for a really promising player. Under a stricter tactical setup, I could see him excelling. I believe a manager like Jurgen Klopp would get the best out of him.”

CF: Emmanuel Dennis

Whilst the 24-year-old Sarr remains an incredibly exciting winger, his production of 5 goals and 2 assists this season was dwarfed by that of new signing Emmanuel Dennis, who arrived from Club Brugge in the summer for £3.6 million and racked up an impressive 10 goals and 6 assists in 33 appearances for the Hornets, registering as many Premier League goal contributions as Riyad Mahrez, Bruno Fernandes, Gabriel Jesus and Harvey Barnes at 16.

“I didn’t have too many expectations when he signed from Club Brugge,” admits Tabuteau, “but he single-handedly kept Watford’s head above water for far longer than they honestly deserved. With Sarr struggling for fitness, Dennis shouldered Watford’s offensive threat admirably and is surely set for a move this summer.”

“Dennis is a player who comes alive in and around the 18-yard-box, but it’s not just his presence of mind, but his versatility in attacking areas. Left, right through the middle, he poses a threat. He’s just as comfortable taking his man on as he is ghosting in behind his marker to capitalising on loose balls. Personally, I see his best position wide left, here is where he is most effective both as a creative and a goalscoring threat.”

CF: Sékou Mara

Jean-Pierre Papin, Alan Shearer, Rui Costa, Thierry Henry…what do all of these players have in common? Each has finished as the top scorer in the Toulon Tournament, the annual two-week contest held in southern France that has emerged as one of the premier youth tournaments in world football since its founding in 1967. I was in the press box for the 2019 Final when a Brazil team featuring the likes of Douglas Luiz, Antony, Matheus Cunha and Emerson Royal defeated Japan on penalties. The first Toulon Tournament in three years kicked off on May 29 with Colombia, Venezuela and France topping their groups whilst Mexico advanced to the semifinals as the best second-placed team. France went two goals to the good within 19 minutes of the semifinal via Bordeaux forward Sékou Mara and Brest midfielder Lucien Agoumé, on loan from Inter, Mara tripling the lead at the half-hour mark. When LA Galaxy’s Efraín Álvarez cut the deficit for Mexico just after the break, Saint-Ètienne’s Adil Aouchiche would restore the three-goal lead 10 minutes from the whistle. Mara would register 5 goals and 1 assist in France’s run to the final, where they would beat Venezuela 2-1.

“He’s an all-round striker,” says Limb. “He’s happy to shoot from distance, works the channels well, can defend from the front. He has a great ability to create space for himself with either a turn of pace or drop of the shoulder. I think he has the potential to be great. He’s a really intelligent player from what I’ve seen. I think where he goes next will be crucial, if he moves somewhere to sit on the bench then it could stifle his development.”

LW: Masaya Okugawa

The final player on this team and the first Bundesliga player as well, Masaya Okugawa began his career at Kyoto Sanga before leaving Japan in 2015 for Red Bull Salzburg, spending two years at the club’s feeder team Liefering and making the step up to Austria’s first-tier in 2017 where he would score 8 goals and 3 assists at Mattersburg before enjoying another loan spell, this time in the German second tier with Holstein Kiel, and returning to his parent club in 2019 where he would score 11 goals and 6 assists in 33 appearances across all competitions, but a reduced role in the first half of 2020/21 under Jesse Marsch would see him head to Arminia Bielefeld in January on loan, eventually joining on a permanent deal in the summer for €1 million. Whilst the 26-year-old registered 9 goals and 2 assists in all competitions for Die Blauen and impressed on both flanks as well as in a central midfield and attacking midfield capacity, showcasing his versatility and technical brilliance, he was unable to keep Arminia Bielefeld afloat in the Bundesliga.

“He likes to dribble, although his passing does need some improvement,” says Limb. “Great presser, full of energy and has a good understanding of when to press, very good in tight spaces, and capable of creating space for himself. He’s had the RB Salzburg experience so there’s a talented player there. A bit rough around the edges but I do think he was severely limited by being in a poor Bielefeld team this season.”


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