Premier League Preview: Top 5 Midfielders to Watch

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In addition to previewing two teams from the Premier League each day until the beginning of season, we will name five players to watch at each position, goalkeeper through forward. The 2013-14 season begins Aug. 17, and for the first time, every game will be broadcast live in the United States on NBC Sports

Any discussion of midfielders must define its scope. Particularly in a world where the 4-2-3-1 formation is so prevalent, the line between midfielder and outright attacker is easily blurred. Some players deployed in the line of three may be tasked a conventional midfielder’s responsibilities: moving to provide an outlet for play coming forward; linking to and creating chances for more advanced attackers; marking opposition in deeper areas of the opposing midfield. Other players are more outright attackers – wingers and forwards whose defensive responsibilities often lie along the opponent’s back line.

Today, we’re focusing on the first category – the players who play like midfielders. So even though a Gareth Bale or and Eden Hazard may vaguely play similar positions to players on this list, we’ve passed them on to tomorrow, when we’ll rank the Premier League’s five forwards. Today, we’re staying in the middle.

Santi Cazorla, Arsenalsource: AP

The former Villarreal and Malaga man may have cost Arsenal a record fee last summer, but with some of the prices we’ve seen paid for lesser talents this summer, £15 million is a steal for somebody of Cazorla’s talents. The 28-year-old Spanish international can function as a central playmaker, wide man, or somebody that can go get goals for Arsène Wenger’s team, versatility that was reflected in his 2012-13 output. In his first season with the Gunners, Cazorla posted 12 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, numbers which could improve with a year’s experience in the unique Premier League. Capable of playing any of Arsenal’s attacking midfield spots, you’re most likely to find Cazorla was Wenger’s No. 10 or wide right when his club hosts Aston Villa on Saturday.

source: Getty ImagesMarouane Fellaini, Everton

Thanks to former manager David Moyes using the Belgian international behind his striker for chunks of the last two seasons, Fellaini began garnering attention that transcended Premier League diehards. For the first half of the 2012-13 campaign, he was part of the conversation for player of the year, and while that buzz eventually dissipated, broader respect for Fellaini’s game did not. Tall, strong, and sporting with an afro that’s often as talked about as his on-field contributions, Fellaini can play either as a supporting striker or in his preferred role: deep-lying midfielder. Under new manager Roberto Martínez, that versatility could prove vital to Everton’s chances of replicating last year’s success. Playing in a more fluid system, Fellaini could see more opportunities to leverage his versatility, his ability to couple goal scoring, target man’s prowess, physicality and defensive impact again making him one of the league’s top players.

Juan Mata, Chelsea

Since arriving from Valencia two years ago, Mata (pictured, at the top) has been the Premier League’s most prolific player. In 118 all competition appearances, the Spanish international has scored 32 goals and recorded 59 assists. So why is Mata rarely mentioned with Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez, and Robin van Persie as one of the best players in the Premier League? Because physically, there isn’t much to him. He’s just short of 5’9″. He isn’t particularly strong or fast. He’s yet to carve out a major role for his national team, and the two years he’s been at Stamford Bridge have been strange (if successful) ones for the club. Ultimately, however, the production speaks for itself. If you like watching players who create and score goals, Mata is as watchable as anybody in the Premier League.

source:  Oscar, Chelsea

Just under a month short of his 21st birthday, Oscar is already a starter for both Chelsea and the Brazilian national team, and although his in-league numbers weren’t particularly impressive (four goals, seven assists), his youth, all competition production (12 goals, 13 assists in all competitions), and skill demand a place on this list. With the talent to become one of the best creators in the league, Oscar’s numbers will certainly improve. Even if they don’t, his ability to make himself available for the ball and get it to Chelsea’s creators further up the field (Mata, Hazard, who combined for 60 assists) shouldn’t be overlooked, even if basic statistics do.

source: Getty ImagesYaya Touré, Manchester City

Two years ago, Touré was the league’s best player – an absolute beast, attacking and defending, during Manchester City’s first Premier League title. Last year, like the rest of his team, he waned. Whether that was because of natural regression, wear-and-tear, or his commitments at the African Cup of Nations, City will need the 30-year-old Ivorian to be the same, dominant player he was in 2011-12 if they’re to reclaim the title. If he plays at that level, Touré will not only provide a perfect complement to the newly purchased Fernandinho, he will again be one of the league’s best players. He has the strength and awareness to be the league’s top defensive midfielder (when played there). He also possesses the range and skill to fill the space behind City’s phalanx of forwards, allowing Fernandinho to sit and distribute while adding another goal-scoring threat to City’s attack.


Your mileage may vary, and in players like Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, there are certainly strong candidates to replace those on this list. In reality, there are far more than five midfielders to watch this season in the Premier League. But if you were going to focus on only five, we’d suggest Cazorla, Fellaini, Mata, Oscar, and Touré.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”