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Premier League Breakdown with Kyle Martino: Jack Wilshere must step up

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Ever find yourself thinking, I need more Robbie Mustoe, Robbie Earle and Kyle Martino in my life?

Me too. Whether it’s tactics, results or analysis, few men in football have a better beat on the pulse of the Premier League than these guys.

In the feature series “Premier League Breakdown,” I chat with one of the NBC Sports’ Premier League analysts each week to dig deep into the most entertaining and competitive league in world football.

This week I sat down with former U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder, Kyle Martino, to talk about Wilshere’s need to step up his game, Fulham’s anemic attack and Sturridge’s impressive form.

Let’s get stuck in.

Q: While Santi Cazorla has been out injured Jack Wilshere has filled in at left wing, with Mathieu Flamini playing Wilshere’s favored holding role. Does Wilshere have a battle on his hands once Cazorla returns?

A: I certainly think so, yes. I’ve been really impressed with Flamini coming into the Arsenal midfield and making an immediate impact. He gives the Gunners that bite in the center of the park that they’ve been missing over the last few seasons, so I’m sure Wenger is glad to have him back.

For years now Wilshere has been the heart and soul of the Arsenal midfield, and it’s obvious that Wenger loves him, but for me he needs to prove that he can make it more than two or three matches without needing a break. If he’s going to be their midfield talisman he needs to be in that holding role, digging in every match.

We know he’s struggled with injuries in the past and that he’s still making his way back to full fitness. But until he does, I think there’s definitely argument that can be made in favor of Flamini, who has been so impressive since his return to North London.

Q: Everton has been a bit of a bogey club for Manchester City over the years, explain how a squad like the Toffees could give City problems this weekend.

A: Well, the Everton of old used to give clubs like Manchester City problems because they would sit in and absorb pressure from the back while looking to nick goals on the counter. In games like that City would press high up the pitch and eventually pile too many midfielders into the box where Everton would catch them.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen now that Martinez is at the helm. This is a different Everton team and they’re going to try and match the play of teams like City. They’re going to try and play soccer and take it right to them.

Do I think they’ll beat City? Probably not. But if they do it will be by Martinez’ style of play and not sitting back and being conservative.

Q: Six games in and Fulham have scored a league worst four goals, with Dimitar Berbatov yet to open his account. What’s wrong with Fulham’s attack?

source: Getty Images
Martino believes Berbatov remains the best pure finisher in the Premier League.

A: For my money, Berbatov is still the best pure finisher in the Barclays Premier League. The problem is he doesn’t get the ball in the box enough. Fulham are relying on Adel Taraabt to provide Berba with service and it’s just not working.

Jol has also brought in Bent, which has allowed Berbatov to drop deeper on the pitch to pick balls up but the lack of a midfield anchor prevents those two from getting into positions to score.

From a defensive standpoint, the players Jol is using presents problems as well. Berbatov is never going to defend, Bent does little defending himself, while Taraabt and Ruiz hate doing the dirty work. So that means that anytime Fulham lose possession they’re essentially playing down 3-4 men, which is killing them.

As for the midfield anchor, they’ve brought in Scottie Parker, who we have yet to see make the role his own.

I thought Jol should’ve been looking for a guy like Gareth Barry but Parker should be able to do the job and if he can, it should release the attack.

Q: Villa did well to capitalize on their opportunities last weekend but realistically, how long can they produce without Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor?

A: Not long. Without Benteke and Agbonlahor, Villa are in trouble. Lambert has his side playing good soccer but it’s a style that critically depends on the counter-attack and clinical finishing.

Agbonlahor is the key to their counter and you can’t say enough about Benteke’s finishing. Villa need those two back as soon as possible.

Q: Crystal Palace lack talent but they’re still capable of playing some impressive football. Does this team have any shot at beating Liverpool on Saturday?

A: No, not with the way Suarez and Sturridge are playing. We saw Liverpool last weekend were just too strong up top with Suarez and Sturridge. Those two played 10 matches together last season and looked decent but now they look incredible.

It’s interesting to note that Suarez is returning to Liverpool from suspension and not from injury. When a player returns from injury it means he hasn’t been training with the squad and needs to gradually incorporate himself back into the side. When that happens, partnerships suffer. But with suspensions, a player keeps training with his team and it’s obvious that Suarez and Sturridge have really been working on things during his ban.

They seem to be in perfect synch and have arguably formed the tight-bonded partnership that Manchester United fans would have hoped to have seen between Van Persie and Rooney. But it hasn’t happened yet.

source: Getty Images
Dyer’s creativity and speed could punish an over-zealous Southampton press.

Q: There’s an interesting tactics battle this weekend at Southampton with the Saints’ high pressure style taking on Swansea’s Welsh version of tiki-taka. How’s this one going to shake out?

A: Well anytime you’ve got a squad that likes to high-pressure it’s fun to watch because they’re always trying to force errors. Pochettino has installed this system at Southampton and it’s definitely working. The key component in a high-pressure system is not only a fast attack but quick, unrelenting defense once the ball is lost. You’ll notice this with Barcelona – as soon as they lose the ball they go into overdrive to get it back.

The problem with the high-pressure approach is that if you don’t defend well, you get punished. And this is what I worry about with Southampton. Is their defense strong enough to avoid conceding if they lose possession and have too many men forward?

Swansea are a clever team and they’ve got the ability to pick Southampton apart if they get over-eager. It’s definitely going to be an interesting tactics battle but I think one that Swansea – with clever, speedy players like Routledge and Dyer – should be able to win if they play their cards right.

Q: Daniel Sturridge seems to have undergone a big change since his days at Manchester City and Chelsea. He’s always had talent but now he has this unselfish look to his game where he seems happy to play the role of provider, in addition to finisher. Where does that come from?

A: It’s all about Rodgers. We saw Sturridge’s reaction when he scored the goal against Stoke City and he ran to the sideline to hug his manager. That spoke volumes. I think that Rodgers brought Sturridge in last January, gave him a chance and that Sturridge has really bought in to Rodgers’ system.

Somehow Rodgers got through to Sturridge that he would be a better, more effective striker if he just took that additional look to get his teammates involved. He has and it’s paid off. Sturridge is a much more mature player now than when he was at City and Chelsea.

Q: Manchester United (12th) and Sunderland (20th) meet this weekend at the Stadium of Light. Which side is the bigger underachiever this season?

A: United. I understand that the transition out of the Ferguson era is difficult but the fact is that United knew it needed to strengthen its squad this summer and failed to do so. Moyes even came out this past week and said that to compete in the Champions League a club needs five or six world class players. United currently has two, maybe three. So knowing that, why didn’t he push harder to land a big summer signing? In the end he brought in Fellaini, who right now doesn’t look like the answer to their midfield problems.

They will need to buy big in the January transfer window and it will come at a premium. Every club knows United will be desperate to land top players so they’ll have to pay full price and then some. Gone are the days when players want to go to Manchester United simply because it’s Manchester United. Now players will be looking at it as a club with history but one that may very well not be playing in the Champions League next year. So it will be tough to convince the best players to come. They’re going to have pay big to do so.

QUICK-KICKS

Q: Who’s the more in form player – Ramsey or Y. Toure?

A: Ramsey

Q: Which manager is more likely to be fired –  Jol or Pardew?

A: Pardew

Q: Better first Premier League goal – Osvaldo or Gnabry?

A: Gnabry

Q: Club more likely to drop points at home this weekend – Tottenham or Manchester City?

A: City

Q: More influential to his team –  Lambert (to Southampton) or Nolan (to West Ham)?

A: Lambert

Q: Better winning moment against City – Campbell’s goals in Cardiff or Weimann’s nick past Hart? 

A: Campbell’s goals

Q: More impressive start to his first season in the Premier League – Eriksen or Ozil?

A: Eriksen

Q: Manager who deserves more credit for his club’s performance this season – Hughes or Wenger?

A: Wenger

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
AP

This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide

French security chief: Strikes won’t threaten sports events

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 28:Tens of thousands of the French workers protest as the Unions in France launch new strikes against the pension reform plan on October 28, 2010 in Marseille, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill.  (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) France’s interior minister says violent labor protests and strikes causing gas shortages won’t jeopardize the upcoming European Championship or other sporting events.

[ MORE: 5 things for Mourinho at United ]

About 1,500 people have been detained in recent weeks and hundreds of police officers have been injured in breaking up protests and dislodging protesters from fuel depots.

The tensions have added to concern about security for Euro 2016, already facing what Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the “double threat” of violent Islamic extremism and hooliganism.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI?

Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday that the government respects the right to strike and does not see the labor movement as a “threat.”

He said it won’t disrupt protection of the June 10-July 10 championship, involving an unprecedented 90,000 people ensuring security.