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?

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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.

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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

Why are we so concerned with Dele Alli and diving?

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Another weekend, another debate about Dele Alli taking a tumble in the penalty box.

Rinse, repeat.

Although, there should be no debate about the latest penalty kick he won late on against Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. He was clearly fouled and both opposition players and their manager had no complaints as the nimble Englishman went down under contact.

Alli, 21, was brought off the bench to try and drag Spurs back into the game and he did just that with Harry Kane slamming home the spot kick Alli won to put Spurs 2-1 up late on, only for the Premier League side to let in a late equalizer against their third-tier opponents to set up a replay at Wembley in 10 days time.

Yet it is the constant hubbub around Alli and diving which is the biggest issue which needs to be addressed.

With three yellow cards for simulation while playing for Spurs in the Premier League (more than any other player since 2015-16), plus his manager Mauricio Pochettino saying he understands diving to gain an advantage after Tottenham’s controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool earlier this month, Alli is in danger of being pigeonholed as a cheat, if he hasn’t been already.

Speaking after the FA Cup game this weekend, Rochdale manager Keith Hill discussed the 88th minute penalty being awarded and Alli’s actions.

“I’m led to believe he was looking for it, but why not? If players feel there is an opportunity to be gained then brilliant, I don’t hold it against him,” Hill said. “I don’t blame him and I don’t have a problem with it. Whether it’s him, Harry Kane or [Rochdale’s opening scorer] Ian Henderson, it doesn’t matter who does it. If he does that for England in the World Cup this summer then I will definitely be supporting him.”

Comments like this, although deemed to be supportive by Hill, are the reason why Alli is being branded a cheat.

If someone praises him for initiating contact and going down, he’s hammered. If he’s criticized for going down too easily, he’s hammered. He’s in a lose-lose situation. But why is Alli being singled out for special treatment?

Quite simply, it’s because he’s a special talent and because he is the next great hope for England, even if this season he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being crowned the PFA Young Player of the Year in each of his first two Premier League campaigns.

Purists within the English game have long lambasted and singled out foreign imports (rightly or wrongly) for taking tumbles in the box, going down too easily and trying to con referees into giving them an advantage.

Many foreign imports to the PL who have since admitted they were taught at a young age to go down if they felt contact in the box which further enraged the debate. Now, with the heavy international influence at each PL club, we have seen simulation become a bigger part of the English game over the past decade and more anger emerge from pundits, coaches and fans alike.

A special rule introduced this season to retrospectively ban any players found guilty of diving (if the incident wasn’t spotted at the time by the officials) has seen Oumar Niasse and Wilfried Zaha banned, although Zaha won his appeal against the decision, and it seems to be having some impact, but it’s still not doing enough to stamp out simulation in the English game.

Is Alli the only player who goes down often? No. Yet the way Alli plays the game, we will more often than not see him clattered into in the box. He flicks and pokes balls past defenders and his relatively slight frame means he will likely go down under contact from a bruising center back or midfielder. That’s just science.

Alli’s reputation as a hothead supersedes these simulation allegations and previous bans for punching opponents in the stomach, lunging into tackles to be sent off and off the ball incidents certainly do him no favors in proclaiming his innocence.

But the vendetta building against him as a serial cheat needs to end before this vicious cycle gets out of hand and his talent erodes amid the jeers from opposition fans.

It’s unlikely that Alli, like many players, will stop going down in the box anytime soon if he feels contact from an opposition defender. The sooner everyone starts to accept it, the sooner everyone can move on and focus on trying to eradicate serial simulation in the game once and for all. That’s the bigger issue here. Not just Dele Alli.

Man United, Chelsea prepare for La Liga tests

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The final two Premier League teams to get their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties off and running are Manchester United and Chelsea who both play this week.

Both PL giants face Spanish opposition but both are in very different situations heading into these games.

 [ MORE: Champions League schedule

United travel to Sevilla on Wednesday as the firm favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, while Chelsea host Barcelona on Tuesday hoping to still be in the tie after the first leg at Stamford Bridge against Lionel Messi and Co.

After Liverpool battered FC Porto, Manchester City demolished Basel and Tottenham went to Juventus and dominated in a draw last week, all of a sudden United and Chelsea are under a little bit of extra pressure to not let the PL sides down.

That pressure is ratcheted up given the fact that Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League for much of the last decade, with six of the last 10 European champions hailing from La Liga.

Chelsea were the last PL club to reach the UCL final, when they beat Bayern Munich in 2012, while United reached the final in three of four seasons from 2008 to 2011 but only prevailed on one occasion… when they beat Chelsea in the final 2008. That rich run for English clubs in the Champions League saw seven of the eight finals from 2005-2012 have at least one English club in it, but none have made it that far since.

Six of the last eight teams to reach the UCL final have been from Spain, with Juventus reaching the final in two of the past three seasons but failing to the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Yet this season, with five teams from one league reaching the last 16 for the first time in the competition’s history, there’s a sense the English clubs are back to their best and are ready to put La Liga in their place. United and Chelsea will have the first crack at doing that in the knockout rounds with all eyes on what could be a seismic shift in power back to the PL.

Chelsea were the only one of five PL teams in the Champions League this season to not win their group and they paid the ultimate price for that as they were drawn against Barcelona, the current La Liga leaders and one of the red-hot favorites to win yet another European title.

Antonio Conte‘s men have recovered well in recent weeks after patchy form in the Premier League briefly dropped them out of the top four, but there’s no doubting that there are still issues behind-the-scenes with Chelsea’s Italian manager who many expect to walk away at the end of this season.

On the pitch, Chelsea continue to be Lionel Messi’s kryptonite as the Argentine star hasn’t scored in any of his nine outings against the Blues. Conte will hope that is once again the case and we may well see a more defensive Chelsea side than usual as they will keep it tight, then play it up to either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to link up with Eden Hazard on the break.

Barca lead La Liga and if Messi once again fires a blank against Chelsea, at least this time they also have Luis Suarez in reserve, although Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied and can’t feature in the UCL after his January move from Liverpool.

As for United, the rigmarole around Paul Pogba continues as Jose Mourinho’s star midfielder missed their FA Cup fifth round win at Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness but is expected to be fit to play against Sevilla. Does Pogba have a future at Old Trafford?

That’s the key question right now but the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez will be eager to lead United in the latter stages of the UCL for the first time since 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals, but Mourinho is dealing with an injury crisis as Marcus Rashford could join Ander HerreraAntonio Valencia, Zlatan IbrahimovicMarcos RojoPhil Jones and Marouane Fellaini on the sidelines.

Sevilla drew against Liverpool twice in the UCL group stage and even though their La Liga form has been up and down throughout this season (they currently sit in fifth place in the table) and since Vincenzo Montella was appointed as their new boss in December, they’ll be a threat.

Wissam Ben Yedder is Sevilla’s chief goal threat and has six goals in six UCL games so far this season, while ex Manchester City pair Nolito and Jesus Navas will cause problems and Steven Nzonzi continues to impress in central midfield.

Both United and Chelsea know they face tough tests against Spanish opposition this week, and it is perhaps made a little tougher with expectations growing for English clubs in the Champions League this season.

VIDEO: 10 red cards in abandoned Brazilian game

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This is utterly bonkers.

There are plenty of derbies around the globe which put fans and players on edge, but this was different.

Vitoria and Bahia squared off in the Bahia State derby in Salvador, Brazil and the match was abandoned amid violent scenes on the pitch which saw 10 players sent off.

The first half saw eight yellows dished out, but it all kicked off in the 50th minute after Vinicius scored a penalty kick for Bahia and shall we say danced before appearing to hump mid-air in front of the Vitoria fans. Predictably, that didn’t go down well.

Chaos ensued (see the video clip below) as punches flew in and the referee ended up sending off eight players, which included substitutes nearby, as all hell broke loose behind the Vitoria goal.

After a lengthy break, eventually three Vitoria players were sent off and five from Bahia, but there was to be more drama as two more Vitoria players were sent off in the 79th minute to take their tally of players on the pitch to seven.

That meant the game was abandoned and Bahia will likely be awarded a 3-0 victory.

The next time someone tells you a derby game is particularly “feisty” just show them the video below…


Arsenal sign record-breaking deal with Emirates

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Arsenal have announced a new sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines which will run until 2024 and is said to be worth over $56 million per season.

In a statement released on the club website, they call the five-year extension to the current deal “largest sponsorship deal ever signed by the club” as Emirates will continue to appear on the shirts and training gear of all of the teams.

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis revealed the reason behind extending the relationship with Emirates.

“Our shirt partnership is the longest running in the Premier League and one of the longest relationships in world sport. This mutual commitment is testimony to the strength and depth of our unique relationship. Emirates are again demonstrating their great belief in our approach and ambition and their significantly increased investment will help us continue to compete for trophies and bring more success to the club and our fans around the world.”

The Gunners also confirmed that their home stadium will be known as the Emirates Stadium until at least 2028, as per the agreement reached in 2012.

Where do Arsenal rank in terms of shirt sponsorship deals?

Manchester United lead the way with their deal with Chevrolet said to be worth over $74.2 million per year, while Chelsea sit in second with a $56 million per year partnership with Yokohama but the Gunners are now alongside their London rivals.

Manchester City and Tottenham are just behind them when it comes to sponsorship deals, while Liverpool’s relationship with Standard Chartered runs until the end of next season.