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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

Van Gaal doubles down media criticism; Rooney won’t Dab

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24:  Wayne Rooney (L) and Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United in discussion during the Manchester United training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Group B match against PSV Eindhoven at Aon Training Complex on November 24, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Louis Van Gaal was asked whether he really, truly believes that media members are making up stories about his club and its interest in Jose Mourinho (amongst other things).

His answer is not open to interpretation: “Yes.”

From the BBC:

“I said it many times,” he said. “A lot of media is inventing stories. You don’t have to answer.”

[ MORE: Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

LVG says the club remains focused on the Top Four, and that a string of wins can help them make the Top Four due intra-Top Four clashes like this weekend’s Arsenal-Leicester and Man City-Spurs matches.

Captain Wayne Rooney has expressed similar optimism, noting that the Red Devils have handled their business in recent history at Sunderland.

One thing Rooney was negative on? Jesse Lingard‘s use of the Dab celebration. Rooney also revealed that he’s not exactly up on current events.

From ManUtd.com:

“He’s been trying to get me to do it with him. Maybe if I was ten years younger I’d do it with him,” said the 30-year-old. “I think it’s something going around on the internet and I suppose Jesse’s jumped on the bandwagon!”

WATCH: Premier League stream links, TV schedule – Week 26

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Week 26 of the 2015-16 Premier League season is here. Get ready for some huge battles at the top and bottom of the table.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

It all kicks off at the Stadium of Light on Saturday as Sunderland host Manchester United (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). Sam Allardyce‘s side are four points adrift of safety and badly need a win to help their battle against relegation. As for United, they’re six points off the top four. Plenty on the line. Then it is Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion at Goodison Park (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with the Toffees aiming to keep their top six hopes alive against a struggling Baggies outfit. At the same time relegation haunted Norwich City try to snap a five-game losing streak as they host West Ham United at Carrow Road (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra). With star man Dimitri Payet signing a new contract in the week, can he guide the Hammers back up to fifth with a victory?

[ WATCH: Premier League via Live Extra ]

Rounding things off on Saturday, Chelsea welcome Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to Stamford Bridge with Guus Hiddink’s side 11 games unbeaten in all competitions but still only seven points above the drop zone. If the relegation-battling Magpies get a win away at Chelsea — they have won five of their last nine games against the Blues — they will only be three points behind the defending champs.

On Sunday, a huge day awaits and kicking it all off is the big one at the Emirates Stadium: Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). The Foxes are five points clear of the Gunners and all of a sudden are the heavy favorites to win the Premier League. Can they follow up a win at Man City by beating Arsenal? Then we travel to Villa Park as Aston Villa host Liverpool (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with Remi Garde’s men desperate for points. Villa won last time out but are still eight points off safety with 13 games to go. As for Liverpool, their faint top four hopes are fading fast as Jurgen Klopp‘s side continue to struggled with injuries up top and in defense.

Rounding off Week 26 is another huge top four clash as third-place Manchester City host second-place Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) at the Etihad Stadium. Manuel Pellegrini‘s side will have Vincent Kompany back fit and if they’re going to stay in the title race winning this and jumping ahead of Spurs is vital. Can Mauricio Pochettino‘s team prove they’re the real deal?

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports Live Extra and theNBC Sports Live Extra App.

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.

FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday

7:45 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Norwich City vs. West Ham United – USA [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Stoke City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Southampton – Premier League Extratime [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday

7 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Aston Villa vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:15 a.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBCSN [STREAM]

Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. VIII: Taking stock before a massive weekend

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There’s a trick with the idea of power rankings in a league with a balanced schedule, and that’s identifying who’s performed the best in recent matches without looking at what lies ahead.

That’s something that could’ve kept someone from holding Leicester City down their given list.

Yet the idea of power rankings is to identify who is faring the best right now, and would be picked to finish first should a given season’s slate start today. Still, you can’t ignore the table as it stands and the likely fate of a season.

[ MORE: All of this season’s Premier League Power Rankings ]

TEAM RANKING Up/Down
source: 1 Leicester City: Learned from the late December gauntlet, where they went 2-1-1 against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Man City. This time, the Foxes have beaten the Reds and City, and can make it 3-0 against Arsenal on Sunday. Believe.
source: 2 UP 5 Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs are riding high after beating up four struggling clubs, and face a massive test in a Man City side that, well, hasn’t beaten anyone of form or merit in a while, either.
source: 3 UP 9 Manchester United: It really is a season of “What ifs?” for Louis Van Gaal‘s crew, which has lost just once since Boxing Day. Making lots of dough, too.
source: 4 DOWN 1 Manchester City: United’s derby rivals need to get off the mat after their shockingly lethargic 3-1 loss to Leicester City. Bring on Spurs.
source: 5 DOWN 3 Arsenal: Beating Bournemouth snapped a four-match winless skid. A defeat of Leicester on Sunday is as close to “must” territory as you can get with this much left in a season. Will they take part in the MLS All Star Game as reigning PL champions?
source: 6 UP 8 Southampton: Ronald Koeman‘s side looks a lot like the Saints we remember from last season, having four wins and a draw in its last five matches including a 1-0 win that included a long while with 10 men.
source: 7 UP 4 Everton: Back-to-back 3-0 wins for the Toffees have Roberto Martinez’s men within six points of fifth place.
source: 8 UP 7 West Ham United: Last weekend’s failure to break down 10-man Saints is alarming, but Slaven Bilic‘s side is legit. Still, they need to erase performances like that, and the 2-1 loss to Newcastle a few weeks back. Great look to lock up Dimitri Payet for the long term.
source: 9 UP 8 Chelsea: Badly need to turn draws into wins, but the embarrassment of being booed after the Jose Mourinho sacking has turned into cheers for, well, actually doing their jobs. With Kurt Zouma out, is it already Miazga time at Stamford Bridge?
source: 10 DOWN 2 Liverpool: Five points from their last six matches should have them further down the list, but frankly no one’s daring us to put them above the Reds. But Daniel Sturridge could help them rise.
source: 11 DOWN 6 Watford: Four losses in six, but deserved better in a 1-0 loss to Spurs. That followed a win and a draw, so perhaps the Hornets have steadied themselves.
source: 12 UP 6 Swansea City: Unbeaten in four, but the 1-1 draws against West Brom and Crystal Palace weren’t what they could’ve been.

source:
13 DOWN 7 Stoke City: At the risk of over-simplifying, turns out Geoff Cameron is really important to the Potters. Stoke is 1W-1D-3L since the USMNT defender went down, and has allowed three goals in losses to Leicester, Manchester United and Everton. The win? Against struggling Norwich City.
source: 14 DOWN 5 Bournemouth: Doing enough to survive this first season back in the Premier League.
source: 15 DOWN 11 Crystal Palace: Alan Pardew‘s Eagles are wandering through the desert right now, with losses to Villa and Bournemouth contributing to a six-match run with a single point. Now closer to 19th than 4th.

source:  
16 UP 3 Newcastle United: Jonjo Shelvey looks like an inspired signing, and the former Swans midfielder has assists in four matches for the Magpies. Up next is a trip to Chelsea.
source: 17 DOWN 7 West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies have scored one goal in their last four matches, and Tony Pulis‘ charges are just six points above the drop zone.

source:
18 UP 2 Aston Villa: Still dead last with a dire schedule looming, you can’t say Remi Garde’s players have quit. Points in four of five including wins over Norwich and Palace.
source: 19 Sunderland: Injuries are piling up around the Stadium of Light, and Sam Allardyce may need USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin to be a big part of their push for safety. At least big January signing Wahbi Khazri looks legit.
source: 20 DOWN 4 Norwich City: The backline looks quite leaky again, as their five-match losing skid includes the following score lines: 2-0, 3-0, 5-4, 3-0, 3-1.

Lampard urges Chelsea to sign Terry; If not, would buy his plane ticket to MLS

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on January 31, 2015 in London, England.
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John Terry is the last of the old guard at Chelsea, and club legend Frank Lampard thinks he deserves to stay at Stamford Bridge.

Speaking with the web site ShortList.com, Lampard also said he’d welcome the defender to Major League Soccer with open arms, and checkbook.

[ MORE: Premier League’s Top Five story lines for Week 26 ]

Saying he’d “I’ll get his plane ticket and get him over here,” the New York City FC midfielder called Terry “quite comfortably” the best defender he’d ever played with during his career.

From Shortlist.com:

“What John offers is a link with the fans and an appreciation of the young players who he would want to help come through. He’s Mr Chelsea. Those are the sorts of players you need at the club. Without telling the club what to do, I think Chelsea are looking to change the old nucleus we had, what with myself, Ashley [Cole], Didier [Drogba] and Petr [Cech] gone, John’s almost the last one standing. But I don’t think he’s going to be an issue with that – he’ll even help the transition with helping the younger players.”

Even given Terry’s dicey at times off-field reputation, there’s merit to that story (After all, you can’t be okay with Ryan Giggs guiding the youth of Manchester and opposed to Terry leading at the Bridge).

As for MLS, plenty of England’s old guard is here already. From the 2010 World Cup roster alone, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard are in L.A., Lampard’s in New York City, and Shaun Wright-Phillips is with RBNY. That’s already half the number of U.S. players in MLS who played in the 2010 tournament.