Premier League Playback: Why Liverpool, Spurs are surging, stalemates, sunny breaks and romance

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LIVERPOOL, SPURS PEAKING THANKS TO RESURGENT HEROES

With so many people concerned about whether or not Manchester United are going to make the top four this season, the imperious form of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur has fallen by the wayside. Let’s address that.

Liverpool’s sublime attacking units is capable, as we saw against Arsenal, of ripping apart any team in the PL. While Tottenham are a well-oiled machine under Tim Sherwood, as they keep it simple and overpower their opponents with sheer athleticism and a massive will to win.

Both teams are going full throttle at making it into UEFA Champions League this season, with one team likely to miss out, agonizingly so.

Hang on a minute, why can’t both Liverpool and Spurs finish in the top four? Following their impressive midweek displays, watch Liverpool’s enthralling comeback win over Fulham above, both Liverpool and Spurs have two resurgent heroes at the center of their upsurge.

Steven Gerrard and Emmanuel Adebayor are spearheading their teams top four challenge.

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Click to enlarge – Gerrard’s passes vs. Fulham. Blues = successful passes. (Source: Opta)

First let’s start with English national team captain, Gerrard, who has been a sensation playing in a deeper role for much of this season skippering Liverpool. The amount of times I’ve been asked the question, ‘Gerrard is no spring chicken, can he still do it?’ has been quite absurd. If anything, Gerrard’s lack of being able to maraud up and down the pitch like he did in the past has helped not only his own play, but Liverpool’s chances of success, considerably. In the 2008-09 campaign Liverpool finished second in the PL standings and at this stage of the season they had 55 points. This year they have 53 points, their second best PL record after 26 games. The Reds are four points off the top of the table, with top four dreams replaced by aspirations to lift their first ever PL crown.

Since January 1, Liverpool have the best record in the Premier League. They have won five and drawn two of their seven games and have a goal differential of +13.

Much has been made of the sensational strike rates of forwards Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, and rightly so, but Gerrard is the heartbeat of Liverpool at the age of 33. As we mentioned Gerrard has been deployed in a deep-lying role this season, and as you can see on the left from his pass map in the win over Fulham, Gerrard rarely passes backwards and his various raking long balls keep Liverpool moving forward at all time.

His engine may not be capable of performing at the highest speeds anymore, but like a luxurious Italian sportscar, you can’t get rid of Gerrard’s class.

His ball through to Sturridge for Liverpool’s first goal on Wednesday was sublime. A thing of beauty. Wondrous. Only Gerrard could have delicately threaded that ball through with the outside of this boot and taken four Fulham defenders out of the game in one fell swoop. As you can see from the stats below, Gerrard’s pass percentage rate is well over 70 percent in each of his six appearances since January 1.

The pass percentages are rather low compared with his performances in games earlier this season, but now Gerrard has license to try those long risky balls to try and open up opposition defenses. He is now the catalyst to help Liverpool get in behind the opposition, where before he was making plenty of backwards and sideways passes. Not anymore.

Gerrard’s passing stats in 2014, in games he’s started

Date Opponent Minutes Played Passes Successful Passes Passing Accuracy %
12/1/14 Stoke City 90 58 44 75.90%
18/01/14 Villa 90 42 31 73.80%
28/01/14 Everton 90 34 26 76.50%
2/2/14 WBA 90 59 48 81.40%
8/2/14 Arsenal 76 43 34 79.10%
12/2/14 Fulham 90 74 64 86.50%

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On Wednesday, ‘Captain Fantastic’ had a penalty kick in the final minute away at Fulham to seal the 3-2 win for Liverpool. Cool as a cucumber he dispatched the penalty into the top corner and wheeled away in absolute jubilation towards the thousands of traveling Liverpool supporters. As Gerrard tore his shirt off and whirled it around his head like a helicopter’s rotor blades, you saw how much it meant to him.

A hometown boy who has never won the title in 16 years with the Anfield club, he is desperate to lift the crown before he retires. The celebrations from Liverpool’s young stars, who idolize Gerrard, also epitomized the magnificent team spirit that fuels Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side.

Here’s what the Reds Northern Irish manager said after the crucial comeback win over Fulham that sees his side in the hunt for the PL crown.

The first four, five months I was in here, we would’ve lost that game. But we’ve now built a way of working and a way of playing, but not only that, we’ve built a spirit and camaraderie that sees us fight until the very end.

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As for Spurs, they have the third best record in the PL since the turn of the year, with 16 points from seven games and the only defeat coming against Man City.

One man has been instrumental in their upturn, as Emmanuel Adebayor has now scored eight goals in Tim Sherwood’s first 10 games in charge of Spurs. The revitalized striker has breathed new life into Tottenham’s campaign. Frozen out under previous boss Andre Villas-Boas, the Togolese forward has flourished under the new direct tactics Sherwood has implemented and his goal celebration of proudly saluting Tottenham’s fans will be something we’ll see a lot more of between now and the end of the season.

After playing for Arsenal, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Monaco, Adebayor’s class is there for all to see. Sherwood has said that time and time again, as AVB has been made to look like a fool for keeping the 29-year-old striker out of his squad altogether. With club record signing Roberto Soldado on the bench as Adebayor keeps banging the goals in, Spurs hammered Newcastle 4-0 on Wednesday and are now just three points behind Liverpool, who occupy fourth. Adebayor is always sniffing around the box and always seems to be on hand to finish off the vast array of crosses Spurs put into the box, something Soldado hasn’t done this season.

For his first goal vs. Newcastle on Wednesday, Adebayor won the ball on the halfway line, held it up and laid it off to Nabil Bentaleb who surged down the left. While he did that, Adeabyor put his head down and sprinted to get into the box and eventually the ball found him, and he finished confidently. He was in the box to finish it off. That’s something Spurs have been lacking from their strikers all season.

Can the North London club really bounce back from the distress of life under AVB and seal their aim of Champions League soccer, after cruelly missing out on the final day of last season?

Speaking about Spurs’ top four chances, Rookie boss Sherwood believes Liverpool are ahead of his side. But not by much.

Liverpool are up there at the moment. You would say they are favorites, but we think we can put a charge together. We’ve got to believe in that. But it is not only Liverpool. I think there are other teams in this race.

Premier League Schedule – Week 26

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 0-0 Man United Recap and watch here
Cardiff City 0-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Everton P-P Crystal Palace
Fulham 2-3 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Hull City 0-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Man City P-P Sunderland
Newcastle 0-4 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Stoke City 1-1 Swansea City Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-1 Chelsea Recap and watch here
West Ham 2-0 Norwich City Recap and watch here

STALEMATE CENTRAL: WHY THE TITLE RACE IS WIDE OPEN

After Arsenal’s stalemate with Manchester United on Wednesday night at the Emirates, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger spoke on the

“Our team was highly focused not to concede tonight, maybe that restricted our game going forward a little bit. We were certainly hit by the five goals we conceded on Saturday [in the defeat by Liverpool] and you could feel that a little bit tonight.”

Feb 12: Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United. Dec. 23: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea. Aug. 26: Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea.

In some of the biggest Premier League games this season we’ve seen dour stalemates as the PL’s giants don’t want to be on the end of knockout blows. It’s been like watching two great prizefighter’s dance around in the ring, threaten to smash each other in the face, but instead delicately tap one another on the chin.

In all of the aforementioned 0-0 draws, the away side has turned up with a game plan to shut up shop, and every single time it has worked perfectly. Does that mean most PL teams can grind out a draw when they need to? The vast majority can, especially the teams at the top.

Three things we learned from Arsenal and Manchester United’s deadlock

What we haven’t seen enough of from Arsenal this season in these tight games, is a way to combat ultra-defensive displays. There has often not been a Plan B. Unless you call throwing on Nicklas Bendtner late on a plan. (It’s not.) The Gunners attacking talents have failed to turn it out late in games when it’s really mattered. Arsenal have had 12 clean sheets and are proud of not conceding in their last five home games. But as they stay in the hunt for the PL title, just one point off league leaders Chelsea, the Gunners need to kick the habit of becoming frustrated by familiar foes parking the bus.

Latest Premier League Standings

Chelsea are the chief protagonists at getting shutouts, while Man City would be the people’s favorites to win the Premier League crown after their shed load of goals sees them battling it out at the summit. But even the Citizens vast array of attacking talents have failed to score in their past two games.

Going away from the top teams, look at the rest of the Premier League… There were two 0-0 draws, a 1-0 win and two 1-1 draws in the eight midweek PL matches. That’s not a lot of goals, and as the stakes go up, so does the tension and that means more teams trying to keep what they have and nick a win, rather than performing swashbuckling soccer to get three points.

Here’s a recap video from the action on Wednesday to see some of the stalemate soccer play out.

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HEAVY SCHEDULES TAKING THEIR TOLL? SOME ARE OFF TO THE SUN…

With torrential rain and wind battering Premier League players for months, FA Cup, European and PL games coming thick and fast and everyone expecting you to keep performing at the highest level, this time of year is when the real champions arise as the hard slog gets tougher.

With Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea still battling for three trophies (four in City’s case) you can forgive their players for looking a little jaded. But for those PL squads who were knocked out of the FA Cup in the early stages, they have now been rewarded with a nice little break. And they are making the most of it.

Last week I spoke with U.S. international Geoff Cameron: “We are off to Dubai on Thursday for a warm weather break,” was his response when I asked what was coming up. Lucky devil. Looks like U.S. international Cameron and his Stoke teammates are enjoying their much needed working trip to Dubai…

With the crew @muniesa @erikpieters Jack Butland #jokers

A post shared by Cameron 🇺🇸 Geoff (@geoffcameron) on

Similarly West Bromwich Albion are off to the famed La Manga resort in Southern Spain, while Manchester United and West Ham United are also off to Dubai to get away from it all. Newcastle have already been overseas to the Middle-East to work on their tans and recharge their batteries. That worked out well for Alan Pardew’s men (four straight defeats.…) Anyway, what would players rather be doing in the middle of a harsh English winter?

Lying by a pool in warmer climates or battling for multiple titles on the domestic and European stage? Do I even have to answer that…

Much maligned Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley believes the warm-weather break will help the Red Devils kick on in the second half of the season. Let’s see if these teams soaking up the sun in Spain or the Middle-East this week all perform how Cleverley believes United will in the closing stages.

We’ll go away and have a good five days of warm-weather training which will bring us together and hopefully do us good for the run-in. Warm-weather training is good for fitness as well as team bonding and the team spirit you get from having all the lads together. We did it last year and it really helped us – hopefully it’ll have the same effect this time.

EVERTON, THE PEOPLE’S CLUB, WITH A HEART WARMING GESTURE

Finally, let’s end with something that will truly make you smile and revel in the kindness of humanity. As you’re probably aware, Manchester City’s match vs. Sunderland and Everton’s games against Crystal Palace were called off on Wednesday as 100mph winds battered England. The latter game was cancelled just an hour before kick off amid safety fears.

But before the game had been postponed, Everton fan Richard Wee tweeted the following before he found out about the game being called off, as the life-long Evertonian had flown in from Thailand to see his first-ever Everton game.

Oh dear.

Fear not, Everton’s media staff managed to track down Mr. Wee and tried their best to salvage his trip halfway across the globe, by taking him to meet manager Roberto Martinez and star defender Leighton Baines in the dressing room.

To complete the treatment, Everton rolled out the ‘blue carpet’ for Wee on Thursday before he flew home, as he was also given a guided tour of Goodison Park by club legend Graeme Sharp.

Needless to say, Wee was delighted and Everton tweeted the following. On the eve of Valentines Day, who said romance is dead in soccer? Classy from the “People’s Club.” Share the love people.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week. 

VOTE: 2016-17 Premier League Goal of the Season

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Okay, so you have 1064 to choose from, so choose wisely…

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

The 2016-17 Premier League season is over but you can vote for your favorite goal of the campaign up until June 1.

Simply click on the video above to watch the contenders compiled by Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, and then you can vote by clicking here.

Enjoy!

Ex-Barcelona president Rosell held in money laundering probe

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MADRID (AP) Spanish authorities say former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and his wife have been detained in a probe over his businesses in Brazil.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

The detentions early Tuesday are part of a money laundering investigation related to buying television rights for past matches of Brazil’s national team.

Three other people have been detained, but their identities were not immediately released by authorities.

Police raided offices, homes, and businesses in Barcelona and other locations in Spain as part of “Operation Rimet,” in reference to former FIFA President Jules Rimet.

Authorities said the operation used information from the FBI following the U.S. case against high-level FIFA officials in 2015.

Rosell is already standing trial for fraud and corruption charges involving the 2013 transfer of Brazilian striker Neymar.

Report: Sam Allardyce wants to quit Crystal Palace

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The Daily Mail is reporting that Sam Allardyce wants to quit as Crystal Palace manager.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Allardyce, 62, kept Palace in the Premier League on May 14 after beating Hull City, but it is reported that after a meeting with Eagles chairman Steve Parish, the former Bolton, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland manager has decided to walk away.

The core reason is thought to be that Allardyce is not impressed with the transfer plans the club has over the summer.

It is believed Palace want to meet again with Allardyce before confirming his departure  but the report states he has cleared out his office at the training ground.

The former England manager (he quit as Three Lions boss last September after being embroiled in an undercover newspaper sting) only joined Palace on Dec. 23, 2016 when he signed a two-and-a-half-year deal.

After struggling to turn things around initially, key January signings such as Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic helped the Eagles eventually soar away from the relegation zone as they beat Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in the final weeks of the season.

Is it strange that Allardyce would move on? Tony Pulis left Palace in similar fashion back in 2014 after not getting assurances for Parish and the board over transfer spending for the next summer.

With the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye around, the Eagles have players on big money and have spent big to try and push into the PL’s top 10. However, they looked far from a top 10 team last season as Allardyce helped them stumble to safety with brilliant displays against the top clubs interspersed with poor showings against fellow strugglers.

If Big Sam doesn’t think the correct budget is there for him to work with, then you can certainly understand why he would walk away.

Premier League Playback: Themes of the season

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3-4-3 REIGNS SUPREME

If it’s good enough for Chelsea and Tottenham, it should be good enough for the rest of the Premier League. And it started to get that way.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

With Antonio Conte using a 3-4-3 formation from September onwards, Chelsea took the PL by storm with a three-man central defense and Spurs followed suit in the second half of the season.

We started to see teams like Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham, Stoke and many others use it.

Nobody could do it quite as well as Chelsea and Spurs, though.

[ MORE: Detailing Chelsea’s title parade at Stamford Bridge

The thing with systems is they come and go. Like fashion they follow a leader and then eventually something fresh arrives to take over.

With 4-3-3 formations taking over from 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 over the past few years, plenty of teams have invested in exciting wingers but are finding it tough to get them in dangerous areas. That is the main reason why 3-4-3 works so well.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings ]

Whether they are stereotypical wingers like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Pedro, or the likes of Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli at Spurs, you can create space for your most creative players to roam free out wide and then you don’t have to worry about losing defensive shape.

Both Chelsea and Spurs had full backs capable of attacking and also tracking back and with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Spurs arguably had the better wing backs over Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso who were square pegs in round holes. With Walker and Rose injured often in the second half of the season, Chelsea’s wing-back duo took over.

[ MORE: How Chelsea won the PL title in September ]

Alonso covered for Hazard and Moses covered for Pedro and Chelsea looked balanced. Conte had found the right system by switching to default after a demoralizing loss away at Arsenal where he furiously slammed the table and demanded better. He got it.

Conte had used the 3-4-3 with Juventus and the Italian national team with fine results and like every great Italian designer, everybody is now copying him…


LONDON (THE SOUTH) CALLING

With all three north east clubs from this season relegated, the south dominated in the Premier League. For just the third time in PL history two London clubs sat in first and second place in Chelsea and Tottenham, but this is about much more than that.

For next season Newcastle are the only team guaranteed to be north of  Burnley and the PL will have a very southern feel.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brighton have been promoted, while if Reading beat Huddersfield Town in the playoff final at Wembley next Monday (May 29) then 10 of the PL’s 20 teams next season will be from the Greater London area or the south coast. That’s a huge shift when you think back to the days of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all in the PL.

Many believe the north-south divide in the PL is down to economics. Investors, particularly those from overseas, are picking clubs in southern England to pump their money into. Due to London being the main economic and transport hub of the UK, that makes sense. Reports surfacing that some northern teams are contemplating building training bases closer to London aren’t a joke.

[ MORE: A look behind-the-scenes at Spurs’ stunning new stadium

One of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez chose Liverpool over Arsenal was said to be the fact that the Gunners were in London. That happens more often than you think and plenty of PL players travel from London to teams in the Midlands and the far south each day for training just so they and their families can call London home.

These cycles do come in waves but it seems like for the foreseeable future that the power shift in the PL with be in London and the surrounding areas. Just watch out for it over the next couple of years.


GIANTS SEPARATE, BUT STUTTER

This was a season where the top six mostly got their act together as they easily pulled away from midtable.

However, plenty of giants stuttered there way to the top four and two of the biggest didn’t make it.

Arsenal’s late surge of seven wins from their final eight games wasn’t enough as they finished outside of the top four for the first time in 20 years under Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Premier League scoreboard ]  

Man United prioritized their Europa League final in the final weeks of the season (we will see how that works out when they face Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday) as Jose Mourinho gave up on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.

As for Man City and Liverpool, their defensive issues are there for all to see but they had enough in attack to get the job done and finish in the top four.

Spurs were the only challengers for Chelsea throughout the season but in truth the Blues never looked like relinquishing the title after their 13-game winning run. Even that wobble in April with a defeat away at Manchester United didn’t let Tottenham in.

Antonio Conte won the battle of the managers and in his first season in England he won his fourth-straight league title as a club manager. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty of work to do to justify their big-spending and egos. Both have flattered to deceive this season.

Wenger may not be around next season as Arsenal go through a huge transition and with no European action for Chelsea and Liverpool in 2016-17,  they’ll have to deal with new challenges in 2017-18.

The top four is far from settled but the top six looks likely to stay that way for a while with only Everton ever threatening to finish higher than seventh. The Toffees finished 15 points off the top four, which shows just how much the perennial powers of England have stretched away from the rest.


MIDTABLE BATTLEGROUND

At the end of the season there was just five points separating eighth place and 15th in the Premier League table.

The midtable battle was real.

With so many teams now established as Premier League clubs, all are investing wisely and many are seeing their expectation levels rise to try and finish in the top 10.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

That said, Southampton, who finished in eighth place, were just six points off Watford who finished one spot above the relegation zone. This season was a wake up call to the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea — who all flirted with relegation at times — that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

With Claudio Raneri fired less than 12 months after leading Leicester to the title, plus Saints’ Claude Puel under pressure, Palace sacking Alan Pardew and West Ham’s Slaven Bilic maybe on the way out, teams in the middle of the pack know they aren’t as comfortable as they have been.

Newcastle United and Brighton arrive from the Championship next season ready to spend big to stick around and the threat of relegation is very real to this cluster of midtable teams. The parity party is here.


RETURN OF THE TARGETMAN

Look at the top seven goalscorers in the Premier League…

  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 29 goals
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – 25 goals
  3. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – 24 goals
  4. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – 20 goals
  5. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – 20 goals
  6. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – 17 goals
  7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – 17 goals

The only outliers here are Sanchez, who can often play out wide but started the season through the middle, and Dele Alli who chipped in with a Frank Lampard-esque goal haul. If it wasn’t for his season-ending knee injury, Zlatan would have also reached 20 goals easily.

Among that list you have traditional center forwards at each club banging in the goals and that points to the way teams are setting up tactically.

The targetman has returned.

It may not be for good but the growing trend in the PL over the past few is to play with a three-man attack as two wide forwards create space for playmakers and forwards to link up. Spurs do it superbly well with Eriksen and Son pulling out and then Alli allowed to roam to link up with Kane.

An intriguing stat suggests that the days of hopeful efforts from distance may be numbered too, with a lowest ever rate of 11.6 percent of the 1064 goals scored from outside the box. Speaking of stats…


STATS OF THE SEASON

Here are some stats which summed up the season.


ABIDING MEMORIES OF 2016-17

Based here in England, I spend my time traveling to stadiums and training grounds to watch and/or talk to Premier League players and managers.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive

Over the course of the long nine month season there are always a couple of moments which stick out.

Here’s are the top five memories I will take away from this Premier League season, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, tweeting and asking me questions along the way.

We are all in this together. And we all love every single second of it. 81 days and counting until the 2017-18 season…

  • Arsenal 3-4 LiverpoolWhat a wonderful game. On the opening weekend of the season we witnessed one of the best matches of the entire season. Sadio Mane ripped Arsenal apart and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool destroyed Arsenal… only to let them back into the game with some shambolic defending. This match had it all and was an instant PL classic.
  • Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea – Dele Alli scored two headers on January 4 as Spurs beat Chelsea and the Blues’ winning run came to an end at a record-equaling 13. This was the moment when you felt like Spurs would kick on and win the title. In a frigid White Hart Lane the thermostat was cranked up plenty of notches as Tottenham rattled Chelsea early and Pochettino’s youngsters struck twice through Alli. You get the sense that more epic battles will come between these two teams, and managers, in the years to come.
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea – This was a true game-changer for Chelsea. Watching Antonio Conte furiously slam his fist on the table after that defeat in the press room, you just knew he would change things. In came the 3-4-3 formation and the rest is history. At the time it didn’t seem like a big moment, but for me that defeat was the moment of the season. It sparked Conte’s rebuild of Chelsea and got the players on board.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here