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Premier League Playback: Everton’s top four stars, Man City and Liverpool get a hand

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EVERTON’S TERRIFIC TOP FOUR

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Click to enlarge: Teams percentage of passes in opponents half. Source: Opta

Sprinting towards the bench to celebrate with his manager, Everton’s on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku was a picture of happiness as he put the Toffees 2-0 ahead against Arsenal on Sunday. Eventually Everton went on to win 3-0, and everything that is good about Roberto Martinez’s side was epitomized in their comprehensive defeat of top four rivals Arsenal.

Pace, power, guile and calm in possession, Martinez’s men look focused and enthused from the start. They weren’t exactly frothing at the mouth either. There was coolness about the boys in blue, reminiscent of the way their manager approaches his job.

Their front four tore Arsenal to shreds, with Lukaku pulling out to the right to terrorize Nacho Monreal, Steven Naismith dropping in the hole to make penetrating runs at the heart of the Gunners defense, then there was the sheer pace of Kevin Mirallas on the left. To cap it off Ross Barkley came off the bench to replace the injured Leon Osman after seven minutes, and the Gunners couldn’t cope with his direct play and wide array of passing. Once again, Arsenal crumbled away from home early on against a top five team. They have now lost to Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Everton, conceding 20 goals in the process. Arsene Wenger looked shell-shocked after yet another lackluster display from his side.

With Arsenal slipping to fourth, after leading the way for 128 days of the season, they are now in real danger of losing the fourth and final Champions League spot to Everton. The Toffees are one point behind Arsenal and have a game in hand. Martinez’s men are in the driving seat, and after the Spanish tactician promised to deliver UCL nights at Goodison during his very first press-conference, he’s now six games away from delivering it.

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Click to enlarge: Everton are fifth in total shots in the PL, as their offense continues to fire. Source: Opta

Everton pin their opponents into their own half and as you can see on the left, a third of their passes are in the attacking third of the pitch. The quartet of Lukaku, Naismith, Barkley and Mirallas are key to UCL qualification. Those four possess pace, and the ability to pounce on any opportunities their opponents hand them. Lukaku has scored 14 goals, Naismith has eight and earned himself the nickname ‘super sub’, while Mirallas and Barkley have added six each.

Add in the likes of Aiden McGeady and Gerard Deulofeu, and the sheer variety of top attacking talents Martinez possess is frightening. This is why they are favorites for a top four spot. As you can see in the table from our buddies at Opta on the right, Everton have attempted 348 shots at an average of 10.9 per game after 32 matches.

That leaves the sixth in the most shots per game, and they have a game in hand on most of the teams above them, as they have a great chance to improve on their 52 goals scored. That’s equals an attacking quadrant that will bamboozle most PL teams, as they face Manchester United, Manchester City and Crystal Palace at home, plus Southampton, Sunderland and Hull away.

If the Toffees win those six games, they’re in the Champions League. What an incredible achievement that would be.

Premier League Schedule – Week 33

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-3 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Chelsea 3-0 Stoke City Recap and watch here
Everton 3-0 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Hull City 1-0 Swansea City Recap and watch here
Man City 4-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-3 Man United Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
Tottenham 5-1 Sunderland Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-2 Liverpool Recap and watch here

POOR DECISIONS – BIG TEAMS GET HELPING HAND?

If you look at the stats on penalty kicks awarded this season in the Premier League, there are two schools of thought.

The top three have all been awarded the most spot kicks because they’re favored by referees. Or, most likely, they are the most dangerous in the final third of their opponents half, therefore, winning a PK is much more likely. Which camp are you in? Liverpool, in first place, have been awarded 12 penalties, scoring 10, the most in the league. Then both Manchester City and Chelsea have been awarded the joint-second most with seven, as the second and third placed teams have also benefited from discrepancies against them in the box.

That said, conspiracy theorists had a field day last weekend, as both Liverpool and Manchester City had very poor refereeing decisions go their way. In the title race, those little decisions always seem to go in the favor of the big teams. I’m not accusing referees of preordained actions to hand one team an advantage over another, not at all. But I do think psychological factors come into play.

Manchester City’s pivotal second goal against Southampton, was clearly offside in the build up. As David Silva was four-yards behind Saints’ defense when he slotted the ball across to Samir Nasri to set City on their way in first half stoppage time.

As for Liverpool, they were awarded a dubious second half penalty which won them all three points against West Ham in a cagey affair at Upton Park. Watch the video of that below, as left back Jon Flanagan took the ball around Hammers ‘keeper Adrian, but the goalie got the ball and then clattered into Flanagan as referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. Taylor was likely making up for his earlier error, as he let Andy Carroll batter Simon Mignolet on half time, as Guy Demel tapped in the equalizer for West Ham with Liverpool’s player incensed. Taylor’s linesman Stuart Burt raised his flag for the clear foul, but after a lengthy confrontation Taylor decided the goal was legit. So, he gave Liverpool a penalty that they probably didn’t deserve to even it up… Decisions like that seem to go for you when your at the top, and they make all the difference in the title race.

BOTTOM SEVEN ‘PANIC SACKING’

With five games to go, Norwich gave Chris Hughton his marching orders on Sunday following their 1-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion in relegation clash. The Canaries are five points above the relegation zone, but have a run in that makes your eyes water. After this weekend’s crunch relegation six-pointer with Fulham, they face Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in their final four games. Ouch. Hughton’s dismissal has been coming, Norwich have lost seven straight away from home, have signed two strikers for big money that have failed to deliver, and now youth team coach Neil Adams has been put in charge to try and salvage their season from oblivion. If Norwich lose against Fulham at Craven Cottage, they’re in big, big trouble.

The trend of sacking managers has become a fashionable one in the lower reaches of the standings for one reason and one reason only: money. The copious amounts of cash dished out to being part of the Premier League gravy train means teams are desperate to still be eating at the top table, year in, year out. The difference in financial rewards between the PL and the Championship is incredible. Nobody wants to drop to the second-tier.

With so many clubs nervous about relegation and the impact it will have on their finances, its no wonder their owners are trigger happy. Is it for the good of the game? Probably not. So much chopping and changing of managers is making less people attracted to taking on the job, and also isn’t giving any coach adequate time to implement his style and ideals. That fear of failure is having a huge impact on the shelf life of PL managers, and that will only get shorter as the finances continue to grow.

The current bottom seven have been ruthless in firing their managers. Hughton, Holloway, Jol, Mulensteen, Mackay, Clarke, Di Canio and Laudrup have all been dismissed this season on one ground: clubs can’t bear the thought of life outside the Premier League. It is a vicious circle for the clubs, fans, players and, most importantly, the managers. Money talks.

All of Saturday’s action, including that massive relegation battle between West Brom and Norwich, are in the video below.

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

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri admits tactical mistakes after another road defeat

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Ever-gracious Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has taken full responsibility for the Foxes’ recent struggles, claiming his lineup tinkering has fallen flat.

The Italian said following the 3-0 defeat to Southampton that he has tried a few different formations to maximize his players’ abilities, but that it hasn’t worked out.

[ RECAP: Leicester falls on the road again at Southampton ]

“I think the last two matches I changed the shape to try and help my players to play better and find the right solution, but maybe I make mistakes. I am wrong against Chelsea when I play with three at the back, and also today when I wanted to play with a diamond. My players are used to playing with a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and they recognize the position, the game, everything, the movement. I wanted to give something more, but I make a mistake, I was wrong.”

Honesty sure is Ranieri’s best policy, and deflecting criticism from his players is clearly the tactic here. Managers often like to play down the importance of tactical formations at times, but here it clearly has weighed on Ranieri’s mind, who may revert back to his tested formations.

[ MORE: Is Pep Guardiola unhappy in the Premier League? ]

“I think it’s much better to give to them what they know very well. I look and they had to push a lot with this system and this mentality, and keep going and improve of course.”

Whatever the case, something will have to change with Leicester City this season if they wish to continue in the English top-flight. The Foxes have gone all season without a single away win, and they’re 15th in the table with just 21 points, five above the relegation zone.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Everton rescue Ivanovic, Insigne to Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea in action during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Burnley at Stamford Bridge on August 27, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
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Just nine days remain until the transfer window closes, and teams are gearing up for the stretch run that always provides plenty of action despite what’s been an uncharacteristically quiet January so far.

Chelsea has already shed a bit of dead weight in sending Oscar to China, and they could find suitors for another cast-away in Branislav Ivanovic as well. According to the Liverpool Echo, Ronald Koeman is hoping to bring Ivanovic to Everton as the Toffees look to secure a top seven position in the table.

Ivanovic has been a staple at Chelsea for years, but since being dropped by Antonio Conte on October 1st, he’s managed just 43 Premier League minutes as the Blues exploded on their record-tying winning streak. The 33-year-old doesn’t exactly fit into Conte’s system, but he apparently intrigues the Everton front office.

That move, apparently, could be the trigger that forces a longtime Everton defender to see his way out. According to the Daily Mail, Toffees captain Phil Jagielka has spoken with with Koeman to discuss his future at the club. Jagielka, like Ivanovic, began the season as an obvious choice in the starting lineup, but was dropped in early December and has seen just two Premier League appearances since as Everton has lost just twice since then.

Over in Italy, Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne is having a fantastic season, and it’s alerting clubs domestically and abroad. His contract doesn’t expire in Naples until 2019, but there’s talk of a contract extension due to his stellar season which has seen him bag six Serie A goals and five assists in 20 appearances. According to reports in Italy, Insigne is now shelving contract talks with interest abound. AC Milan is also said to be desiring his services as they push to break into the top echelon of the table, but the Gunners could also swoop, especially if Napoli is unwilling to match his contract demands.

One player who is wanted across the Premier League is Atalanta midfielder Franck Kessie. With links to Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea as well as Paris Saint-Germain, it’s certain to gain steam as Deadline Day approaches, but according to reports in Europe, Atalanta is prepared to ward off all interest by turning down all bids for the player. Kessie, an Ivory Coast international, has helped Atalanta to the 7th spot in the Serie A table, but is currently on international duty in the African Cup of Nations. He has six goals this season from the defensive midfield spot, although four of those came in the first three league games of the season.

Watch Live: Arsenal vs. Burnley (Lineups & Live Stream)

SWANSEA, WALES - JANUARY 14:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Arsenal at Liberty Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)
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Arsenal has the chance to go second in the table as the host Burnley at the Emirates live at 9:15 a.m ET on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Hector Bellerin, Francis Coquelin, and Kieran Gibbs have all returned from injury for the Gunners, and all feature on the bench as Arsene Wenger has the chance to leap both Liverpool and Tottenham with all three points. Theo Walcott, however, is still out with a calf injury, allowing Wenger to leave his side unchanged from the 4-0 win over Swansea City.

[ WATCH LIVE: Arsenal vs. Burnley live online at NBCSports.com ]

Olivier Giroud starts up front for the Gunners with a goal in each of his last four games, while Alexis Sanchez is also in fantastic form, with six goals in his last eight games. Sanchez starts again despite his ugly body language after being substituted in the Swansea game with the game well decided, as Wenger played down the issue after the match.

Burnley, meanwhile, could potentially jump into the top half of the table if they could pull off the upset, currently in 13th on 26 points. Dean Marney and Ashley Barnes both return to the lineup after being held out midweek in the FA Cup match against win over Sunderland, but Johann Berg Gudmundsson is still out with an injury, having made just three appearances since late November.

Arsenal has held three consecutive clean sheets against Burnley, with Sean Dyche looking to turn around his team’s away form. The Clarets have earned just a single point all season away from home, the worst away record in the Premier League.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Cech, Gabriel, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud.
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Lucas.

Burnley: Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward; Boyd, Marney, Hendrick, Defour; Barnes, Gray.
Subs: Robinson, Flanagan, Tarkowski, Barton, Kightly, Darikwa, Vokes.

Southampton 3-0 Leicester City: Saints swarm from start to finish

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Jay Rodriguez (R) of Southampton celebrates scoring his team's second goal wit his team mate Ryan Bertrand (L) during the Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City at St Mary's Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Southampton dominated from beginning to end, putting a stop to their four-match losing streak thanks to a 3-0 win over Leicester City at St. Mary’s. James Ward-Prowse and Jay Rodriguez both hit first-half goals as the Foxes remain without an away win in Premier League play this season, while Dusan Tadic finished it off late from the spot.

The game’s first opportunity fell to Southampton, who had pushed forward more in the opening 10 minutes. A cross from the left by Nathan Redmond picked out Dusan Tadic in the area, and the Serbian rose high above Christian Fuchs, but his header from close range soared just above the bar.

The Saints flooded Leicester’s box as they pressed high early, and they worked a shot for Pierre-Emil Hojbjerg on nine minutes in that he blasted into the stands. Hojbjerg had a better chance as Tadic fizzed a low ball across the box on 19 minutes, and it deflected across to the far post where Redmond had a shot, but Kasper Schmeichel slid low to make the save.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It remained all Saints as the clock ticked past 25 minutes, and they eventually found the deserved goal. Cedric Soares burst down the right edge of the box, and he clipped the ball to Ward-Prowse who hammered the a curling ball past Schmeichel into the back of the net, a beautiful finish to put Southampton up 1-0 with England manager Gareth Southgate in attendance.

Leicester never truly built themselves into the game in the first half as they continue to search for their first away win of the season. Five minutes before halftime, Southampton pushed the game further out of reach with a second. A free-kick by Ward-Prowse came barreling in, and Maya Yoshida got a head to it, pushing the ball towards the post where Rodriguez was there to crash it into the net.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

There was a worry after the break for Southampton as Virgil van Djik went down injured and had to come off. With Jose Fonte already sold this window, it forced the club to bring on 22-year-old Jack Stephens. They had a chance to put the game away on the hour mark as Fuchs sent Hojbjerg clean through, but he put it wide with just Schmeichel to beat.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Foxes slowly began to work themselves into things with 20 minutes to go, but it was too little too late. Wes Morgan somehow missed for Leicester with a great chance on the half-volley. He was relieved down the other end as it appeared Morgan had put the ball in his own net for a third Southampton goal, but referee Michael Oliver disallowed it for offside after conferring with the assistant. Replays showed Maya Yoshida may have his arm in an offside position, but otherwise there was little to suggest the flag should have gone up.

The Saints did get one last goal as Morgan barreled over Shane Long in the penalty area, earning him a yellow card and forcing Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Tadic obliterated the ball, pummeling it into the top right corner from the spot for his second goal of the season and Southampton’s third of the day.

With the win, Southampton moved above both Bournemouth and Burnley into 11th, while Leicester City remains just five points above the relegation zone in 15th position. On the season, Leicester has garnered just three points on the road, with draws against Tottenham, Stoke City, and Middlesbrough, having lost all the rest.