Preview, Germany vs. Argentina: Messi to define, be defined by World Cup final

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One explanation that’s emerged in the wake of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers focuses on his former Heat teammates. Not that Cleveland offers much more, right now, but after Miami fell flat against San Antonio in last month’s NBA Finals, the question that defined James’ offseason became clear: If I have a choice between two flawed teams, why not pick the one closer to home?

Lionel Messi doesn’t get those choices, and the extent to which Argentina is flawed depends on your point of reference, but compare his Albiceleste to Germany, and the James comparison looks even more apt. On Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Messi — the best player in his sport — will try to raise the level of his supporting cast to that of Germany – the deepest, most talented team at the 2014 World Cup.

Win, and Messi not only produces his country’s third world title, but he also cements a legend that will justify a place beside Pelé and Diego Maradona. Having already dispelled the notion that he can’t perform in World Cups, the four-time world player of the year can start to address the more justifiable claim: That he’s yet to earn a place along side history’s big two. Winning a world title on Brazilian soil may end the discussion.

Title-minded
source: Getty ImagesA Germany win moves the nation within one of Brazil’s all-time record. With an Argentina victory, the country becomes the fourth to win at least three world titles:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Lose, and Messi will be left in the same position as James: Reminded of an individual’s limits in a team sport. For the mastery he shows with every touch, the vision he showed while setting up Ángel Di María’s game-winning goal against Switzerland (as well as his near-goal against Belgium), Messi has been contained in the knockout rounds. Amid rumors of fatigue, his movement has waned. After scoring four goals in group stage, Messi saw three teams willing to sit behind the ball limit his influence, taking the chance his teammates could beat them.

The Messi conundrum

But how likely is Germany, with its wealth of attacking talent, to employ similar approach? At first blush, it seems ‘not very’, but German champions Bayern Munich, for all the skill and danger they offered going forward, were content to wait for their opportunities against Messi’s Barcelona two years ago. The route saw the German titans into the Champions League final, providing a performance Germany head coach Joachim Löw is sure to consider in the buildup to Sunday’s final. Whereas the frailties in that Barça defense left the Spanish giants weak in transition, a German team build on Bayern talent could find similar success against Argentina.

It’s all part of the Messi conundrum. For opponents, the dilemma’s about how much you alter your approach. For Messi’s team, the question is whether to commit more players forward, hoping to capitalize on opponents’ conservative approach. In doing so, however, poor defenders get less help in transition, leaving you apt to be exploited by your own pursuit.

To this point, Argentina’s been unwilling to do take up that chase. In the early rounds, it didn’t matter. No matter how defensive opponents played, they weren’t able to contain Messi for 90 minutes. In the second round, Switzerland’s late-match fatigue allowed the game to open up, while the quarterfinals saw an early goal allow the Albiceleste to keep the Belgians at arms length. Only in the semifinals, when Argentina was unwilling to take chances against the Netherlands, did Alejandro Sabella’s approach nearly cost them. Penalty kicks saw them through.

Path to the final: Argentina
source: APArgentina needed penalty kicks to reach the final. Before facing the Netherlands, however, it was smooth sailing for the Albiceleste:

Round Opponent Result
Group F Bosnia-Herzegovina W, 2-1
Group F Iran W, 1-0
Group F Nigeria W, 3-2
Round of 16 Switzerland W, 1-0 (aet)
Quarterfinals Belgium W, 1-0
Semifinals Netherlands D, 0-0 (pk: 4-2)

It’s a reminder of the limits of Messi’s control. You don’t have to go too far to hear somebody note that Pelé or Maradona would take over games, but there were plenty of others matches that were beyond those legends’ reach. Not every game is there for a superstar’s taking, and between the talent around him, the tactics, and the power at Germany’s disposal, there may be relatively little Messi can control. If Germany’s going to make it all about him, another Argentine will have to step up.

The person most likely to do that is Gonzalo Higuaín, who has averaged more than 20 goals per season over the last six years in Europe. Ezequiel Lavezzi, a skilled attacker capable of taking advantage of left back Benedickt Howedes or the space behind right back Philipp Lahm, gives Argentina another hope, while Manchester City star Sergio Agüero and Inter Milan attacker Rodrigo Palacio will allow Sabella to change his team’s look. As much as any team in the tournament, Argentina has the attacking depth to exploit an occasionally generous German defense.

A test of German faith

That threat gives Löw enough reason to stay the course. Rather than worry too much about Messi, employing a plan that would force his team to change approach, the Germans can rely on their best defense: Possession. Although Argentina have maintained 58.6 percent of the ball during the tournament, Germany’s had 59.4 percent, doing so against better competition. When you have a midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos, with Mesut Özil, Thömas Müller, and Lahm providing support, the best plan may be whatever keeps the ball at their feet.

Path to the final: Germany
source: AP
Scares against Ghana and Algeria have not stopped Germany from posting the most impressive record in the tournament, winning five of six games with a +13 goal difference:

Round Opponent Result
Group G Portugal W, 4-0
Group G Ghana D, 2-2
Group G United States W, 1-0
Round of 16 Algeria W, 2-1 (aet)
Quarterfinals France W, 1-0
Semifinals Brazil W, 7-1

If that happens, Müller is likely to build on his second straight five-goal World Cup. Miroslav Klose could add to his tournament record for career goals (16). Kroos can be as influential on Sunday as he was against Brazil, while Özil’s influence may finally translate to the scoresheet.

All of which brings us back to the Messi conundrum. If Löw maintains faith in his team’s approach, relies on his talents to replicate performances we saw against France and Brazil, Germany could be the great team so many have longed for throughout this tournament. They may also open themselves up to Messi’s defining performance.

And if they do adjust for Messi, playing more compact through the middle, aggressively marking him whenever they’re without the ball? They could improve on the Netherlands’ performance, using that talented midfield to create the counterattacks the Oranje could never launch. But they also give Higuaín, Lavezzi, and Agüero more time to take advantage of that approach.

No matter how you look at it, Messi’s likely to play a decisive role. Whether plays well. Whether his teammates step up. Whether Germany adjusts. When a player’s this great, everything’s defined by his threat.

And come Sunday night, regardless of how he plays, Messi will either ascend to the next level of soccer stardom or leave his critics one last area of recourse. Unlike other great athletes, he has no choice but to be defined by this challenge.

Man United, Man City come together to support terror victims

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The Manchester derby is known as one of the world’s fiercest rivalries, but in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack this week, both sides are joining together to support the city of Manchester and victims of the attack.

Manchester United and Manchester City announced Thursday they pledged together nearly $1.3 million into the We Love Manchester community fund. The fund was set up to assist the families of the 22 people who died and 64 people who were injured in the attack.

“The barbarism of Monday evening’s attack has shocked everyone,” Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said in a statement. “Our clubs are right at the heart of our local communities in Manchester and it is right that we present a unified response to this tragedy. The money will help of course but the work of the two clubs and their respective foundation and community scheme can build on the fantastic spirit that Mancunians have shown in the immediate aftermath.”

Folks who want to donate to the fund can visit http://www.redcross.org.uk/manchester or http://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/redcross/ManchesterEmergencyFund.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

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Liverpool, Leicester City headline Premier League Asia Trophy

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The Premier League is coming this summer to Hong Kong.

The territory in Southeast China will host the 2017 Premier League Asia Trophy, featuring Liverpool, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. The tournament will take place from July 19-22, with all games taking place at the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium.

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“We are very excited to be returning to Hong Kong this summer for the Premier League Asia Trophy,” Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore said in a statement. “We know from previous visits that fans in Hong Kong, and across the region, are passionate supporters of our clubs.”

This summer’s edition of the biennial tournament is the first to feature four Premier League teams. In the past, an Asian All-Star XI or a local club would be the fourth team to take part. By bringing a fourth team over, the Premier League is increasing the opportunity for Premier League fans to have a chance to see more of the league’s stars up close and in person.

For Liverpool, it will be the start of a busy season that will include UEFA Champions League action for the first time since 2015.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Rooney has future decided, Navas, Clichy leave Man City

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Wayne Rooney appears to have made up his mind about his footballing future.

Speaking to reporters in Stockholm, Sweden following Manchester United’s 2-0 Europa League final victory over Ajax, Rooney revealed that he has numerous offers, both at home and abroad, and that he had “more or less” made up his mind.

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“There are lots of offers on the table, both in England and abroad, and that’s what I have to decide on,” Rooney said, via The Guardian. “I’ve got some decisions to make now over the next few weeks so I will talk with my family and then I’ll decide. I think I have to make a decision in terms of a football decision, and that’s what I’ll do, I’ll do that the next few weeks with my family while I’m away and as soon as I know what’s going on I’m sure you will.”

If Rooney does call time on his Manchester United stay, it will end a 13-year run with the club, having signed as a teenager from Everton in 2004. Despite being Manchester United’s leading scorer with 253 goals in 559 appearances, he never really won over the fans and won’t be remembered necessarily in the legendary status along with Ryan Giggs and Sir Bobby Charlton. Although he had seasons of 26 and 27 league goals, he was never able to keep up that goal-scoring consistency, although some of that can be chalked up to sacrificing his forward position for a deeper role to help defensively.

[ MORE: Sanchez linked with Bayern

Rooney, now 31-years old, won the Premier League five times with Manchester United as well as the UEFA Champions League and now Europa League once each. Rooney’s current Manchester United contract runs through June 2019, having signed an extension in 2014.


As Wayne Rooney continues to ponder his future, across town at Manchester City, the club has parted ways with four first-team players.

Man City announced Thursday that left back Gael Clichy, winger Jesus Navas, right back Bacary Sagna and goalkeeper Willy Caballero have all left the club. All four are at the end of their contracts and the quartet can leave on free transfers.

“It’s been a special six years for me at City,” Clichy said in a statement. “To win four major trophies and help establish the Club as one of the top teams in English football has been an incredible journey that I’m proud to have been a part of.

Clichy joined Man City in 2011 as it began its spending-spree to join the British and European elite soccer clubs while Navas joined in 2013 and both Caballero and Sagna a year later.

The three departures are not surprising and are likely part of a plan between manager Pep Guardiola and sporting director Txiki Begiristain to bolster the squad with younger players who can play in Guardiola’s high-intensity and high-pressure system.

Guardiola is expected to have a large transfer budget to upgrade his team this summer following a third-place finish in the Premier League and with three highly-paid players off the books, there’s also now more room in the wage budget to accommodate new signings.

Roundtable: Analyzing the Premier League season

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This is it.

It is time to put a neat bow on the 2016-17 Premier League season after 380 games, 1064 goals and plenty of drama over the past nine months.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Although we are all due a good lie down now that the season is over, it’s time for ProSoccerTalk’s writers to discuss the hot topics in an end of season roundtable.

Here are the answers below, and feel free to address any of the questions yourself in the comments section below.

Kyle Bonn selected to answer the questions in a video format, which you can watch in full below.


PREMIER LEAGUE ROUNDTABLE, 2016-17 SEASON

What is your one abiding memory of this season?

Joe Prince-Wright: Chelsea’s defeat at Arsenal was one of the most significant moments of the season, just in terms of how it changed Antonio Conte‘s tactics. But, I have to say the final game at White Hart Lane, a 2-1 win for Tottenham against Manchester United, is right up there, along with being at West Bromwich Albion for Chelsea’s late win which sealed the title and wild celebrations. Yeah, the latter is probably the moment of the season for me.

Nick Mendola: It’s simple to point to champions. Just as Claudio “Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong” Ranieri lives in my mind from 2015-16, I’m not sure I’ll forget Antonio Conte’s wild celebrations and fiery protestations as Chelsea boss in the Blues’ return to glory.

Dan Karell: It’s all a jumble really. My one abiding memory is really just how bad Arsenal looked in February and March, as usual. They won 5-straight to close the season but it was too late. Also it was Chelsea’s obvious dominance by late December into January, and then looking the front runners across the backstretch and having enough to get across the finish line with time to spare.


How can Antonio Conte and Chelsea possibly replicate the success from this season? How big of an impact will European action returning have?

JPW: This will be very, very tough to replicate because teams have an entire summer to figure out how to play against the 3-4-3 system. Look at what happened to Leicester this season when teams figured out their 4-4-2 and how to stop them. Chelsea will need to add a key striker to support Diego Costa, if he stays, and either Morata or Griezmann would be perfect. European action won’t impact them too much because they already have a rather large squad with many players, especially youngsters, capable of playing but they didn’t get many opportunities this season. Of course the squad will be stretched further, but with four to five key additions this summer and a little bit of trimming, Chelsea will be set up for success. Conte knows what he is doing. Obviously.

NM: It will be easier for Conte to keep Chelsea’s “second-tier” stars content with more matches. Willian, Pedro or Cesc Fabregas are every day starters for a number of teams, and if Conte can keep them around it will help a lot. Also let’s not forget how many outstanding players Chelsea sent on loan around Europe who have big time experience now: Nathan Ake, Bertrand Traore, Andreas Christensen, Michael Hector, even Tomas Kalas and Tammy Abraham in the Championship. Michu Batshuayi will also have adjusted to the league, plus there’s the transfer market. I think they’ll be fine.

DK: The quick answer is he needs to bolster his squad and hope for few injuries. He also needs to hope that Diego Costa stays around, because unless they can sign Lukaku and he can play as hard-nosed and fierce as Costa did, I don’t know if Chelsea will get the same goals total out of him. The long answer is they’ll probably have to change formation again or adjust in otherways as the rest of the league gets used to Chelsea’s 3-5-2 system.


Tottenham recorded their highest-ever points tally in the PL and also had the highest goal differential in PL history for a team which didn’t win the title. Where can Spurs improve?

JPW: Such a tough question. In any other season Spurs would have won the title. They were unbeaten at home, smashed in goals galore when Harry Kane was fit and then had Dele Alli running the show in midfield plus a host of other star attackers on top form. Defensively they are sublime, so all good there. And even though Kane, Alli and Son all scored 20 or more goals each in all competitions, having a legitimate contender for Kane has to be the priority. Vincent Janseen didn’t step up in Kane’s injury absence. Not much for Spurs to improve on, apart from keep doing what they’re doing, keep the squad together and get a bit more luck in the title run-in.

NM: The club needs to improve in depth, because the experience it gained in both the PL and UCL this year will help it rally to similar levels.

DK: Man, what a season for Spurs. Very un-Spurs like. It was built on a very strong defense, creative midfield playmakers and a superb finisher. Poccetinno has them going in the right direction, but he’ll have to do much better in the transfer market this summer than last summer for them to advance past fourth place.


What was the biggest surprise for you this season?

JPW: That there wasn’t really one club who massively overachieved. Okay, Chelsea dominated and not many expected that level of dominance but it certainly wasn’t a shock. Burnley and Bournemouth surpassed expectations, but the rest was kind of what I expected. So the biggest surprise was that there were no, er, surprises…

NM: This is a little unfair given Dimitri Payet’s heel turn following a big bonus from West Ham, but it’s the Irons. Slaven Bilic is a good manager, and the team has decent talent. Given chairman David Gold and the club’s ambition to buy a big name striker and join the next stratosphere of PL sides, I though the Irons would compete both in Europe and be in the discussion with West Ham and even a sliding Arsenal this year. That obviously didn’t happen, and I expect some significant splashes to replace Payet, upgrade on their defense, and find a pivotal striker.

DK: The biggest surprise for me was probably Chelsea on the positive side. I definitely didn’t expect them to win the league this year and by this margin, but Conte got them well drilled and meshed into a unit. On the surprisingly disappointing side, Manchester United did not play anywhere near as well as I expected or most pundits. Pogba took some time to find his rhythm and the defense was dreadful for most of the season.


Sum up the season for Manchester City and Manchester United. Is Guardiola and/or Mourinho under pressure?

JPW: Both didn’t have the seasons they had hoped for but both will be playing in the UEFA Champions League after Mourinho’s men won the Europa League against Ajax. That saved United’s season. Both will go out and spend big this summer and both need very different things. Guardiola needs a new goalkeeper and plenty of defenders, while United need a new star striker to provide the goals they badly needed with so many draws this season. Neither will be under pressure but both Guardiola and Mourinho will be putting plenty of pressure on themselves to improve drastically next season.

NM: Mourinho is probably under more pressure, simply because of his mentality, nature, and reputation for rubbing people the wrong way. That said, neither should be under any more pressure than any other manager of their caliber.

DK: It’s a disappointment for both teams. Pep Guardiola found life hard in his first year in the PL but I think he deserved to get a year under his belt and get another summer transfer window to upgrade his squad. It didn’t help that his top CB, Vincent Kompany, was injured most of the season. Jose Mourinho has taken Manchester United much farther from the days of Sir Alex, both by his philosophy on the field as well as his relationship with the fans and media. Guardiola must advance Man City in the Champions League, otherwise he’ll be out of a job after two years as well.


With Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting plenty of goals, have we seen a return to the traditional center forward? And how far can Kane go?

JPW: Maybe. It’s more to do with how teams are playing now. Many are set up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation and in those systems you need a forward who can hold up the ball and bring others into play. Kane and Costa do it superbly, while Lukaku is still improving in that area and Zlatan likes to drop deep and pick out passes. It all depends on the system each player is playing in, but if you look at the top seven scorers in the PL this season, many are powerful targetmen who are lethal in the air. A semi-return, perhaps. Somewhere, Alan Shearer is smiling…

NM: I’m not sure if the traditional CF return is long-term, especially given the ages of Costa and Ibrahimovic, but it’s here for a little while. Honestly I believe whatever Pep Guardiola does with Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus will change how we view the trend of forward use in the PL. I waited an extra year to say this, but Harry Kane confirmed that injuries are the only thing that can stop his potential as a legit future in the Alan Shearer-Wayne Rooney level of English strikers.

DK: I don’t think there’s a return as much as there’s just a dearth in quality in the PL this season. Teams are all looking for a Lewandowski or Suarez, a player who can score in the air, with his feet and hold the ball up. With Zlatan coming to England as well as having Jamie Vardy, Diego Costa, Olivier Giroud, Harry Kane, and Romelu Lukaku all playing well, it’s a good time to be a center forward in England.


Do you think the teams who finished in the top four of the Premier League deserved it? Have the top six completely separated themselves after a few seasons of struggle?

JPW: I think it was spot on. Arsenal and Man United were too inconsistent and although Liverpool had a big wobble midway through the season, Jurgen Klopp‘s side had enough quality in the final third to finish in the top four. Chelsea and Tottenham were head and shoulders above the rest but overall the top six are going to be set in stone for the next four to five years. If Everton get their recruitment right in the next few seasons they have a chance of breaking in, but after a few down seasons for the big boys I just can’t see any of them slipping up again anytime soon.

NM: They all deserved it, though perhaps Liverpool should count its blessings that Manchester United had an Arsenal-esque amount of injuries this season. If even a handful of Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Chris Smalling, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and others not missed as much time, United slides into the Top Four.

DK:  Yeah, I think the teams in the top 4 deserved it for sure. Liverpool perhaps were least deserving but Manchester United and Arsenal certainly were very disappointing and didn’t live up to the hype, especially Arsenal, finishing outside of the top 4 for the first time in 20 years. It was a long time coming.


How big was it for Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League?

JPW: Huge. Gigantic. Enormous… You get it. Klopp needed this to keep the euphoria about his appointment going. If Liverpool had lost a top four spot on the final day, it would have been demoralizing. Of course, they need to improve their defense and making the Champions League, albeit the playoff round, will help player recruitment massively. They may have to wait until late in the transfer window to spend the money, as they won’t seal their place in the UCL group stage until late August/early September, but things are moving in the right direction. This was their goal at the start of the season and had Sadio Mane been fit all year, they may have even challenged for the title.

NM: Huge. Jurgen Klopp and the Reds had a disappointing and at times distressing second half of the season. Had they missed out on the UCL, it would’ve been one of the bigger flops in a while. Now I imagine we’ll see 5-6 significant buys, with a few “Wow” additions in the bunch.

DK: It’s massive for any club to be in the Champions League. I don’t really buy the “Liverpool can’t attract stats unless they’re in the UCL” but it doesn’t hurt to have that competition and the extra cash it provides to buy a few more players, and with the club’s recent history in the last 12 years in the competition, it feels good to have Liverpool back playing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.


So, you are the Arsenal board. In an ideal situation does Wenger, Sanchez and Ozil stay this summer… or do you make a clean sweep and start fresh without all three?

JPW: I would actually keep Wenger around, but let Sanchez and Ozil go. The fact they haven’t signed new deals by now shows me they’re not committed and want out. They could have easily signed new deals but are looking at what else is out there. That is fair enough, but with 12 months left on their deals Arsenal should cut their losses. Will both stick around next season without the Champions League? I doubt it. Get the money for them now and move on. Sanchez is tougher to replace than Ozil but he was probably going to go whether they made the top four or not. As for Wenger, there are no better options out there and he should not be blamed for everything. His players under-performed for vast swathes of the season and the uncertainty around his future was strange, and unhelpful, too. I can’t see him not staying at Arsenal.

NM: The question resides with the mentality of the Arsenal board. In my mind, “we’re” trying to recapture an elite status and spending money based on our club’s reputation more than the bottom line. So I keep Wenger, but have someone making transfers for him if the “cheap” mentality is his. I also keep Sanchez and Ozil, who will be happy to stay when they see the money I spend on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Toni Kroos.

DK: Ugh, where do I begin? Lol. I think the Arsenal board should re-sign Ozil and Sanchez, and replace Wenger. Wenger has gone too long without winning anything meaningful and he’s gotten in his own way so many times the last 5 years I can’t keep count. He trusts his players almost too much and even though he is always burned by them in the big games, he keeps relying on them. The team doesn’t prepare for opponents, which leads to 10-2 maulings to Bayern Munich. He started Yaya Sanogo vs. Bayern Munich too a few years back. No reason for that. Hopefully for Wenger he can go out with an FA Cup win and then leave going out with some positivity.


If there was a theme of the PL season, it was _______

JPW: 3-4-3. Everyone, even Arsenal, started doing it. Expect to see plenty of teams trying to perfect the system over the summer and “do a Chelsea” by finding the correct balance. Conte started a new tactical trend in the PL. I’m sure of it.

NM: Clustering. It feels like there were maybe a dozen teams who seemed a possibility for the drop this season, and that includes some very well known names. Will the big money being spent in the league and some deeper pockets lurking in the Championship, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some notable teams go down in the next five years.

DK: Return to normal? After the wild season for Leicester, it seemed business as usual for Chelsea to win the title.


After his performances this season, name one player you would… Buy… Sell… Loan for next season

JPW: I would buy Virgil Van Dijk, especially if I was Liverpool or Man City. I would sell Moussa Sissoko… what was that all about? And I would loan Kelechi Iheanacho out to a midtable PL team.

NM: Buy – Nathan Ake of Chelsea, who was a game- and season-changer on loan to Bournemouth. Loan — Tammy Abraham, also of Chelsea, a player I would love to see try his luck in the PL. Sell — Diego Costa. Given his age and combustible nature, if China is really going to give you big dough… well… buy several replacements.

DK: I would buy Michael Keane, I think he has a really bright future. I would sell Danny Welbeck or Daniel Sturridge, neither can stay fit unfortunately, and I would loan Divock Origi to France for another year of seasoning.


With the huge cluster of teams in the middle of the league (8th to 13th separated by two points), which teams are most at danger of being dragged into a relegation battle next season?

JPW: West Brom and Leicester. The Baggies struggled massively in the second half of the season and that won’t sit well over the offseason, while Leicester have to get this next managerial appointment right. Shakespeare should get the job but I still have concerns about how much the Foxes regressed this season. Very bizarre situation.

NM: Tony Pulis and West Brom will be in that battle if they do not spend this year, and the manager has been outspoken about this.

DK: West Ham and Stoke. Both struggle to score and are having defensive issues.


Who/what was your biggest disappointment this season?

JPW: Leicester City. From Claudio Ranieri‘s firing to the way the players slumped out of form, I just expected more. Not a top four finish, but at least to try and push for the top six. Yes, the Champions League run was awesome, but they had an easy group and then had a great home game against Sevilla. That was about it and all of a sudden they were in the quarterfinals.

NM: Arsenal would be the easy answer, but I had them finishing seventh in my preseason predictions. I’m going to go with Stoke City and Crystal Palace, as both teams had the talent in attack to fare much better than their seasons. Third place goes to Anthony Martial, who failed to build on an impressive first season.

DK: Arsenal. After coming in 2nd place last season, they took a big step back, getting crushed in the Champions League and finishing outside of the UCL places. If Sanchez and Ozil leave this summer, Arsenal will look pretty different next year.


What was the strangest moment from the Premier League season?

JPW: I’m going to go for a moment which was over a short period of time. Swansea City hiring, then firing, manager Bob Bradley. The American coach was only in charge for 85 days and 11 games and wasn’t given a transfer window to turn things around. I just didn’t understand Swansea’s chairman Huw Jenkins and the American owners deciding to bring in Bradley if they weren’t going to give him a chance to build his own squad. We will never know how it might have worked out for the former USMNT head coach had he been given the rest of the season.

NM: The Swansea City managerial merry-go-round was fairly embarrassing. It’s hard to say Francesco Guidolin or Bob Bradley got a fair shake. Guidolin tried the same tactics as Clement with lesser talent after the club waited ages to allow him to continue the project. Then Bradley basically said, “Let me get to January by trying our hand at a more wide-open attack” and wasn’t allowed to the window. Clement came back, bought some much needed reinforcements, and essentially used the same philosophy as Guidolin… and it worked! Let’s hope Swansea City learned, because it feels like the Welsh side should be a PL mainstay.

DK: John Terry getting a guard of honor in the middle of a game. Haven’t seen that before.


What was your match of the season? 

JPW: Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool on the opening weekend of the season was awesome. It had stunning goals, comebacks and more. Two teams who clearly didn’t want to defend (we saw that all season) put on a show in the sun at the Emirates Stadium. I was there that day and it was sweltering but nobody cared. Stunning game.

Nick Mendola: Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, opening weekend. The Reds led 4-1, then had to hold on for dear life as the Gunners charged hard just to come up short. This was a microcosm of their PL and UCL seasons, by the way.

DK: Everton’s 4-0 win at home against Manchester City.

Matt Reed: Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Arsenal on opening weekend. Not only was the scoreline obviously enticing but the fact that the two top-tier sides went at it right away and put up a battle like this was the perfect tempo-setter for the rest of the PL season.


Who was the best signing of the season?

JPW: Sadio Mane. Liverpool are such a better team with him in the side and the $45 million was money well spent. He adds an extra dimension to their attack and he will be the PL Player of the Season next year, provided he stays fit.

NM: One for the future – Gabriel Jesus — and one as a season-saver: Wilfried Ndidi to Leicester in January.

DK: N'Golo Kante of Chelsea. Simple.

MR: N’Golo Kante. Not only did Chelsea acquire the holding midfielder for nearly a third of the price in comparison to Man United’s signing of Paul Pogba, but the Frenchman’s production somehow improved from last season when he was simply brilliant with Leicester