Premier League Playback: Ranking toughness of festive schedule

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JOLLY OR JEALOUS?

It’s that wonderful time of the year again.

Of course, I’m talking about the heavily congested Premier League fixture list which has each team playing five games in just under three weeks. Madness. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[ MORE: PL standings | schedule ]  

As clubs prepare for the busy festive season, the midweek slate of games coming up over the next two days signals the start of an incredibly hectic period which is usually critical in determining where each team will finish in the table this season.

Will they challenge for the title or fall off? Can they drag themselves out of relegation or be embroiled in the battle against the drop until May? The next few weeks will be crucial in deciding all of that.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live

With that in mind, let’s take a look at and rank the strength of the schedule for each Premier League team (a score of 10 signals the toughest schedule, with 1 being the easiest) between now and Jan. 3 when the break for the third round of the FA Cup arrives.


Chelsea – 6/10

Wednesday at Sunderland
Saturday at Crystal Palace
Dec. 26 vs. Bournemouth
Dec. 31 vs. Stoke City
Jan. 4 at Tottenham Hotspur

Arsenal – 6/10

Tuesday at Everton
Sunday at Manchester City
Dec. 26 vs. West Bromwich Albion
Jan. 1 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 3 at Bournemouth

Liverpool – 6/10

Wednesday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 19 at Everton
Dec. 27 vs. Stoke City
Dec. 31 vs. Manchester City
Jan. 2 at Sunderland

Manchester City – 7/10

Wednesday vs. Watford
Sunday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 26 at Hull City
Dec. 31 at Liverpool
Jan. 2 vs. Burnley

Tottenham Hotspur – 5/10

Wednesday vs. Hull City
Sunday vs. Burnley
Dec. 28 at Southampton
Jan. 1 at Watford
Jan. 4 vs. Chelsea

Manchester United – 3/10

Wednesday at Crystal Palace
Saturday at West Brom
Dec. 26 vs. Sunderland
Dec. 31 vs. Middlesbrough
Jan. 2 at West Ham United

Watford – 8/10

Wednesday at Man City
Saturday at Sunderland
Dec. 26 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 1 vs. Tottenham
Jan. 3 at Stoke City

West Brom – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Swansea
Saturday vs. Man United
Dec. 26 at Arsenal
Dec. 31 at Southampton
Jan. 2 vs. Hull City

Everton – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 19 vs. Liverpool
Dec. 26 at Leicester
Dec. 30 at Hull
Jan. 2 vs. Southampton

Southampton – 6/10

Wednesday at Stoke City
Sunday at Bournemouth
Dec. 28 vs. Tottenham
Dec. 31 vs. West Brom
Jan. 2 at Everton

Stoke – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Southampton
Saturday vs. Leicester City
Dec. 27 at Liverpool
Dec. 31 at Chelsea
Jan. 3 vs. Watford

Bournemouth – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Leicester City
Sunday vs. Southampton
Dec. 26 at Chelsea
Dec. 31 at Swansea
Jan. 3 vs. Arsenal

Burnley – 7/10

Wednesday at West Ham
Sunday at Tottenham
Dec. 26 vs. Middlesbrough
Dec. 31 vs. Sunderland
Jan. 2 at Man City

Leicester City – 5/10

Tuesday at Bournemouth
Saturday at Stoke City
Dec. 26 vs. Everton
Dec. 31 vs. West Ham
Jan. 2 at Middlesbrough

Crystal Palace – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Man United
Saturday vs. Chelsea
Dec. 26 at Watford
Jan. 1 at Arsenal
Jan. 3 vs. Swansea

Middlesbrough – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Liverpool
Saturday vs. Swansea
Dec. 26 at Burnley
Dec. 31 at Man United
Jan. 2 vs. Leicester

West Ham – 6/10

Wednesday vs. Burnley
Saturday vs. Hull City
Dec. 26 at Swansea
Dec. 31 at Leicester
Jan. 2 vs. Man United

Swansea City – 4/10

Wednesday at West Brom
Saturday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 26 vs. West Ham
Dec. 31 vs. Bournemouth
Jan. 3 at Crystal Palace

Hull City – 8/10

Wednesday at Tottenham
Saturday at West Ham
Dec. 26 vs. Man City
Dec. 30 vs. Everton
Jan. 2 at West Brom

Sunderland – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Chelsea
Saturday vs. Watford
Dec. 26 at Man United
Dec. 31 at Burnley
Jan. 2 vs. Liverpool


MAN CITY A DEFENSIVE MESS

A lot was made about Pep Guardiola‘s comments after Manchester City were drubbed 4-2 at Leicester City on Saturday as two late goals sparred the expensively assembled side from being embarrassed too much by the scoreline, even though they had their trousers pulled around their ankles on the pitch.

Leicester City got at Man City from the start and their increasingly shaky defense just can’t cope with high-pressure and then long balls in-behind. Guardiola’s side has now conceded seven goals in their last two games, yet he doesn’t believe his team needs to be more adept in tackling and winning the ball back.

“I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles,” Guardiola said. “What I want is to try and play good and score goals and arrive more [in the box]. Yes the duels you have to win that’s true. But normally when you play good you win a lot of tackles but after four minutes 2-0 in the mind of the players [they say] ‘what’s going on, what happened’ and it’s not easy for them. That’s why it’s another aspect of the football but in the end we’re not going to win or lose for the tackles.”

Guardiola went on to admit his defense must improve and he is currently analyzing why they are conceding so many goals and why his tactics of playing out from the back aren’t having the desired impact in the Premier League as it did in Spain and Germany. The experiment to play three at the back isn’t working right now and you can argue the personnel isn’t suited to this system with full backs often asked to play as a center backs and John Stones given no cover when he takes risks.

It’s highly unlikely Guardiola will change his philosophy but surely he should tweak his formation to improve results in the short-term as he now has a big challenge of handling the intense festive fixture list.

With City sitting in fourth place and now seven points off Chelsea in top spot, Guardiola needs to figure out the answer to his defensive headache fast. Simply put, injuries haven’t been kind to him in defense but even if Vincent Kompany or Bacary Sagna had been available all season, you’d think they could still be having the same issues. Pep is trying to force his philosophy on the players to the nth degree and it will take time for them to adapt and trust it.

Right now, the weaknesses of his total football approach from the back is being exposed ruthlessly as teams press Man City high and are forcing mistakes from John Stones, Claudio Bravo and others. Going forward, City always look like scoring. At the back, they always look like conceding. This issue has been around for a few seasons now and it’s not something that can be fixed by buying one or two defenders.

Guardiola’s philosophy adapting to the Premier League is the big issue here and it is unlikely the Spanish coach will ever change his outlook on the game. Sure, he will tweak it and he’ll have to if City is going to challenge for the title not only this season but in the future. He created a slower paced team at Bayern Munich compared to his teams at Barcelona because the Bundesliga and their opponents demanded it. At City, he may have to do something similar or they’ll risk not only dropping out of the title race but also put their top four spot in jeopardy.


GOAL GALORE

Saturday broke a record in the Premier League for the most goals scored in six or fewer games.

There were 29 goals overall, coming in at a whopping 4.83 per game.

We had a 3-2 win for Watford against Everton to kick things off, then a 3-3 draw between Hull City and Crystal Palace as goals flew in late on. We also had a 3-2 win at Turf Moor with Burnley beat Bournemouth and Arsenal beat Stoke City 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium. Swansea’s 3-0 win against Sunderland further inflated the goals figure and it all finished up with Leicester stunning 4-2 win against Man City seeing Jamie Vardy breaking his scoring drought to notch his first-ever Premier League hat trick.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

For the neutral, it was perhaps the best-ever game day in the PL in terms of flat-out entertainment. However, for defensive coaches and those who love to see tight defenses thwart the opponents, it was a nightmare.

There’s been a growing trend of more goals in the Premier League each season and right now we are on track for the highest-scoring season ever if this rate keeps up. Much of that has to do with defenders now being asked to be ball players and more attack-minded first, and then worry about simply defending second. See: Man City, Liverpool, Everton.

With five games coming up for each team a hectic three week period, expect plenty more mistakes and plenty of more goals as the festive season usually delivers high drama and scorelines.

Defenders and goalkeeper usually do not sleep well around the holiday season and this season in particular they may resemble the Grinch more than most.


SWANS FIGURING IT OUT

Bob Bradley‘s Swansea City sealed a massive 3-0 win against Sunderland on Saturday, briefly lifting the Swans out of the relegation zone after beating their rivals against the drop.

Swansea slipped back into the relegation zone (on goal difference) by the end of Week 15 of the Premier League but the performance showed that Bradley’s influence is slowly having an impact on his team.

At the back they looked solid defensivley and going forward they had a cutting edge in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Modou Barrow and Jefferson Montero when he came on, plus Fernando Llorente grabbed another two goals to show he can justify his transfer from Sevilla in the summer and deliver the goals the south Wales club desperately needs.

Of course the win was important but the fact that Swansea grabbed just their third clean sheet of the season, and second in eight games under Bradley’s guidance, will have been even more pleasing for the New Jersey native. Especially after conceding 19 goals in seven games before Saturday.

With the next five games coming up against direct relegation rivals, this display provides not only a blueprint of how to get past fellow strugglers but also belief that they can do it. Winning games breeds confidence and going into a crucial stretch of the season the Swans seem to have it.

Put aside all of the talk of unrest behind-the-scenes with the new owners and an internal review being called for. If Swans can get three wins from the next five games, they’ll enter January as a much more attractive proposition for prospective players as new defenders, and probably another striker, are needed to aid their relegation battle.

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

Three things we learned from Arsenal v Chelsea in FA Cup final

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final on Saturday at Wembley as the Gunners won the FA Cup for the third time in four years and a record-breaking 13th time.

[ MORE: Gunners win FA Cup

Arsene Wenger has now won seven FA Cups, more than any other manager in history, as he denied Antonio Conte and Chelsea the chance to secure a famous Premier League and FA Cup double.

Here’s what we learned from an intense FA Cup final as Arsenal won their 13th FA Cup, becoming the most successful team in tournament history.


MERTESACKER A MAN MOUNTAIN

Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s club captain, had not started a single game in the 2016-17 season.

His first start was in the FA Cup final at Wembley against Chelsea and the German defender (affectionately nicknamed the ‘Big F****** German’ or BFG by his adoring fan) stood tall, using one of his telescopic legs in the first half to deny Costa and throwing his body on the line to block shots and make vital interceptions.

Mertesacker was only throw into central defense because Laurent Koscielny was suspended and both Gabriel and Skhodran Mustafi were injured in the past week.

He was incredible in marshaling Arsenal’s backline and along with David Opsina kept Chelsea at bay before Ramsey grabbed the winner late on.


TAYLOR GETS HUGE DECISIONS CORRECT

“Did Arsenal get lucky?” is one of the main questions you will hear after this game.

They weren’t. Referee Anthony Taylor got the key decisions correct. The first goal was flagged for offside but he overruled his linesman to allow the goal to stand and although Aaron Ramsey was in an offside position, he wasn’t interfering with play, so that was the right call.

There may have been a handball by Sanchez in the build up but that was missed totally and the decision to overturn the offside flag was the correct one.

In the second half Victor Moses then clearly took a tumble to try and get a penalty kick as he received a second yellow card. No complaints and another brave, but good, call from Taylor.

Two key decisions went Arsenal’s way, but they were the right calls. Chelsea can not complain.


WASTEFUL CHELSEA BLOW DOUBLE

Diego Costa may well have played his last game for Chelsea as a move to the Chinese Super League beckons this summer. It sounds harsh, but Chelsea may not miss the Spanish international as much as everything thinks.

Although he scored to make it 1-1, Costa could have scored a hat trick. He took too long to get his shot off just after Arsenal went ahead as three Gunners defenders blocked his effort, and he then raced clear of Rob Holding but failed to get past David Ospina in another first half chance. He then drilled a shot straight at Ospina in the second half with Chelsea trailing 2-1.

It wasn’t just Costa who was guilty of missing chances though.

Pedro blazed over from a glorious position in the first half and in the second half he curled wide, while Victor Moses had an effort saved down low by Ospina.

Chelsea have come up short in attack in a few big games this season, including the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, 2-0 defeats at Tottenham and Manchester United and now the FA Cup final.

Antonio Conte will be searching very quickly for the phone numbers of Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku et al.

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea: Gunners win FA Cup in dramatic fashion

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LONDON — Arsenal won the 2016-17 FA Cup after beating London rivals Chelsea in a dramatic Wembley final on Saturday.

The Gunners took the lead controversially through Alexis Sanchez and had numerous chances to extend their lead in the first half.

Chelsea were reduced to 10 men late in the second half with Victor Moses shown a second yellow card, but Diego Costa equalized just when they appeared down and out. Moments later Aaron Ramsey popped up to head home the winner and despite late chances for both teams the Gunners held on for victory.

Arsenal have now won the FA Cup in three of the past four season, with the north London club now winning a record 13 FA Cups and manager Arsene Wenger has now secured his seventh FA Cup, the most by any manager in history.

[ MORE: FA Cup box score, stats ]

Arsenal got off to the perfect start, albeit in controversial fashion, as the ball broke to Sanchez it appeared to hit his hand but the Chilean raced through and barged past Aaron Ramsey to smash home a low shot. Ramsey was clearly in an offside position as the linesman flagged but referee Anthony Taylor overruled the decision and the goal stood. 1-0 to the Arsenal.

At the other end the ball broke kindly to Diego Costa but three Arsenal defenders charged in to block his shot.

Arsenal then missed a host of chances to doubled their lead as Mesut Ozil beat Thibaut Courtois but Gary Cahill hooked off the line, then Danny Welbeck hit the post with a header and the follow up from Ramsey bounced off his chest and hit the post.

Chelsea had a great chance as a long ball forward found Costa who beat Rob Holding and raced into the box but David Opsina saved bravely to keep Arsenal ahead.

The Gunners then went agonizingly close once again before half time as Welbeck’s shot from close range was blocked by Courtois and then as the ball rolled towards the goal Cahill was again on hand to clear. Pedro blazed a chance over the bar for Chelsea before half time but Arsenal led and were incredibly unlucky not to be further in front.

In the second half Chelsea, as expected, came flying out of the traps. N'Golo Kante had an effort saved, then Per Mertesacker made a fine tackle on Costa before Opsina saved superbly from Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide and Chelsea kept pouring forward as they became increasingly susceptible on the break as Sanchez found Hector Bellerin brilliantly but Courtois caught his poor cross.

Another huge moment of controversy arrived with just over 20 minutes to go as Moses went down in the box after being closed down by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and referee Taylor decided to book the Chelsea man for simulation. That was Moses’ second yellow of the game and Chelsea were down to 10-men.

Just when it looked like Chelsea had no hope, Willian clipped a hopeful ball into the box which Costa chested down and his shot into the ground took a slight deflection off Mertesacker and in. 1-1. Game on.

Less than three minutes later the Gunners were back in front as substitute Olivier Giroud, who had been on the pitch for a matter of moments, clipped in a delightful cross which Ramsey headed in to make it 2-1 and sent the Arsenal fans wild.

Bellerin raced clear late on but his low shot across goal squirmed inches wide, then Opsina made a wonderful save from Costa and Ozil hit the post, however none of that mattered as Arsenal held on to win their third FA Cup in four years and end Chelsea’s hopes of securing the double.

LIVE, AT THE HALF: Rampant Arsenal lead Chelsea in FA Cup final

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Arsenal lead Chelsea 1-0 at half time of the 2016-17 FA Cup final, but they should be so much further ahead.

[ LIVE: Follow the FA Cup final here ]

Alexis Sanchez put Arsenal ahead in controversial fashion as Aaron Ramsey was clearly in an offside position and flagged for offside, but referee Anthony Taylor overruled his linesman to allow the goal to stand.

Ramsey didn’t touch the ball but was remarkably close to it when Sanchez raced through to score.

Mesut Ozil, Danny Welbeck and Ramsey had further chances to score with Gary Cahill twice clearing off the line, while Chelsea had two chances through Diego Costa but he couldn’t convert.

Click on the link above to follow all the action from Wembley live.

What a first 45 minutes!

VIDEO: Moving tribute to Manchester bombing victims at FA Cup final

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At the FA Cup final on Saturday at Wembley there was a moving tribute to the people killed in the Manchester bombing attack earlier this week.

On Monday a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured a further 67 after detonating a bomb outside Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert.

Ahead of the FA Cup final, Arsenal and Chelsea came together to salute everyone impacted by the atrocity.

Watch the moving video below as 90,000 stood in silence to show their solidarity.