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Premier League festive roundtable – Part 1

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Just before the Premier League season hits a busy time with the festive schedule, it is time to reflect on what’s happened so far.

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Below Pro Soccer Talk’s writers discuss the stories of the season so far in Part 1 of our roundtable series while in Part 2, coming up on Dec. 25, we discuss what lies ahead in the second half of the season.

Feel free to get involved in the debate by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.


What has been your favorite moment of the Premier League season so far?

Joe Prince-Wright: A moment from the opening weekend of the season has stuck with me. When Diego Costa scored a late winner for Chelsea against West Ham United in Antonio Conte‘s first game in charge, the Italian coach went crazy right in front of me at Stamford Bridge. He jumped in with the fans to celebrate and the energy was completely different. From that moment Conte was accepted by Chelsea’s fans.

Nick Mendola: I’ll stick with on the field, as little Bradley Lowery’s day at Sunderland was amazing. We’ll go back to Arsenal-Liverpool on Opening Weekend. 4-3, including four second-half goals in 15 minutes and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain answered Sadio Mane’s 63rd minute goal within a minute. Wild.

Matt Reed: Although Bob Bradley gets a lot of the slack for Swansea’s struggles, the team’s comeback against Crystal Palace was not only my favorite moment thus far but my favorite match as well.

Kyle Bonn: I know this is a cop-out answer because it’s not a moment, but it has to be Chelsea’s amazing run. Their performances have been nothing short of stellar, and considering their poor season last year, the job Antonio Conte has done is so impressive.

Which team has surprised you most this season, so far, and why? And which player has come from nowhere to impress?

Joe: Watford. I know they’ve fallen off in recent weeks but I had no idea what to expect from the Hornets with a new manager and plenty of new players. Walter Mazzarri‘s side are difficult to beat and always hang in games. I think a top 10 finish is easily achievable for Watford. In terms of players, I think both Gaston Ramirez and Salomon Rondon have been superb. Ramirez had three seasons at Southampton were he struggled mightily but he’s found his feet at Middlesbrough. As for Rondon, he has the quality to play for a top six team. The chances he gets at West Brom are limited but he’s not settled and scoring goals.

Nick: In keeping with the holiday season, we’ll go with positive surprises. It’s West Brom for me, not just because the Baggies sit eighth, but also the 23 goals scored by Sadio Mane and company. As for players, I’m going to go with Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta at Chelsea. I knew he was a talent, but he’s been shining in Antonio Conte’s set-up.

Matt: Leicester is an easy answer because it was always going to be difficult to repeat as champions, but I didn’t expect the Foxes to be in the relegation battle considering the squad they have brought back. Michail Antonio had a solid season in 2015/16 but outside of Dimitri Payet he’s been one of the lone sparks for West Ham. With seven goals already this season, Antonio is on pace to shatter his goal total from a season ago while also looking to help the Hammers stay up.

Kyle: To be honest, Chelsea. Who would have backed them to turn things around this fast? And while their team hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, Eden Hazard‘s triumphant return has been somewhat surprising considering how abysmal he was last season. If you really want to go out of nowhere, Steve Cook of Bournemouth has been one of the most dynamic defenders in the PL this year.

Be honest, did you expect Leicester City to be in a relegation battle?

Joe: I didn’t want to believe it, but I thought it may be inevitable given their squad and how Claudio Ranieri was, understandably, loyal to the title-winning team. Coupled with the Champions League success (I have some issues with that because their group was very weak) it has led to taking their eye off the ball in the PL. I had them finishing 11th in my preseason prediction but I think they’ll be just above the relegation zone.

Nick: No, but I’m not entirely surprised. Somehow I doubt the fan base would trade their UEFA Champions League triumphs for a few more points on the table. We’re still in “once in a lifetime” territory until someone tells them otherwise.

Matt: In our preseason rankings I predicted Leicester would finish top 10 once again but winning the title was always going to be unrealistic. I never thought the Foxes would be in the relegation battle at this stage of the season considering the talent that Claudio Ranieri still has at his disposal.

Kyle: Did I expect them to be in a relegation battle? No. But I absolutely expected them to struggle at times. European play is a huge strain on clubs without the spending power to purchase top-level depth. They’ll be fine. They won’t be relegated. Don’t be shocked to see a late-season surge once they’re bounced from the Champions League.

Why hasn’t Pep Guardiola‘s tactics swept the Premier League before him? Is there an easy answer here?

Joe: No easy answer but the main issue has been in defense. Pep is forcing players to try and do something completely different than any other Premier League team. He wants his side to play out from the back and invite pressure in dangerous situations. Most PL clubs are extremely good at pressing high and pinning teams in. I think so far Guardiola has stuck to his principles admirably but he will have to tweak them, at least this season, if he wants to finish in the top four or challenge for the title. City doesn’t have the players fit and available to play the way he wants to in defense.

Nick: Can I be a little brash? John Stones may one day be Gerard Pique, but he certainly is nowhere near the standard right now. Claudio Bravo will settle into a groove at some point, but Joe Hart and (insert veteran CB here) would have City knocking on Chelsea’s door.

Matt: I think Guardiola takes a lot of flack because of the lofty expectations people have bestowed upon him in the past. The Premier League is one of the few leagues where even the champions typically suffer a rough spell at some point throughout the campaign and while City isn’t atop the table at this point they are still firmly in the title chase.

Kyle: His tactics don’t fit the PL. His gameplan is to possess teams to death and finish clinically. Problem is, his team hasn’t been able to finish as well as they should, and the Premier League is full of teams that embrace a bunker-and-counter mentality, and it’s frustrated a City team that doesn’t have a midfield destroyer to break up counters.

Jose Mourinho and Manchester United is gathering steam. What has impressed you most about them thus far?

Joe: I’ve been impressed with the way the players have pulled together to grind out results. Mourinho has chopped and changed the team but whoever has come in looks like they want to fight for the shirt. With his off-field antics leading to bans and fines, Mourinho is also creating a siege mentality. Although I don’t condone that kind of behavior, I think it has worked wonders to get the players on his side early on in his reign at Old Trafford.

Nick: I love when an egomaniacal star backs up his bluster, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the truth. But the way Mourinho has maneuvered talent like Juan Mata and Ander Herrera while dealing with the guff the press and fans love to give him has been a fascinating thing to follow. Hes not done half bad.

Matt: Has to be the team’s persistence. Even though Mourinho and United have had plenty of struggles thus far, they are finding their form and it’s still early enough in the season where they can make up ground in the title race.

Kyle: Their ability to get Zlatan consistently in the attack is impressive. He’s one of their only finishers, and yet they consistently have him involved. Hard to do when teams are gameplanning around him.

Conversely, where do they need to improve to challenge for titles again?

Joe: Up front. If Zlatan has an off day, I struggle to see who else can step in to deliver the goals. Martial, Rashford and Rooney aren’t the most clinical so I think if United can get in another predatory finisher in January, they should do it. They create so many chances and were hurt badly during that run of four home draws where they should’ve won each game.

Nick: More consistent play on the outside would help, from back to wings.

Matt: United still lacks a compliment to Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Even though the backline has gone through its share of injuries this season it’s the attack that has disappointed me the most.

Kyle: They need better defensive reliability if they are going to shut down once they have a one-goal lead.

Let’s talk about United’s rivals Liverpool. Is this what we expected from Jurgen Klopp? Can they mount a serious title challenge with a creaking defense?

Joe: You can see this is a Klopp team from the first whistle of every game they play. It has taken 12 months but the players are all-in and Klopp is ready to push for a title push. The defensive issues are concerning but they’re capable of scoring three or four goals every game. I think they can go all the way.

Nick: This is almost exactly what I expected from Klopp, to a T. They can challenge for a title, but look more like a lower top four contender on the whole right now.

Matt: Coming into the season I figured the backline would be porous but I still believe Liverpool can make a legitimate run at the title because of how strong the attack is.

Kyle: Well, no, but they’ve weathered the storm so far, and it hasn’t reared its head too strong. If Klopp doesn’t strengthen in January, it will eventually cause title-breaking problem.

While we’re on the subject of title contenders, Chelsea sits top at Christmas with a six point lead. Is that more to do with new manager Antonio Conte? Or more about Chelsea’s players getting their act together?

Joe: It’s both but you can’t underestimate Conte’s impact. Like I mentioned before, from day one he’s been a breath of fresh air. He eased himself in too, playing a back four and then switching to a back three for this incredible run of 11-straight wins. Conte let the players have a voice and then said ‘okay, now, let’s do it my way.’ It has worked, masterfully. We all knew the talent was there for Chelsea. Now they have a leader they believe in. Somewhere Jose Mourinho is shaking his head in disbelief.

Nick: Last season was embarrassing for Chelseas players, who bailed on Jose Mourinho and then yawned their way through an improved run under Guus Hiddink. I think Conte’s been given the keys to the kingdom in terms of manager vs. player power, and adding N’Golo Kante cannot be understated. So, a mix of both.

Matt: I think it’s a combination of things but there’s no question that the players love playing for Conte in the system that he has implemented. Even when Chelsea was winning games before the 3-4-3 switch they were far less convincing than now. That doesn’t even mean scoring a lot of goals but more so how strong they look defensively.

Kyle: It’s both. Hazard had come to life again, and this team was always going to revert back to a dominant state, but Conte had to be lauded for his immediate impact when Pep and Mourinho have struggled with their new teams.

Arsenal and Tottenham are the other title contenders. Which north London club has impressed you more so far, and why?

Joe: Very close call. Tottenham are gathering steam in the PL but crashing out in the Champions League group stage was a huge disappointment. Arsenal has Bayern Munich in the UCL knockouts and is starting to stall in the PL. It’s about what you’d expect from both clubs. I’m a hard man to please, but if I had to pick one team I’d say Arsenal because Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez (despite their contract negotiations) are on fire. If they can stay red-hot, Arsenal has a chance to challenge for the title should Chelsea stumble.

Nick: Arsenal. Tottenhams defense is fine, but there’s something missing from their mix. Right now, it’s probably simply Harry Kane reminding his form, but for a while it was just “Wait for Dembele to return”. Arsenal’s recent “stumbles” aside — there’s nothing wrong with losing to Everton — Arsene Wenger is pushing most of the right buttons, the Shkrodan Mustafa transfer is an unqualified success, and Theo Walcott is for the moment delivering. Gooners can feel good enough right now.

Matt: I’d say Arsenal because of the injuries they’ve gone through this season but their form of late has been far too poor for me to consider them title contenders.

Kyle: Easily Arsenal. Tottenham has struggled on all front for weeks now, and their form is worrying. The Gunners are a mentally weak side, but seem the stronger team of the two.

From what you’ve seen so far, are there any teams aside from the current top six who will challenge for a top four spot?

Joe: Not really. At this point I think the traditional top six are locked in after their big spending and managerial changes over the summer. They finally got their act together. Southampton and Everton could push them, but Everton would need to address the defensive issues and Saints need to find more goals. Neither of those problems are easily to fix midway through the season, no matter how much you spend in January.

Nick: I wouldve said Everton, but the Yannick Bolasie is a hammer blow to their attack. Unless Ross Barkley turns it around, I expect the current Top Six to be the sextet we hear from all season (Again, I worry about Spurs).

Matt: I think Everton could be in the mix for top six if Ronald Koeman regroups his side. With one of the PL’s top scorers in Romelu Lukaku, I believe the Toffees have enough offensive firepower in order to contend.

Kyle: No.

The relegation battle is a bit of a mess right now. Which team down there have you been most disappointed with?

Joe: Crystal Palace. Now without Alan Pardew, this could go south fast. With Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye, I’m seeing players who are on big money not stepping up to the plate and delivering. The fans at Selhurst Park are superb and they deserve more. It was a shame to see Pardew go because everyone wanted him to be the hero to lead them into a new era but it wasn’t to be. Now, it’s all about survival and if Sam Allardyce comes in you can expect direct soccer to return. Luckily they have the wingers and Benteke to implement that style. Still, incredibly disappointing.

Nick: Leicester is the easy answer, and I’m going to not count West Ham (who I’m not worried about in terms of relegation). I’ll go with Palace, who has been fun to watch with the ball (although why is Andros Townsend on the bench so often?!?) but miserable in defense. Every game is, “We deserved better”, which was a bit too comfortable coming out of Alan Pardew’s mouth.

Matt: Hull. After the way the team started the season it looked like Mike Phelan‘s side was going to be able to rally around him but the Tigers simply don’t have the attacking support necessary to win matches on a consistent basis.

Kyle: Hull looks the most likely to go down, but I’ve been very disappointed with Swansea. Their squad is poorly constructed, but I would not have thought it was relegation quality, and they followed up an energizing win over Sunderland with a return to more dumpster-fire performances.

Bob Bradley’s had a tough time thus far at Swansea. What have you made of his start to life in the Premier League? Is the American getting a rough deal?

Joe: I think he deserves until the end of the season before we can pass judgement. Swansea’s owners should look at Aston Villa last season and other relegated clubs in the past. Having three or four managers in a season doesn’t work. Swansea has improved in certain games and looked shocking in others. That all comes with a new system and new players playing together after a new manager comes in. Bradley has had 10 games at this point. He probably should have won three or four with the performances but has won twice. The defensive mistakes are the biggest issue to address in January and as for the scrutiny about him being the first-ever American coach in the Premier League, Bradley can handle that.

Nick: Fine enough in attack, but the back line is a total nightmare. For now, I’m 100 percent willing to pin their awfulness down to a poor offseason. Letting Ashley Williams walk without a serious replacement shows the board needed to give a bit more authority to Francesco Guidolin (or resist the urge to keep him on altogether). Bob Bradley deserves a transfer window, no doubt. His backs are a nightmare. Federico Fernandez is lost without a decent CB next to him, and Jordi Amat has made some baffling decisions.

Matt: I think it’s really unfair to place a hefty amount of the blame on Bradley given the team he’s working with. Swansea lost its top scorer before the season even began when Andre Ayew left for West Ham, and the club did very little to replace him. It’s going to be a season likely full of more downs than ups but I believe Bradley has a future in the Premier League as manager whether it’s with the Swans or another club.

Kyle: The American *was* getting a rough deal, and walked into a difficult situation, but now his performances in the last few weeks have become harder and harder to defend.

From what you’ve seen so far, which team and player is the most underrated in the Premier League as we enter the halfway point?

Joe: As for the team, I think Southampton has been written off by many people too early. I expect them to have a strong second half of the season. As for the players, I would say Ander Herrera at Manchester United doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s been influential in United’s recent good run.

Nick: As crazy as it sounds, I think the a right answer might be Manchester United (and my second submission would’ve been Chelsea!). The Red Devils have generated loads of chances and will be much improved once its CB health is improved. But I’m going to give a more under-the-radar answer and say two South Coast teams in Bournemouth and Southampton. Eddie Howe continues to a magnificent job with the nascent PL Cherries, while Ralph Krueger’s Saints continue to weather the cherry-picking (pun intended) of their talent each year.

Matt:I don’t think Southampton has earned enough credit this season, even after having had a strong campaign in 2015-16. The Saints have had trouble finishing off chances in the attack but have been one of the most defensively sound teams in the PL.

Kyle: I would say Bournemouth but they’re getting the recognition they deserve. The most underrated team is probably Southampton, who can expect an uptick in form now that Europe is in the rear view mirror. Unless they lose Van Djik or Fonte in January. Then maybe not.

FA Cup Final preview: Desperate Arsenal meets Double-seeking Blues

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  • Clubs split PL series
  • Chelsea’s Conte aims for double
  • Chelsea 8W-3D-2L vs. Arsenal since 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea face off with a trophy on the line for the fourth time this century when the London sides hit Wembley Stadium for Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2015 Community Shield, the first silverware match-up between the two sides since the 2007 League Cup Final in Wales. The Blues won that one, 2-1, while Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 in the 2002 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Conte open to contract extension ]

A win would be Arsenal’s third FA Cup trophy in four seasons, and Arsenal would be thrilled to put something shiny in its trophy case following a season of tumult at the Emirates Stadium which ended without UEFA Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Conte knows Arsenal is desperate for something good.

What they’re saying

Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on what a win could mean“We wanted to finish higher up in the league, there is no doubting that. We cannot hide from that and we need to own up to that. The FA Cup is a big trophy, one we want to win and which would definitely boost morale going into next season.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte on the match: “If you ask me who is the favorite now, I can tell you it is Arsenal because Arsenal now has the possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this reason, we must play with great patience. We must find in ourselves the right motivation, the right anger because the game can be very difficult for all of these reasons.”

Prediction

Could go either way, with many players not just glory-hunting but in the shop window. Will Alexis Sanchez be the difference maker? Mesut Ozil? Maybe, but we think Chelsea ratchets up the intensity one more time and claims a double with a 2-1 win.

Chelsea’s Conte open to extending his contract

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Antonio Conte is readying Chelsea for a bid at a season double, with the Blues meeting Arsenal on Saturday afternoon for an all-London FA Cup Final.

Conte is on a London-high himself, having led the Blues to a Premier League title in his first year in charge. He’s moving his family to the area, scooping up plenty of individual hardware, and has dynastic aims for the Stamford Bridge set.

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His first deal was for three years, and Conte is thinking beyond that now.

From the BBC:

“If the club give me the possibility to stay and extend my contract, for sure I’m available to. … We have the same idea about the future, the way we have to do together, to improve the squad and the team.”

How they improve the squad will be interesting, as veterans Cesc Fabregas, Willian, and Diego Costa have uncertain futures at the Bridge. But why wouldn’t Conte sign a bumper new deal after wild first year success?

Off to slow start, Morris, Seattle know “things can change quickly”

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Both Jordan Morris and the Seattle Sounders are off to a rough start in defense of their MLS Cup title last Fall, and the USMNT’s star striker admits to recalling last season’s wild turnaround as an inspiration.

“After the game last week we mentioned that we have a lot of the nucleus from last year and we all know that things can change quickly,” Morris said to ProSoccerTalk this week.

Seattle won just seven games before Matchday 22 last season, rebounding with a burst after coach Sigi Schmid was replaced by assistant Brian Schmetzer. The Sounders went 8-2-2 down the stretch en route to an MLS Cup win over Toronto FC.

While he hasn’t scored in five matches and only has two markers in 12 games, he feels success is coming for the 3W-5L-4T Sounders. Morris said the club knows the results aren’t there, but also that they are producing chances.

[ MORE: Monaco star’s Man City medical ]

“It’s been okay,” Morris said. “Definitely not the start I would’ve wanted. It’s not an excuse but we’ve hit a lot of posts and had other near misses.”

Seattle has a huge opportunity to flip the script on its season when Cascadia Cup rivals Portland visit on Saturday. The free-scoring Timbers are dangerous in attack, but have been opened up 20 times this season. Only two teams have conceded more goals than Portland (which has played the most matches in the league, it must be said).

And it may or may not surprise fans that Morris’ focus has been one of his strengths: the final product.

“I’m working on the final third, whether it’s shooting or finding the open guy,” Morris said. “It’s a big deal for us to finish our chances. Scoring or the final pass in that final third.”

Despite his relatively cold start, it would be surprising if Bruce Arena didn’t tab Morris in his crop for next month’s World Cup qualifiers. The 22-year-old also seems relatively certain to be a part of the Gold Cup plans.

“I’m excited and hopefully I get called up,” he said. “These World Cup qualifiers are obviously a very big deal and Bruce has done a really good job of getting us on the same page.”

Morris is also participating in a unique promotional activity with Delta Air Lines for Sounders fans, as he and Cristian Roldan are among Seattle players picking fans for “positions” in a Fan XI. Once assembled, they’ll travel to L.A. for a Sounders road match and even sign one-day contracts. Morris was happy to get on board with it.

“It’s for our fans, who are amazing,” he said. “Delta’s idea to make a Fan XI gives the fansa chance to have the behind the scenes experience of being part of a team put together by having different skills. We love rewarding our fans.”

Day Seven: All the action from the U20 World Cup (video)

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Mexico has automatically qualified for the knockout rounds of the U-20 World Cup despite falling to Venezuela.

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Germany dropped below Mexico in goal differential after allowing a 3-0 lead to sink to one, though El Tri still likely would’ve advanced to the next phase despite Germany’s result.

Mexico 0-1 Venezuela

Caracas 19-year-old striker Sergio Cordova scored for the third-straight match in what is sure to make him a hot summer commodity as Venezuela clinched Group B with a perfect 3-0 record.

Germany 3-2 Vanuatu

Vanuatu’s potential name of the tournament Bong Kalo scored twice in the second half to sink Germany below Mexico on goal difference.

Guinea 0-5 Argentina

A brace from Lautaro Martínez gives Argentina hope of the knockout rounds with a third-place finish.

England 1-0 South Korea

Everton’s Kieran Dowell scored the lone goal of the match to give England the Group A crown.