PL Playback: One from six; who are the title favorites?

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MINI-LEAGUES EMERGING

We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.

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Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…

  1. Chelsea – 52 points
  2. Tottenham – 45
  3. Liverpool – 45
  4. Arsenal – 44
  5. Man City – 42
  6. Man United – 40
  7. Everton – 33
  8. West Brom – 29 
  9. Stoke – 27
  10. Burnley- 26
  11. Bournemouth – 25
  12. West Ham – 25
  13. Southampton – 24
  14. Watford – 23
  15. Leicester City – 21
  16. Middlesbrough – 20
  17. Crystal Palace – 16
  18. Hull City – 16
  19. Sunderland – 15
  20. Swansea City – 15

The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus from here on out.

Apart from Chelsea still feeding off that incredible 13-game win streak there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.

This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.

If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.

It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.

Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?


Chelsea
Position: 1st
Points: 52
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.

Tottenham Hotspur
Position: 2nd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.

Liverpool
Position: 3rd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?

Arsenal
Position: 4th
Points: 44
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.

Manchester City
Position: 5th
Points: 42
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.

Manchester United
Position: 6th
Points: 40
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.


KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned on United vs. Liverpool ]

Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.

[ MORE: Player ratings – United vs. Liverpool ]

Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.

[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]

Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.

United actually played 89 long balls against Liverpool, more than any other team in any PL games in Week 21. Guess what? It worked. It wasn’t the best United will ever play but they now look much harder to beat even if Paul Pogba had a nightmare and their front three were largely kept quiet.

After the draw, Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won any of their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to score goals and get points than relying on Gegenpressing.

Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.


WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?

Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.

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Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.

The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.

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After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.

He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.

Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.

When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.


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.

VIDEO: Chicharito talks West Ham signing, opener at Manchester United

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Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is back in the Premier League, and will debut for his new club at the home of his old club.

The league schedulers didn’t know the Mexican striker would be a member of West Ham United on Opening Day, but nonetheless have the first weekend ending with an 11 a.m. ET kickoff between the Irons and Red Devils of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Combine a new home with an old haunt, and you’ve got one fired up Little Pea:

“A little bit more than my teammates probably, of course to be back to Old Trafford to start this adventure this season with my new team. It’s gonna be a very important one and I’m going to be very happy to be there.”

Hear more from the latest West Ham buy below:

Juventus buys $46 million Bernadeschi from Fiorentina

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If this transfer is anywhere as successful as Juventus’ capture of Roberto Baggio from Fiorentina, the Old Lady’s run of scudetti could reach double digits.

Juventus announced the $46 million purchase of Federico Bernadeschi from La Viola on Monday, snaring the U-21 star at the same age they purchased Baggio in 1990.

[ SERIE A: Can Roma catch Juve? ]

Bernadeschi, 23, broke out for 11 Serie A goals last season for Fiorentina, adding two in the UEFA Europa League. He scored his first senior goal for Italy earlier this summer in a World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein.

It’s another big add for Juve, which has Douglas Costa on loan from Bayern Munich and made Mehdi Benatia’s loan a permanent buy.

It’s another big blow for Fiorentina, which sold Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic this summer, but it could be a boon for American forward Joshua Perez. The 19-year-old made his debut for Fiorentina in November 2016 against Inter Milan.

De Rossi’s fire burning toward elusive scudetto

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When Mexican star Hector Moreno arrived at AS Roma this month, he brought a hyper-competitive drive and the desire to inspire his new club toward a long-desired scudetto.

What he found was a club that top-to-bottom was already driving toward that same goal.

“I’ve been here two days and the guys have the same hunger and desire as me,” Moreno told ProSoccerTalk.

To those who’ve played for AS Roma, bled the crimson in and out for i Lupi, the pursuit of a first scudetto in a decade and a half dances through their heads.

“Totti told us that when he won the scudetto in 2001, there were parties for three months. We all have the ambition to win something here, and to celebrate with the fans,” said Kevin Strootman.

[ MORE ROMA: PST talks with Strootman ]

“It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us,” said star striker Edin Dzeko, the ex-Man City forward who potted 29 goals last season.

Juventus has won the last six Serie A titles, but Roma has steadily narrowed the gap in finishing second three of the past four seasons. Roma finished four points back of Juve last season, and my did they entertain, scoring 90 goals en route to second.

Strootman has been in Rome since 2013, Dzeko since 2015, and we’ve already covered Moreno’s nascent period with the club.

So imagine the scudetto fire that burns within captain Daniele De Rossi, who turned 34 on Monday and made his Roma debut the year after the club’s last scudetto. He’s made 561 appearances since that October night in Belgium against Anderlecht in the UEFA Champions League when he made his first senior appearance.

His teammates will know what it means to him.

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“It’s my biggest target,” De Rossi told PST. “It’s what I’m following with my career. I know the other guys know what that means for the people here in Rome and I would like to explain it a little bit deeply what it can mean to win a scudetto right here in Roma. It’s part of our job to know what can happen if we win, and to our culture it can be something that we never forget.”

AS Roma played Paris Saint-Germain level through 90 minutes in Detroit, its first International Champions Cup appearance of the summer. Now i Lupi prepares for another UEFA Champions League opponent in Tottenham Hotspur, up next Tuesday at Red Bull Arena.

Clubs have had to be nearly flawless to make a run at Juve in recent seasons, and looking at Roma’s schedule doesn’t mean finding a load of could’ves and should’ves; Yes there was an early draw at Empoli and a regrettable home defeat in the Derby della Capitale, but Roma wasn’t tossing aside points in poor situations.

[ MORE: Pallotta’s Roman vision ]

So even with a bunch of new faces and several key departures, De Rossi and Roma need to come out of the gates with vigor. And the captain admits he sees the fire mentioned by Moreno, but cautions that it needs to be carefully built by i Lupi’s leadership.

“It’s clearly very early but you can see that there’s a group, with a lot of people who are 27, 28, 24, who are not so much young players and that’s important because at 27 you already know almost everything you need to be a professional player,” De Rossi said.

“Hunger is something that comes probably later when the matches are more important, but also during training you can find it, and when people spend time with the team when they are free. The atmosphere is very good for now. I hope it will follow later.”

De Rossi’s words carry weight even in a short conversation. He doesn’t throw away words, and takes his time to convey the proper meaning.

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Asked about leadership and whether he considers his guidance more by words or his example, De Rossi doesn’t turn to platitudes or fire and brimstone. The latter might be expected, given his demeanor and — to an American audience — memory as the man who used his elbow to examine what lies underneath Brian McBride’s face at the 2006 World Cup (and, it should be noted, helped the Yanks to their only point of the tournament, later won by the Italians).

“It’s something you have inside, your character, but also something you build during your career and your life,” De Rossi said. “It’s not something you have to show every second in soccer or a work place. You have to be nice with your teammates, you have to be available if they need something, and that’s it. If you have to raise your voice, you do it, but it’s nothing special. The same things the other guys do.”

Sure, but the *other guys* don’t sit in the Top 5 for caps in the celebrated Italy national team set-up. They haven’t all won World Cups, or been knighted, or been named Serie A Footballer of the Year.

[ MORE: Dos Santos brothers reuniting in LA? ]

So what are De Rossi’s leadership guideposts? Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no magic to it.

“First of all, inside the pitch you are respected by your teammates,” he said. “Also outside the pitch, you know that your job is going good when you see things going in the right way, the normal way, nothing weird, nothing special, nothing perfect, the right way! Normal people who love their work and love their job will respect each other.”

Okay, fair enough. De Rossi is no doubt respected, but as he edges further into his career, does he think about how he’ll be remembered? Scudetto or not, what’s his legacy?

Easy, it seems; De Rossi wants to be known as a custodian of his club, even if he’s already one of its all-time centurions.

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“As a professional player, a nice guy, but most of all a player crazy in love with his team,” De Rossi said. “And also as a good player, because I think I am. Nothing more. What happened to Francesco (Totti) is something unbelievable and unrepeatable. I’m happy. I will be happy if a lot of people remember me as a nice guy, as a huge person who loves Roma as much as he can.

Well, he’ll be happy then, as a classic Wolf in yellow and red: a man who was born in the Eternal City and grew to become a symbol of it.

“There’s something inside of us, Roman citizens. Rome is a city full of stories, full of history, full of old things. There are monuments, what you can read in books, but also people connected to art like Ennio Morricone or Sergio Leone. It’s a mix of new things that we have to do, and also remain connected with our past history. It’s something you have to remember, not forget, and can affect our way to lead and live outside of soccer and the way I play.”

And given his legendary status, it’s little surprise that De Rossi has the admiration of the players in the room, social media fans or not.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

“He’s our captain,” Strootman said. “He was already the captain when I came here four years ago and he was one of the only players who spoke English. He helped me with a lot of things on and off the pitch. He’s a role model for everybody. It’s a pleasure to train with him, stay with him, and be on the pitch with him.”

Strootman agreed with De Rossi that the side has to be nurtured into the season.

“We still need some time, that’s normal, but we need to show on the pitch that we are hungry,” he said. “It’s a good mix. We have to show it from the first competition and game by game.”

Roma’s ICC finishes up at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on July 30, where they’ll hope to make an early statement of intent against serial scudetto winners Juventus.

Reports: Jonathan Dos Santos set to join Giovani on Galaxy

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Double Dos Santos DPs in Tinseltown?

That’s again the rumor out of Spain, where Jonathan Dos Santos has reportedly left Villarreal camp with permission to negotiate with the LA Galaxy.

Dos Santos would join his brother Giovani in a move which would not only increase the Galaxy’s attacking portfolio but give the club another feather in the cap as it attempts to ward off incoming Los Angeles FC in the race for the hearts of L.A. soccer supporters.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up in Gold Cup Final? ]

It would be the second time Jonathan joined his brother on a squad, and the third time the two were professional teammates. Both joined Barcelona’s academy in 2002.

Jonathan posted two goals and three assists in La Liga last season, leading the team in key passes per game with 1.3. He added a goal and an assist in UEFA Europa League play, where he also registered a hemorrhagic 2.6 giveaways per contest.

Nevertheless, there’s little doubt the younger Dos Santos brother would shine in MLS, where he could set up his brother and Romain Alessandrini to feast on defenses, and maybe even help Gyasi Zardes find his form.