Premier League Playback: Top headlines from Week 24

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Gabriel Jesus SUPERSTAR

The kid is special. Very special.

So special that he’s keeping Sergio Aguero, one of the greatest strikers in Premier League history, out of the Manchester City starting lineup.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Gabriel Jesus, 19, has scored three goals and added an assist in his first two starts as a PL player, including a stoppage-time winner against Swansea City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Even in his first appearance in the PL he jumped off the bench he scared the life out of Tottenham, scoring a goal which was chalked off for offside.

He has a knack or popping up at the right place at the right time. Is it a knack though?

[ MORE: Guardiola shows glimpse of City’s future ]

It’s rare to see a teenager take games by the scruff of the neck like Jesus has in his first month in England. He joined City from Palmeiras in the summer for $34.3 million but the deal only went through once the January transfer window was opened and he was done leading the Sao Paulo club to the Brazilian title.

He has arrived at City fresh after a mini preseason and with opposition managers and players not knowing much about him, he has that aura of unpredictability. Over time that will erode and he will have to get used to defenders knowing his tricks, runs and his habits. Yet, his work rate and willingness to track back are perhaps his greatest trait and will help him stay one step ahead of his opponents.

[ MORE: Recaps, videos from every PL game in Week 24 ]

That’s why his manager Pep Guardiola has selected him alongside Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling in recent games. Those three possess raw pace and can close down opponents quickly and efficiently, allowing Pep’s masterplan of winning the ball back in six seconds to take place.

Jesus also has that “street fighter” spirit that the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez and Aguero possess. Yet the latter has lost a little of that in recent years and has always been more of a penalty box predator than someone who hustles back to help out. Arsene Wenger has spoken openly about the hunger and desire South American strikers appear to have for the game and scoring goals. Jesus has that in abundance.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Compared to a watermelon last week by Guardiola because he didn’t know what they would get once Jesus arrived in the PL, it’s safe to say they have a rising superstar.

Jesus’ incredible start to life in England means there’s an odd man out: Aguero.

Speaking about his future at City, the Argentine ace hardly wants out but seems ready to reassess his situation in the summer such has been the rapid rise of Gabriel in his place. Aguero’s face on the subs bench when Jesus scored his first goal for City in the 4-0 win at West Ham last week said it all. He has every right to be worried.

“Sometimes this happens. When you’re on the bench you have to wait for your opportunity,” Aguero said. “I have three months to do my best and try to help the team and we’ll see what happens with my future. He [Jesus] is a great player. He’s a very young player but he will learn a lot at City and he will have a great future at the club.”


WHO CAN REPLACE WENGER?

Wenger was a frustrated figure as he sat up in the stands at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Serving a four-game touchline ban for pushing fourth official Anthony Taylor in a win against Burnley last month, Wenger was helpless as his Arsenal side were out battled by their London rivals.

[ MORE: Wenger bemoans Chelsea’s first goal ]

12 points behind Chelsea with 14 games to go, the Gunners can kiss goodbye to their title hopes for another season.

That fact has left many questioning what’s next for Wenger. He told reporters he has been offered a two-year extension to remain at Arsenal and with the 67-year-old Frenchman seeing his current deal run out at the end of this season, it will be intriguing to see if he accepts the offer.

He delivers stability, top four finishes and UEFA Champions League appearances, the odd FA Cup victory and an exciting brand of soccer admired across the world. There is plenty to admire about his 21 years in charge of Arsenal.

Then, there’s the lingering fact that they haven’t seriously challenge for the PL title in the last decade. To get to the next level, maybe Arsenal need a change?

They’ve spent big on big players like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, but has Wenger taken them as far as he can? Will the board stop running the Gunners as a business and pump plenty of transfer funds in and take a gamble on a new manager? Probably not.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Still, my preference would be for Wenger to move upstairs after this season. He can become the Director of Football and then allow a younger, hungry manager to come in and try to take the Gunners to the next level of challenging for the PL and UCL seriously.

In the video above Diego Simeone and Ronald Koeman were suggested by Kyle Martin and Robbie Mustoe as good replacements for Wenger. I agree with that. Yet, how likely is it for either of them to join if Wenger is still hovering around in the background?

Perhaps what Arsenal needs most is a clean break from Wenger. After 21 years that’s a huge call for Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to take and it will be one with plenty of risk as Wenger guarantees top four finishes and the vast riches which come with UCL action year after year.

Isn’t it about time Arsenal tried something different to change the status quo? If they fall out of the top four it would be a huge hit but at least they would have tried to move things off. Being stuck in the limbo of not being brave enough to go for trophies with conviction and settling for second best is perhaps one of the most frustration things for fans of any team.

Wenger has delivered plenty but as his teams’ performance showed at the weekend, he is long way away from delivering another elusive PL title. This may well be the final few months of his time at Arsenal.


RUTHLESS CONTE

Across London another manager is seeing his full throttle approach working. Literally.

Grabbing his assistant Angelo Alessio by the back of the neck and forcing him down the touchline in the first half, Antonio Conte looked like a man possessed after his side nearly conceded from a set piece situation.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from Chelsea’s win ]

Conte is in the zone, even if he occasionally oversteps the mark. His celebration when Eden Hazard‘s sublime individual goal went in said it all. He jumped head first into the fans by the bench as Chelsea lead second-place Tottenham by nine points with 14 games to go.

It would be okay if the engraver of the PL trophy is already etching “Ch…” into the stone on the base of the silverware.

Conte laughed when asked about the incident from the first half of the win against Arsenal, as the man who has guided Chelsea to 16 wins in their last 18 games since they lost to the Gunners in September has everyone hanging on his every word.

“Angelo Alessio is always a victim,” Conte laughed. “During the corner I wanted to change some of the position because in the second corner Arsenal had six men and we lost a man at the edge of the box and it was very dangerous. I tried to shout to my players and I tried to tell my assistant to send this message to change the situation. But, when I understood the message was not right and they almost scored a goal, I thought to send a message. Angelo he knows me very well. He knows my passion in this moment. It is very important to keep the concentration not only with the players but all of the assistants and the staff. We win together and lost together. Always.”

That attention to detail and incredible passion Conte shows running up and down the touchline is what will win Chelsea the title.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Conte is ruthless and his team are ruthless. They didn’t let Arsenal rest for a second and the excellent N'Golo Kante broke up play time and time again with Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa at their best to punish the Gunners’ slack defending.

Conte’s title procession with Chelsea has begun as they start a very favorable run of six games against Burnley, Swansea, West Ham, Watford, Stoke and Crystal Palace. By the time they face Manchester City on Apr. 4, the title could be sewn up.


LEICESTER IN FREEFALL

Leicester City’s problems are plentiful.

The reigning champions are in real danger of relegation from the Premier League.

[ MORE: Why are Leicester in a relegation battle? ]

A hero to zero narrative is being put together at the King Power Stadium and manager Claudio Ranieri doesn’t appear to know how to stop the FOxes hurtling towards th ebottom three. Leicester were soundly beaten by Manchester United 3-0 on Sunday. There’s no shame on that because Jose Mourinho’s men are on a roll. That said, Leicester has now lost five-straight games in the Premier League and they’ve conceded 10 goals across that span, scoring zero.

With a massive relegation battle at Swansea City coming up this Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) Ranieri knows a defeat to the resurgent Swans could be the end of his fairytale with the Foxes. Perhaps more likely his time in charge will end if they lose at Swansea and then against Sevilla in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

That’s right. Despite their struggles in the PL, Leicester are still in the last 16 Europe’s elite club competition.

Yet all of their focus should be on staying in the PL and the article above looks deeper into the reasons for their shocking demise. Given the quality of their squad, should Leicester really be finishing any higher than 10th in the PL table? Probably not.

Still, the expectations have risen after last season and the fact that they are two points off the bottom and one point from the bottom three suggests it is time for the Foxes to buckle up for the bumpy ride ahead.


SUPER BOWL THROUGH THE PL

After Tom Brady and the New England Patriots launched an incredible comeback to win Super Bowl LI on Sunday, plenty of Premier League players were pumped to see the Pats win a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

[ MORE: PL reacts to Super Bowl 51 ]

Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois flew to Houston to watch Super Bowl 51 (via a quick stop off at Madison Square Garden on Saturday to take in a Knicks game) just over 24 hours after starring in the Blues’ big 3-1 win against Arsenal in the Premier League.

Meanwhile Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane is a huge NFL fan and could not contain his delight that his beloved Pats had sealed the massive comeback win.

We know Kane will definitely by heading to more than a few NFL games when they’re played at the new White Hart Lane Stadium from 2018 as Tottenham’s landmark deal with the NFL kicks off…


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.

Sydney FC clinches first place in A-League

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SYDNEY (AP) After clinching first place in Australia’s A-League without taking the field, Sydney FC enhanced its record achievement with a 3-0 win over the Perth Glory on Sunday.

Sydney FC won the Premiers Plate as regular-season champions after the second-place Melbourne Victory lost 1-0 to Brisbane on Saturday, when Sydney had a night off.

The Brisbane win left Sydney with an unassailable 11-point lead in first place with three rounds to play.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

The Sydney side also created some history: it became the only team to have remained in outright first position in the standings for an entire season.

In the other match Sunday, the Wellington Phoenix beat Newcastle 5-0 to remain within five points of sixth-place Western Sydney for the final playoff spot.

Walking Dead? Star fittingly sees Exeter’s implausible comeback (video)

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As Rick Grimes, actor Andrew Lincoln regularly battles the undead on his show “The Walking Dead”.

As a friend of Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale, Lincoln was probably pretty happy to watch a team that would not die.

Exeter went down 3-0 when Yeovil Town broke a scoreless drought with a trio of tallies between the 62nd and 78th minutes.

[ MORE: An under-the-radar Premier League XI ]

But Exeter’s David Wheeler scored in the 88th minute, and Troy Brown and Reuben Reid scored a minute apart at the beginning of stoppage time to earn a point for the League Two playoff hopeful.

Couple things on this video, too:

— Check out the shove on the goalkeeper when trying to collect the ball after the first goal of the fight back.

— Watch the man with his baby behind the net after the third goal. Did Mom know how safe her little one was?

An under-the-radar Premier League XI

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The Premier League’s international break invites reflection on both what we’ve seen so far and what’s to come.

For example, what if we left out the superstars?

For whatever reason, this one is recalling the state of mind of 2015-16, when we were digesting that Leicester City very much looked the part of Premier League champions.

[ MORE: Herrera on “intense” Zlatan ]

For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.

He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).

For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).

Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.

— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.

  • Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
  • Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
  • Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.

— The following players have risen well above most of their teammates but fall short of the league Top 50 on either site: Ben Gibson (Boro), Michael Keane and Ben Mee (Burnley), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jose Holebas and Troy Deeney (Watford), Gareth McAuley (West Brom).

— Watford, as a side, is seemingly the choose to a sort of MVP. On WhoScored, not a single player rises above 7, but there are a host in the very high sixes.

— In very different systems, John Stones (91.8) and Adam Forshaw (89.2) are thriving in pass percentage.

Oriol Romeu of Southampton and Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

— Southampton’s Oriel Romeu and Stoke’s Erik Pieters rank fourth and fifth respectively in tackles per game.

— In a team that has to intervene a ton, Hull City’s Curtis Davies the league with 3.8 interceptions per game.


Honorable mention

Goalkeeper: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City)

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (Manchester City), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Calum Chambers (Boro), Papy Djilobodji (Sunderland), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Ake, Victor Wanyama (Spurs), Willian (Chelsea), Juan Mata (Manchester United), Harry Winks (Spurs), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham United), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Jack Wilshere (Bournemouth).

Forwards: Joshua King (Bournemouth), Fernando Llorente (Swansea City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace)


Goalkeeper

Ben Foster (West Brom) — With the highest performance score in the position on WhoScored, Foster has claimed all 95 balls he’s went up for and has a league-best 76 saves.

Defenders

Nicolas Otamendi (Man City, 7.49, 29.18) — One of few defenders to rate high in interceptions despite being on a team that doesn’t concede loads of chances or possession.

George Friend (Middlesbrough) — Just out of the upper echelon on the advanced stats site, he is in rarefield air in traditional stats interceptions and tackles.

Steve Cook (Bournemouth, 7.16, 22.76) — Jumps out of the advanced stats on a Cherries team which has faced plenty of attacking pressure.

Antonio Valencia (Manchester United, 7.28, 27.45) — There’s a reason Jose Mourinho rewarded him with an extension not long into the manager’s tenure at Old Trafford.

Midfielders

Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.

Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.

Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.

 

Forwards

Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.

Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.

Herrera: Ibrahimovic competitive drive insatiable in everything

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Ander Herrera is dishing the goods on his Manchester United teammates while on Spain duty this week, and was asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Swede is a fierce competitor on and off the pitch, which Herrera jokes is an ever-present challenge to personal patience.

[ MORE: Deulofeu laments early Messi talk ]

It almost seems like there’s a bit of envy that Ibrahimovic can charge into public comments the way Herrera goes into tackles.

From Marca:

“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.

“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”

There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).

We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.