Premier League Playback: Shrewd Spurs succeeding

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TOTTENHAM’S IMPRESSIVE BUSINESS

Victor Wanyama surged forward late in the second half of Tottenham’s 2-0 win against Arsenal in the final North London derby at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

[ MORE: Spurs eager for more ]

Roared on by the crowd the Kenyan clipped the ball into Harry Kane who forced Petr Cech to save as Tottenham closed the gap on Premier League leaders Chelsea to four points with four games to go. Their ninth-straight PL win also, as you may have heard by now, guaranteed that Spurs would finish above Arsenal in the Premier League for the first time in 22 years.

[ MORE: 3 things learned | Player ratings ]

Wanyama, 25, is yet another example of the fine business Spurs have done to turn their squad around. That has led to them being the top performing team in the Premier League over the past two seasons by quite some distance.

After the derby win against Arsenal, ProSoccerTalk asked Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino about Wanyama’s dominant display as the man who joined from Southampton for around $15 million last summer is quickly becoming yet another bargain buy.

“I think this season, what he is doing is fantastic,” Pochettino said. “Today was good and in the second half he was fantastic and he was key in some actions.  I am very pleased, but I am very pleased for all of my squad because we are fighting a lot during the whole season.”

Pochettino has every right to be pleased. So does the transfer committee, board of directors and owner of Tottenham.

Looking at the table below from Sky Sports in the UK, you can see Spurs have accumulated more points, scored more goals and let in the lowest number of goals in the Premier League over the past two seasons.

Despite those incredible stats the most amazing one, for me at least, is how low their net spend is.

In an era where the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United splash the cash like it’s going out of fashion, the shrewd business done by Daniel Levy and Spurs’ board has to be applauded.

Of course, Pochettino and his staff are the ones who put the players in a system and have drastically improved the likes of Dele Alli, Wanyama, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to name but a few. In truth you could go through the entire starting XI for Spurs and make the argument that they’ve all gone to a new level under Pochettino over the past two years.

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When the Argentine arrived in the summer of 2014 he took over a bloated squad which was full of castoffs as a vast chunk of the then world-record transfer fee for Gareth Bale was squandered. Only Christian Eriksen (just $14.8 million from Ajax, by the way) and Erik Lamela remain from that spree.

With Spurs’ new 61,000 capacity, $1 billion home rising behind the current White Hart Lane it is easy to forget that amid all the euphoria around the likes of Dele, Harry Kane, Eriksen and Co. there has to be cost-cutting somewhere. Tying their key players down to long-term deals and spending wisely has been a shrewd move for Spurs. With the potentially tumultuous temporary move to Wembley coming up for next season, having the squad “all-in” with Pochettino will help.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

And if Pochettino and the club can keep upgrading sensibly each summer, then move on squad players to leave room for youngsters to break through, it is a formula which may bring success for the next decade given the average age of this Spurs team and so many of its key contributors still in their early 20’s.

Even if Tottenham don’t quite catch Chelsea this season, there are so many reasons for Spurs to be hopeful for the future.


TOP FOUR BATTLE

The battle is well and truly on for the final two places in the top four as Manchester City and Manchester United both slipped up at the weekend.

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Liverpool took full advantage of that slip-up as Emre Can scored a Goal of the Season contender with an astonishing bicycle kick to put them four points clear of fifth-place Manchester United (who have a game in hand) with three games to go. That means Jurgen Klopp‘s men now control their own destiny as wins against Southampton, West Ham and Middlesbrough will guarantee they’re in the UEFA Champions League next season.

As for City and United, they’re both scrambling to catch Liverpool and although City have the easier schedule, Pep Guardiola‘s men have drawn their last two and have lost the momentum they had gained early in 2017.

For Arsenal, well, a dejected Arsene Wenger admitted after their North London derby defeat to Tottenham that finishing in the top four would prove very difficult but if they win their game in hand against struggling Southampton then they’ll be right back in the race and just three points off fourth place.

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Everything is still to play for and two of City, United and Arsenal won’t make the UCL next season. United could, if they win the UEFA Europa League, but given their injury crisis it will be a big ask for Jose Mourinho’s men.

All of a sudden it is Liverpool who have grasped their chance to put themselves in the driving seat to snap up one of the final two places in the top four. City look like the other favorites given their remaining games (Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Brom at home, plus a trip to Watford) but in this season when it seems like nobody wants to finish in the top four, we can expect a few more twists and turns.


PUEL UNDER PRESSURE

ProSoccerTalk understands that the pressure is mounting on Southampton manager Claude Puel at the end of his first season in charge of St Mary’s.

Puel saw his side booed off the pitch at half time and full time of the 0-0 draw against Hull City on Saturday as Dusan Tadic had a last-gasp penalty kick saved by Eldin Jakupovic which would’ve provided Saints with an undeserved victory.

[ MORE: Saints’ fans take over Milan

With Saints still on course for a top 10 finish and coming incredibly close to winning their first major trophy in 41 years, why is Puel under pressure?

For outsiders everything may seem rosy but if you dig a little deeper it’s not easy to find discontent at Southampton. It is believed that throughout the season several senior members of Puel’s squad have aired their concerns over the style of play being ordered by the 55-year-old Frenchman and when that starts to happen, well, we all saw what happened to Claudio Ranieri

Puel is a great coach and has shown in his time in France with Monaco, Lille, Lyon and Nice that he can develop attractive teams and bring through talented youngsters.

That said, there are several reasons why Southampton’s fans, and perhaps players, are turning on him already.

Number one: Southampton’s fans have had success after success. They’ve finished in a higher league position for seven-straight seasons but that run will now end. With Mauricio Pochettino followed by Ronald Koeman, the transition was seamless (almost freakishly so) and they’ve finished in the top eight of the PL in each of the past three seasons. They can’t go on forever — they may indeed finish eighth, once again — but the issue is that many of Southampton’s fans feel like it should. With the current uncertainty surrounding a potential $271 million investment for 80 percent of the club from a Chinese businessman, Saints want to push for the top four and many are unsure if Puel is the right man to lead them to that challenge.

Number two: the Europa League exit was a big blow for Puel. I was in his press conference following the exit to Hapoel Be’er Sheva at St Mary’s back in December and he was distraught. The main reason he was brought to Saints was due to his pedigree in European competitions and his side crashed out at the group stage due to the amount of away goals they’d scored. His rotation policy came back to bite him. Hard. When Saints beat Liverpool in the EFL Cup semifinal to reach the final against Man United at Wembley, I asked Puel if righting the wrongs of this European campaign was key to him. He was unequivocal as to how important Saints being back in Europe, via winning the EFL Cup would be, but Saints came up short, losing 3-2 to United in a final they dominated. Now, he’s left with a bloated squad of players and a lot less games. That will be a headache.

Number three: Puel having a distinct “lack of personality” has been one of the main reasons the fanbase hasn’t quite taken to him. His English isn’t great and he isn’t bothered about delivering box office performances in his press conferences. That has led to many Southampton fans who want him to succeed now having a “meh” attitude if he does leave. Southampton’s fans aren’t too bothered either way about Puel and that’s led to discontent growing steadily despite promising displays littered throughout the season.

However deep you try to dig into this situation, there does appear to be something not quite right about one of the steadiest clubs in the PL in recent years. With key injuries to Charlie Austin, Sofiane Boufal and Virgil Van Dijk this season, plus the Jose Fonte saga leaving him without his two first-choice center backs for over half the campaign, Puel has had plenty of obstacles to overcome, especially with Saints playing 48 games in all competitions to date and that will rise to 53 matches by the end of the PL campaign.

This has not been a normal season and with no European action next season, Puel could thrive with extra time on the training ground and a smaller squad to rotate. Whether or not he’ll be given the chance to kick Saints on is another matter. Rumors state the likes of Garry Monk and Marco Silva are being lined up and ProSoccerTalk understands Fulham’s Slavisa Jokanovic is a leading contender to take charge if Puel is shown the door.

Puel should probably be given another season to push Southampton towards the top six again but the reality is they may not finish above seventh place for the foreseeable future as the perennial powers who struggled over the past two seasons have now regrouped. Whoever came in after Koeman left summer had a big job on their hands to meet rising expectations and Puel has, so far, failed to do that despite glimpses of hope. The current Southampton manager is the victim (unfairly so) of their rapid ascent and undoubted overachievement in recent years.


DIVING NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED

The great simulation debate reared its ugly head this weekend and, as always, it was not pretty.

Penalty decisions involving Marcus Rashford, Leroy Sane and Harry Kane stole the headlines, while we won’t waste much time on Lucas Leiva‘s pathetic dive for Liverpool against Watford on Monday because it was the easiest yellow for simulation in the history of the game. Perhaps the Brazilian had gained inspiration from Rashford and Sane given their actions earlier in the weekend…

Now, let us start by saying referees have an incredibly tough job and players make it even tougher.

Rashford went down right on half time against Swansea as goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski rushed out and referee Neil Swarbrick awarded a penalty kick despite not having a clear view. On second viewing Fabianski pulled away his hands and expecting the contact Rashford had fallen to the ground. It was a clear dive.

Sane then did something similar on Sunday as Man City won a penalty at Middlesbrough. The German winger left his leg trailing and went down under a challenge from Martin de Roon. Boro’s players were livid by referee Kevin Friend awarding a penalty and rightly so. It was another case of simulation.

Then, once again on Sunday, Harry Kane went down under a challenge from Gabriel and although the trailing leg of Arsenal’s defender caught him the Spurs striker let referee Michael Oliver know he’d been caught. Let’s clear up any debate on Kane’s penalty: it was a foul and not a dive. There was clear contact so Oliver got it spot on and hopefully Video Assistant Referees (VARs) will be on hand to help clear up these decisions in the PL in the near future.

In the meantime, how do we stop instances of simulation? The boys discuss in the video above and you have to agree that harsher retrospective bans for diving will help stamp it out of the game. Simple.


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

Report: Wenger ready to pay Ozil, Sanchez club record deals

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Arsenal knows its departure from the UEFA Champions League has to be a short one, and that keeping its two best attackers around is imperative.

That’s why Arsene Wenger is preparing to make Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the top paid players in Arsenal history, according to a report from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.

The contract status of both players has been a touchy one this season, and Sanchez especially has been linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe (including London neighbors Chelsea).

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

But perhaps the Gunners’ FA Cup triumph over Chelsea has Ozil and Sanchez feeling good vibes about the Emirates Stadium set, and Arsenal is ready to pounce. According to the report:

Wenger has told the board that he thinks he can win the Premier League if this group stays together and is supplemented by no more than two or three key additions. Ozil is understood already to have been offered more than £250,000 a week and the club are ready to go to around £280,000 for both him and Sanchez.

The Gunners need both players healthy and happy heading into next season, and appropriate additions as well (A top striker is a must. Again). Wage structure is important, but Arsenal will have a blessing in disguise if another player can make a legit case he deserves to be paid like Ozil and Sanchez any time soon.

West Ham, Everton, and the superstar striker’s need for the Champions League

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Come up with a list of active elite level strikers, and it’s likely to be a short one filled with names from UEFA Champions League clubs.

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, even Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Rarely do names like these move to a non-UCL club while in their prime, and it’s just as uncommon to see them stay at clubs which have failed to qualify for the UCL.

The money, the prestige, the endorsements; All are amplified by the world stage. Given the massive import of their domestic stage and spotlight, Premier League sides have bucked this trend on occasion — see Romelu Lukaku — but it’s the exception to the rule.

That’s what puts an ambitious club like West Ham United between a rock and a hard place. The Irons have been vocal about their desires to bring in a top-end striker, and it’s likely they’d be happy to spend what it takes to attract Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang, or Cavani to town.

Lyon reportedly rejected a $45 million bid for Lacazette last season, admitting that ultimately the player’s desires would determine his future. Higuain, too, was linked to chairman David Gold’s wallet before moving to Juventus. Carlos Bacca also saw his future connected to the Irons.

Instead, Gold landed Andre Ayew from Swansea, and had to hope Andy Carroll could stay healthy or Enner Valencia would deliver. Not a striker, Dimitri Payet apparently decided to skip town soon after West Ham’s Europa League exit at the hands of Astra Giurgiu.

Now it’s Kelechi Iheanacho being linked to the London Stadium, another hopeful swing from the Irons that points a strong finger at the problem: West Ham can be as ambitious as it likes, but it’s going to need a miracle to pull an elite striker to London without European football.

And it shouldn’t happen, but what if Everton is bumped from the UEL in the third qualifying round or playoff next year? Will Lukaku follow Payet’s lead and sink another team from joining the discussion? Though an argument can be made it’s better for Everton to lose those summer games, the Toffees very much need to succeed in the UEL qualifying and also show signs of strength in the early PL docket. That’s the unforgiving life of sitting on the outskirts of the powerful tier.

Every team at every level is searching for the next elite striker. Some, like West Ham, will need to luck into a young buck on the rise or a flawed striker finding his potential. And how do they hold onto that player, one who will have alerted the big boys to his arrival, without qualifying for Europe? It’s improbable.

The ability of teams like Chelsea and Liverpool to compete for a European slot in the PL standings thanks to missing out on the UCL the year before signals hope for clubs like Everton and West Ham. And five Premier League sides competing in the UCL this year could extend an invitation to stay longer in the Top Seven discussion for sides like Southampton and Leicester City, too.

So this summer’s striker captures are huge for Slaven Bilic and David Gold. This is a window the league’s “next group” won’t have open annually, and West Ham’s hopes of barging into the discussion again hinge on who shows up by August.

Toure reportedly set for another year with Man City

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Never say never.

Yaya Toure looks like his season-long peace with Pep Guardiola will stretch into a new season, with Toure’s combustible agent admitting talks with Manchester City regarding a new contract.

Dimitri Seluk is among the worst agents on Earth Toure’s agent, and said, “We are talking. We will see what happens but City is a club that is in Yaya’s heart.”

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

But Seluk has not been in City’s heart, having made numerous poor decisions on when to open his mouth, deepening a rift between Toure and Guardiola that kept the player off the pitch for some time. Earlier this Spring, Seluk also suggested that Toure could join Manchester United.

So, yeah, smart guy. Hates microphones and publicity.

Toure turned 34 this month, and became a fixture for Guardiola once he broke into the lineup. The midfielder made nine-straight starts around the turn of the calendar, scoring five goals in the Premier League.

Wolfsburg holds off Braunschweig with Vieirinha blast (video)

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Outworked and outperformed in the first half of their playoff second leg at Eintracht Braunschweig, Wolfsburg needed a wake-up call to steady its hopes of staying in the Bundesliga.

That came off the boot of longtime right back Vieirinha, as the Portuguese veteran ran onto a rebound and fired a 17-yard arrow into the goal to boost Wolfsburg aggregate lead to 2-0.

[ MORE: Barcelona names new manager ]

That would mean the 2.Bundesliga hosts would need three goals to give the second tier a third promotion this season. An 82nd minute red card to Braunschweig’s Maximilian Sauer effectively ended those far-off dreams.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt were relegated in the season, and Stuttgart and Hannover were promoted from 2.Bundesliga.