Five takeaways from Chelsea v. Middlesbrough

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LONDON — If the blue ribbons weren’t already being tied onto the Premier League trophy, you can go ahead and do that now.

[ MORE: What now for Fabregas?

After Antonio Conte‘s side beat Middlesbrough 3-0 at Stamford Bridge on Monday, Chelsea need three more points to be crowned Premier League champions (they play West Bromwich Albion on Friday when they can seal the deal) while Boro were relegated back to the Championship at the first attempt.

Here’s five takeaways from a routine win for the champions elect.


FABREGAS IS MAGIC

Within the first 12 minutes of the game Cesc Fabrgeas had hit three pinpoint long passes over the top of Middlesbrough’s defense which twice found Marcos Alonso and then Diego Costa couldn’t quite get on the end of the third pass. He missed a glorious chance when Hazard pulled it back to him on the edge of the box but moments later made up for it as his inviting pass found Diego Costa to slot home the opener. He also found Victor Moses with another delicate chip but his shot was saved and Fabregas had a goalbound volley deflected wide in the second half before teeing up Nemanja Matic for Chelsea’s third.

Yet another defense unlocked by Fabregas who has now picked up four assists in his last three appearances for Chelsea.

After coming into the starting lineup for the injured N'Golo Kante, Fabregas was pulling all the strings for Chelsea in the deep-lying midfield role. The Spanish midfielder turned 30 last week and although he oozed class throughout his status as a regular in Conte’s midfield is questionable at best. Fabregas has started just 11 PL games this season, with 15 appearances from the bench.

Should Fabregas stay at Stamford Bridge this summer and battle for his place once again next season and be content with more appearances due to European competition returning for Chelsea? He may do just that. On this form Chelsea certainly wouldn’t let him move to another Premier League club but rumors persist that a move to AC Milan or Inter could be options. Despite his lack of gametime throughout the season, Fabregas backed up what Chelsea’s fans sing about him. He is indeed magic. Especially when the opposition give him that much time and space to operate in.


CHELSEA READY TO CLINCH AT THE HAWTHORNS

Friday night in West Bromwich in the West Midlands is where this Chelsea team are likely to seal the title.

Throughout the win against Boro, Chelsea’s fans sung “we’re gonna win the league, we’re gonna win the league!” in lackadaisical fashion. A sixth league title (fifth in the Premier League era) is all but confirmed.

Conte’s men need three more points to seal the title and they’ve responded superbly to the 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on Apr. 16. Since then they’ve won three-straight games and the threat of Tottenham only loomed for a few days before the Blues’ ruthless machine once again sped away.

With no European action to tire them, Conte’s passion on the sidelines, a supreme midfielder in N’Golo Kante, stunning displays from Eden Hazard, the goals of Diego Costa and a rock solid defense led by David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea’s procession to the title has been predictable for some time.

Jet-propelled by their 13-game winning run in the middle of the season following Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation after the loss at Arsenal, nobody has been close to matching this Chelsea team all season.

If they beat West Brom on Friday they’ll confirm what we’ve known for some time: Chelsea is the best team in the Premier League by a country mile.


ALONSO THE GREAT

Marcos Alonso hit the crossbar after two minutes. He then scored with a vicious strike at the near post after 34 minutes and had another show just miss Costa at the back post in the second half.

The Spanish full back has been a revelation at left wing-back this season and has vindicated Antonio Conte’s decision to pay Fiorentina $29.7 million for him. It was one of those signings, along with David Luiz, in the final minutes of the summer transfer deadline which made you sit up and say “why have Chelsea done that?”

Alonso’s displays have answered that question. He adds balance, especially in attack and he is neither a full back who simply likes to defend and not one who simply likes to bomb forward every time he gets a chance. With reports rife that Ryan Bertrand could sign from Southampton this summer, it is hard to understand why Chelsea need a new left back. In this 3-4-3 formation Alonso (and Victor Moses) is so important. Yes, they aren’t the biggest stars but they’re getting the job done comfortably.

After stints at Bolton and Sunderland in the past, 26-year-old Alonso will finally be able to call himself a Premier League winner soon. His displays this season are certainly deserving of that medal.


GUZAN READY TO RETURN TO MLS

Brad Guzan‘s goal was peppered with efforts on Monday as the U.S. national team goalkeeper saved well early on from Alonso but was then caught out at his near post by Alonso for Chelsea’s second. All three of Chelsea’s goals nutmegged Guzan as the Illinois native didn’t have his best day.

Guzan, 32, is probably relieved to be heading back to Major League Soccer with Atlanta United next month after an eight-year stint in England. He battled his way back at Aston Villa after virtually being released but then manager Paul Lambert brought him back to become Villa’s starter and he shone at Villa Park. After their relegation from the PL last season he landed at Boro but quickly found himself second choice behind Victor Valdes for much of this season.

Since mid-April he’s started five games on the trot and is at least ending his time in the PL with playing time, even though it’s on a team which has been relegated.

Guzan comes under the “he’s a good age for a goalkeeper” category with arguably his best years ahead of him and he’ll be the USMNT number one for many years to come.


BORO BELITTLED

At times it was excruciating to watch Boro play on Monday. Caretaker boss Steve Agnew tried his best to spur on his players from the sidelines but it was no use. Chelsea were in a different universe, let alone world, to Boro.

After Aitor Karanka‘s sacking in March, there seemed to be only one outcome for Boro. Relegation was confirmed on Monday but it had been coming since the turn of the year as their meager return of 26 goals in 36 PL games is the worst in the PL.

Is Agnew the right man to move them forward? Time will tell. Loyal chairman Steve Gibson will need to follow Newcastle United’s model of spending big to come straight back at the first attempt next season. First and foremost he needs to get a new man in charge to help give Boro a new identity.

They’ve huffed and puffed and hung in games for most of the season, but that’s about it.

VOTE: 2016-17 Premier League Goal of the Season

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Okay, so you have 1064 to choose from, so choose wisely…

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

The 2016-17 Premier League season is over but you can vote for your favorite goal of the campaign up until June 1.

Simply click on the video above to watch the contenders compiled by Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, and then you can vote by clicking here.

Enjoy!

Ex-Barcelona president Rosell held in money laundering probe

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MADRID (AP) Spanish authorities say former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and his wife have been detained in a probe over his businesses in Brazil.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

The detentions early Tuesday are part of a money laundering investigation related to buying television rights for past matches of Brazil’s national team.

Three other people have been detained, but their identities were not immediately released by authorities.

Police raided offices, homes, and businesses in Barcelona and other locations in Spain as part of “Operation Rimet,” in reference to former FIFA President Jules Rimet.

Authorities said the operation used information from the FBI following the U.S. case against high-level FIFA officials in 2015.

Rosell is already standing trial for fraud and corruption charges involving the 2013 transfer of Brazilian striker Neymar.

Report: Sam Allardyce wants to quit Crystal Palace

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The Daily Mail is reporting that Sam Allardyce wants to quit as Crystal Palace manager.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Allardyce, 62, kept Palace in the Premier League on May 14 after beating Hull City, but it is reported that after a meeting with Eagles chairman Steve Parish, the former Bolton, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland manager has decided to walk away.

The core reason is thought to be that Allardyce is not impressed with the transfer plans the club has over the summer.

It is believed Palace want to meet again with Allardyce before confirming his departure  but the report states he has cleared out his office at the training ground.

The former England manager (he quit as Three Lions boss last September after being embroiled in an undercover newspaper sting) only joined Palace on Dec. 23, 2016 when he signed a two-and-a-half-year deal.

After struggling to turn things around initially, key January signings such as Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic helped the Eagles eventually soar away from the relegation zone as they beat Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in the final weeks of the season.

Is it strange that Allardyce would move on? Tony Pulis left Palace in similar fashion back in 2014 after not getting assurances for Parish and the board over transfer spending for the next summer.

With the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye around, the Eagles have players on big money and have spent big to try and push into the PL’s top 10. However, they looked far from a top 10 team last season as Allardyce helped them stumble to safety with brilliant displays against the top clubs interspersed with poor showings against fellow strugglers.

If Big Sam doesn’t think the correct budget is there for him to work with, then you can certainly understand why he would walk away.

Premier League Playback: Themes of the season

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3-4-3 REIGNS SUPREME

If it’s good enough for Chelsea and Tottenham, it should be good enough for the rest of the Premier League. And it started to get that way.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

With Antonio Conte using a 3-4-3 formation from September onwards, Chelsea took the PL by storm with a three-man central defense and Spurs followed suit in the second half of the season.

We started to see teams like Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham, Stoke and many others use it.

Nobody could do it quite as well as Chelsea and Spurs, though.

[ MORE: Detailing Chelsea’s title parade at Stamford Bridge

The thing with systems is they come and go. Like fashion they follow a leader and then eventually something fresh arrives to take over.

With 4-3-3 formations taking over from 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 over the past few years, plenty of teams have invested in exciting wingers but are finding it tough to get them in dangerous areas. That is the main reason why 3-4-3 works so well.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings ]

Whether they are stereotypical wingers like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Pedro, or the likes of Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli at Spurs, you can create space for your most creative players to roam free out wide and then you don’t have to worry about losing defensive shape.

Both Chelsea and Spurs had full backs capable of attacking and also tracking back and with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Spurs arguably had the better wing backs over Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso who were square pegs in round holes. With Walker and Rose injured often in the second half of the season, Chelsea’s wing-back duo took over.

[ MORE: How Chelsea won the PL title in September ]

Alonso covered for Hazard and Moses covered for Pedro and Chelsea looked balanced. Conte had found the right system by switching to default after a demoralizing loss away at Arsenal where he furiously slammed the table and demanded better. He got it.

Conte had used the 3-4-3 with Juventus and the Italian national team with fine results and like every great Italian designer, everybody is now copying him…


LONDON (THE SOUTH) CALLING

With all three north east clubs from this season relegated, the south dominated in the Premier League. For just the third time in PL history two London clubs sat in first and second place in Chelsea and Tottenham, but this is about much more than that.

For next season Newcastle are the only team guaranteed to be north of  Burnley and the PL will have a very southern feel.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brighton have been promoted, while if Reading beat Huddersfield Town in the playoff final at Wembley next Monday (May 29) then 10 of the PL’s 20 teams next season will be from the Greater London area or the south coast. That’s a huge shift when you think back to the days of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all in the PL.

Many believe the north-south divide in the PL is down to economics. Investors, particularly those from overseas, are picking clubs in southern England to pump their money into. Due to London being the main economic and transport hub of the UK, that makes sense. Reports surfacing that some northern teams are contemplating building training bases closer to London aren’t a joke.

[ MORE: A look behind-the-scenes at Spurs’ stunning new stadium

One of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez chose Liverpool over Arsenal was said to be the fact that the Gunners were in London. That happens more often than you think and plenty of PL players travel from London to teams in the Midlands and the far south each day for training just so they and their families can call London home.

These cycles do come in waves but it seems like for the foreseeable future that the power shift in the PL with be in London and the surrounding areas. Just watch out for it over the next couple of years.


GIANTS SEPARATE, BUT STUTTER

This was a season where the top six mostly got their act together as they easily pulled away from midtable.

However, plenty of giants stuttered there way to the top four and two of the biggest didn’t make it.

Arsenal’s late surge of seven wins from their final eight games wasn’t enough as they finished outside of the top four for the first time in 20 years under Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Premier League scoreboard ]  

Man United prioritized their Europa League final in the final weeks of the season (we will see how that works out when they face Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday) as Jose Mourinho gave up on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.

As for Man City and Liverpool, their defensive issues are there for all to see but they had enough in attack to get the job done and finish in the top four.

Spurs were the only challengers for Chelsea throughout the season but in truth the Blues never looked like relinquishing the title after their 13-game winning run. Even that wobble in April with a defeat away at Manchester United didn’t let Tottenham in.

Antonio Conte won the battle of the managers and in his first season in England he won his fourth-straight league title as a club manager. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty of work to do to justify their big-spending and egos. Both have flattered to deceive this season.

Wenger may not be around next season as Arsenal go through a huge transition and with no European action for Chelsea and Liverpool in 2016-17,  they’ll have to deal with new challenges in 2017-18.

The top four is far from settled but the top six looks likely to stay that way for a while with only Everton ever threatening to finish higher than seventh. The Toffees finished 15 points off the top four, which shows just how much the perennial powers of England have stretched away from the rest.


MIDTABLE BATTLEGROUND

At the end of the season there was just five points separating eighth place and 15th in the Premier League table.

The midtable battle was real.

With so many teams now established as Premier League clubs, all are investing wisely and many are seeing their expectation levels rise to try and finish in the top 10.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

That said, Southampton, who finished in eighth place, were just six points off Watford who finished one spot above the relegation zone. This season was a wake up call to the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea — who all flirted with relegation at times — that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

With Claudio Raneri fired less than 12 months after leading Leicester to the title, plus Saints’ Claude Puel under pressure, Palace sacking Alan Pardew and West Ham’s Slaven Bilic maybe on the way out, teams in the middle of the pack know they aren’t as comfortable as they have been.

Newcastle United and Brighton arrive from the Championship next season ready to spend big to stick around and the threat of relegation is very real to this cluster of midtable teams. The parity party is here.


RETURN OF THE TARGETMAN

Look at the top seven goalscorers in the Premier League…

  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 29 goals
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – 25 goals
  3. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – 24 goals
  4. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – 20 goals
  5. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – 20 goals
  6. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – 17 goals
  7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – 17 goals

The only outliers here are Sanchez, who can often play out wide but started the season through the middle, and Dele Alli who chipped in with a Frank Lampard-esque goal haul. If it wasn’t for his season-ending knee injury, Zlatan would have also reached 20 goals easily.

Among that list you have traditional center forwards at each club banging in the goals and that points to the way teams are setting up tactically.

The targetman has returned.

It may not be for good but the growing trend in the PL over the past few is to play with a three-man attack as two wide forwards create space for playmakers and forwards to link up. Spurs do it superbly well with Eriksen and Son pulling out and then Alli allowed to roam to link up with Kane.

An intriguing stat suggests that the days of hopeful efforts from distance may be numbered too, with a lowest ever rate of 11.6 percent of the 1064 goals scored from outside the box. Speaking of stats…


STATS OF THE SEASON

Here are some stats which summed up the season.


ABIDING MEMORIES OF 2016-17

Based here in England, I spend my time traveling to stadiums and training grounds to watch and/or talk to Premier League players and managers.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive

Over the course of the long nine month season there are always a couple of moments which stick out.

Here’s are the top five memories I will take away from this Premier League season, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, tweeting and asking me questions along the way.

We are all in this together. And we all love every single second of it. 81 days and counting until the 2017-18 season…

  • Arsenal 3-4 LiverpoolWhat a wonderful game. On the opening weekend of the season we witnessed one of the best matches of the entire season. Sadio Mane ripped Arsenal apart and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool destroyed Arsenal… only to let them back into the game with some shambolic defending. This match had it all and was an instant PL classic.
  • Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea – Dele Alli scored two headers on January 4 as Spurs beat Chelsea and the Blues’ winning run came to an end at a record-equaling 13. This was the moment when you felt like Spurs would kick on and win the title. In a frigid White Hart Lane the thermostat was cranked up plenty of notches as Tottenham rattled Chelsea early and Pochettino’s youngsters struck twice through Alli. You get the sense that more epic battles will come between these two teams, and managers, in the years to come.
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea – This was a true game-changer for Chelsea. Watching Antonio Conte furiously slam his fist on the table after that defeat in the press room, you just knew he would change things. In came the 3-4-3 formation and the rest is history. At the time it didn’t seem like a big moment, but for me that defeat was the moment of the season. It sparked Conte’s rebuild of Chelsea and got the players on board.

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