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

Griezmann: “No regrets” rejecting Man United move in summer

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After flirting with the idea of moving to Manchester last summer, Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann is in one of the worst goal-scoring droughts in his career.

It’s been seven games since he last scored and with just three goals total, it’s been an underwhelming season so far for the Frenchman. But Griezmann doesn’t regret turning down the chance to join Manchester United last summer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“I don’t regret staying at Atleti,” Griezmann told French TV program Telefoot. “It was my decision and I’m happy with what I chose to do – even if I have gone seven games without scoring”.

Griezmann was booed off the pitch in Atleti’s scoreless draw with city rivals Real Madrid, as both clubs dropped to 10 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona in the standings. There have been rumors swirling that Griezmann could even leave Atletico in January, with Diego Costa set to join the club.

On his game, with good service from midfield, Griezmann is one of the best attackers on the planet. But with Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and more, Manchester United already has the firepower to compete with the top of the Premier League

LIVE, UCL: Liverpool, Man City in action; Dortmund-Tottenham

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Three Premier League teams are in UEFA Champions League action on Tuesday with Liverpool knowing a win at Sevilla will see them qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since 2009.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ] 

Jurgen Klopp‘s side head to Spain in good form after three consecutive wins in the Premier League and are in a very healthy position in Group E.

Tottenham Hotspur head to Borussia Dortmund with Spurs’ place in the last 16 already secured and Dortmund (Christian Pulisic is out of the squad with an injury) needing a win to keep their faint hopes of reaching the knockout stage alive with Real Madrid heading to APOEL Nicosia in Group H.

Manchester City have also secured their spot in the last 16 and host Feyenoord in Group F. The Dutch side have lost all four of their UCL games so far this season but have taken a huge number of traveling fans to Manchester and they can still qualify for the Europa League via finishing in third spot ahead of Shaktar Donetsk.

Elsewhere Monaco host RB Leipzig in a pivotal clash in Group G.

Click on the link above to follow commentary on all the action, while below is the full schedule as we will have reaction and analysis on all the UCL action on Tuesday.

All games kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET, unless otherwise stated.


Tuesday’s UCL schedule

Group E
Spartak Moscow 1-1 Maribor – FT
Sevilla vs. Liverpool

Group F
Manchester City vs. Feyenoord
Napoli vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

Group G
Monaco vs. RB Leipzig
Besiktas 1-1 FC Porto – FT

Group H
Borussia Dortmund vs. Tottenham Hotspur
APOEL vs. Real Madrid

FIFA bans 3 soccer officials for life for taking bribes

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GENEVA (AP) Three soccer officials who pleaded guilty in American courts to accepting bribes were banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee on Tuesday.

They include former FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai of Guam, who testified in federal court that the source of his bribe money was Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

“His guilty plea related, amongst others, to schemes in which he received bribes in exchange for his support in relation to the FIFA presidential elections and to gain control and influence within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA,” the soccer body said Tuesday in a statement.

Sheikh Ahmad referred his own case to the ethics committees of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in April after Lai’s guilty plea was revealed. The Kuwaiti royal also withdrew from an election to retain his seat representing Asia on the FIFA Council.

Two former soccer federation presidents, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, were also banned for life Tuesday. They were arrested in Zurich in May 2015 in early morning raids on luxury hotels and later extradited to the United States.

FIFA said its ethics judges imposed “appropriate fines in relation to the amounts of the bribes that they have admitted having taken.”

Lai has agreed to pay “more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in April.

In court, the American citizen pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking about $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

Esquivel agreed to forfeit $16 million a year ago when he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy linked to the awarding of contracts for the media and marketing rights.

Esquivel’s name was cited Monday in Brooklyn during testimony in the trial of three other South American soccer officials who deny corruption charges.

One witness who formerly worked for a marketing agency in Argentina said he kept a ledger of payments to officials, including a $750,000 payment to Esquivel for “Q2022.” Prosecutors did not specify if the payment was linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Rocha was a FIFA staffer and was working for its development department when he was arrested in 2015. He agreed to forfeit nearly $300,000 after admitting to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges last December.

PL Playback: Pogba the key for Man United

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POGBACK

Paul Pogba‘s snake hips goal celebration had been dearly missed by Manchester United’s fans.

So too had his marauding runs from midfield since he injured his hamstring in early September. Jose Mourinho had previously said United were a totally different team without Pogba and his display in the 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday proved it.

Speaking to MUTV after the game, Pogba shared his belief that if all of United’s players stay fit they can challenge Manchester City for the title.

“The season is really long so we have to be fit – not only me but all the players,” Pogba said. “To win the league we need all our players. When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team. Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Even if he didn’t jinx past Newcastle’s defense to clip in a wonderful cross for Anthony Martial to head home United’s first, or then make a 60-yard sprint to get on the end of Marcus Rashford‘s knockdown to make it 3-1, Pogba’s presence was felt.

His return gave United’s entire squad, and fanbase, a lift and everything is set up rather nicely for him to battle it out with Kevin De Bruyne in the Manchester derby on Dec. 10 at Old Trafford.

With Pogba this season United have played five games, winning four and drawing one.

Without Pogba United have played seven, won four, lost twice and drawn once in the Premier League.

His influence on this team is key to the way it has been assembled by Mourinho and his power, all-action displays and strong character get the best out of those around him. Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku tick because Pogba is linking the midfield and attack effortlessly with his energetic displays. Over the past two months there’s been a main reason why Lukaku had done seven games without scoring for United before last weekend: Pogba.

Pogba’s comments about United pushing City for the title if they stay fit appear misguided but if he stays fit then there’s no doubt United are the best version of themselves.


INFURIATING ARSENAL

When they play like they did on Saturday, the only team Arsenal will finish below this season will be Manchester City.

Seriously.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned from the North London derby ]

The Gunners destroyed Tottenham Hotspur with a ruthless display in the first half as Mesut Ozil unlocked Spurs’ midfield and defense, Alexis Sanchez ran them ragged and Alexandre Lacazette played on the last shoulder of Tottenham’s disheveled defense.

Arsene Wenger was rewarded for a bold, attack-minded team selection and with Shkodran Mustafi back fit he now has his first-choice starting lineup at his disposal. If the Gunners stay fit, they can make real charge up the Premier League table in the coming weeks with a bunch of winnable games.

In four of their next five Premier League games they should beat Huddersfield, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle, with the big tests at home against Man United (Dec. 2) and Liverpool (Dec. 22) showing just how far they’ve come so far this season.

The Emirates, so often the site of protests and fan unrest in previous seasons, is become a fortress for Arsenal who have now won 11 PL games there on the spin, their best-ever run of consecutive wins at the stadium.

Between now and Dec. 22 we will get a very good idea as to what way this season will go for Arsenal.

If Wenger’s players stay fit and he remains positive in his team selection, the Gunners could be rewarded with not only a place back in the top four but much more.


WEST BROM’S GAMBLE

Tony Pulis is the man you want in a relegation battle. So, why did West Bromwich Albion sack him?

A run of two wins in 21 Premier League games sealed Pulis’ fate but what exactly did West Brom’s owners expect would happen?

Pulis’ short-term bump from taking over in January 1 2015 wore off midway through last season and his methods, although lauded by many for preserving his proud record of never being relegation from the Premier League, wear players down over time. Even the wily old crew he had assembled at West Brom (they had the oldest average starting XI in the PL) couldn’t cope with it anymore.

[ MORE: Baggies sack Tony Pulis. but what next? ]

The old adage “losing the dressing room” is frowned upon by folks in the industry but it is clear that’s what happened here. Players believe they are better than perhaps they are, most of the time, and get sick and tired of being told to just clip the ball long, stay compact and try to score from set pieces. Most of Pulis’ training session focus on team shape and denying the opposition the ball. Having the ball is an afterthought. That’s too much for some to handle day in, day out.

And we all know, despite the Baggies being a solid midtable club for seven years in the PL now, that getting rid of one manager is much easier than a squad of players.

Getting rid of Pulis was the only available option.

Yet, after a summer where they did some great business to bring in Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kieran Gibbs, Ahmed Hegazi and Jay Rodriguez, things seemed to be on the up. Yet that recruitment and losing the likes of Darren Fletcher caused issues in the squad balance and Pulis all of a sudden had too many newbies on board who either took too much time to get used to his methods or didn’t want to adjust their game to do so.

All in all, West Brom are now left with very few options to replace Pulis other than appointing someone extremely similar to him. Sam Allardyce is from the area (a boyhood Wolves fan, West Brom’s bitter rivals) is the bookmakers favorite and he would seem to be the perfect firefighter against a Premier League relegation battle.

But, like many PL clubs who have sacked their managers so far this season (hello, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham) or are contemplating it (Swansea, Southampton and maybe Stoke) the alternatives to their current boss aren’t plentiful. Keeping hold of Pulis was no longer an option West Brom had but, over time, it may seem like the correct one.


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