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

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

Photo credit: NYCFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.