Playback: Moving time, excuses and expectations

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EXCUSES, EXCUSES

Now is the time of the season when expectations begin to dwindle or grow depending on how the first 11 games went.

Almost a third of the way into the 2017-18 campaign, the Premier League table is taking shape.

That means it’s ready to get out your “Premier League excuses” bingo card. You will likely have heard more than one of the following this past weekend:

  • Injuries are taking their toll
  • We didn’t get what we deserved
  • Squad rotation played a part
  • Refereeing decisions cost us 
  • We were unlucky 

Like clockwork both Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger marked their bingo cards earlier than most with Mourinho blaming a plethora of injuries after Manchester United’s defeat at Chelsea.

“Of course we missed some important players, especially the quality and physicality of some of them that couldn’t be available,” Mourinho said, before adding his side “deserved more” and that this is “not about what is fair and isn’t fair.”

Wenger took a shot at the referees, league-wide, after Arsenal’s defeat at Manchester City which saw Raheem Sterling awarded a penalty kick and Gabriel Jesus‘ goal which should’ve been ruled out for offside.

“Overall once again the referee made the decision today,” Wenger fumed. “It was a soft penalty and an offside goal but we are used to it when you come here. Last year we had two offsides goals against us. The referees don’t work enough and the level drops every season. Overall it’s unacceptable what happens.”

With pressure mounting as preseason expectations dwindle for plenty of the big boys as Manchester City race clear atop the table, what else did you expect?

Mourinho, Wenger et al. are old hands at this game but the new boys were at it too.

Mauricio Pellegrino is struggling to impact Southampton’s style of play as they lost at home to Burnley and now face a ridiculously tough run of games with just 13 points on the board from their first 11 games. He and his players talked about a lack of luck and another gem which we will start to see appear is players “not gelling” as a unit.

Call me cynical, but the only managers or players we won’t be hearing excuses from is that that are overachieving. Anyone connected with Manchester City, Burnley, Brighton, Huddersfield and possibly Tottenham, will not be spewing out excuses anytime soon.

As for the rest? Well, it’s that time of year when the pressure builds and there are no easy answers to failing to live up to the preseason hype. The easiest answer of all is to roll out one of the antiquated excuses listed above.


BILIC OUT AS MOVING TIME ARRIVES

Premier League chairman and boards are known to be the most ruthless in the game, but this season has been something else.

After 11 games last season just one manager had lost his job: Francesco Guidolin at Swansea City. Only five more managerial changes arrived during the entire season, with Bob Bradley replaced by Paul Clement at Swansea, Sam Allardyce replacing Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace, Marco Silva arriving at Hull City, Aitor Karanka ousted at Middlesbrough and Claudio Ranieri replaced by Craig Shakespeare at Leicester City.

Slaven Bilic lost his job on Monday at West Ham on Monday, becoming the fourth manager to do so already this season after Frank De Boer was sacked by Crystal Palace after four games, Craig Shakespeare was given just eight games by Leicester and Ronald Koeman was out after nine games at Everton.

Yet Bilic and Koeman losing their jobs at aspirational clubs in West Ham and Everton, who both spent big this summer, shows the root of the problem: the board has no back up plan. David Moyes has arrived at the Hammers and Sam Allardyce is said to be closing in on getting the job at Goodison on a short-term basis.

Player power played its part in the sacking of all four and in Bilic’s case rumblings of a severe lack of respect from senior first team players is tough to hear. Bilic’s time was up, he admitted it himself, but he deserved better treatment from his senior pros due to his commitment to the Hammers both as a player and a manager. History will be kind to him because of that, even if the move to London Stadium and losing Dimitri Payet wasn’t.

So, why are managers being fired so quickly this season?

One can only assume that the success of the newly-promoted teams is having a huge impact on the established PL clubs who are starting to realize that Brighton & Hove Albion, Huddersfield and Newcastle all being inside the top 11 is no fluke. They’re stable, solid and mean business in the top-flight and all of a sudden the assumption that one or two of the new boys will go straight back down is incorrect.

Panic is a word oft used to describe the actions of PL chairman and decision makers. It’s apt right now.

Who’s next?

The ongoing situation at Chelsea (long-time Technical Director Michael Emenalo left abruptly on Monday) could cause Antonio Conte‘s future to be plunged into further doubt, while Tony Pulis is under pressure at West Brom after just two wins in their last 20 PL games and Clement is under pressure at Swansea following five defeats in their last six outings.

We could very well see half the managers who started the Premier League season replaced by the end of the campaign.

With huge financial gains for being a PL club, the stakes are high and the directors are panicking, perhaps unlike ever before. That’s quite a feat.


MANCHESTER CITY UNSTOPPABLE?

They’ve made the best start in Premier League history after 11 games and right now Pep Guardiola‘s men look unstoppable.

Winning 10 of their opening 11 games, which have included victories against Chelsea, Liverpool and now Arsenal, Man City already have an eight-point lead atop the table and a record goal differential of +31.

The way they toyed with Arsenal was unfair, at times, on Sunday. Their fluid passing, total domination in the final third and ability to have midfielders continually arriving in the box saw Arsenal pinned back. Like everybody else who has faced City this season, they couldn’t cope.

City have scored 52 goals this season after 17 games in all competitions, which is a record for any PL club, and this is exactly why Guardiola arrived at Man City.

We’ve seen this before from City, not on this scale, but a fast start to the season where they looked impenetrable has faltered right around this period in seasons gone by.

The difference this season is they’ve already qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, meaning they can rest key players between now and the busy festive period. The difference is the sheer squad depth they have despite injuries to Benjamin Mendy and Vincent Kompany.

The fact that Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus were rolled out late on against Arsenal, with Yaya Toure, Danilo and Claudio Bravo unused subs, says it all.

Guardiola has, of course, been backed significantly in the transfer market but he’s not only spending cash like it’s going out of fashion, he’s improving every single player City has.

Look at Kevin De Bruyne and his weekly bouts of magic from central midfield. John Stones‘ growing composure in central defense. Raheem Sterling finally adding an end product to his game. Sergio Aguero’s rejuvenation. The examples go on and on.

Man City face Leicester, Huddersfield, West Ham and Southampton in their next four games in the Premier League. They are expected to win all four and by the time the first Manchester derby of the season arrives at Old Trafford on Dec. 9, United’s fans are surely already shuddering when thinking about just how many points City will be ahead of United, and the rest of the Premier League, by that point.

At this rate it is very plausible that City can go the entire season unbeaten and become one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen.

Spending over $200 million each summer will help you do that but Guardiola has now had over 12 months in England and he’s experience has added that X-factor which was missing for the middle part of last season.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Premier League preview: Man United vs. Newcastle United

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  • Red Devils unbeaten in 31 of last 32 home fixtures vs. Newcastle
  • Newcastle winless in its last six PL matches
  • Lukaku hasn’t scored in United’s last seven games

Manchester United hosts Newcastle United on Saturday from Old Trafford (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) as the Red Devils could potentially welcome back several of it biggest stars for the match.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo could return for Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend, as Man United looks to bounce back from its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Nov. 5.

The ex-Sweden international Ibrahimovic hasn’t appeared in a match since April 2017, after being United’s top goalscorer a season ago.

The Red Devils will have to deal with the absence of Phil Jones at the back, though, as the England international misses out on the match with a thigh injury.

Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles, which certainly hurts the squad’s attack, while Mikel Merino and Paul Dummett remain sidelined with respective injuries.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho, on Paul Pogba’s status:  “I can say now because he’s back – I don’t like to speak while he’s injured – you can clearly see there is a Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. There are qualities in our football, qualities that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. Simple as that.”

Rafa Benitez, on growing pains of being a young side“We are a newly-promoted club that has to settle down in the Premier League. We have a young squad, so it’s a learning process for everyone and losing some games is part of the process. Hopefully we can stop that this weekend, but we know it has to be like this. We have to think that the target is to stay in the Premier League, then after try to go as high as we can in the table.”

Prediction

Newcastle has had its share of struggles this season, and running into a Man United side that is gaining full fitness is a dangerous task. The Red Devils are a tough squad to beat at home, so Rafa Benitez and Co. have their hands full. Man United 2-0 Newcastle

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32