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Liverpool’s Joel Matip: “I have no doubt about our way of playing”

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LIVERPOOL — Joel Matip is often a busy man in the heart of Liverpool’s defense.

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Yet, he certainly doesn’t resemble someone who is usually frantically scrambling to keep out opposition forwards.

Ahead of schedule for our chat he was relaxed as he leaned back in his chair at Liverpool’s Melwood training center, occasionally scratching his chin.

Part of a Liverpool team brimming with attacking talents and packed with goals from Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, defense is often an afterthought for the Reds.

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After conceding sloppy goals against Watford and Burnley in the Premier League this season, plus a demolition at Manchester City, a draw against Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League group stage and a defeat at Leicester City in the League Cup in midweek, many armchair analysts and pundits are calling for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp to alter his high-pressing approach and set up his defense differently.

You won’t find Matip doing that.

Quite clearly Liverpool’s most consistent defender since he arrived in the Premier League last summer, Matip doesn’t believe he and his teammates need to change to a more defensive style to keep winning games.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Leicester City on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com) Matip was adamant that the players, both attackers and defenders, must stay true to themselves.

“Both parts only work together. I cannot stand at the back and our attackers go forward and there is so much big space. We all have to fit together. It is not always easy but this is our way of play but I think that is a good way of playing,” Matip said. “Everything has its positive and negative sides but I have no doubt about our way of playing.”

The 6-foot 5-inch center back arrived from Schalke on a free transfer last summer and has settled in impressively in his first 12 months in England, establishing himself as Liverpool’s first-choice center back.

His strong aerial ability and calmness to make key challenges and blocks around the box have particularly impressed.

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How does he assess their start to the season which sees them in eighth place in the Premier League after two wins, two draws and a defeat in their opening five games?

“We have had our good moments and also our not so good moments. We were punished for these and it was ruthless, the first few games, but we have to carry on,” Matip said. “I am not in doubt about the quality in our team and I am looking forward to the next game and I’m positive still.”

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That next game comes against Leicester, who beat Liverpool 2-0 to on Tuesday in the League Cup third round after Klopp made multiple changes to his starting lineup — including a rest for Matip and usual center back partner Dejan Lovren — and the Reds failed to take many clear cut chances (a reoccurring theme) in a first half they dominated.

Matip, a late injury concern ahead of the clash at the King Power Stadium, believes Liverpool can take plenty of positives from their defeat at Leicester earlier in the week.

“The game on Saturday will be a completely different game,” Matip said. “You cannot compare these two games. I think we did it very well in the first half [on Tuesday] and we will try to copy this, maybe with a bit more luck upfront, but we are in a good way if we score then keep a clean sheet and don’t concede many goals. I am looking forward to it and I think we can win.”

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Looking back at his first 12 months in England the German born defender, who represented Cameroon at international level from 2010-15, is enjoying life in the Premier League.

Smiling and laughing often as we chat at Melwood, the languid center back is in his full tracksuit and is getting ready for an afternoon training session ahead of the Leicester game.

“It was a long year but I enjoyed this year, with all the ups and downs. It is a pleasure and an honor to play for Liverpool in the Premier League,” Matip said. “I try to do my best and help all of my teammates and my teammates also help me, so we have to help each other. Everybody helps each other and that’s the only way to go.”

At Liverpool the weight of past success, particularly in Europe, often sits heavy with five European Cups in the trophy cabinet and the Reds now back in the Champions League for the first time since 2014.

Does extra pressure come from Liverpool’s illustrious history as the fans demand more success in Europe?

“I think pressure, that would not be right. There is an opportunity,” Matip said. “We worked hard for this opportunity. Pressure is the wrong word because Liverpool has this great past but we only try to do our best and use this opportunity and try to enjoy.”

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Special European nights at Anfield are something Matip clearly cherishes.

“They are tough games but everyone is happy we have the opportunity to play in the Champions League. Every football player wants to play in these games. It is always a special night [at Anfield] and always special to play against the biggest teams in Europe. These are special nights to play against these international teams and these are the nights when you are really small, what you dreamed of,” Matip added, smiling.

What has been the main difference of moving to the Premier League from the Bundesliga?

“Physically and sometimes the pace,” Matip said. “It’s going up and down, up and down. In Germany it is often a little more tactical I would say. It is not going down from the one goal to the other goal. That would be the main difference.”

Matip worked hard over the offseason to prepare his body for those differences and for his second grueling campaign in England.

He admitted he can improve in many areas and said it is “a pleasure” to work with Klopp who “tries to improve me every day” and is “enjoying” the experience of working for his countryman as he makes the necessary adjustments.

“For me it was really important to make the whole preparation. For me last season was not easy with all the injuries but injuries belong to football. You cannot always do something against that. I hope preparation will help me a lot to get a good fitness level but there are a lot of points to work hard on. I have to improve a lot of things. It would be better to list all the things I don’t have to improve!” Matip chuckled. “I don’t know things on this list. I have to improve at everything and get better to help the team.”

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In terms of how the team plays and how Klopp asked his defenders to defend, has Matip worked on positioning and other specifics since making the move to England?

“This depends on the way you play. When Klopp was a coach in Germany he also had his center backs to play in a similar ways. I would say psychically because you play against a striker who are really strong in the air and bring a lot of body weight into the game,” said Matip, laughing out loud. “Also the pace. If you go directly from offense to defense, offense to defense, that’s something different to get used to.”

Should Liverpool switch to a back three to give them extra numbers in central defense and in the central attacking areas?

“It is different but it is not all about the system. It is not always easy for us against deep, defending teams with many lads in the back,” Matip said. “Sometimes they manage really good but we are always trying and because of this, in the end, we will have the luck because we work really hard for this.”

Matip has always worked hard to reach the top but it certainly helped being from a soccer mad family as his father, Jean, was a footballer and his older brother, Marvin, still plays for Ingolstadt in Germany’s second-tier. His cousin is also Joseph-Desire Job, the former Middlesbrough striker, so soccer was always in his blood.

“My older brother was my biggest role model. He was a few years older and I always looked up to him. Our family growing up, there was a lot of football,” Matip smiled. “It is a pleasure but there was no pressure from my family. I could do anything I wanted and they always support me.”

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Matip’s parents are both qualified doctors and the German-born, Cameroon international gives thoughtful, insightful answers when considering questions.

He owes plenty to his education in both life and soccer via an esteemed academy at Schalke. He graduated from the now famous Gesamtschule Berger Feld school which has German internationals Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler, Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Howedes among their alumni.

“The school was not the only part. The work they did at Schalke at youth level, there was a brilliant coach at U-19, [Norbert] Elgert. Every former player if you call and ask about him would say he was a fantastic coach and is still a fantastic coach,” Matip said. “Everybody is really thankful for him and he did a great job with the connection with the school. Everything there was a good start for every football player.”

After leaving for a new experience and a new country Matip is settling into life in England’s north west. Last summer he moved away from home for the first time at the age of 25 and Matip is enjoying life on Merseyside. Even if he is yet to perfect his Scouse accent…

“I am still struggling with most of the dialect,” Matip laughed. “The language is not easy but you start talking and you are getting better and better. I am still fighting and when they use the Scouse accent I am always like ‘what!?’ I need one, two, three or maybe four tries to understand it but I am in a good way. Maybe it will take a while to understand the Scouse but I am still happy to be here.”

Always smiling, always peaceful, Matip is ready to continue leading Liverpool’s defense as they aim to win their first trophy in over five years.

“Of course, everyone wants to win trophies but this will not happen from one day to the other,” Matip said. “But we work hard to improve ourselves and achieve something.”

Klopp’s reliance on top CB pair nothing new, but a problem

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When Jurgen Klopp was hired at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, he did something right away that would set the stage for BVB’s run back into Bundesliga power.

Klopp brought defender Neven Subotic with him from Mainz, and took Mats Hummels on loan from Bayern Munich.

The 19-year-old Subotic played 38 times for BVB that season, and Hummels played well on way to a permanent transfer.

[ MORE: Klopp left fuming at defending ]

Largely, Klopp seemed to “set it and forget it” with his center backs from that point forward: No big summer buys, and neither Subotic nor Hummels was headed anywhere.

That didn’t change until 2013-14, when Klopp bought Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Werder Bremen, adding Matthias Ginter the next season.

Klopp left BVB after a disappointing 2014-15, taking the job at Liverpool in October 2015.

He didn’t do much in January, but agreed to terms with Schalke center back Joel Matip in February and landed Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg in the summer. The Reds already had bought Dejan Lovren from Southampton in the Summer of 2014, and Klopp seemed set.

[ MORE: League Cup Weds. wrap ]

Lovren improved a lot with Matip next to him, and Klavan made just 15 appearances for the Reds last season. The Reds went hard at Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk, but failed to get him for any number of reasons. Still, Klopp figured his quartet, including young Joe Gomez in a pinch, would be just fine this season.

And maybe they will be, but there are daunting signs for the Reds in the first couple months of the season. Klopp has used Matip in eight matches, tied for the most on the team with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He’s used Lovren six times, and Klavan four.

Liverpool’s record by CB pair (admittedly a tiny sample size):

Matip-Lovren: 3W-2D
Matip-Klavan: 1W-1D-1L
Gomez-Klavan: 1L (today)

The center backs, sans Matip and Lovren, especially hurt the Reds in the 2-0 loss to Leicester on Tuesday. All three moments of Leicester threat in this highlight package find either Klavan or Gomez cooked or out-of-place.

Look, a lot of teams are going to be hurt when using their second-choice CB pair, and many won’t be bothered by Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup. Furthermore, it’s not like anyone has been mistaking Lovren and Matip for Puyol and Pique.

But look at every English team in Europe, including the ones with far fewer defensive frailties heading into this summer than Liverpool.

Chelsea bought Antonio Rudiger.

Everton added Michael Keane.

Manchester United bought Victor Lindelof.

Spurs bought Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth.

Arsenal didn’t buy anyone besides Alexandre Lacazette, while Man City bought full backs and has received plenty of criticism for failing to add to its center back corps of Vincent Kompany, John Stones, and Eliaquim Mangala.

Liverpool? They sold Mamadou Sakho.

It’s problematic, yes, and it can’t be fixed until January. The question is whether Klopp sees a need to spend in the winter window. As illustrated above, he loves to ride his horses, even if Lovren and Matip aren’t quite Hummels and Subotic.

Think of what’s ailed Liverpool in recent seasons: Are some of those flops against lesser Premier League teams changed with more rest for their top pair or a better option for the mix?

Liverpool 1-1 Burnley: Clarets frustrate Reds

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  • Liverpool earn 1000th PL point
  • Arfield scores from Wood
  • Can cues up Salah for fifth

Canadian national teamer Scott Arfield put Burnley ahead, and a Mohamed Salah goal was all Liverpool could muster in a disappointing 1-1 Saturday draw with the Clarets at Anfield.

Liverpool sits seventh with eight points, while Burnley is sixth with a one-goal advantage in goal differential.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Liverpool was lively early, and Philippe Coutinho didn’t look bothered by his long lay off.

Salah came close to winning an 18th minute penalty off James Tarkowski, but the whistle did not arrive at Anfield.

Yet it was Burnley who went ahead, with Arfield running onto a Chris Wood flicked cross and hammering his shot past Simon Mignolet in the 28th minute. The defending was again primarily responsible for an opposition goal, with the center backs sucked to Wood.

The Reds were level through Salah within three minutes, as Emre Can opened the lid on Burnley’s back line and the Egyptian took the ball to his left before firing a low shot across his body and past Clarets’ backstop Nick Pope.

Would there be history for Burnley? The Clarets had not taken a point from Liverpool since returning to the PL.

Joel Matip saved a late chance from Burnley, and Mignolet made another stop.

Pope made a terrific save on Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Dominic Solanke cranked one off the bar from in-tight moments later.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

PL Playback: Mane’s red masks Liverpool’s real problems

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MANE RED MASKS LIVERPOOL ISSUES

Sadio Mane‘s red card in the 36th minute was the main talking point from Liverpool’s 5-0 defeat at Manchester City on Saturday.

It was a big moment but in no way should it have masked the bigger problem Liverpool have failed to address over the offseason: their defense.

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Jurgen Klopp was scathing after Mane’s red for a high challenge on Man City goalkeeper Ederson. Told to calm down on the sidelines by officials, perhaps Klopp was so incensed because he had seen his team go 1-0 down after a poor piece of defending, plus miss glorious chances via Mohamed Salah to compound Mane’s sending off.

[ MORE: Klopp vs. Guardiola antithesis

Speaking to the media afterward, Klopp stood up for Mane as Guardiola also believed it was an accident but that the action was dangerous.

“It was an accident. A very unlucky situation. I think everybody knows Sadio didn’t see the goalie. He just wanted to get the ball as soon as possible… and then it was a red card. We cannot change that anymore,” Klopp said. “Hopefully the goalie isn’t seriously injured. At the first moment when the people were on the pitch it looked like this, but after the game he was running around the dugout. Hopefully it was not too serious.”

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Ederson did not break anything but had some nasty cuts on his face and will be feeling the impact of that reckless challenge from Mane, which deserved a red, for quite some time.

Klopp was also asked if Liverpool would appeal against Mane’s three-game ban, and reports have since suggested they could do: “It would be another waste of time. Like the game today,” Klopp said.

Yet, the game wasn’t a complete waste of time.

We learnt an awful lot about Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies and the usually charismatic Klopp seem distracted as he mumbled through his answers in his post-game press conference.

He admitted it was far too easy for Man City’s midfielders, the brilliant David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in particular, to turn and hurt his defense but that he “will try, with the boys, to forget the result. Not the mistakes, but the result” as Liverpool were torn apart time and time again.

“We have four in defense and six in midfield and in these situations, yes, we could have done better. We could have done better with the ball in the second half. You don’t lose 5-0 when a lot of things are right. It is not that I am concerned in the long-term,” Klopp explained. “I think if City takes too much confidence from this game today it is a mistake, if we lose too much confidence from this game we will also make a mistake.”

Analyzing Liverpool’s defensive display before and after Mane was sent off will draw a similar conclusion: gaping holes. Not just among the defenders because that is an easy target. But in midfield, which player is the true holding midfielder to provide a shield? Jordan Henderson isn’t and Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum lack discipline defensively. Even club-record signing Naby Keita, who will arrive next summer, is a two-way player who chips in with goals and assists.

City’s balanced midfield of Fernandinho behind Silva and De Bruyne is what Liverpool should aim for if their extreme attacking side is going to challenge for trophies.

Liverpool’s young right back Trent Alexander-Arnold was targeted too easily and the center back duo of Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan (who was preferred to Dejan Lovren) didn’t know whether to step up or hold with Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus buzzing around them. Every time City put the ball in the box it looked like they would score and they had two more goals ruled out for offside. Yes, Liverpool aren’t a team who are ever going to set back but when you’re 2-0 down at Man City at half time and a man down, surely Klopp didn’t expect the defensive capitulation he witnessed.

Even if Mane hadn’t been sent off, it would be tough for Man City not to have won that game.

Liverpool went all-in on center back Virgil Van Dijk this summer and they didn’t get their man. They didn’t seem to have a Plan B about strengthening their defense, which is undoubtedly their Achilles heel. Until they defend better, they will not win the title or challenge in Europe. Simple.

Klopp tried to mask the issues with Mane’s red card but you felt that, like Liverpool’s defensive display, it was halfhearted.

“After the international break, one man down, young players on the pitch in different positions. It was hard for the boys, I know, but we don’t look for excuses. It [the red card] changed the game today, we know it,” Klopp said. “What would have happened if we played 11v11? But I don’t have the chance to watch this game.”


DE BOER UNLUCKY

Quite why Crystal Palace hired Frank De Boer in the first place is mind-boggling.

It is admirable that for the second time in 12 months Steve Parish and Palace’s U.S. owners Josh Harris and David Blizter want to change the playing style of the south London club to an attractive, possession-based side, but now on both occasions it has failed. Miserably.

Palace now have to be brave and stick with what they want to be. Substance over style is okay. If you’re going to do it, just own it. And give it longer than four games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Frank de Boer was nothing more than a victim of Palace’s ongoing identity crisis. They have now replaced Alan Pardew‘s experiment with a more attacking side with the pragmatism of Sam Allardyce and after the de Boer experiment went horribly wrong they are reportedly going back to basics with Roy Hodgson lined up to take charge as a horror run of games is on the horizon with Man City, Man United and Chelsea all in their next four PL games.

Sacked just four Premier League games into the season, FDB lasted 77 days and set a new record for the fewest PL games managed by a permanent boss. This comes after his disastrous 85-day spell in charge of Inter Milan last season as the Dutchman will do well to rebuild his coaching reputation following his four-straight Dutch titles with Ajax.

He was given some funds to strengthen and loanees Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah looked okay, but Mamadou Sakho never played due to injury and Jairo Riedewald also suffered on the sidelines. The players are partly to blame, particularly with their poor finishing and shambolic defending, but without a complete squad overhaul these systematic changes were doomed from the start.

This squad flourished under the direct approach of Allardyce last season and was now expected to play expansive, flowing soccer from the back.

Yet, this isn’t really about de Boer. Sure, he wanted to bring his expansive style of soccer to Selhurst Park, but that’s what Parish and others wanted too. And although you could accuse Palace of making horrendous defensive mistakes as they tried to keep the ball, they mixed it up and played long balls and got in crosses against both Liverpool and Burnley where they could have picked up points.

But they didn’t and they lost all four opening games without scoring a goal and the killer-blow was that three of those defeats came against Huddersfield, Swansea and Burnley who are all likely to be relegation rivals.

With 54 points from their last 63 games, Palace have racked up the second-lowest points total out of the 92 professional teams in England in that period. They have been scrapping away and fighting with themselves for so long now. Do they try to create a different identity or do they play it safe and aim for 40 points each PL season? The financial implications of relegation, plus the impending arrival of Hodgson, suggest the latter.

This is no longer de Boer’s problem to sort out.


DE BRUYNE OTHER-WORLDLY

Kevin de Bruyne provided two wonderful assists for Manchester City on Saturday in their demolition of Liverpool and the Belgian wizard finally seems to have found his spot in the team.

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Under Pep Guardiola last season he was played in a deeper role and he flourished, grabbing 18 assists in the Premier League (more than any other player)

This season he is again lining up centrally rather than out wide and it giving City extra balance to their play with a 3-5-2 system allowing Jesus and Aguero to start up top, plus wing backs Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to bomb forward.

De Bruyne, 26, spoke to the media in the tunnel area at the Etihad Stadium with a smile on his face as he discussed his match-winning display like it was a kickaround with his mates in the schoolyard.

“I just do whatever I need to do. I’d prefer to get zero goals and zero assists and win the league. Obviously it is a little bit different. I will try to do my thing and the coach is very happy with the way I am playing since the beginning of the season. I feel sharp. It always depends, but think where I am playing right now is the position which is best for me. Obviously every game is a little bit different, higher, lower, but it is small margins.”

Those small margins are what Guardiola and City are all about and De Bruyne believes they are hungrier than ever to win silverware this season after a barren spell in Pep’s first campaign.

“Everybody wants to win,” De Bruyne explained. “Obviously we have a couple of years where we don’t win a lot so there’s maybe more urgency to win something between the players. I have a good feeling about this season but you never know. We started well.”

And if those trophies arrive with him playing in a deeper role and not scoring as many goals?

“If it happens, it happens. If we win at the end of the season you will see a very happy Kevin.”


USMNT UPDATE: CAMERON OUT; EPB ON THE WAY?

Couple of U.S. national team notes to catch up on from around the Premier League.

Pro Soccer Talk understands Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron will be out for up to two weeks after injuring his hamstring just before half time in the Potters’ 2-2 draw against Manchester United.

Cameron, 32, started at center back but hobbled off after pulling up as he tracked back Romelu Lukaku. The experienced defender will now face a race against time to get back to full fitness before the USMNT’s final two World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago with a trip to the 2018 tournament in Russia on the line.

A younger USMNT center back has also been in the news with reports stating that Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Palmer-Brown will join Manchester City.

EPB, 20, has been a star for the U.S. youth national teams and his coach as SKC, Peter Vermes, has confirmed he will move on at the end of the 2017 MLS season when his contract expires.

Pro Soccer Talk understand there is interest from Man City and that any deal will be sealed for him to join at the start of 2018. A versatile defender who can also play in midfield, EPB will likely join City’s development squad and then be loaned out.


INTRIGUING GOLDEN-BOOT RACE

We are only four weeks into the Premier League season but the Golden Boot race already seems like an intriguing one.

Harry Kane, the reigning two-time top scorer in the PL, is off the mark (because it is September) with two goals, while he has a little catching up to do as Romelu Lukaku has four goals, while Alvaro Morata and Gabriel Jesus have three goals each.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

There’s no doubt Sergio Aguero and Alexandre Lacazette (both on two goals) will also be up there all season long, but this could well be a three-horse race between Kane, Lukaku and Morata.

All three are the main-men up top for their teams and will likely start every single game. They are also very similar players who are comfortable with scoring in the air, holding the ball up and able to score all kinds of goals.

Let the best man win. And by win, I mean score a bucket load of goals.


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

Premier League releases 25-man squads for 2017-2018 season

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With the close of the transfer window, Premier League rosters are now set for the season.

On Friday evening, after teams submitted their squads, the Premier League released each team’s 25-man squads for the current season.

There are some notable omissions. Arsenal left out Santi Cazorla, who continues to recover from an achillies injury while Chelsea left Abdul Baba Rahman off its list. However, Diego Costa was included on Chelsea’s roster despite the Spanish international’s attempts to force a move away. Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk and Everton’s Ross Barkley made their club’s squads as well.

There are six Americans currently registered for the upcoming season. Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron, Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin and Huddersfield Town’s Danny Williams are registered as senior squad members. Bournemouth’s Emerson Hyndman, Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem and Chelsea’s Kyle Scott are registered as Under-21 players, while Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, on loan at Sheffield United for the season, is also registered as an Under-21 player.

 

Per Premier League rules, no more than 17 players who don’t fulfill the league’s “home grown” requirements can be registered. A home grown player is someone who has been registered by the FA or the Welsh FA for three years before the age of 21.

Under-21 players, those born after January 1, 1996, are eligible to play in the Premier League this season without being registered. Teams can update and change their squads

Here’s a look at the 2017-2018 Premier League squads:

(more…)