Zlatan Ibrahimovic

PL Playback: One from six; who are the title favorites?

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MINI-LEAGUES EMERGING

We saw yet another weekend of dominance for the big boys in the Premier League (except for Manchester City) and the gap is growing bigger between the top six and the rest of the league.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Throughout the entire league there are now three “mini-leagues” which are taking shape in a six-eight-six formation.

Here’s a look at what I’m talking about…

  1. Chelsea – 52 points
  2. Tottenham – 45
  3. Liverpool – 45
  4. Arsenal – 44
  5. Man City – 42
  6. Man United – 40
  7. Everton – 33
  8. West Brom – 29 
  9. Stoke – 27
  10. Burnley- 26
  11. Bournemouth – 25
  12. West Ham – 25
  13. Southampton – 24
  14. Watford – 23
  15. Leicester City – 21
  16. Middlesbrough – 20
  17. Crystal Palace – 16
  18. Hull City – 16
  19. Sunderland – 15
  20. Swansea City – 15

The top six will, obviously, get plenty of the focus from here on out.

Apart from Chelsea still feeding off that incredible 13-game win streak there is little to separate the rest with just five points between second-place Tottenham and sixth-place Manchester United. The middle eight teams are all having “meh” seasons, apart from Burnley who are overachieving, while the bottom six all look destined for a relegation scrap in the closing four months of the campaign with Leicester City struggling to claw themselves away from danger.

This season it seems like the overachieving and underachieving is at a minimum. Things are almost back to normal, especially with the perennial powers, after the madness of the 2015-16 campaign.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Yes, the title battle will be intense as Chelsea will, inevitably, drop points along the way and Diego Costa‘s situation has given their title rivals a boost. However, the more intriguing factor could be which two teams miss out on the top four and qualification for the UEFA Champions League.

If Man City’s struggles continue and Pep Guardiola misses out, or if Jose Mourinho and Manchester United don’t push into the top four in the coming months, then those will be huge stories. Yet, it is tough to see any of the current top six dropping many points between now and the end of the season.

It will be a long, hard slog and with UEFA Champions League and Europa League action to kick off next month, along with FA Cup action for all of the top six, the games will come thick and fast.

Who can handle all of this and stay in the hunt?


Chelsea
Position: 1st
Points: 52
Biggest strength: No European action to contend with, 3-4-3 and a strong defensive unit. Antonio Conte has been here before with Juventus and has been influential in their rise to the top.
Biggest weakness: Temperamental stars (I’m looking at you Diego Costa) could go missing either figuratively or literally at any moment. Chelsea need to add a new striker in January to stop that from curtailing their title bid.

Tottenham Hotspur
Position: 2nd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: Harry Kane and Dele Alli are on another level right now but when you look across Spurs’ team, everyone is hitting form at the right time. Walker and Rose at wing-back is a great option to. This team has learned from their title challenge faltering last season and they are without doubt the biggest threat to Chelsea right now.
Biggest weakness: Europa League and injuries. Mauricio Pochettino has said he will go for Europa League success but if injuries start cropping up (Vertonghen could be out long-term) then he will change his mind.

Liverpool
Position: 3rd
Points: 45
Biggest strength: No European action. Plus, Philippe Coutinho has been out injured for almost two months and now looks ready to roll and re-energized. The front four have been so good all season.
Biggest weakness: Fatigue. Even with no added European action, EFL Cup and FA Cup games in recent weeks have shown Klopp’s methods could be too much. Remember how much Liverpool tired last season?

Arsenal
Position: 4th
Points: 44
Biggest strength: Endless talent in attack with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and even Olivier Giroud now in top form. Skhodran Mustafi has been a huge boost in defense too.
Biggest weakness: Being Arsenal. Logic suggests that a slump is coming up in the second half of the season. Just because, Arsenal. Across the board there are few weaknesses though.

Manchester City
Position: 5th
Points: 42
Biggest strength: Star-studded attackers who can get them out of any mess. It is now time for Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to turn up. Massive numbers in his squad also helps.
Biggest weakness: Defense. Claudio Bravo has had a nightmare in goal and City’s defense has been far from inspiring as Pep’s masterplan has stalled significantly. Bravo’s struggles has in-turn led to John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and others crumbling. Pep will never change his philosophy and the way he wants to play. That could mean City pay a big price and finish outside the top four unless they improve drastically in defense.

Manchester United
Position: 6th
Points: 40
Biggest strength: Superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, plus Mourinho’s experience at grinding out wins.
Biggest weakness: Not finishing teams off and, again, the Europa League. Mourinho has and will continue to cut some deadwood from his squad. That means he will use plenty of the same players for EFL Cup, FA Cup and Europa League games. Can he balance this out to help United get right back in the top four mix? A title push seems out of the question now as they’re 10 points, but with nine wins on the spin in all competitions before the last game against Liverpool, they are in form and arguably have a better chance than Man City of overhauling that deficit.


KLOPP NOT CORRECT TO CALL OUT LONG BALL

Following Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp took exception to United’s direct approach in the final 20 minutes of the game.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned on United vs. Liverpool ]

Let’s call it what it was. Mourinho went direct for the entire second half. Eventually it paid off when substitute Marouane Fellaini hit the post with a header and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stooped to head home the equalizer in the 84th minute, even if Antonio Valencia was slightly offside when the initial cross came in.

[ MORE: Player ratings – United vs. Liverpool ]

Klopp looked agitated, frustrated and annoyed afterwards as he told multiple news outlets that Liverpool “were the better team who had the better plan” plus kept slamming United for using long balls late on. He was probably also still smarting a little over the Joel Matip situation as he could be out for another month and Liverpool missed him once again at the heart of their defense. Matip’s height would’ve helped Klopp significantly with United’s direct approach late in the game.

[ MORE: Klopp slams “long ball” United ]

Klopp won the tactical battle to start with as Liverpool lined up with a diamond formation in midfield and nullified the impact of Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba, but Mourinho changed things up and went direct, not allowing Liverpool’s high-press to catch out his defenders as they bypassed midfield. Mourinho did what he had to do to get a draw, just like he did at Anfield.

United actually played 89 long balls against Liverpool, more than any other team in any PL games in Week 21. Guess what? It worked. It wasn’t the best United will ever play but they now look much harder to beat even if Paul Pogba had a nightmare and their front three were largely kept quiet.

After the draw, Klopp was most likely just trying to make a point that although his side have not won any of their last four games in all competitions, they should still be admired. They should. The progress Liverpool has made under him in just over a year has been huge but United and Mourinho reminded him that there is more ways to score goals and get points than relying on Gegenpressing.

Zlatan summed it up best when describing how United got back into the game as a big derby ended honors even and both managers were upset with dropping points as Chelsea’s gap at the top grew.


WHAT NOW FOR GUARDIOLA?

Pep Guardiola has all but given up hope of winning the Premier League title in his first season in England.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Guardiola, 45, looked 10 years older when speaking post-game at Everton on Sunday as his side were hammered 4-0 by the Toffees in an inept display which showcased all of their weaknesses.

The much-lauded coach was supposed to turn City into not only the champions of England but also Europe. It’s not going to plan, at all, and especially in defense.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

After he suffered his worst-ever league defeat as a manager, plus City’s heaviest league defeat since 2008, Pep was asked if their title bid was over.

“Yes. Ten is a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “The second one [Tottenham] is three points. We have to see. I spoke to my players the last three weeks or a month, forget about the table. Focus on the next game and try to do our best to win the games and after that at the end of the season we are going to evaluate how our level and performance was — how was the coach, how was the players and after we are going to decide.”

Although it may seem like too early for City — don’t forget, they were the preseason favorites who won their first 10 games in all competitions under Pep to start the season — to concede the title, it is perhaps telling that Guardiola is already looking resigned to just challenging for the top four.

He knows that if he stays with his passing philosophy out of the back that his team will be susceptible to fast, strong, counter-attacking teams like Everton. There are plenty of teams who deploy those tactics in the PL — Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester to name a few — and have had great success doing it against City. Guardiola will never play like that and his style is something which led Barcelona and Bayern Munich to glory and often eviscerating English teams in the Champions League.

Guardiola’s team isn’t eviscerating anyone on a weekly basis in the PL right now. Right now, it’s the other way round.

When it clicks their style of play looks beautiful but City is too inconsistent and as soon as they go a goal behind they are lacking in confidence and crumble. Make no mistake about it, this is Pep’s biggest challenge of his managerial career but a country mile. He knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He knows he doesn’t possess the players, in defense at least, to carry out his style and he can’t do too much about it. He will never change his ideals no matter the intense criticism coming his way.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

Right now, many would say he’s failing in the PL and at City. Big time. Yet, let’s give him until the end of the season because an appearance in the UCL semifinals and a runners up spot really wouldn’t be too disastrous. Yet with defending like this and Bravo conceding almost every shot which goes on target right now, those targets seem rather lofty and a long way off for this talented yet tainted City outfit.


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.

VIDEO: Zlatan Ibrahimovic pitchside describes draw with Liverpool

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has seen plenty during his European career, but this season is his first foray into the rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool.

The Swede joined Arlo White, Danny Higginbotham, and Graeme Le Saux pitchside following Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool. Ibrahimovic scored the equalizer in the 84th minute with a brilliant looping header. He chatted with the NBC crew about his goal, describing how he managed to get down low to complete the header.

[ MORE: Recap from Manchester United’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool ]

The high pressing of Liverpool also caused the game to degrade in quality, Zlatan said, keeping United from holding possession nearly as much.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

Zlatan also discussed his career on a number of fronts. He chatted with Danny about how the Premier League stacks up against other leagues he’s played in, saying it’s easily the most visible of the others he’s scored goals in. Danny also asked Zlatan about comments made by Carlo Ancelotti that Zlatan enjoys assists just as much as goals, and Ibrahimovic said that’s been his aim since he was a young player.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Finally, Arlo asked Zlatan if Manchester United was still in the title race, and Zlatan said they are, citing the gap between 2nd and 6th as just five points. He also said that Chelsea does hold an advantage since they are not playing in European football.

Klopp slams “long ball” Man United, says “we had a better plan”

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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp wasn’t best pleased with only getting a point at Old Trafford against rivals Manchester United on Sunday.

That shows progress.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Liverpool led early through James Milner‘s penalty kick but they couldn’t build on a positive first half showing and in the end Jose Mourinho and United pegged them back with a direct approach.

[ MORE: Player ratings

In the dugout Klopp had harsh words for Mourinho after Ander Herrera and Roberto Firmino clashed on the pitch, and after the game he repeatedly pointed out United’s “long ball” approach late on and wanted to make a point of how well his team played.

With the point Liverpool have fallen seven points behind league-leaders Chelsea, but they are five points ahead of rivals United. Speaking to Sky Sports, Klopp was in no doubt his side were the better team.

“Very positive performance, we were the better side, played better football and had a better plan,” Klopp said. “We changed the system a little bit and we obviously had lineup problems a little bit but the boys did really well. We played good football. Unfortunately we only scored with the penalty but I think there were other situations where we could have been a bit more clinical. Especially the last 20 minutes, United, only long balls. It was difficult. I think we would have deserved three points today but we only take one and that is okay. The performance was good and you can see it is still intense for us at the moment but still playing good football.”

The German coach has now lost just one of his seven games against Mourinho as a manager and he outwitted the Portuguese coach once again as he lined Liverpool up in an unfamiliar diamond formation in midfield from the start.

It worked marvelously well as Adam Lallana stopped Michael Carrick from playing and the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial were isolated in the first half with Georginio Wijnadlum and Emre Can shutting down the wide flanks.

Without the injured Nathaniel Clyne, plus key playmaker Philippe Coutinho only fit enough for 30 minutes and Joel Matip not getting FIFA clearance for the game, Klopp will look back on this as a good point against a United side which had won nine games in a row in all competitions heading into this game.

He knew his side had upset many people predicting a United win before the game, but the sense of his team letting two points slip was still there.

“A lot of people expected the rolling wheel, Man United, to roll on. But today we were the stick and pulled it in,” Klopp said. “I am really fine with the performance and I know it was difficult after the game in midweek and all that stuff but we got a point and we have a good performance. Tomorrow when I wake up it feels much better than in this moment. In this moment it is two points somewhere, I don’t know where…”

Klopp’s project at Liverpool is in full-flow and being disappointed with a point at in-form United when you are without several key contributors is a sign that they are now ready to become not only perennial top four contenders put title challengers.

 

Three things we learned: Man United vs. Liverpool

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Manchester United and Liverpool drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday as James Milner‘s penalty kick in the first half was canceled out by Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s late header as the points were shared between the bitter rivals.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

Jurgen Klopp looked like he’d get the better of Jose Mourinho for most of the match but Liverpool and United both remain firmly in the top four hunt.

 [ MORE: Klopp blasts “long ball” United

Here’s what we learned from a cagey encounter between these rivals at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Watch full match replay ] 


EMOJI GAME NOT STRONG FOR POGBA

Simply put, if you choose one of the biggest games on the planet to launch your own emoji, then make sure you play well.

Pogba, 23, didn’t do that and the most-expensive player in the world had a nightmare in several key scenarios during the game.

He lost Dejan Lovren time and time again on corner kicks in the first half and then was played through by Henrikh Mkhitaryan but scuffed his effort wide when he looked certain to score.

At the other end, Pogba then panicked when he lost sight of the ball as a corner came in and Lovren got the wrong side of him. He put his arm out and it was a clear handball as referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Pogba looked mortified.

As his new emoji spun around the adverting boards, Pogba’s head must have been spinning. For the rest of the game he tried to make up for his monumental mistake but the Frenchman was caught in possession on multiple occasions and when that happened he looked like a horse galloping in quicksand as he tried to retreat and gain the ball back from Liverpool’s small, speedy attackers.

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies on Man United, Liverpool ] 

Following his slow start to life back at Old Trafford, Pogba had been mercurial in recent weeks as United won nine-straight games in all competitions. Against Liverpool his display stunk of someone trying too hard to impress and knowing everyone was watching him. That intense pressure shouldn’t impact Pogba, but it did. Big time.

After the initial deluge of #Pogba on the advertising boards int he first half, we didn’t see it in the second half. Brand Pogba took a big hit on Sunday.


LIVERPOOL LET OFF THE HOOK

United let Liverpool’s defense off the hook throughout this game.

Both Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan surged through huge gaps in Liverpool’s defense in the first half both Pogba dragged his effort wide and Mkhitaryan was denied by the brilliant Simon Mignolet in goal for Liverpool.

Mignolet also denied Ibrahimovic’s powerful low free kick in the first half and in the second half a giveaway from Trent Alexander-Arnold let Mkhitaryan race free down the right but his cross was missed by Anthony Martial under pressure.

United had the better scoring chances, by far, but looked rushed, panicked and like Pogba’s performance it seemed like the pressure was a little too much for them to handle.

For the equalizer Wayne Rooney, who had jumped off the bench at half time, used plenty of his experience to cross in and another sub, Marouane Fellaini, saw his header hit the post before Antonio Valencia pulled the ball back for Ibrahimovic to brilliantly head home. United let a much-changed Liverpool side off the hook. Simple as that.


KLOPP, MOURINHO STALEMATE… AGAIN

Klopp has now lost just one of his seven games against Mourinho as a manager and the Liverpool boss got his tactics spot on for most of the game on Sunday.

Lining up with a diamond in midfield from the start, Adam Lallana nullified Michael Carrick‘s influence and Klopp’s gameplan worked well up until the 60th minute. Mourinho had to go more direct, and it worked, but a draw was what neither manager wanted but had to begrudgingly accept. More often than not, they cancel each other out and Mourinho and Klopp now drawn four of their seven games against one another.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

For Liverpool, they are now seven points off leaders Chelsea but they are also just five points ahead of sixth-place United. It is all to play for with 17 games of the Premier League season to go as Liverpool and United drew their two games against each other this season.

What now for United? They sit 12 points behind leaders Chelsea but more importantly four points away from the top four and are just two points behind fifth-place after Man City’s defeat at Everton earlier on Sunday. United remain in the hunt but Klopp will be the happier manager after this draw at Old Trafford.

Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool: Ibrahimovic salvages Red Devils point

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  • Pogba penalty leads to Milner goal
  • Ibrahimovic equalizes in 84th minute
  • Point sees Liverpool move to 3rd

A rivalry with plenty of buildup produced a clunky game that needed a late moment to savor a draw as things ended level 1-1 at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

A penalty for handball on Paul Pogba gave Liverpool a 1-0 first-half lead, and the Reds seemed comfortable to defend that advantage.

[ MORE: Player ratings

It broke down late, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic produced an incredible looping header to draw United level and salvage a point with six minutes to go.

 [ MORE: Klopp blasts “long ball” United ]  

United had most of the early chances, with Anthony Martial sending one to the far post for Zlatan Ibrahimovic that was just out of the Swede’s outstretched leg on 13 minutes. A Liverpool mistake at the back nearly cost them, as Dejan Lovren‘s back-pass was too short and came to Ibrahimovic, but Simon Mignolet did just enough to see the ball land on the roof of the net with Zlatan waiting to pounce on the empty net. Moments later Paul Pogba was fed through by Henrikh Mkhitaryan but scuffed his shot just inches wide right.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

As Liverpool worked themselves into the game, they would press forward and win a penalty in the 27th minute. The ball popped up into the air in the United penalty area, and Pogba completely lost sight of it, finally getting a bead on it and awkwardly getting a head to it, but he also handled the ball in the process, and referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. James Milner stepped up and buried the penalty to give Liverpool a 1-0 lead.

United came close past the half-hour mark as Ibrahimovic delivered a venomous free-kick that forced Mignolet into a sharp save low to his right. Mignolet was required again five minutes from halftime as Mkhitaryan was played through by Ander Herrera, but Mignolet was there to parry the shot from a tight angle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

The hosts made a surprising change out of the break, with manager Jose Mourinho replacing Michael Carrick with Wayne Rooney. They had the first chance out of the break but couldn’t capitalize. Ibrahimovic sprung Mkhitaryan down the right, and his heavy touch brought out Mignolet, but he was still able to get the ball into the middle where Anthony Martial was streaking in. Martial tried to rabona the ball into the empty net, but under pressure from Trent Alexander-Arnold he couldn’t get a touch.

Both teams brought on playmakers past the hour mark as Juan Mata and Philippe Coutinho came on. Coutinho had a chance straightaway with a brilliant touch to Roberto Firmino whose close-range shot was saved by David De Gea.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Wayne Rooney crashed his studs into the shin of James Milner, causing a bit of a delay and a bit of controversy, as replays showed he stepped over the ball onto Milner’s leg. No card was shown by the referee. Wayne Rooney nearly had a moment to remember, a goal away from breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record at United but his 82nd minute shot was saved.

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies on Man United, Liverpool ] 

As the game wore down and Liverpool defended comfortably, Mourinho brought on Marouane Fellaini and changed tactics, targeting Ibrahimovic and Fellaini with long balls instead of the flowing play they had been using prior. This caused Liverpool problems and produced a late equalizer, as Fellaini’s initial header clanged off the post, but it came back to Ibrahimovic who ducked down low and brilliantly looped a header into the corner in the 84th minute. There looked to be a missed offside call early in the buildup, but Liverpool’s frantic defending with the ball in the air did them in.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

There were some tense moments down the stretch, and a scuffle as well as Ander Herrera nearly ripped off Roberto Firmino’s shirt, and the Brazilian reacted violently, earning both yellow cards. The managers got into it at the same time, seeing Jurgen Klopp bouncing up and down mocking Mourinho.

The game ended level, leaving Liverpool third in the table, failing to take the opportunity to move into second. Manchester United will be disappointed with the point as well, up to 40 points and still in sixth, two points behind Manchester City.