three things

Three things we learned from Man City v. Liverpool

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Manchester City and Liverpool played out an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp saw their teams go all-out in their pursuit of securing a top four finish in the Premier League.

[ RECAP: City, Liverpool draw

James Milner‘s penalty kick was canceled out by Sergio Aguero’s equalizer as both teams created numerous chances but somewhat canceled one another out.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned from an intense, gripping battle in the rain in Manchester.


PK CALLS SHAPED THE GAME

Referee Michael Oliver will need a lie down after this game.

There were three big penalty calls which shaped the outcome of this match and Oliver got all three wrong. First, Georginio Wijnaldum went down under a challenge from Yaya Toure in the box and no penalty kick was given when it seemed like it should’ve been. Then at the other end a huge moment arrived as David Silva‘s cross found Raheem Sterling at the back post but James Milner slid in and made no contact with the ball. Again, Oliver should’ve awarded a penalty kick but he didn’t.

Then, at the start of the second when Oliver should’ve waved away a penalty kick call he awarded it. Gael Clichy slipped and then launched into a challenge on Roberto Firmino. Yes, it was a clumsy tackle but Clichy got the ball first. Milner stepped up to score the PK and put Liverpool ahead and perhaps Oliver got out of jail because City equalized and both managers will be fairly happy with the point.

That said, the way Guardiola was talking to Oliver and the other officials at the final whistle, it seemed like he was the unhappy manager. He had every right to react that way.


CLASSIC ENCOUNTER, STICKING TO PHILOSOPHIES

In the first half Pep Guardiola had a huge smile on his face as he embraced Jurgen Klopp on the sidelines. Respect.

Two of the greatest managers in the world right now have both found it tough going at times this season but there’s one thing we know about them both: they will die by their philosophies.

For better or worse they are stubborn and want their teams to play open, attacking soccer as they often neglect defense. That approach resulted in a humdinger of a game which ebbed and flowed back and forth as chances came and went and moments of brilliance in the final third were not finished off.

Two moments of magic encapsulated why Guardiola and Klopp must stick to what they know best.

First, Adam Lallana spurned a great chance as he launched a lung-bursting counter. He played the ball to Firmino, who passed to Wijnaldum who then lobbed the ball over City’s defense to Firmino and his clever flick with the outside of his boot had Lallana clean through six yards out. Lallana then missed the ball completely.

At the other end moments later Aguero and Sane combined with a wonderful backheel from the latter and then the loose ball fell to Kevin De Bruyne who hit the post.

It may not be perfect right now, especially in defense, but the longer Guardiola and Klopp stay with their respective teams the better they will get and the more pieces of the jigsaw they can put in place. In this day and age everyone wants to win now but both of these managers deserve extra time to get these projects fine-tuned and add the players they need

Finishing in the top four of the Premier League will allow them both to do that as the dangling carrot of the UEFA Champions League next season will help recruit world-class players. Maybe defenders will be a little scared to play for either of these teams though…


TOP-HEAVY CITY

Yaya Toure was overrun in midfield and it was a plan which didn’t work out for City.

Guardiola played Fernandinho at right back and left Toure in midfield on his own to try and shut down Lallana, Wijnaldum and Emre Can on his own. With Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva just in front of him, those two aren’t known for their defensive abilities and as Ilkay Gundogan told Rebecca Lowe at half time in the NBC studio, Guardiola prefers KDB in a deeper role due to his ability to keep the ball.

When Fernando came on and De Bruyne was shifted out wide, City looked more balanced and able to cope with Liverpool’s attack.

We are in March and Guardiola still hasn’t got the balance of his team right. City have so many great attacking talents but they are still top-heavy.

Much has been made about the defensive mistakes from the likes of John Stones and Claudio Bravo this season but City need to get better protection for their defense, especially against the better teams who can hurt them.

For more on Man City v. Liverpool listen to the latest 2 Robbies podcast.

Three things learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Man United

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 in a fiery clash on Monday at Stamford Bridge to reach the FA Cup semifinals for the first time since 2013.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

N'Golo Kante‘s second half strike was enough to see Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea past a stubborn United outfit who were tough to break down despite Ander Herrera being sent off for two yellow cards after just 35 minutes.

With Conte and Jose Mourinho clashing on the sidelines — plus Chelsea’s fans giving Mourinho plenty of less than friendly “banter” throughout — it was a lively encounter as United gave up their FA Cup crown and Chelsea kept their hopes of doing the double alive.

Here’s what we learned from the Bridge.


CONTE AND MOURINHO ARE NOT FRIENDS

It’s safe to say Conte and Mourinho will not have shared a glass of wine at Stamford Bridge on Monday after the game. They seemed to ignore each other at the final whistle too.

A feud is brewing and it has all the ingredients to be an explosive one. This is the perfect storm for a managerial battle for the ages.

In the first half they clashed on the sidelines with Conte charging towards Mourinho after he felt Marcos Alonso made the most of a challenge and was obviously still incensed that Herrera had been sent off moments earlier. The duo were separated by the fourth official and referee Michael Oliver had to intervene to calm things down.

These actions were left over from the words they had at the end of Chelsea’s 4-0 win in October, where Mourinho felt they need to say something to Conte after he was whipping up the crowd in the latter stages of that match with United down and out and Chelsea cruising. They were then fueled further by Mourinho insinuating that Chelsea were a counterattacking team in the build up to this match. Conte didn’t like that. He and Mourinho don’t like each other, even if after the game word got out they shook hands in the tunnel area.

[ MORE: Conte is becoming what Mourinho was ]

Mourinho didn’t have the playing career Conte had (he was a key member of several stunning Juventus teams, winning five Serie A titles, an Italian Cup and a UEFA Champions League to his name) and now Conte is challenging Mourinho’s dominance of the managerial game. Charging up and down the touchline, Conte roared his team onto a cup semifinal. Mourinho spent most of his time complaining to the officials.

Conte has taken over largely the same squad Mourinho had for the first half of last season which failed him so badly. He was fired in December 2015 and Conte eventually arrived in the summer to transform Chelsea’s fortunes as they lead the PL by 10 points.

Mourinho was a god like figure at Chelsea for so long but now he’s not. The fans reminded him throughout the game. Chants of “you’re not special anymore!” and “Judas!” came his way. He responded by holding up three fingers to show how many PL titles he led Chelsea to.

Conte now has that hero status as he punches the air and his name is sung by the entire stadium. He is well on the way to delivering his first Premier League title at Chelsea this season and could now add the FA Cup to his collection after ousting Mourinho in yet another embarrassing occasion for the man who used to run the show at Stamford Bridge. Not anymore.


CHELSEA MORE THAN COUNTERATTACK

Before the game, that talk about Chelsea being a counterattacking team seemed to hurt Conte.

In fact, I asked him about Eden Hazard — who was sublime once again with a phenomenal turn on Chris Smalling in the first half which then led to a run and shot which David De Gea saved superbly — last Monday following the win against West Ham and about how deadly the Belgian has been on the counter this season. He made a point of stating how important Hazard has been in-between the lines and his overall play.

Conte said “I never, ever, ever train for the counterattack. Never prepare for the counterattack. Never.”

Kante’s goal was not on the counter and came from a sustained period of pressure. Of course it helped Chelsea had a one-man advantage for over 55 minutes in the victory against United, but they also came up against a team which set up in a 5-3-2 formation at times in the first half and settled well.

Chelsea turned the screw with Hazard getting Herrera sent off for two cynical fouls, plus Willian, Kante and Diego Costa causing countless problems. Costa missed two glorious chances in the second half with a clear header from a corner and then when Willian pulled a cross back. They weren’t at their clinical best but it didn’t cost them.


RASHFORD READY

The major bright spot for United was Marcus Rashford.

He wasn’t meant to be fit for this game and with Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial out injured, plus Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, that was a major selection issue for Mourinho.

Rashford, still just 19, miraculously started and looked like a kid man on a mission as Paul Pogba struggled to impact he game. Rashford was United’s biggest threat all night long. He chased down David Luiz and Gary Cahill throughout and made life incredibly difficult for Chelsea. It looked like he was capable of running faster than his body could, almost bursting from the seams.

In the second half his big moment to equalize arrived.

A rare miscue from Luiz saw the United academy product pounce. He raced free with Cahill sent one way, then the next, before he smashed a low shot on goal which Thibaut Courtois saved superbly with his legs. In that instance, that was a snapshot of the raw pace and enthusiasm Rashford possesses.

If he can regain the clinical finishing he showed in his debut season in 2015-16 when he burst onto the scene, he has all of the other attributes to start for United whether or not Ibrahimovic is around next season.

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win at West Ham

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LONDON — Chelsea beat West Ham United 2-1 at the London Stadium on Monday as Antonio Conte‘s men extended their lead atop the Premier League table.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Goals in each half from Eden Hazard and Diego Costa did the damage as Chelsea took the sting out of the London derby and Antonio Conte’s men continue their canter towards the Premier League title despite Manuel Lanzini‘s stoppage time consolation.

Here’s what we learned from a routine win for Chelsea.


TEXTBOOK CHELSEA

If Chelsea’s season could be summed up in one goal it would be their opener against West Ham.

The Hammers had a free kick on the edge of Chelsea’s box but Mark Noble took too long to pick out his cross and was dispossessed by N'Golo Kante. Eden Hazard raced through and combined with Pedro before rounding Darren Randolph and slotting home. Simple.

As talented as Chelsea’s squad is, perhaps the biggest reason why they’re top of the Premier League is due to Conte’s ability to simplify the game. He has also simplified the team selection with just 21 players used in the Premier League campaign this season, the fewest in the league, and just 24 team changes.

Familiarity breeds success and so does simplicity. It’s almost as if Conte has looked at Leicester City’s blueprint from their success last season and copied it.

With better quality players the Leicester-esque counters are even more devastating. Nobody expected this style of play from Chelsea. Even though Conte’s teams are often direct and physical, many expected more a possession based style from Chelsea this season with Cesc Fabregas, Hazard and Co. to pass teams to death. That’s not what Conte has delivered but his players do possess the quality that when they go ahead in games they can keep the ball and force their opponents to force the issue and then pick them off ruthlessly with inch-perfect passes into the final third.

He has delivered a ruthless winning machine which is capable of beating teams in multiple ways.


HAZARD UNPLAYABLE

With Costa’s goals and Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 formation stealing much of the headlines around Chelsea’s stunning form this season, the form of Hazard has flown under the radar.

The Belgian winger was in sensational form on Monday, springing devastating counters time and time again and West Ham’s defense were petrified of him around the box.

In the first half he showed Jose Fonte a clean pair of heels and gained about 15 yards of space all with one drop of his shoulder. In the second half he got free on the right, cut back in and then flicked a delicate ball around the corner to Costa whose turn and shot was pushed wide.

Hazard was unplayable at times on Monday night, just as he has been for most of this season. He was subbed out with 17 minutes to go and West Ham’s fans and players breathed a sigh of relief. The fact that his replacement was Willian said it all.

This Chelsea juggernaut has strength in-depth and with Hazard’s trickery and Costa’s goals leading the way, they look unbeatable.


BLUNT HAMMERS

West Ham had a clear game plan before this encounter and for the opening 25 minutes it worked.

Until Hazard’s opener they were snapping into tackles, getting the ball wide to Robert Snodgrass whenever possible and getting Andy Carroll in dangerous positions, Bilic’s plans were causing Chelsea plenty of problems.

But when Carroll plays there’s no Plan B.

Dimitri Payet used to deliver that moment of magic to score a goal out of nothing, that change of play which would open up at an opponents defense to set up a cross. Now, all of that creative pressure falls on Manuel Lanzini’s shoulders. Despite his clinical finish late on, the Argentine isn’t quite up to carrying this West Ham team in his injury hit season. Like most of West Ham’s team, he should be focused on next season.

West Ham will be fine and finish in midtable, which is not something to be scoffed at after their form in the opening half of the season which suggested they’d be involved in a relegation battle.

Bilic still hasn’t been offered a new deal and he may need to give West Ham’s owners a little more promise before he is entrusted to take this project to the next step which means the Hammers challenging for a top six finish like last season. Right now that seems a long way off.

Three things we learned from Liverpool’s win vs. Arsenal

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Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-1 at Anfield on Saturday as Jurgen Klopp‘s side rode a red-hot start to beat Arsene Wenger‘s Gunners and leapfrog them in the standings.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

A goal each from Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane did the damage in a superb first half from the home side and even though Arsenal improved after the break (mostly because they brought on Alexis Sanchez at half time) they couldn’t draw level and Georginio Wijnaldum‘s late goal sealed the win.

Here’s a look at what we learned from Anfield.


LIVERPOOL, ANNOYINGLY, RISE TO THE OCCASION AGAIN

Jurgen Klopp must be scratching his head once again after Liverpool dominated a top six opponent. Well, at least for the first half but that turned out to be enough.

Liverpool have lost five times in 27 Premier League games this season and all five defeats have come against teams in the bottom half of the PL table. It’s tough to explain why that’s the case but you can see that in big games at Anfield and away from home they’ve risen to the occasion as they’re momentarily in third place with both Arsenal and Manchester United dropping points this weekend.

Here’s a look at their results against the current top six this season…

  • vs. Chelsea (1 win, 1 draw)
  • vs. Tottenham (1 win, 1 draw)
  • vs. Arsenal (2 wins)
  • vs. Man City (1 win, next game on Mar. 19)
  • vs. Man United (2 draws)

Before the game Klopp stated that he may need up to six new players in the summer. You can see what he is talking about. Liverpool must improve in defense. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet got lucky on a couple of the crosses he came for but he pulled off a fine save from Olivier Giroud‘s header. Mignolet and Lorus Karius are on thin ice. Liverpool need a new center back and left back to bolster their defense, while in midfield they seem to be overrun in the areas just in front of their back four with Georginio Wijnadlum better in attack and the likes of Emre Can or Jordan Henderson not true holding players.

In attack Klopp’s side look stacked, even with Daniel Sturridge a spectator on the bench for much of this season. If they can sell Sturridge and bring in a predatory finisher then that will take them to the next level.

Saturday’s win against Arsenal proved once again that Klopp’s side have plenty of potential to do more than just challenge for the top four. Imagine if Liverpool would have won half the games they lost against Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester? Up next for Klopp’s Jekyll and Hyde team is Burnley at Anfield. Time to show if they have the focus to rise to the smaller occasions.


SANCHEZ OMISSION BIZARRE

With his current contract situation hanging over not only his head but that of Wenger and the entire club, you have to wonder exactly why Alexis Sanchez was left out of the Arsenal starting lineup at Liverpool.

He came on at half time and made a huge difference, cutting in from the left flank as Nathaniel Clyne couldn’t get forward and Sanchez teed up Welbeck to make it 2-1 and gave Liverpool’s defense plenty of problems and had a late shot blocked when it looked like he was about to make it 2-2.

Sanchez turned the game and it shouldn’t have been a surprise. He’s been involved in more goals — 17 goals and now nine assists — than any other PL player this season.

The decision to not start Sanchez surely couldn’t have been with the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg against Bayern Munich in mind. Beating a rival for a top four finish should be the priority and Arsenal — they’re trailing Bayern 5-1 from the first leg — need a minor miracle to make it through to the quarterfinals. Combined with Mesut Ozil’s illness which meant he didn’t travel to Anfield, it almost seemed like Wenger was trying to make a point that Arsenal would be just fine without Sanchez and Ozil next season if they don’t end up signing new contracts at Arsenal.

They won’t be fine. The first 45 minutes proved that.


MANE THE MAN

So many eyebrows were raised when Mane signed for Liverpool from Southampton for $42 million in the summer. Klopp spoke about how he missed out on Mane in the past and he didn’t want to make that mistake again.

Yeah, it was money extremely well spent.

The Senegalese flyer, still just 24, is Liverpool’s leading scorer with 12 goals and he also has five assists. He is the hub of their flowing attack and we all know how badly he was missed at Liverpool when he went to the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

Imagine if Mane had a target man to work off of at Liverpool. Could he be even more potent?

With Graziano Pelle at Southampton he had a bonafide big man to work with as Mane would latch onto Pelle’s flicks and buzz in and around him to devastating effect. The movement of Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana seems to suit him well too but you get the sense that Mane’s pace would be suited better to playing with more space behind defenses that a more direct style would foster.

The big issue with Mane has been consistency. At Saints he blew hot and cold throughout the season but at Liverpool he has cranked things up a notch. That said, he was way below his usual high standards in the defeat at Leicester just five days ago and then pretty much tore apart Arsenal on his own in the first half. Like Liverpool this season, Mane’s consistency is the only thing holding him back.

As the stat above suggests, Mane can be one of the most deadly players in the PL when he’s at it. His biggest challenge is finding consistency as Liverpool’s leading man.

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Arsenal

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LONDON — Chelsea’s procession towards the Premier League title continued on Saturday as they beat London rivals Arsenal 3-1 to all but end any slim chance the Gunners had of wining the PL crown.

[ RECAP: Chelsea batter Arsenal ]

Marcos Alonso, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas grabbed the goals as a poor defensive display from Arsenal display saw Chelsea punish them ruthlessly.

Here’s what we learned from a sunny Stamford Bridge.


ALONSO’S GOAL DUBIOUS

If Marcos Alonso makes the challenge for his goal anywhere else on the pitch, he’s getting a free kick given against him and probably a yellow card.

Because he made it five yards from goal it seemed to be tolerated. It was a very dubious goal.

Alonso had a five-yard run on Hector Bellerin and climbed above the Spanish right back fair and square. However, his elbow was out to protect him and it smashed into Bellerin’s face. In real-time it didn’t look malicious but when you see the replays time and time again, Alonso knew what he was doing.

[ LISTEN: 2 Robbies on Chelsea v. Arsenal ]

A dazed Bellerin had to be subbed out such was the impact he felt and Arsenal never truly recovered from both his absence and the momentum the early goal gave them.

Martin Atkinson allowed the goal but the decision was at best 50-50. Alonso and Chelsea probably got away with one. When you’re running away with the title after winning 16 of your last 18 Premier League games, those are the kind of calls that tend to go in your favor.

Look below and make up your own mind…


ARSENAL’S TITLE HOPES END IN A WHIMPER

12 points back with 14 games to go, Arsenal can now safely wave goodbye to their title hopes for another season after another abject display at Chelsea.

With Arsene Wenger watching on moodily from the stands, his players didn’t look up for the physical battle and were bullied by Chelsea. Especially in midfield.

The excellent N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic stopped Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from getting on the ball, and the lack of effort Theo Walcott made to track Alonso’s run for the opener said it all.

Desire. Drive. Determination. That was all missing from this Arsenal display.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was tasked with shutting down Kante in Chelsea’s midfield and about five minutes he ducked out of a challenge 40 yards from his own goal. Challenges like that set the tone.

Arsenal’s title hopes were on the line after their shock defeat at home to Watford in midweek. You would have never guessed that watching them limp to yet another defeat at Chelsea as they’ve now lost their last five PL trips to Stamford Bridge, conceding 15 goals and scoring three.

With the future of Arsene Wenger, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still up in the air, the next few months could be very uncomfortable for the Arsenal board as their side battle for an FA Cup final spot and a place in the top four once again. The latter is seeming increasingly at risk given the closeness of their competitors.


HAZARD BACK TO HIS BEST

The old Eden Hazard is back.

His jinxing runs were plentiful and his goal which sealed victory reminded us of the player who took the PL by storm in the 2014-15 season.

Hazard, still just 26 years old, has now scored 10 Premier League goals this season. His best tally in a single season is 14 which he achieved in back-to-back campaigns from 2013 to 2015.

It wasn’t just his goals and his clever ducking and diving which got fans on their feet, his hunger was evident as he did plenty of work back on the edge of his own box in the first half. He was everywhere.

Much has been made of Diego Costa‘s goals and Chelsea’s switch to a 3-4-3 system improving their defense, but if they do go on to win the title then Hazard’s return to glorious form will have played just a big a part.

Now, the challenge for him will be sustaining his magic for the next two to three seasons. His mojo is back but we all saw last season how quickly it disappeared.