Premier League Playback: Arsenal’s strength in-depth, festive madness, Liverpool’s reality check

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THE GUNNERS DON’T NEED TO SPLASH THE CASH IN JANUARY…

Some of you will read that sub-header with a smirk on your face, but honestly, Arsene Wenger may be able to keep his pennies in his purse in January and still lead Arsenal towards the Premier League title.

Over the Christmas period two new attackers finally arrived, as Theo Walcott scored twice and Lukas Podolski bagged a goal on his return from injury in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham on Boxing Day.

Those two hold the key to Arsenal’s success in the second half of the season, as both have been missing for lengthy spells and feel like brand new signings for the Gunners faithful.

“Podolski has been out for four months, he has not played one game. I try to get him slowly back to competitiveness and he has shown he can have a huge impact because he can score and make goals – he can give assists. On the pitch at the end we had Podolski and Walcott and Giroud and Ozil and Cazorla.” – Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s attacking options

Following their win at Upton Park, the Gunners then relied on their leading front man Olivier Giroud to score the only goal of the game as they beat Newcastle on Sunday and went top of the PL standings. But the resurgence of Walcott and Podolski (who admittedly are both used on the wing but can easily be deployed in central roles) is cause for hope for any Arsenal fans fretting about which strikers will arrive at the Emirates in the next month or so.

Wenger doesn’t need to dip his toes into the murky waters of the January transfer window. He’s done that before and failed miserably. Look at the panic buy of Jose Antonio Reyes to name just one example, Wenger could do without wasting another $30 million on a player who won’t help him grab some silverware for the first time in eight years.

(MORE: Latest Premier League Standings)

So if Giroud gets hurt, he could do a lot worse than playing Walcott or Podolski centrally. Both are top internationals for England and Germany respectively, know how to finish and will cause problems for opposition defenses. A few months ago the attacking options at Wenger’s disposal were looking threadbare. The greatest gift Arsenal’s French manager got this Christmas was two top attacking players back to full fitness and his forward line bolstered in the process. And then there’s the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry waiting in the wings for the second half of the season, too.

Who said Arsenal don’t have enough strength in-depth?

Premier League Schedule – Week 18, Boxing Day

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 0-1 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Cardiff 0-3 Southampton Recap and watch here
Chelsea 1-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Everton 0-1 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Hull 2-3 Man United Recap and watch here
Man City 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Newcastle 5-1 Stoke Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-2 Fulham Recap and watch here
Tottenham 1-1 West Brom Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-3 Arsenal Recap and watch here

FESTIVE FEAST DELIVERS

Boxing Day and Week 19 provided two match days of distinction around the holidays. It’s hard to sum it all up in this column, but the incidents, goals and drama we saw epitomized what the festive schedule is all about: unpredictability. Before the Boxing Day madness (the first time in five years that all 20 PL teams have played on the same day, excluding the final day of the campaign) I picked out three things we should watch and here they are.

GOALS -59 balls hit the back of the net in the 20 games that have taken place since Boxing Day, that’s an average of 2.95 goals per game. Not bad at all, plus there were some crazy 5-1, 6-0 and 3-3 score lines to go with it.

RED CARDS –There were four red cards alone on Boxing Day, as Stoke City imploded with two reds in two minutes vs. Newcastle, Antonio Valencia was sent off needlessly and poor Tim Howard was put in an impossible position and got a straight red.

THE UNEXPECTED – Hull City cruising after leading Man United 2-0 after the first 12 minutes on Boxing Day… then losing 3-2. Cardiff City 2-0 up against Sunderland on the 28th… then blowing it by letting in two goals in the final seven minutes. Plus Liverpool lead at Man City and Chelsea but blew it twice to lost back-to-back in three days.

LIVERPOOL REALIZATION: TOP FOUR AT BEST

A spoonful of sugar wasn’t dished out around Anfield during the festive season, just a bitter dose of reality.

The Reds always knew the past few days would have a big say in how seriously we could consider them as title contenders and heck, the way the PL is going this year they still have a great chance. But spirited back-to-back 2-1 defeats away at Manchester City and Chelsea proved that they can’t cut it with the big boys. Not just yet anyway.

Brendan Rodgers’ side looked sharp and dominated large spells against City and Chelsea but they lacked a cutting edge as Luis Suarez’ one-man band was locked down by two or three defenders marking him at a time. That allowed the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling to get more chances in on goal but they simply weren’t clinical enough when it mattered. I can’t help but think that if Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard would’ve been around and not injured, then Liverpool could be sitting top of the standings heading into 2014… instead they’re in fifth. That shows the small margins were dealing with this campaign.

Premier League Schedule – Week 19

Result Recap & Highlights
Aston Villa 1-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Cardiff 2-2 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
Everton 2-1 Southampton Recap and watch here
Hull 6-0 Fulham Recap and watch here
Man City 1-0 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here
Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal Recap and watch here
Norwich 0-1 Man United Recap and watch here
Tottenham 3-0 Stoke Recap and watch here
West Ham 3-3 West Brom Recap and watch here

RELEGATION BATTLE JUST AS TIGHT

So, this is the time of the season where the title race intensifies and the top five or six sort themselves out and pull away from the few hopefuls dragging on their coattails in the top half of the standings.

But let your eyes wander down a little… yeah, that’s right. There’s an almighty scrap about to take place at the bottom as a relegation battle.

Below is a snapshot of the bottom seven, as Sunderland somehow clawed themselves right back into things with a win at Everton on Boxing Day, followed by a marvelous two goal salvo in the final seven minutes to break Cardiff City’s hearts and drag the Bluebirds deep into the mire. Around them West Brom and West Ham scrapped it out in a fantastic 3-3 draw at Upton Park, while the likes of Norwich and Crystal Palace put up valiant efforts against the Manchester giants. Get ready folks, these small teams fighting it out at the bottom will be going hell for leather every single week in the second half of the season as they best form of defense is attack for these chaps.

In previous years there’s always been one side that’s been utterly doomed and never looked like staying up. Last season it was QPR and Reading, before that it was Wolves. But at the halfway point in 2013/14, only five points separates Sunderland in last place with Norwich in 14th, while just ahead of them Swansea, Stoke and Aston Villa are looking worriedly over their shoulders.

source:
Click to enlarge: The bottom seven are clustered tightly as we usher in 2014.

Who’ll be safe will only become more apparent as the winter months leave us behind and the relentless rain of an early English spring help the negative vibes soak into fans of teams embroiled in yet another relegation battle. This is unlikely to be sorted out before the final weekend of the season. That’s the beauty of it, this season nobody knows what will happen.

HUDDLESTONE HAS A HAIRCUT… AS HULL LEAD PROMOTED SIDES

After 54 games without a goal, Tom Huddlestone’s hair has become more of a feature than his vast spectrum of passes and impressively destructive displays in the middle of the pitch. But following his strike in Hull’s 6-0 shellacking of Fulham on Saturday, which also happened to be his 27th birthday, Huddlestone raced to the bench and grabbed a pair of scissors as his entangled locks were lopped away mercifully.

Sadly, a lonesome pair of shears has sat on the bench for quite some time now, as the former Tottenham midfielders strike was his first goal since April 2011. Since then he’s had a long-standing wager that he won’t cut his hair until he scored… he possesses a rasping right foot and I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t think it would take almost two and a half years to get his barnet trimmed.

Huddlestone was carrying on with his “no haircut ‘til I score” stance as charities were benefiting from the donations people sent in from all over the world. It was a bit of good fun that was for a good cause and sealed an utterly superb end to 2013 for Hull City AFC. Now Huddlestone can get back to the important things in life… speaking to his barber again and choosing a new hairstyle.

And just a word on Hull’s remarkable season so far, out of the three promoted teams many expected them to flounder the most with their heavy-handed, route one approach not the way modern PL sides are set up… how wrong those doubters were. Steve Bruce has built a robust squad that’s hard to beat at home and can cause plenty of problems with a direct style of play. While their fellow newly-promoted friends Cardiff City and Crystal Palace are embroiled in a relegation battle, Hull sit in 10th spot with 23 points from their first 19 games. Hats off to the Tigers.

EVERTON AND SOUTHAMPTON SEND US OUT IN STYLE

Two of the seasons surprise packages put on a show at Goodison Park to see out 2013, as Everton beat the Saints 2-1 in an end-to-end clash that warmed the hearts of soccer purists. Intricate one-two’s, fast flowing counter attacks and possession built from the back ruled the day. Sprinkle into the mix a whole host of English talents and there’s hope for the English national side in Brazil this summer, at least if some of these players on show make the plane. Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and even Leon Osman were superb, while Southampton’s Adam Lallana (who got married on Christmas Eve to avoid a clash with the World Cup), Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert all put in a good showing. Three fantastic goals were scored as Everton closed out the year by moving into the top four and above their arch-rivals Liverpool. The Saints finish 2013 in ninth, as you get the feeling that we’re only at the start of Mauricio Pochettino’s revolution at St. Mary’s. Two great teams who play soccer intelligently and are easy on the eye, it was hard not to drool watching some of that match.

This was also a glimpse into the future of the PL, as young English talent is being directed by young foreign managers (Roberto Martinez and Pochettino) who’ve got a track record of getting the best out of youngsters. Expect the Toffees and Saints’ model to be copied by many PL sides in the coming years.

Watch all the action from week 19 below, as we’ve reached the halfway point of the PL season. Here’s to hoping the second half of the campaign is just as dramatic as the first. Happy New Year to you all out there and don’t forget to celebrate New Year’s Day in the best way possible, a full slate of PL games live on NBC Sports!

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekends actions from the PL, it comes out every week.

Premier League managerial power rankings

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There’s a new sheriff at West Ham United, and it’s no small-time boss.

Former Premier League champion manager Manuel Pellegrini is taking over the London side, which had us wondering how high he’d move up the acclaim ladder upon hiring (as of post time).

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

With the 20th spot still open — will it be Fulham or Aston Villa — the Arsenal and Everton jobs vacant for now, and both Neil Warnock and Nuno Espirito Santo yet to manage their clubs in the top flight, we rank the power status of the 15 other active Premier League bosses.

15. Javi Gracia, Watford — Manager don’t usually last long at Vicarage Road, and Gracia doesn’t have a record for sticking around clubs for too long himself.

14. Mark Hughes, Southampton — Saints stayed in the Premier League, and Hughes deserves credit for pushing the buttons on a talented squad.

13. Claude Puel, Leicester City — A disappointing finish to his season keeps Leicester outside the Europa League, and so he has a bit more to prove after an impressive reclamation job at the King Power Stadium.

12. David Wagner, Huddersfield Town — Keeping Town in the Premier League was impressive, but we’re not sure how much we learned about the long-term prognosis of Jurgen Klopp‘s best pal.

11. Chris Hughton, Brighton and Hove Albion — He’d led several clubs to Premier League promotion, and coaxed fine seasons out of what appeared to be a subpar defense at season’s open.

10. Eddie Howe, Bournemouth — One of the brightest young managerial minds, can he take the next step on the South Coast?

9. Roy Hodgson, Crystal Palace — What he did upon inheriting and then overseeing one of the worst starts in Premier League history was nothing short of brilliant. Clearly he hasn’t stopped learning unlike many other PL “retreads.”

8. Manuel Pellegrini, West Ham — What will a few years outside the Premier League, if anything, have done to the one-time Man City leader. Don’t forget: The season City won the PL season, he coaxed 20-plus goal campaigns in all competitions from Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo, and Yaya Toure.

7. Antonio Conte, Chelsea — Tactically and experience-wise, he’s so much higher on the list. Regardless of the mess at Chelsea, better was needed this season.

6. Sean Dyche, Burnley — Guiding tiny Burnley to the Europa League is as impressive a feat as any outside of what Guardiola did this year and Claudio Ranieri did at Leicester City.

— BONUS — 6b. Unai Emery, if hired at Arsenal —

5. Rafa Benitez, Newcastle United — Considering his resume, it shouldn’t be as surprising that he kept United up despite his owner refusing to green-light a real answer at center forward. Worked career years out of Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey.

4. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool — The Champions League final says something, especially in a year he sold Philippe Coutinho, but his team still lacks the consistency of the three men in front of him.

3. Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur — Spurs have smartly spent and kept their stars around, but their financial outlay arguably should not have them consistently finishing ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.

2. Jose Mourinho, Manchester United — Still a defensive marvel, still a genius, still somewhat hilarious… but we all know who No. 1 is…

  1. Pep Guardiola, Manchester City

Manuel Pellegrini takes the reins at West Ham United

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West Ham United was said to be chasing Rafa Benitez, and instead got a manager with more recent big time success.

Manuel Pellegrini is the new boss at West Ham, returning to the league which saw him guide Manchester City to a Premier League title and two League Cups.

[ MORE: Man Utd after pair of mids ]

The 64-year-old Chilean is well-traveled, and most recently managed Hebei China Fortune. He was released from his contract with the Chinese Super League side last week.

Pellegrini has also led Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Malaga since arriving from South America in 2004.

From WHUFC.com:

“I think that West Ham had a difficult season last season and I hope that next season we are going to play football that will delight the fans. I always play attacking football and we must try to reach important targets in the season.

“Every time you have a meeting you have feelings about whether it was a good meeting or a bad meeting and I had the meeting with him, just talking about football and talking about West Ham.  We agreed on a lot of things he wants for this Club in the way I think a football club must be managed, so we have a lot of common ideas.”

Pellegrini is missing more than a few elements to play the way he’d like to play, and his arrival could spell the end for long-time players like Mark Noble. It could also be a boon for Pablo Zabaleta as the former Man City pair is reunited in London.

West Ham has spent freely in recent years, and Pellegrini’s status could help it land a breed of player unavailable to Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, and David Moyes.

Transfer rumors: Man Utd after pair of midfielders; Liverpool eyes Lascelles

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The transfer rumors continue as players hope to have their futures sorted ahead of next month’s World Cup.

Manchester United is being linked with a pair of big money midfielders.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Anderson Talisca, 24, could be leaving Besiktas to join United following a $47 million offer, according to Metro. His 14 goals were fourth in the Turkish Super Lig and his seven assists tied for the team lead. He scored four more times in eight UEFA Champions League matches.

And then there’s highly-sought box-to-box midfielder Jean Michael Seri of Nice, linked with United as well as Manchester City. Club president Jean-Pierre Rivere hinted that the 26-year-old would certainly be headed somewhere this offseason.

Mika Seri is … a very good player who has brought a lot to the club and can legitimately have that desire to go and play abroad.”

— Liverpool could really strengthen its center back situation by buying captain Jamaal Lascelles from Newcastle United, though the hinted fee of $19 million seems low for an integral part of the Magpies’ back line (especially given that English players usually net higher fees on account of being English).

And Lascelles has said Newcastle “is the right club for me at the right time. We have a huge fanbase, an amazing manager, and this club is massive. It has so much history.”

The Chronicle also said Liverpool is also looking at Burnley star center back James Tarkowski, and that Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez has his eye on 19-year-old Sevilla mid Alejandro Viedma.

— A wild rumor out of Diario Gol says Alvaro Morata is set to fight for his starting role at Chelsea and is encouraging Real Madrid buddy Marco Asensio to join him at Stamford Bridge. The report says Asensio would be an important part of any Chelsea sale of Eden Hazard.

— Cardiff City is said to be signing Hamburg striker Sven Schipplock when his Hamburg contract expires in June. He did not score for HSV last season.

Brighton adds Nigerian World Cup defender from Mainz

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Brighton and Hove Albion has added some depth to their center back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Leon Balogun has arrived from Mainz, the 28-year-old Nigerian heading to the World Cup and then hitting the Amex Stadium on a free transfer.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Mainz avoided relegation by three points this season, and Balogun played in 14 matches. He had been with the Bundesliga outfit since 2015, and has 16 caps.

Balogun has also spent time at left and right back.

Ezequiel Schelotto just finished his first season as a Brighton right back, playing 28 times, but also moved up the right side. Bruno played plenty there as well, but is 37 years old.

Gaetan Bong and Markus Suttner split time at left back. All four of the players will be with the Gulls next season.

Brighton already had a top-half defense in terms of goals allowed. This should only help that.