Premier League Playback: Why Manchester City are throwing away the title

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PELLEGRINI’S PERSISTENCE WITH 4-4-2 ALL BUT ENDS TITLE CHARGE

Manchester City’s players stood on the pitch at the final whistle at Anfield on Sunday scratching their heads and looking to the heavens.

They had just lost 2-1 to Liverpool, as they look likely to slip eight-points behind Chelsea in the title race with  just 11 games to go. Sergio Aguero and Co. will probably be asking themselves the same questions many of us will be trying to answer on Monday: how can a team dripping with wonderfully talented players continue to stutter through games?

[ RELATED: Pellegrini gets tactics wrong vs. Barca ]

One explanation, and perhaps the most critical one, is that Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence to go with a 4-4-2 formation and leave his team short in midfield areas is causing so many issues. Against Barcelona last Tuesday, I watched on in amazement as Pellegrini went with two up front against one of the best possession based sides in world soccer and gave them an extra man in the middle to dictate the tempo of the game. Pellegrini then did the same against Liverpool on Sunday, another team who love to keep the ball and have defenders like Emre Can stepping into midfield to create overloaded situations. Playmakers Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were dragging City’s center backs Vincent Kompany (who again looked shaky) and Eliaquim Mangala all over the place as they didn’t have the numbers in midfield to quell Liverpool’s rapid attacks.

In the first half City coped with their numerical disadvantage in the middle relatively well, as Yaya Toure marauded forward and Fernandinho fought fires in front of City’s back four. But Fernandinho got tired and with Toure not pulling his weight defensively, along with Samir Nasri and David Silva in the second half, Liverpool pressed, pushed and harassed City (look at those numbers from Opta, above) until a moment of genius from Coutinho arrived to seal the win. Pellegrini argued after the match that two “beautiful goals” were the difference, yet his side recorded just one shot on goal (Edin Dzeko’s first half goal) which was there lowest total in any game so far this season. Liverpool’s strikes from Jordan Henderson and Coutinho were sublime, there’s no two ways about it. But the way Pellegrini is setting up his team against big sides who are able to keep the ball and punish slack play is bordering on naivety.

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Playing two up front against teams like Newcastle, who City beat 5-0 last weekend, will often work. But against the top teams in the Premier League it does not work with the players they are using in the system. Nasri, Silva and Toure are all great going forward but won’t provide balance, defensively. Just look at City’s record against the top five this season. 1-1 draws home and away against Chelsea. A 2-0 defeat at home to Arsenal and a 2-2 draw away, beating 10-man Manchester United 1-0 at home and now splitting victories with Liverpool. A 4-3-3 formation with Silva given a free role in-behind Aguero is their best formation, and having one of James Milner or Jesus Navas on the wing means they will get at least one attacker willing to work back and help out defensively.

[ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]

When all is said and done at the end of the season, City’s fans, players and Pellegrini may have a horrible feeling of ‘what might have been.’ Chelsea have hardly been in sensational form of late, but City have failed to take advantage of that due to their own tactical naivety. Whether or not they have progressed since winning the title last season remains to be seen, but Pellegrini’s persistence to play two up front means he is piling unnecessary pressure on himself as Sheikh Mansour and the directors at City will have a big decision to make this summer as to who will be their manager next season.

Premier League Schedule – Week 27

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 2-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Burnley 0-1 Swansea Recap and watch here
Liverpool 2-1 Man City Recap and watch here
Man United 2-0 Sunderland Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-0 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
Stoke 1-0 Hull City Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 Saints Recap and watch here
West Ham 1-3 Crystal Palace Recap and watch here

CHELSEA CLINCH LEAGUE CUP BY SHUTTING DOWN SPURS

After City’s damaging defeat, it was a really good weekend for Chelsea even though they didn’t play in a PL match. The Blues now know they can go eight points clear of City in the title race by winning their game in hand, and on Sunday they lifted the first piece of silverware on offer in England for the 2014-15 season.

Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Wembley to win the League Cup as Jose Mourinho celebrated the first trophy of his second spell in charge of Chelsea. It’s safe to say he thoroughly enjoyed this one, as it was his third League Cup success in charge of Chelsea and his first major title since he won La Liga with Real Madrid in 2012.

[ RELATED: Mourinho hails Zouma ]

Spurs started brighter with Christian Eriksen hitting the crossbar, but then the Blues ground out a typically resolute display with John Terry prodding home a goal right on half time and Diego Costa’s deflected shot just before the hour mark sealed the victory. As the rain poured down at Wembley Stadium in the second half, Spurs had the life sucked out of them by a Chelsea squad who often resemble ‘Dementors’ from the Harry Potters series. Mauricio Pochettino’s side dropped points at West Ham last Sunday, were knocked out of the Europa League by Fiorentina last Thursday and then succumbed to an oppressive Chelsea outfit.

Mourinho’s decision to replace suspended central midfielder Nemanja Matic with young French center back Kurt Zouma raised plenty of eyebrows. But it was a masterstroke. Zouma clogged up the area in front of Chelsea’s back four, stopping Harry Kane dropping deep and Eriksen getting on the ball. Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanvoic and Cesar Azpilicueta put in another assured defensive display but Mourinho reserved special praise for Zouma after the match, calling him “our Marcel Desailly” after the former Chelsea and French international star. High praise indeed, as Mourinho and his squad lifted the first of what should be many trophies this season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The Premier League title seems all but assured after City continue to stumble, but can the “Special One” deliver the Champions League to Stamford Bridge this season? That’s the next big challenge for his squad, as they will be buoyed by a victory parade around Wembley on Sunday and all the good vibes that brings. Plus, judging by the video above taken during the second half of the League Cup final, Mourinho seems pretty relaxed about everything…

LIVERPOOL’S “LITTLE MAGICIAN” CRUCIAL TO TOP FOUR HOPES

For the second Sunday running Coutinho delivered a stunning strike to set Liverpool on their way. The Reds are now unbeaten in 11 Premier League matches and have gone on a remarkable run since losing 3-0 to arch-rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford back on December 14.

[ RELATED: Three things we learned from Liverpool’s win ]

Now they are in fifth place, two points behind the Red Devils and just three points behind Arsenal in third. Liverpool looks unstoppable and Coutinho gives them the ‘X-factor” they have been lacking for most of the season. The 22-year-old Brazilian signed a new long-term deal last month and his incisive runs, trickery on the ball and sublime vision in and around the box means that although Luis Suarez is long gone, the Reds now look capable of carving open teams clinically with Daniel Sturridge back fit and Sterling also firing on all cylinders.

[ RELATED: Rodgers says top four is real possibility ]

Liverpool have the momentum and are the team to beat with eight wins from their last 10 matches. Just like last season, they are hitting peak form at the perfect time. They came up short in their pursuit of the title in 2013-14, but right now you’d be a brave man to bet against them finishing in the top this season. After their victory against Manchester City on Sunday, manager Brendan Rodgers claimed that if Liverpool finished fourth this season it would be a better achievement than finishing second last season.

It’s hard to argue with that, as Jordan Henderson smashed in a beauty to show he can ease the blow of Steven Gerrard’s impending departure, while Adam Lallana had the following to say about the crucial win.

“It’s a massive win for us, we’ve got momentum,” Lallana told Sky Sports afterwards. “They [Man City] are the champions and I thought we thoroughly deserved it today. They came back into it but the lads have got fighting spirit and the little magician [Coutinho] at the end coming up with another wonderful goal. With players like that, we are going to go far.”

MIDWEEK MADNESS – ARE YOU READY?

Above is the video recap from the eight games in Week 27 and on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, you will get pretty distracted during your afternoon’s at work as a full slate of PL matches is coming your way. It’s okay, I’m sure your boss will understand. After all, it’s the Premier League.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every game via Live Extra ]

Above is the link to stream every game live online or on the app via Live Extra, and here’s five storylines to keep an eye on as the midweek madness ensues…

1. Can the Hammers bring Chelsea back down to earth?

2. Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Man United all face tough tests as top four race heats up

3. Will Saints snap back into life at home to Crystal Palace?

4. Relegation battles, local pride – Aston Villa vs. West Brom, Hull vs. Sunderland

5. USMNT battle at the Britannia – Geoff Cameron vs. Tim Howard

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

Premier League standings

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The Premier League is back a three month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. Below you will find a reminder of the Premier League standings as we get back to business.

[ MORE: Latest PL TV schedule ]

With 92 games remaining in the 2019-20 Premier League season, there is plenty to play for up and down the league and the standings are extremely tight.

Liverpool have wrapped up the Premier League in stunning fashion over Man City, with the reigning champions and current second-place side eager to focus on cup competitions.

Three of the top four should stay there unless Leicester City’s form dips considerably, but the race for fourth and fifth should be fierce. We may know whether fifth is a Champions League place after scheduled June 8-10 meetings to hear Man City’s appeal over its European ban.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

With between nine and 10 matches left for everyone and eighth potentially being a Europa League spot, all the teams between fourth and 11th still have European hopes in the balance. That would change should Norwich City or Newcastle win the FA Cup, so call it 13 clubs.

The action is going to come fast and often, with the league putting together a staggered schedule of kickoff times that will make matches even more of an all-weekend affair.

Below are the Premier League standings in full, as we will updated them throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 season.

PREMIER LEAGUE STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 31 28 2 1 70 21 49 16-0-0 12-2-1 86
 Manchester City 31 20 3 8 77 33 44 11-2-2 9-1-6 63
 Leicester City 32 16 7 9 60 31 29 9-4-3 7-3-6 55
 Chelsea 32 16 6 10 57 44 13 8-3-5 8-3-5 54
 Manchester United 32 14 10 8 51 31 20 9-5-2 5-5-6 52
 Wolves 32 13 13 6 45 34 11 6-7-3 7-6-3 52
 Arsenal 32 11 13 8 47 41 6 8-5-3 3-8-5 46
 Tottenham Hotspur 31 12 9 10 50 41 9 9-3-4 3-6-6 45
 Burnley 32 13 6 13 36 45 -9 8-2-6 5-4-7 45
 Sheffield United 31 11 11 9 30 31 -1 7-3-5 4-8-4 44
 Everton 32 12 8 12 40 47 -7 8-5-3 4-3-9 44
 Crystal Palace 32 11 9 12 28 37 -9 6-4-6 5-5-6 42
 Newcastle United 32 11 9 12 33 43 -10 6-7-3 5-2-9 42
 Southampton 32 12 4 16 41 55 -14 4-2-10 8-2-6 40
 Brighton & Hove Albion 32 7 12 13 34 44 -10 5-6-5 2-6-8 33
 West Ham United 32 8 6 18 38 56 -18 5-3-8 3-3-10 30
 Watford 32 6 10 16 29 49 -20 4-6-6 2-4-10 28

 Aston Villa 32 7 6 19 36 60 -24 5-3-8 2-3-11 27
 Bournemouth 32 7 6 19 30 54 -24 4-5-7 3-1-12 27
 Norwich City 32 5 6 21 25 60 -35 4-3-9 1-3-12 21


Sheffield United – Tottenham preview: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Sheffield United - Tottenham preview
Photo by IAN KINGTON/AFP via Getty Images
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Sheffield United – Tottenham Hotspur preview: There are European hopes dripping from Wednesday’s meeting of Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur at Bramall Lane (Watch live at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

Blades’ European hopes have taken a big hit since the Premier League’s return from the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve lost two-straight league outings and have just one win from five.

STREAM SHEFFIELD UNITED – TOTTENHAM LIVE ONLINE

Spurs have taken four of six points in just two matches since the end of the break and need a win to retake seventh place from Arsenal.

Team news

Japhet Tanganga and Juan Foyth remain out for Tottenham, who is otherwise as healthy as its been since the calendar turned to 2020.

Jack O’Connell is getting closer to a return for the Blades but Chris Wilder says they “won’t make a high risk decision on him.” John Lundstram is “touch and go,” according to the manager.

What they’re saying

Chris Wilder on the evolution of big January buy Sander Berge: “Sander is going to be a really good player for us. He’s 21 [sic], we paid decent money for him. £20m is not an unbelievable number. It is for Sheffield United, I understand that. So Sander comes with that pressure. But he’s a grounded boy and he’ll eventually play as a sitting midfield player. He’s a proper midfield player, he’s a really good kid and he always will get mine and the boys’ full backing.”

Mourinho on the struggles of big signing Tanguy Ndombele“Football is full of players who have made difficult starts and then ended well. When Luka Modric arrived at Real Madrid after six months he was labeled the worst signing in their history by the fans and the press. A few months later he was a champion, then a few months later he was European champion and then a few months later he was voted the best player in the world. So when the talent is there many things can happen with adaptation and if the talent is there anything good can happen.”

Odds and ends

The bookies aren’t so sure about this one, with DraftKings having hosts Sheffield United +225 and Tottenham +130.

Heung-min Son and George Baldock traded goals in a 1-1 November draw in North London.

Sheffield United – Tottenham Prediction

Spurs have the benefit of rest and potency up top. It’ll be a grimy one — Chris Wilder deems it so — but Tottenham gets the points 2-1.

Watchalong live: Join us for Manchester City v. Liverpool

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Join us for a Watchalong event on YouTube for Manchester City – Liverpool on Thursday (start time, 3:10pm ET on the NBC Sports YouTube channel).

Click on the video above to join us for the Watchalong, as ProSoccerTalk’s lead writer and editor, Joe Prince-Wright, will answer your questions and watch the action with you as you have a beer (or three) and some snacks.

The idea is to get fans together with JPW and have a good time watching the game.

Feel free to ask for his instant analysis on the game between the newly-crowned Premier League champions and the former champions by posting comments in comments section.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

JPW will join you for the entire game, as he breaks down the live action in Manchester City – Liverpool and you have the chance to have your say on what Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp should be doing in the game, plus dissect the tactics, which players are starring and more.

Basically, join us to watch the game (hence the snazzy ‘Watchalong’ name) and let’s all enjoy these juggernauts do battle with plenty of pride on the line as Man City try to put down a marker for next season.

[ PREVIEW: Man City – Liverpool: Everything you need to know ]

We hope you enjoy our Premier League Watchalong as the two best teams in the league collide at the Etihad Stadium. Click on the video or link above to get involved.

Lampard on Pulisic’s superb form: “It’s a big positive”

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Frank Lampard revealed his thoughts on another wonderful Christian Pulisic display, as the USMNT winger put in a third Man of the Match performance in a row to continue his superb start to the restart.

[ MORE: Pulisic Watch – Analysis ]

Pulisic, 21, won the penalty kick and free kick which led to Willian’s two goals and came close to scoring himself on two occasions as he ran West Ham ragged.

With two assists and two goals to his name in his three Premier League games since the restart, the Pennsylvanian native has been right up there with Bruno Fernandes and Danny Ings as the best players since the restart.

Speaking to reporters via Zoom after the shock 3-2 defeat at West Ham, ProSoccerTalk asked Lampard about Pulisic’s strong start to the restart and if his form is the main positive from the defeat.

“It is a big positive. He is playing well, as we can all see,” Lampard said on Pulisic. “I thought him and Willian as wingers, who gets his two goals, but with Christian I think we all saw it during the season when he had a patch running up to and around Christmas, when he was playing towards this kind of level as well. Then he got injured and he’s been out for a long time. It is nice to see him back fresh and hungry and playing with the qualities he has. He’s going to get better. He’s a young player with great talent.”

Pulisic has been unplayable across the four games he’s featured in so far. He seems to be fitter, sharper and hungrier than he has been in a long, long time. Perhaps this is purely down to having a rest after the suspension from March to June where he could focus on fitness after rushing to Chelsea last summer following the Gold Cup and never really having a break.

Whatever Pulisic is doing off the pitch and in training, it is having huge rewards on the pitch. Right now, the Eden Hazard comparisons are cropping up time and time again and he’s certainly having the best spell of his Premier League and Chelsea career.

No player under the age of 21 has scored more than his seven Premier League goals so far this season and when the 2019-20 campaign is over, it will be one where Pulisic will look back and see plenty of ups and downs but it’s definitely ending on a high.

His form will be key in whether or not Chelsea qualify for the Champions League next season as they are in an almighty battle with Leicester, Man United, Wolves and even Tottenham and Arsenal.