Premier League Playback: Most unpredictable season ever?

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PERSISTENTLY UNPREDICTABLE

For better or for worse the Premier League has kept us all on our toes so far this season as the main theme is unpredictability and this weekend was a case in point.

Upstarts Stoke City beat stacked Manchester City. Struggling Newcastle United beat red-hot Liverpool. Tiny Bournemouth beat defending champs Chelsea. The upsets and unpredictability just keeps coming week after week.

Who, before the start of the season, would say that entering the second week of December Leicester City would top the PL? What about Chelsea two points off the relegation zone? And then there’s Crystal Palace, West Ham and Watford all in the top 10. Okay then, if you’re saying “yep I did” and nodding your head then you sir/madam are a liar.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Forgive me, I’m a little bitter when I look back at my own preseason predictions for how the PL standings would look in May 2016. Just have a look at how we all though this season would play out when making our picks back in August. Solid choices back then, right?

The beauty of the PL is often the story of the underdog rising from the lower leagues and against all the odds plucking out a miraculous result when facing a perennial powerhouse, but this season the smaller clubs are stringing wins together continuously and the big boys are left scratching their heads in wonderment. True, it’s still early, but with nearly have the season gone the only thing predictable about the PL this campaign is its unpredictability.

[ MORE: PW’s PL picks every week

Leicester have been far and away the surprise of the season with many tipping Claudio Ranieri‘s side for relegation. Chelsea’s severe struggle is an equally mind-boggling storyline (more on that below) and then having a group of seven teams from Crystal Palace in sixth to Southampton in 12th separated by just two points shows the equality present and how a level-playing field is being reached across most of the league. Looking back over the history of the PL, I can remember the 2005-06 season being particularly all over the place with Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn all finishing in the top 10, plus plenty of big teams embroiled in a relegation battle.

This season seems like the most open and unpredictable in the last 10 years and at the top, some of the big boys are still around but nobody is taking the bull by the horns and saying “go on then, if you don’t want to win the title, we will.”

Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United have all stumbled multiple times already — City have lost four games, Arsenal three and United twice — and you get the sense this is only the beginning.

Looking back over the past few seasons, Chelsea, Man City and Man United have had a monopoly on the title since 2005 but various teams such as Everton and Tottenham have edged into the top four and clinched UEFA Champions League qualification. Recently Swansea, Southampton, West Ham and Newcastle have threatened to break into the upper echelons but faltered late in the season and the likes of Leicester, West Ham and Palace this time around seem eager to not only keep all of their star players but also want to add more quality in the January transfer window. Due to huge TV deals, many of the so-called smaller clubs having billionaire owners and the unfashionable clubs investing huge windfalls they’re getting in perhaps more imaginative ways than the big boys, the gap between the usual suspects and the rest is diminishing. This season is a great indicator of the collective wealth and health of all 20 PL clubs and how on any given day anybody can beat anybody.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

That parity in the PL is one of the main reasons why it’s beloved across the globe.

Unlike leagues in Spain, Italy and Germany of late, where title contenders and the top four seem predictable, the Premier League is anything but. That’s why we love it and heading into the crazy festive period, good news for those who love drama out there: even more unpredictability is to come with five matchdays squeezed into the next three weeks. Bring it on and let the shocks continue. I don’t know about you, but I’m loving this feeling of unpredictability rumbling around each and every weekend.

MOURINHO’S MISERY

Hands on his hips and with a face like thunder under the lights at Stamford Bridge, Saturday was another bad day at the office for Jose Mourinho. Very bad, in fact. Chelsea lost 1-0 to Bournemouth as Glenn Murray scored a late winner (which, on second viewing should have been ruled out for offside) to hand the Cherries what manager Eddie Howe called their biggest win in club history.

Premier League Schedule – Week 15

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 3-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Chelsea 0-1 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Everton 1-1 Palace Recap, watch here
Man Utd 0-0 W. Ham Recap, watch here
N’castle 2-0 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Saints 1-1 Villa Recap, watch here
Stoke 2-0 Man City Recap, watch here
Swansea 0-3 Leicester Recap, watch here
Watford 2-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
West Brom 1-1 Spurs Recap, watch here

Mourinho, predictably, blamed the refs for the loss, but what he has to accept is that Chelsea have now suffered eight defeats in their opening 15 games of the campaign. The defending champs lost only three times the whole of last season and just six times the season before that.

Chelsea created plenty of chances, had penalty shouts and toiled in front of their own fans but they were hit by a late sucker-punch and lost for the third time at home this season in the PL. Mourinho had only lost one PL game at home in his previous five seasons in charge of Chelsea heading into 2015-16. Who could’ve predicted this? Nobody.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Those calling for Mourinho to be fired are outsiders, pundits and fans of other clubs. Chelsea fans are sticking with the “Special One” despite all of this woe and, most importantly, so is owner Roman Abramovich and the board. Remember the vote of confidence they gave him? Well, that was after 11 games of the season in all competitions. Chelsea had won four, lost five and drawn two of those games. Since that dreaded vote of confidence arrived from the board, Mourinho has exactly the same record in the last 11 games, winning four, losing five and drawing twice.

So, there’s not been much progress and lifting his team from their early season slumber has proved even more difficult than he thought with faint hopes of rescuing a top four finish all but over and now a top six finish seems like a huge job for Mourinho to overcome.

He got another vote of confidence following the latest defeat, with the greatest manager in PL history, Sir Alex Ferguson, sticking up for the Portuguese coach.

“[Roman Abramovich] has sacked so many coaches in the last 10 years that I am sure he has learned by it. He has to trust and have confidence Jose can turn it around,” Ferguson said. “There is no point in sacking one of the best coaches of all time, he’s won the European Cup twice, he’s won the league in each country he’s managed in, he’s won the big trophies.”

“I have been watching Jose recently and spoken to him a couple of times, and this is the first time he has been confronted with non-success. If you look at his whole career there has been nothing but a rise all of the time so for the first time in his life he has had to deal with bad publicity, adversity and that is a challenge for him, but there are signs he is getting back to a balanced level although they lost on Saturday.”

Mourinho has got the confidence of his club and one of the greatest managers in soccer history.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Now, he needs his players to somehow regain their confidence with five winnable (the away trip to Man United on Dec. 28 aside) games coming up over the festive period. If Chelsea aren’t in the top 10 by the time January rolls around, just over six months after delivering the PL title Mourinho’s future at Stamford Bridge will become increasingly untenable. Given all of the off-field drama this season surrounding him, it’s these poor performances on the pitch which will cost him his job.

STOKED ABOUT STOKE

Are you ready to get stoked? The Potters are on a roll after beating Man City 2-0 at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday and quite frankly it could’ve been four or five as their new philosophy shone through and their flair players clicked.

Xherdan Shaqiri was sublime as he played in Marko Arnautovic to score both of Stoke’s goals in the first 15 minutes, while Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay also turned on the tricks and flicks throughout as City — yes, they had injuries but this was still a woeful performance and the strength of their squad means they should be able to cope better — were second best and Stoke looked like they were having fun.

[ MORE: New-look Stoke ready to progress ]

I visited Stoke’s training ground in November to chat with a few of the players about their new-look under Mark Hughes and how he’s been able to steadily attract attacking players with incredible pedigree to mesh with their hard-nosed, defensive approach which kept them in the PL for so many years under Tony Pulis. Now, Hughes is pushing the envelope. Stoke are just one point off the top six in the PL, have reached the Capital One Cup semifinals and have won three of their last four games. They’re on a roll and Stoke are, well, pretty stoked about what lies in store this season. As they should be.

USMNT UPDATE: CAMERON, GUZAN ON SONG

Four U.S. national team players were in action this weekend as Geoff Cameron put in a superb display in holding midfield to lock down David Silva (he was substituted in the second half) and he was involved in the build up to Stoke’s second goal with some patient possession and then finding Shaqiri who released Arnautovic. Cameron, 30, is fresh off signing a new contract at the Britannia Stadium over the summer and he’s been a pivotal part of their rise to just four points off the top five. Turns out he’s pretty stoked about Stoke too…

Elsewhere, DeAndre Yedlin got caught out by Mesut Ozil’s pass as he let Joel Campbell to score and Sunderland lost 3-1 to Arsenal on Saturday. Yedlin, 22, is still learning his trade but it was a tough afternoon at the Emirates for him. Tim Howard made some vital stops as Everton drew 1-1 at home to Crystal Palace on Monday. Howard showed great reflexes in the first half to keep out Connor Wickham‘s point-blank header and the USMNT veteran put in a solid shift overall.

Another USMNT goalkeeper who performed well was Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan as they picked up a point at Southampton, with Guzan denying Juanmi late on as the Illinois native stood tall. After the game — Villa set a new club record as they’ve now gone 14 games without a win in the PL — I asked Villa’s manager Remi Garde about Guzan’s performance.

“He is very important – you’re right to mention Brad,” Garde told ProSoccerTalk. “He made a very good save. He was helpful in the air because they had many crosses and when you’re bottom of the league we give him a lot to do. He did well today and I’m very pleased with that.”

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

Transfer news: Liverpool line up double swoop, Morales in demand

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The latest transfer news continues across the Premier League and here’s a look at some of the juiciest rumors.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Liverpool have been linked with a double swoop on Borussia Monchenglabach.

German outlet Express claim that Jurgen Klopp is keen on signing Denis Zakaria and Marcus Thuram from ‘Gladbach this summer as the deal could be close to $110 million for both players. Thurman, 22 and Zakaria, 23, have been mainstays as Monchenglabach have hung in the top four race in the Bundesliga and they are both coveted by many of Europe’s top teams as rising stars.

Zakaria is a Swiss international who is a holding midfielder, while Thurman (son of France and Barcelona legend Lillian) is a center forward who has scored 10 goals in all competitions.

Manchester United and Arsenal are said to be interested in signing Zakaria who is a tall, powerful holding midfielder. Central midfield is an area where Liverpool need to strengthen as James Milner is nearing the end of his career, while Fabinho’s 2019-20 has been impacted by injuries and a loss of form and Naby Keita’s Liverpool career continues to falter.

As for Thuram (his agent is Mino Raiola) he would be seen as a back up striker who could step in for Roberto Firmino. Any player arriving at Liverpool will know it will be difficult to dislodge the front three of Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah but a young forward like Thuram will be eager to play his part and wait for his chance. With Rhian Brewster, 20, out on loan at Swansea City and still developing, Liverpool only currently have Divock Origi as a back up striker.

Klopp loves recruiting players from his homeland in Germany and sporting director Michael Edwards is also keen on trying to sign Timo Werner and Jadon Sancho in the coming months. Zakaria and Thurman would perhaps be easier targets to sign given the fact they’d be fine with initially being squad players and working their way into this Liverpool side.


Colombian striker Alfredo Morales is reportedly set to leave Glasgow Rangers as Steven Gerrard is lining up a replacement for him, as Liverpool’s young striker Rhian Brewster could be a loan option.

According to talkSPORT, Leicester, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa are all interested in a move for Morales, while Sevilla, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan are all said to be keen on signing the hot-headed forward. Morelos has been sent off five times this season alone, but he has scored 29 goals in all competitions for Rangers who are reportedly resigned to losing him when the transfer window reopens.

Morelos, 23, has been a huge hit in Scotland and was a big part of Rangers’ run to the last 16 of the Europa League before the season was halted. El Bufalo is a physical player with an eye for goal and his close dribbling and pace suggests he would be a hit for a midtable Premier League club.

Leicester seems like a good landing spot for Morales, especially as the Foxes look likely to be able to offer Champions League action next season. Jamie Vardy, 33, continues to defy father time with his incredible 2019-20 campaign so far but even though Ayoze Perez, Harvey Barnes, Kelechi Iheanacho and James Maddison have chipped in with goals, Leicester badly miss Vardy when he’s out. Morelos could also partner Vardy, as Brendan Rodgers has shown plenty of flexibility with his formation.

Liverpool reverse furlough decision

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Liverpool have announced they will no longer seek financial help from the UK government to pay non-playing staff during the coronavirus pandemic with the furlough scheme.

Over the weekend Liverpool announced they would take advantage of the furlough scheme from the UK government, which will pay 80 percent of wages of any staff impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Liverpool had announced that staff not needed over the next few weeks would be paid 80 percent of their wages by the UK government and they would make up the remaining 20 percent as part of the furlough scheme.

That decision by their billionaire American owners the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) enraged Liverpool’s fanbase.

Peter Moore, the chief executive officer of the runaway Premier League leaders, announced on Monday that the decision would be reversed after talks which included supporters groups, the Mayor of Liverpool and FSG.

“We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week to announce that we intended to apply to the Coronavirus Retention Scheme and furlough staff due to the suspension of the Premier League football calendar, and are truly sorry for that,” Moore said. “Our intentions were, and still are, to ensure the entire workforce is given as much protection as possible from redundancy and/or loss of earnings during this unprecedented period. We are therefore committed to finding alternative ways to operate while there are no football matches being played that ensures we are not applying for the government relief scheme.”

Moore added that Liverpool will be financially impacted by this crisis and they are trying to find ways to offset the loss of revenue due to the season being suspended.

“But in the spirit of transparency we must also be clear, despite the fact we were in a healthy position prior to this crisis, our revenues have been shut off yet our outgoings remain. And like almost every sector of society, there is great uncertainty and concern over our present and future. Like any responsible employer concerned for its workers in the current situation, the club continues to prepare for a range of different scenarios, around when football can return to operating as it did before the pandemic. These scenarios range from best case to worst and everything in between,” Moore continued.

“It is an unavoidable truth that several of these scenarios involve a massive downturn in revenue, with correspondingly unprecedented operating losses. Having these vital financial resources so profoundly impacted would obviously negatively affect our ability to operate as we previously have. We are engaged in the process of exploring all avenues within our scope to limit the inevitable damage. We thank the many amazing people in our club, at all levels, who are committed to helping us do just that, despite the complexity and unpredictability in the world and our industry.”

The backlash against Liverpool’s decision follows plenty of criticism for Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur who did the same, as many leading voices believe that the billionaire owners of Premier League clubs should be paying their staff during this unprecedented pandemic instead of getting help from the government.

Many Liverpool’s fans and former players slammed the initial decision so it is good to those concerns have been addressed, as the Reds recorded a pre-tax profit of $51 million last year alone and $153 million profit the year before that.

VOTE: Premier League March Madness playoff final

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Our Premier League March Madness tournament began on Monday and we had some early drama in the relegation playoff semifinals.

The opening two games of our bracket produced two surprise winners, as #20 Norwich City edged out #17 Watford after winning 50.48 percent of the vote, while #19 Aston Villa comfortably beat #18 Bournemouth with 62.14 percent of votes.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub

That means Norwich will now face Aston Villa in the final, and Villa won both of their meetings in the Premier League this season. The first with a 5-1 win at Carrow Road, the second with a undeserved home win at Villa Park.

What do the winners get? If you win the relegation playoff final you are exempt from relegation and finish as the 2020 tournament as #17 seed, while the runner up will be relegated along with the two semifinal losers.

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final
Tuesday: Sweet 16
Wednesday: Elite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Plus, our own Nick Mendola handicapped the field and here is who he thinks will be the favorites to win it all and which teams you should look out for as dark horses over the next few days. His predictions are wild and Arsenal fans will want to prove he is correct and they pick up a first piece of silverware under Mikel Arteta.

Okay, vote below (until 3 p.m. ET) for the two relegation playoff finalists as our Premier League March Madness tournament continues!

Report: Premier League prepares for June return

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The Premier League is reportedly preparing to return to action in June as the current season remains suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Multiple reports across the UK, including this one from the Daily Mirror, claim that the government has given the Premier League the green light to return to action from June, provided the situation has improved as expected by then.

Per the report, Premier League clubs have been told that they should prepare for games to be played from June 1 onwards behind closed doors and there is a ‘tentative agreement for the top flight to resume behind closed doors after the 20 clubs mapped out a plan with senior officials on a resumption of matches.’

The report adds that ‘in principle, with government health officials hopeful of a coronavirus peak in the UK in the next few weeks, they will sanction games under strict guidelines.’ 

Plans are in place for players to be isolated together and away from the public, as they could begin training in May so they can prepare for the current campaign resuming.

With the situation in the UK deteriorating over the last week and the country on lockdown, these tentative plans can of course change quickly.

Premier League players have had differing views on what should happen to the 2019-20 season and Luke Shaw is the latest to say games should not be played behind closed doors. But if teams play two games per week in empty stadiums or training grounds from June 1, there is the real possibility the season could be finished by the start of July and then FA Cup and Europe competitions could follow.

The overwhelming feeling from Premier League clubs, the league itself and many other individuals is that the 2019-20 season should be finished whenever it is safe to do so. Recent PL club meetings came to that agreement and that is the official stance.

However, the next big question is whether or not fans will be able to attend games for the rest of the season and this report seems to suggest that is totally off the table and if the current campaign is concluded, fans will not be present.