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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.