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. 

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.

It’s hard to be humbled. Anything less could cost Berhalter his job

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Wild nights, positive or negative, deserve reflection one day later. Here’s our bid to put the USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Canada in context less than 24 hours later…

The humbling of Gregg Berhalter is one of two distinct hopes for his survival as United States men’s national team coach.

The other is an unreliable route, one filled with long-term health for his best players on some pie-in-the-sky road where he utilizes the same 12-14 players per game for the rest of his tenure.

So, yeah, the first one is pretty key.

Coaches are by nature arrogant, and Berhalter earned his confidence by nurturing a suboptimal Columbus Crew roster into an over-performing playoff mainstay despite owner and former showgirl Rachel Phelps trying to move the club to Miami (Movie reference No.1, achieved).

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

When Berhalter beat out the field of two to lay claim to the USMNT position, he won over the media with Powerpoint slides about Pep Guardiola-inspired possession, which assumed to the delight of the American fan base that the nation had the immediate tools to out-class most of CONCACAF simply by being organized. He even had people handing him cute nicknames and defending the idea of using a Bundesliga regular defensive midfielder as a right back because he was generous with his time. Who needs La Masia when you’ve got the DA?

It should be pointed out that the philosophy’s failure through nine months doesn’t entirely destroy the idea to try it, but Berhalter’s often bizarre player selection and tactical destruction at the hands of Jamaica, Mexico, and now Canada have hastened the end of his honeymoon period almost as effectively as his the federation’s refusal to interview anyone other than Berhalter and Oscar Pareja. I mean, who needs Sergino Dest’s optimism when you can keep trying to jam a Wil Trapp-sized Wil Trapp through an Andrea Pirlo-shaped hole?

So you get what we had last night, a tire fire of a match in which his midfield had no idea what to do with the ball and his forwards might as well have been on a monastic retreat. According to the broadcast, Berhalter thought a miserable first half was due to his men not moving the ball fast enough side-to-side. His answers via subs, even before they were down, were to take off Christian Pulisic and leave creative minds Sebastian Lletget and Tyler Boyd on the bench. After the game, he claimed his players weren’t working hard enough and didn’t match Canada’s desire.

Here’s the problem, though, that’s on Berhalter, too. There were myriad articles out there, including several on this site, detailing Canada’s desperation to get results in the CONCACAF Nations League in order to move into a Top Six CONCACAF spot on the FIFA Rankings and qualify for the Hex.

(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

All it takes is a cursory look at the Canada roster to see that their electric attackers were their hope of winning the match, and that pressing their relatively weak group of defenders — one of whom has only been a defender for a year — was probably a great idea.

But Berhalter again stuck with his idea that the United States men’s national team program, even without several of its best players, could implement his system anywhere, against anyone.

And it failed spectacularly.

The thing is that Berhalter is actually quite a decent coach, as he proved in Columbus, but whether or not he lives to show it to this American audience in this particular job depends on his accepting the shortcomings of his depleted roster.

I want to talk to you about Aaron Long, and not because of his “Stranger Things” lifeguard haircut (TV show reference No. 1, achieved).

Aaron Long is a mauler, the sort of player who’d be beloved by many segments of the USMNT community in several generations. He gets stuck in, has a good work rate, and can factor on set pieces in the attacking third.

What he does not do very well — and I’ve covered this a lot in this space — is pass the ball and aid in possession. Since breaking into MLS in 2017, the now 27-year-old center back has completed 76, 69, and 65 percent of his passes with the New York Red Bulls.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Part of that is a function of the Red Bulls’ system; The team doesn’t really care at all about possession, passing at a terrible 68.6 percent, and not one of their players had a completion rate above 80 percent this year. By comparison, 197 players in Major League Soccer completed 80 percent or more of their passes this season (WhoScored).

This is not an argument that Long shouldn’t be in the U.S. system. While he’s had a rough couple of months in the shirt, he’s in the mix for the toughest American center backs in the game.

Might this possession-based idea look a lot better when healthy? Of course, that’s what we mentioned above. John Brooks is by far the best passing center back in the pool, and has been out of the mix for sometime due to injury. The same is true for the side’s best No. 6 in Adams.

But what the Yanks were for so long was difficult to break down, a hassle to play against. Berhalter needs that right now, and he’s got the horses to do it (Watch Jordan Morris’ legs keep moving for 90 minutes if you need proof). Success could then require admitted in front of a microphone that his team can’t hack his system right now, and that he talked down to an entire room last month when they just spit facts his way. That’s humbling, and it’s not fun. But it’s needed.

Adding to the issue is that it’s easy to see the Yanks still emerging from their group by beating Canada in Orlando next month and then walloping Cuba. But if Berhalter hasn’t been humbled and sees victories against the 53rd and 145th ranked teams in EloRatings as validation, well, I’ve got some truly valuable early 1990s baseball cards to sell you for a premium price.

Arrogance does nothing for you if it’s ill-founded. That confidence has felled countless executives, coaches, and players over the years (and yes, even average writers). Being outfoxed by Tata Martino is one thing, but having no reaction to the plan of John Herdman is another (That’s not a shot at Herdman, who had done well with the New Zealand and Canada women, but let’s be real).

We won’t learn whether Berhalter has learned from his errors via results next month, rather by what he does to try and get those results. When Martino beat him in the Gold Cup Final, the rematch two months later was far worse. He gets a second chance to match wits with Herdman next month, and it really cannot get much worse. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice (Movie reference No. 2, achieved).

Last month, I wrote that Berhalter’s duties including the following bare minimum goals.

  1. Qualify for the World Cup
  2. Reach the final of all CONCACAF competitions
  3. Look like an adequate footballing nation in other competitions
  4. Make sure he doesn’t lose any talented dual nationals (also the GM’s job)

No. 1 is still far away, but 2-4… woah. We’re one Alphonso Davies star show away from finishing 2019 without a Gold Cup and no place in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal. Sergino Dest might’ve skipped town for Ronald Koeman‘s Netherlands set-up either way, but being shoehorned at left back last month probably helped his decision.

Finally, a number of people on Twitter pointed out that Canada is due plenty of respect for out-dueling the USMNT on Tuesday. Absolutely! But if you think a nation with under 1 million registered soccer players should be absolutely clowning a nation with 4 million-plus, a side they hadn’t beaten let alone dominated in 34 years, then you’re not getting the point. There’s room for Canada and the U.S. to both be good, but the Yanks looked like a steaming hot mug of spoiled milk to Canada’s well-chilled bag of the fresh stuff. No good.

Your move, Gregg. Do what you did last night, and last month, and you’ll get the same results. Your only other option is Voodoo dolls of Alphonso Davies and Scott Arfield.

Mbappe in frame for monster contract offers from PSG, Real

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Kylian Mbappe is one of the most dynamic players in the world and doesn’t even turn 21 until late December.

Paris Saint-Germain has locked the youngster up through 2022, but that hasn’t stopped the biggest names in football from being linked with massive bids for his services.

[ MORE: Pogba, De Gea out ]

Dueling reports out of French outlet Le10 Sport claim that Mbappe is set to be offered a monster new $55 million annual contract from Les Parisiens, with Real Madrid ready to offer the big man almost $40 million per year.

The new PSG figure would give Mbappe the richest deal in football, while Real’s offer would sit below only Lionel Messi (at least until the Barcelona legend gets his new deal this winter).

We’ve argued that, given his age and acumen, Mbappe is the one player in world football worth the outlandish numbers it would take to land his services.

At age 20, he’s already a World Cup winner with 13 goals in 33 caps, and his club numbers are eye-popping: 89 goals and 51 assists in 154 matches between Monaco and PSG. Absurd.

Everton’s Gbamin undergoes surgery, out 3 months

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Everton’s lack of scoring prowess has stolen the headlines as Marco Silva‘s men have wasted a wonderful opportunity to start the season off in style.

But it’s been easy to forget that the Toffees have been without the man they bought to help offset the loss of Idrissa Gana Gueye, perhaps their best player two years running, in the form of Jean-Philippe Gbamin.

[ MORE: Pogba, De Gea out ]

The Ivorian cost a reported $30 million this summer when he arrived from Mainz, and Everton won his only start before an injury sent him to the sidelines.

Gbamin has not suitably improved, and is now set for another three months on the sidelines thanks to surgery on his hamstring.

It’s a sock to the gut for a team already wallowing in misfortune. Now sitting 18th, as close to 20th as they are to 10th, it’s difficult to imagine things getting much worse for a team that held so much promise.

Everton hosts West Ham to kickoff the Premier League weekend at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday.