Premier League Playback: What did we learn in 2015-16 season?

Leave a comment

THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE

We learned from Leicester City that the impossible is indeed possible.

I don’t know if you’ve heard this but the Foxes were 5000-1 to win the Premier League this season. They did it. Cluadio Ranieri led a bunch of castoffs and second-chancers to the title and in the end they did it in style, winning the PL by 10 points as their total team effort wowed the watching world.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews

So much has been said about Leicester’s win — the clubs first-ever top-flight title in their 132-year history — but quite simply it has breathed new life into the Premier League, the beautiful game and sport overall.

Everyone can now point to Leicester’s success over the course of nine months to prove that literally anything is possible. There will be no more excuses. If Leicester could win the title, which they did, then who says Burnley can’t win it next season?

[ MORE: The biggest party in Leicester’s history ]

It defied belief for pretty much the entire season. This was a group of players who were almost relegated last season until an incredible run of seven wins in their final nine games saw them survive. Sure, they added Christian Fuchs, Marc Albrighton, Shinji Okazaki and, most importantly, N'Golo Kante to the mix but essentially it was the same core group.

Jamie Vardy scored 24 goals and rose to stardom with England. Riyad Mahrez all of a sudden channeled his inner-Lionel Messi to destroy PL defenses with a swing of his hips and the central defense duo of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were shielded superbly by Danny Drinkwater and Kante. Along with the failing of plenty of big boys, the perfect storm was created for Leicester to create a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. They took full advantage of it.

[ MORE: Best stats of the 2015-16 season ]

Led by Claudio Ranieri — in his first season in charge of the Foxes after replacing the hugely popular Nigel Pearson — the incredible scenes we’ve seen in Leicester throughout this season and in the past few weeks as they’ve celebrated the trophy have inspired everyone to keep dreaming and believing.

Leicester’s title win is the greatest single story in Premier League history. It is the greatest story in sporting history. Period.


NICE GUYS DO WIN

As for the mastermind of that success, Mr. Ranieri has won new fans the world over. The 64-year-old Italian has a humble demeanor, is a lovable character in the media and has galvanized a group of players to work together to achieve immortality.

[ MORE: Grades for each PL team ]  

There’s no doubting that Ranieri will have a statue in Leicester at some point in the near future. He has led the Foxes to their first-ever title and first-ever appearances in the UEFA Champions League and along the way he’s created so many wonderful memories.

From “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” to taking the team out for Pizza after a clean sheet and crying on the pitch at Sunderland, this wonderful manager has used every ounce of his experience to push the Foxes over the line. He has so many great accolades coming his way and the crux of it all is that as well as being a worthy champion, Ranieri is just a really nice bloke.

[ MORE: PST Awards – POTY | Coach of Year | Young POTY | Team of Year ]

Throughout his managerial career — which has seen him come runner up at Chelsea, AS Roma and Monaco — many have branded Ranieri as being too nice and pointed to that as the reason why he’d never won a top-flight title before this season.

After pulling off the greatest story in sporting history, Ranieri has proven that nice guys can win it all.


MANCHESTER NEEDS A MAJOR FACELIFT

Manchester City and Manchester United battled it out until the bitter end for the Premier League title in 2012. This season they battled it out until the bitter end for fourth place.

Regression is the key word when describing the kind of seasons the two Manchester clubs endured in 2015-16.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

City pipped United to fourth place on goal difference and ensured that incoming manager Pep Guardiola will at least have a UEFA Champions League play-off game to look forward to when he arrives this summer. The announcement of Guardiola’s impending arrival midseason ultimately had a big impact on City’s players.

In the UCL they made the semifinals and narrowly lost out to Real Madrid but in league play they coasted along under Manuel Pellegrini, even though the Chilean manager added another League Cup title to take his total trophy haul at the Etihad to two League Cups and a PL title in three years. Not bad, but not great considering the signings of last summer.

Kevin De Bruyne was the only player who proved he was worth his huge $75 million pricetag, while Raheem Sterling has underperformed after his own $75 million transfer and the central defenive duo of Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala — who cost a combined $85 million — look lost in England. There’s a lot for Pep to sort out when he arrives.

As for United, where do we start? Louis Van Gaal, 64, is somehow still in charge and the Dutchman believes he will be in charge for the third and final year of his contract when next season rolls around. Okay, Louis, we believe you… At least we will still have moments like this to treasure forever.

United finished fifth in the PL, they reached the FA Cup final and they were knocked out of the UCL in the group stage, then dumped out of the Europa League by Liverpool. It has been yet another tepid season under LVG’s guidance and only $60 million man Anthony Martial has provided a brief bright spark. United’s fans are bored and unhappy with performances and with no UCL action next season, Jose Mourinho is lurking ominously in the background.

Whether or not Van Gaal remains, it is true that both Manchester clubs have had their wings clipped this season. The chasing pack has got closer over the past few years and complacency must not be tolerated. This rivalry has the potential to be one of the biggest in the world, as we’ve seen in recent years. Now, though, its languishing in the doldrums. Pep vs. Mourinho should liven things up though…

TOTTENHAM RISING, SAME OLD ARSENAL

Talking about lively rivalries, my word the battle for north London was intense this season.

I wrote this longform piece on the dominance potentially shifting to Tottenham after their title push. However, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men faltered in the final weeks of the season and Arsenal clinched second spot on the final day of the season to finish ahead of Spurs for the 21st consecutive campaign.

Both clubs will be in the UCL group stages next season and with Spurs’ new stadium ready for 2018, a hungry, talented manager signing a new five-year deal and boasting the youngest squad in the PL, things are still looking up for Spurs.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings

As for Arsenal, they fought back valiantly to remain the top dogs in north London but it was a case of the same old story for Arsene Wenger. Yes, it was their highest finish in the PL since 2004-05 but this was the year they were supposed to win the damn thing. Instead, they languished behind Leicester City and despite leading the way in late January they couldn’t kick on in the final months of the season. They caused huge frustrations among fans and plenty of protests against Wenger.

This summer is a big one for Arsenal as we learned that the once mammoth gap in quality in north London has now become minuscule. Here’s hoping these two will battle it out at the top of the league for many years to come because there’s nothing quite like a NLD when there’s trophies and titles on the line, as well as immense local pride.

RISE OF UNDERDOGS WIDESPREAD

Leicester stole the headlines, and rightly so, but they weren’t the other smaller team to take on the big buys. Look at the top seven in the table. Did anyone honestly have Leicester, Southampton and West Ham to all be among the top seven in their preseason predictions? Yeah, didn’t think so.

[ MORE: Team-by-team season reviews A-M N-W ]

Southampton and West Ham were both flirting with a top four finish, especially the Hammers for most of the season, and clubs of that size and ambition will be buoyed by seeing Leicester’s success and will honestly believe they can emulate it. Sure, this was a down year for some of the big boys in the PL but even clubs like Stoke City will be dreaming of big things as a huge theme of this season was the breakthrough of the underdogs.

Everyone is trying to work out if the force has been disturbed among the PL’s elite for good or if this season was an anomaly.

We won’t know that for some time but it has certainly been a year of the unexpected. It has been the most difficult season to predict and the equality across the PL suggests we could be in for much more of this in the future as the smaller teams believe they can “do a Leicester” in the years to come.

That will be tough, of course it will, but with the perennial powerhouses stumbling around, why can’t West Ham, Southampton or Stoke realistically target a top four finish next season?

POWERHOUSES BACK-PEDDLING

Liverpool. Chelsea. Aston Villa. Newcastle United. Everton. It was not a good season for these five teams.

When it come to Chelsea, nobody expected that collapse. From Mourinho’s opening day exchange with club doctor Eva Carneiro to the many crushing defeats which followed it, the reigning champs ended up firing one of the greatest managers the world has ever seen just seven months after he delivered the title. Deep-rooted issues seemed to have been a big part of Chelsea’s demise, as so many players underperformed all at the same time. “The Special One” unraveled in his third season at a club once again as his demonstrative nature and egotistic approach saw him fall flat on his face.

He will remain a legend at Stamford Bridge for delivering three PL titles but he now has to rebuild his reputation. Just like Chelsea. With Antonio Conte arriving this summer the Italian will bring a strict approach as he aims to shake up a talented yet mentally fragile squad. Chelsea will be back. Roman Abramovich will chuck money at it until they are but as for the other clubs, it could be a while until we see them get anywhere near past heights.

First up, Aston Villa and Newcastle United were a shambles this season as two huge clubs were relegated. Villa gained just 17 points and were relegated for the first time in the PL era. Some good news has arrived in the past few days with a Chinese billionaire taking over but there’s still a lot of work for Villa to do to try and drag themselves back into the PL and then rebuild from there.

For Newcastle, they must do the same. The Steve McClaren experiment went horribly wrong and Rafael Benitez almost saved them but they left it too late to appoint the Spaniard. The noises out of St. James’ Park suggest Benitez may stay on next season and they will need him to if they want to come straight back up. It is a club whose fans deserve so much more than the Mike Ashley regime has delivered.

Two other big teams treading water is Liverpool and Everton. Yes, Liverpool is heading in the right direction under Jurgen Klopp who arrived midseason and a full summer training under his methods and the charismatic German coach getting some money to spend in the summer will kick on his project. But we can’t hide away from the facts of an eighth-place finish and two cup final defeats this season. Liverpool have a squad which seems to be mentally weak as we saw in the Europa League final defeat to Sevilla.

Klopp has lots of work to do for next season but with no European distractions, perhaps the Reds will make a real charge at not only the top four but maybe even the title next season? It is all about recruitment and how much Klopp is given to spend because he can obviously motivate players and has the tactical acumen to succeed. He just needs better quality to work with.

The Toffees fired Roberto Martinez before the final game of the season and under new owner Farhad Moshiri they are ambitious but have to be very careful about their next step. Hiring the correct manager is key, as is keeping hold of the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones. The youngsters in Everton’s ranks had their confidence badly battered this season and it will take some time to get back to challenging for the top six or even the top four as a club of Everton’s size should be.

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

Sessegnon beats Neuer to score first Spurs, Champions League goal

Photo by Peter Kneffel/picture alliance via Getty Images)Photo by Peter Kneffel/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Ryan Sessegnon has his first Spurs goal, which also happens to be his first UEFA Champions League goal, and he’ll love telling the tale of it.

The 19-year-old Englishman ripped a rocket past Manuel Neuer of all people, collecting a deflection to equalize early in Tottenham’s match against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sessegnon entered the day with an assist in 30 minutes spread across three appearances for Spurs, and needed just 20 more minutes to find a goal.

He made a big money move from Fulham this summer, having made a remarkable 120 senior appearances. Almost all of those came before he turned 19, and he’s scored 25 times with 18 assists.

Kingsley Coman has Bayern’s goal as the teams remain locked at 1 after Bayern hung 7 on Spurs in England earlier in the group stage.

 

Jesus hat-trick downs Dinamo Zagreb, Atalanta qualifies for knockouts

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City looked sluggish again, but Gabriel Jesus made sure it didn’t matter.

The Brazilian cropped up at a critical juncture for Pep Guardiola, sending Manchester City through into the knockout stage on a winning note as his hat-trick sealed a 4-1 come-from-behind victory that knocked Dinamo Zagreb from European competition altogether.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The first half was especially lackluster for the English visitors to Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb, with lots of possession but little to show for it. The hosts went in front early on, punishing Man City on the counter on a fabulous volleyed finish from former Barcelona youth product Dani Olmo.

That was the best goal of the day, but Man City picked itself up and pulled back level before the break, with Jesus grabbing his first via a header as Dinamo Zagreb shut off, screaming for Man City to put the ball out with a Zagreb player down. The visitors rightly did not, and Dinamo was punished by the equalizer.

After halftime, Man City was much better, hammering the left flank to take a commanding lead. The second came on excellent work by Jesus in the box to shake a defender and finish with his right, while the third flew in minutes later on a pinpoint Benjamin Mendy cross that Jesus met with a flying karate kick. Pep Guardiola had one eye on the festive fixtures, withdrawing Jesus soon after the hour mark, replaced by Oleksandr Zinchenko who curiously took Jesus’s place at the striker position.

Phil Foden was the best Manchester City player throughout, and finished off the scoreline with seven minutes to go. An excellent buildup down the right saw Bernardo Silva sprung through, and he cut back to Foden at the top of the six-yard box who slid to meet the ball with pace and poke home the cherry on top.

Elsewhere, Atalanta topped Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0 in the Ukraine on goals by Timothy Castagne, Mario Pasalic, and Robin Gosens, meaning the Italians secured the second spot in Group A, qualifying for the knockout stage. The Ukranians were left dead in the water after right-back Dodo was sent off 13 minutes from time, leading to the second goal to seal things up. Atalanta’s advancement marks a stunning comeback given the Italian side failed to secure points in any of their first three group stage matches.

That left Shakhtar in third, dropping to the Europa League, while Dinamo Zagreb was left at the bottom of the group, on the outside looking in.

Charlotte MLS club files trademarks for eight potential names

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It is being heavily reported that Charlotte is the next city to earn a club in the rapidly expanding Major League Soccer landscape, and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has taken the next step towards that possibility.

The new club needs a name, and they appear to be nearing a selection. Tepper filed for eight different name trademarks, according to multiple reports, including The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue who confirmed the filings were made under Tepper’s Panthers address.

Here is the list of names he filed copyright requests for:

“Charlotte FC” would be a bare-bones and generic name that follows in the footsteps of recent MLS expansion clubs such as Orlando City SC, NYCFC or LAFC. Others are a little more colorful, including “Carolina Gliders FC” or “Charlotte Monarchs FC,” while a few others like “Charlotte Town FC” or “Charlotte Athletic FC” clearly call forth thoughts of smaller English clubs.

Rodrigue speculated that the relative lack of “Carolina” encompassing names is potentially due to the possibility of an expansion bid from Raleigh down the road, and a Carolina team would potentially provide an unnecessary roadblock to that future prospect. There is a clear lack of region-encompassing names in Major League Soccer, with “New England Revolution” the only example, and there’s no real reason to break that mold with another potential bid city down the road.

Which name is your favorite? What would you have gone with if you could name the club?

LIVE, UCL: Two knockout spots remain; Man City, Tottenham in play

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two more spots in the knockout round remain unclaimed as the final day of group stage play begins on Wednesday.

Groups C and D both require a second team to progress through to the Round of 16, with five teams still in the mix.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Manchester City has already won Group D, but the remaining three teams Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb, and Atalanta all remain in contention for the second spot. Shakhtar currently sits second and has a home match with Atalanta, while Dinamo Zagreb host Man City in Croatia. Both those games feature in the early 12:55 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Group D, meanwhile, has a pair of sides vying for the last spot. Atletico Madrid has a point advantage, currently sitting in second with a home match against already eliminated Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow. Bayer Leverkusen, meanwhile, hosts group winners Juventus in Germany.

Elsewhere, Tottenham Hotspur has already locked up a spot in the knockout stage, locked into the second spot in Group A, and they finish out the group stage with a visit to confirmed group winners Bayern Munich. Jose Mourinho told the press he forbid his players from watching any footage of the 7-2 defeat to Bayern to begin group stage play, and is resting “a few players” ahead of the festive Premier League fixtures.

Finally, Group A has already been decided with Real Madrid confirmed to finish second behind winners Paris Saint-Germain, but the two still have to complete the fixture list. Madrid heads to Belgium to take on Club Brugge, while PSG hosts Galatasaray. The Spanish side is most likely to rest players, with a weekend visit to Valencia coming up on Sunday followed by a midweek El Clasico that was rescheduled from earlier in the season.

Below is the full schedule for the last UCL games on Wednesday, with all games kicking off at 3 p.m. ET unless otherwise noted, and you can follow the action live by clicking on the link above.


Wednesday Champions League action

Group A

Club Brugge v. Real Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain v. Galatasaray

Group B

Bayern Munich v. Tottenham Hotspur
Olympiakos v. Red Star Belgrade

Group C

Dinamo Zagreb v. Manchester City (12:55 p.m. ET)
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Atalanta (12:55 p.m. ET)

Group D

Atletico Madrid v. Lokomotiv Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen v. Juventus