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

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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.

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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.

Spurs complete Bergwijn transfer from PSV

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After 18 months without signing a single player, Tottenham Hotspur sure are making up for lost time.

[ MORE: Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares ]

The club announced on Wednesday that 22-year-old Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn has been signed from PSV Eindhoven, marking Tottenham’s second signing of the January transfer window. Midfielder Gedson Fernandes arrived from Benfica earlier this month.

Bergwijn is a dynamic wide attacking player who put together the best season of his younger career last term (14 goals in 33 league appearances) and followed it up with another solid six months at PSV (5 goals in 16) before Spurs came calling. He arrives a day after Christian Eriksen officially departed Spurs for Inter Milan, and Bergwijn will wear the no. 23 shirt, which stood vacant for less the 24 hours in Eriksen’s wake.

The fee for Bergwijn has been reported at $32 million, making him a relatively low-risk signing in the world of today’s transfers, though his mere presence signals a significant departure from the club’s standard operating practices of the past.

[ MORE: Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

Do Spurs fans have Jose Mourinho to thank for chairman Daniel Levy’s newfound free-spending ways? Not even Harry Redknapp could convince Spurs’ frugal owner to spend in this manner, let alone the likes of Mauricio Pochettino or an Andre Villas-Boas. While requesting and demanding — and getting — big-money signings has been a common theme of Mourinho’s management career, Spurs didn’t seem like a place he’d simply continue to operate in that way.

Rather than learn a new trick himself, it would appear Mourinho taught Levy one instead.

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.

Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

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Chelsea has so far come up empty in its search for a striker, so desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Tammy Abraham, who has been a revelation this season with 13 Premier League goals, went down with an ankle injury late in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last weekend. The club has tried desperately to find a striker before the Friday transfer window closes, and while the Blues have been linked with Edinson Cavani and Krzysztof Piatek they so far have not had any success in finding a replacement.

Therefore, according to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through his injury against Leicester City this weekend. The match is a vital one as Chelsea, sitting fourth in the Premier League table, looks to put separation between themselves and Manchester United while also chasing the third-placed Foxes who sit eight points clear.

The thinking appears to be that Chelsea has a 16-day break between the Leicester City match and their subsequent game against Manchester United in mid-February thanks to the Premier League’s two-week break at the start of the month.

Earlier this month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted regret for not resting a banged up Marcus Rashford, choosing instead to bring him off the bench in an FA Cup match against Wolves. Reports after the match confirmed that Rashford was carrying a single stress fracture in his back at the time of the appearance, and he was hauled off 16 minutes later with scans after the match showing his appearance against Wolves worsened the injury. He now he faces two to three months on the sidelines.

Abraham has also slowed of late after being so heavily used this season. The 22-year-old has logged a massive 2,359 minutes across all competitions this season, including 1,843 out of a possible 2,160 in Premier League play. Abraham scored his first 11 Premier League goals in his first 14 matches of the season, but has just three goals in the last 10 games.

Chelsea has Michy Batshuayi as a natural replacement for Abraham up top, but Frank Lampard has used him as solely a bench option the entirety of this season. Batshuayi has made 14 Premier League appearances this season, but has logged just 138 minutes across those matches. When used as a starter in cup action, Batshuayi has four goals in four domestic cup starts. Olivier Giroud is also on the roster, having made just five Premier League appearances this season.

Ed Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares

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Manchester United has been unable to reclaim the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that has Red Devils fans up in arms. CEO Ed Woodward has taken much of the heat, with the executive unable to prevent the squad from degrading in quality and the team consequently has been unable to consistenly challenge for a top-four place, with his financial background not exactly a fit for his player recruitment position.

Some fans seem to have taken their frustration way too far.

A video emerged on social media claiming to show fans shooting flares at Woodward’s private residence, and reports from Sky Sports and The Daily Mirror corroborated that claim. The club then issued a statement condemning the incident.

“Manchester United Football Club have tonight been made aware of the incident outside the home of one of our employees.”We know that the football world will unite behind us as we work with Greater Manchester Police to identify the perpetrators of this unwarranted attack. Anybody found guilty of a criminal offense, or found to be trespassing on this property, will be banned for life by the club and may face prosecution. Fans expressing opinion is one thing, criminal damage and intent to endanger life is another. There is simply no excuse for this.”

The Sky Sports report claims that neither Woodward nor any of his family – particularly his wife and two children – were present in the home at the time of the attack. The Daily Mirror claims upwards of 20 or 30 fans were part of the attack on the house, with the caption “Ed Woodward’s gonna die” with three red circle emojis all in a Snapchat banner. Sky Sports also reports that red paint was sprayed on the gates of the home.

There are also reports of sickening chants during the recent FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers, with fans singing about burning Woodward and the club owner Malcom Glazer in a bonfire.

Manchester United has reportedly looked to hire a Director of Football in recent months, but has so far stuck with Woodward as the head of recruitment. The squad has