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.

[ 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.

Serie A: Juventus edge past Parma; Napoli-Fiorentina thriller (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Parma 0-1 Juventus

Juventus’ quest to win a ninth straight Serie A title began with a win away to Parma on Saturday, but only just barely. Giorgio Chiellini scored the game’s only goal in the 21st minute, redirecting Alex Sandro’s half-volley past the goalkeeper after a corner kick wasn’t fully cleared. The victory sets Maurizio Sarri‘s side (Sarri wasn’t in charge of the team on Saturday as he continues to recover from pneumonia) on its way in a season that figures to feature multiple challengers to the throne, with Napoli and Inter Milan each strengthening their squads considerably in the summer. Sarri will also miss out on next weekend’s heavyweight clash between Juve and last season’s runners-up Napoli at Allianz Stadium.

Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal taken off the board after the video-assistant referee picked up on the narrowest of offside calls.

$85-million center back Matthijs de Ligt was named to the bench, where he remained for the entirety of 90 minutes, with veterans Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci preferred to the 20-year-old. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon joined De Ligt on the bench in his return to Juve after spending last season at Paris Saint-Germain.

Fiorentina 3-4 Napoli

Napoli’s 4-3 victory over Fiorentina was a truly wild ride. There is no other way to describe it.

Napoli went from a goal down inside the first 10 minutes, to 2-1 up just before halftime, level at 2-2 in the 52nd minute, 3-2 ahead just four minutes later, level at 3-3 in the 65th, and finally 4-3 ahead just two minutes later.

Dries Mertens (38th), Lorenzo Insigne (43rd and 67th) and Jose Callejon (56th) got the goals for Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

Hirving Lozano, who joined Napoli for $44 million on Friday, wasn’t yet available to make his debut but will only add another level of quality to what has proven to be an already impressive attacking unit.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Udinese v. AC Milan — 12 p.m. ET
Roma v. Genoa — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sampdoria v. Lazio — 2:45 p.m. ET
Cagliari v. Brescia — 2:45 p.m. ET
Verona v. Bologna — 2:45 p.m. ET
SPAL v. Atalanta — 2:45 p.m. ET
Torino v. Sassuolo — 2:45 p.m. ET

Messi to miss Barcelona’s next game; Suarez, Dembele also out

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi has been left out of Barcelona’s squad to face Real Betis in the Spanish league on Sunday.

[ MORE: Liverpool bests wobbly Arsenal at Anfield | Player ratings ]

Messi returned to training this week after recovering from a right calf injury picked up in preseason, but the Argentina star was not included in the list of players available for the team’s home opener at Camp Nou Stadium.

He missed the team’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the league opener last weekend.

Coach Ernesto Valverde is also without forwards Luiz Suarez and Ousmane Dembele because of injuries.

Klopp preens after Liverpool win: ‘Our identity is intensity’

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Liverpool and Arsenal entertained on Saturday, with the Reds earning a deserved 3-1 win and keeping the Gunners off-kilter for most of the day.

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds pushed the tempo for much of the match and overcame some wobbly moments at the back to cruise to the win.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Arsenal recap | 3 things ]

They were tough, fiery, and deserved every bit of the win. And Klopp knows it, and knows that you know it. From the BBC:

“Our identity is intensity, and we showed that today. … We were a bit surprised by their system. We couldn’t know that they would play a diamond, but we switched things around and coped very well.

“The last 10 minutes I saw the possession – 53 to 47 or something like that – but over 80 minutes it must have been completely different. For 80 minutes we were completely in charge of the game. We are not Disneyland, we do not need to excite everyone in every second.”

This guy is an absolute beauty. Even those who despise him have to admit that we are lucky to have him.

Klopp’s men lapsed late and allowed a Lucas Torreira goal. The defense has been wobbly over the first three weeks of the season, and preseason was just as rough. Klopp would’ve loved a clean sheet for the first time since the first week of preseason, but he’s happy with the performance.

“I would have loved to have it, but things can happen. They’re a quality side, Arsenal. I didn’t see that many chances, but we were really in charge today and completely deserved the win.”

Liverpool is off to Burnley next, and then will enjoy the international break.

Bundesliga wrap: Lewandowski scores hat trick for Bayern; USMNT’s Morales scores

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What a good day (well, 2 days) for the visitors.

[ MORE: Liverpool-Arsenal recap | 3 things ]

Bayern, Gladbach, Bayer, and Freiburg joined Friday winners Borussia Dortmund in being in the away locker room and the win column on Saturday in the Bundesliga.

Newly-promoted Union Berlin got a point away from home, too, and Werder Bremen scored twice and nearly took a point off Werder Bremen.

Boo home teams. Boo.

Schalke 0-3 Bayern Munich

A Robert Lewandowski hat trick betrayed a halfway decent effort by Schalke as Bayern rebounded from a season-opening draw to claim all three points at the Veltins Arena.

On the American side, only Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich covered more ground than Schalke’s Weston McKennie’s 12.36 km. McKennie registered a shot and completed 32 of his 34 passes.

Mainz 1-3 Borussia Monchengladbach

Stefan Lainer, Alassane Plea, and Breel Embolo all scored in Gladbach’s comeback from an early concession.

USMNT midfielder Fabian Johnson subbed off after 79 minutes after Embolo scored Gladbach’s final goal, registering 10 won tackles.

Fortuna Dusseldorf 1-3 Bayer Leverkusen

USMNT goalkeeper and Man City loanee Zack Steffen had a Man of the Match performance last week for the hosts, and was under siege again this time to less success.

An American player did produce a goal in the contest, with Alfredo Morales scoring for his fourth-consecutive Bundesliga campaign. Throw in the second tier, and the midfielder has scored in eight-straight German seasons between his current team, Ingolstadt, and Hertha Berlin.

Morales covered the second-most ground for Dusseldorf. At 29, could he be one of the new faces that Gregg Berhalter wants to see this September with the USMNT? Probably not, but it’d be neat.

Elsewhere

Koln 1-3 Borussia Dortmund — Friday
Augsburg 1-1 Union Berlin
Paderborn 1-3 Freiburg
Hoffenheim 3-2 Werder Bremen
RB Leipzig v. Eintracht Frankfurt — 9:30 am. ET Sunday
Hertha Berlin v. Wolfsburg — Noon ET Sunday