Premier League Playback: Five reasons why Chelsea can win the title

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CHELSEA FOR REAL?

Four wins on the spin. No goals conceded. Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in top form. Antonio Conte is settling in to life in the Premier League rather nicely after a rocky start.

[ MORE: Defense rules for Conte ]

Here’s a look at five key reasons why the Blues can go all the way and win the Premier League this season.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

When speaking to the media following his teams impressive 2-0 win away at Southampton on Sunday, Conte believes it is too early for title talk.

“We know that the road is long but the confidence is increasing… It’s not important for us to look at the table now,” Conte said. “If you ask me a prediction or an expectation of our championship, it’s very difficult to talk about this.”

1: 3-4-3 formation

The new system Conte put into place following back-to-back defeats in September has been a revelation. It is getting the best out of his Chelsea players and that is exactly what he vowed to do after the 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal on Sept. 24. He used that defeat as ammunition to transform how his side would play. It gets the best out of the vast majority of Chelsea’s players, even if the likes of veteran defenders John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be on the outside looking in. Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta have been key in starting attacks from the back and David Luiz has been forced to be more disciplined as the central defender in a three-man back line.

With Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses both hardly star names, they’ve slotted in to wing back roles seamlessly and epitomize this strong defensive unit Conte has created. Chelsea gave Southampton the ball for long periods on Sunday but Saints never truly looked like getting in-behind the Blues. With a solid back five when defending, plus N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic sitting in front, it just doesn’t seem like Chelsea will concede many goals this season. With this group of players at his disposal, Conte is taking a team built to be solid defensively by Jose Mourinho to the next level of defensive solidity. The old adage of “defense wins championships” rings true with this Chelsea team.

2: No European action

This is one of the most overlooked factors in why Chelsea could go all the way. With no European action at all this season (and no EFL Cup action either after being knocked out by West Ham last week), Conte will have all week to debrief his side on the win against Southampton and then set them up for the game against Everton. That is a huge benefit for a new manager to help get his ideas across, especially since switching to a new formation, and like we saw with Brendan Rodgers‘ Liverpool during the 2013-14 campaign, it can be hugely beneficial with title rivals such as Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City all battling in the UEFA Champions League.

3: Eden Hazard

He’s back to his best. Hazard scored early and grabbed an assist on Costa’s wonder-goal as he had a goal and an assist in the same Premier League game for the first time since April 2015. The Belgian wizard went missing for most of last season but under Conte he seems rejuvenated and is relishing his role as the ball carrier and tempo-setter on the break. As impressive as Chelsea’s defensive solidity was against Saints, the ability for them to spring counters was equally effective as Hazard, Costa, Pedro and then Alonso and Moses when they caught up with play, can turn defense into attack in an instance. Hazard, 25, has already scored more goals this season through 10 games than he had throughout his 31 PL outings in a dreadful campaign last time out. If Chelsea has any chance of winning the PL, Hazard will have to stay on top form. Along with Costa (the top scorer in the PL with seven) he is the key to delivering goals within the structure of this new defensive formation. It seems like Chelsea is somewhat replicating Leicester’s hugely successful model of countering from last season.

4: Unity

This seems like a buzzword but it is something Chelsea hasn’t had for over 12 months. This time last year many cracks were already starting to show as Mourinho had less than six weeks left in a job with things unraveling quickly. Team unity seemed to be hit hard with unrest appearing in the dressing room and certain players woefully out of form. Hazard and Costa have regained their best play but with Cesc Fabregas, Terry and Ivanovic out, there’s a new look to the core of this Chelsea team. Whether or not players are starting, they all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet and trust Conte’s vision and plan. He’s said that multiple times recently and when ProSoccerTalk asked him following the 4-0 thumping of Manchester United about the defensive improvement, his answer was telling:

“After two defeats and conceding two or three goals in every game, it was important for us to change something and to find a new solution. I think this suit is very good for the team and our squad. Now we must continue,” Conte told ProSoccerTalk. “I always thought that the system is not important. It is more important, the commitment to trust in the work and work very hard and also to follow the principles and my idea of football. That pleased me because when you see this in the game you go in your house and you are happy.”

5: Conte’s charisma

Speaking of Conte, his charisma is infectious and he lives for the game. Charging up and down the touchline he expects maximum effort from his players and he is getting it. Even in his press conferences he has a relaxed persona and breaks out a cheeky grin every now and then. Following his incessant rallying of the home crowd in the final minutes of Chelsea’s big win against Manchester United (something Jose Mourinho took exception to) we got a glimpse as to how he’s trying to knit everything together.

He seems just on the right side of being a mad genius. His warm hugs with players after the game, constantly thanking the fans for their support and leaps of delight into the air of during goal celebrations are like a breath of fresh air following the doldrums of the latter months of the Mourinho era and then the uncertainty during Guus Hiddink‘s interim stint. Conte will use his charisma and experience from title races in the past to try and push Chelsea not only to their target of a top four finish but beyond it. He has reinvigorated a squad of players who looked down and out last season.


MOURINHO MELTDOWN IN FULL FLOW

“Reinvigorate” is not a term you can associate with former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho went it comes to the current torrid period he is enduring at Manchester United.

Let’s look back at Mourinho’s last seven days…

Yep. It all seems to be happening again, doesn’t it? Very familiar.

Mourinho, 53, doesn’t seem to have learned much from his lessons at Chelsea where he saw things unravel drastically last season, just six months or so after delivering the Premier League title. The self-proclaimed “Special One” isn’t adapting his approach and after 16 years as a manager, should we really expect him to? Maybe this is it. Maybe this is all Mourinho has. Sure, he’s adapted and evolved a little over time but he is still stuck in his ways with his petulant sideline behavior, ostracizing of big money players and solid, but somewhat dated, tactics. It seems like the Jurgen Klopp‘s, Mauricio Pochettino‘s and Conte’s of this world are now the ones calling the shots and dictating the next generation of tactical innovations.

Mourinho is in danger of being left behind and it increasingly seems like there’s a big disconnect between himself and his players.

Murmurs from the dressing room about him not being too hands on has been telling. He is going through the same problems he had at Real Madrid and then at Chelsea the second time around. The careers of young players are stalling. Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t scoring. He can’t get the best out of Paul Pogba and he is making an example of Wayne Rooney by leaving him out of the team. Think back to Mourinho’s meltdowns at Real and Chelsea. Very similar patterns are emerging with star players underperforming (Hazard, Fabregas, Costa at Chelsea, even Ronaldo at Real) and his treatment of John Terry, at times, and Iker Casillas is very similar to how Rooney is currently being treated. Mourinho isn’t in full meltdown mode yet, but he is currently hurtling towards it.

As Robbie Mustoe mentioned in the clip above, the situation is recoverable. However, Mourinho has a gigantic job to turn things around so early on in his United career. He will be given time to do that but things are in serious danger of unraveling rather quickly.


TOP DOGS ROLLING

With Chelsea setting out its stall as an ultra-defensive side, the other title contenders smashed home the goals this weekend.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City all scored four times in big away wins and all three are joint-top of the Premier League on 23 points. Good luck separating these guys.

Top spot belongs to City due to their superior goal difference and Pep Guardiola‘s side were purring early against West Brom and never looked back. With Sergio Aguero now having 13 goals in 13 games in all competitions this season following hi brace at the Hawthrons this weekend, the Argentine sent out a little reminder to his manager: underestimate me at your peril. Aguero was left out of City’s starting lineup at Barcelona two weeks ago but with his second goal on Saturday he underlined the class which oozes out of him. He’s a predator. Pep insists he knows it and revealed Aguero will start for City against Barcelona on Tuesday in their huge UEFA Champions League game.

Arsenal will all but secure their place in the UCL’s last 16 if they beat Ludogorets on Tuesday but in the Premier League Arsene Wenger‘s side eased to a 4-1 win away at Sunderland, even though the Black Cats equalized through a spot kick in the second half. In truth, the Gunners were on cruise control and could’ve been 2-0 or 3-0 up at half time but they took their foot of the gas and it took an inspired sub to propel them to victory. Olivier Giroud scored with each of his first two touches after coming on and the brilliant Alexis Sanchez grabbed his second of the game as Arsenal coasted to a seventh win in their last eight Premier League games.

Liverpool didn’t quite coast to victory at Crystal Palace but the 4-2 win could’ve been a lot more comfortable for Jurgen Klopp’s side had their defending been better and finishing a little more on point. Saturday’s game was a textbook example of how Klopp has encouraged forward runs from deep positions in this Liverpool team. Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane just kept running at Palace who didn’t know what to do but hung in there, much to their credit. Dejan Lovren‘s mistakes at the other end highlighted why perhaps this season could be too early for a massive title push for Liverpool but, like Chelsea, they have no European action to worry about and plenty of time to sort defensive issues out on the training ground. Another good weekend for the PL’s top scorers in 2016.


SUNDERLAND: A MESS

Poor old David Moyes.

Towards the end of Sunderland’s 4-1 defeat against Arsenal at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, home fans streamed out in their thousands. They’d seen enough. They’ve seen enough most weekends these days and in fact, for the last few years.

Sunderland has now equaled the worst-ever start to a season in Premier League history as they have  just two points through the opening 10 games of the season. Even though they lacked the quality of Arsenal, at the start of the second half they looked dangerous and equalized. But, as has so often been the case not just this season but over the last few terrible campaigns, the Black Cats were simply blown away late on.

It is worth pointing out that this is not totally Moyes’ fault.

He is dealing with a squad he had hardly any time to assemble this summer following the hasty departure (then disgrace) of Sam Allardyce to England and the players he now has represent the leftover remnants of four managers in two seasons. It’s a mess. Spending time in the north east city recently, everyone seems to have already given up on being in the PL next season. One taxi driver told me the best thing that could happen to Sunderland was relegation so they could start again. It’s not a bad argument to make.

If Sunderland’s fans look down the road at rivals Newcastle United, they will see a club which is top of the second-tier and benefiting greatly from relegation from the PL. Under Rafael Benitez they’ve been given a chance to rebuild their identity and philosophy as a club and when they are inevitably promoted back to the PL in May then there’s a good chance they’ll be at least a top 10 PL team for the foreseeable future.

Sunderland’s future is looking bleak with Moyes. As he said himself just a few weeks into the job, they’re embroiled in a relegation battle. Right now, Sunderland and Moyes seemed doomed. The downward spiral this club has been on for the lat four years suggests they will fire the Scottish manager by December and try to gamble on someone else sparking life into the squad. It may have worked in each of the last five PL campaigns but this current Black Cats squad seems woefully short on quality to remain in the top-flight.


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

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.

Tierney, Lacazette available for Arsenal

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Arsenal are edging closer to finally having a full-strength squad.

Ahead of Monday’s prime-time matchup with Sheffield United, Arsenal manager Unai Emery confirmed that Kieran Tierney was in line to make his Premier League debut, while Alexandre Lacazette was back in full training and should be in the gameday squad.

“Today is Lacazette’s first training back with us,” Emery said in a press conference on Thursday. “He finished it well and he’s feeling well with his injuries. Tomorrow we will be training again and he will be with us. We will decide.

“The most important thing is that first he is training, then secondly it’s whether he can be with us and it depends how he can feel in the next days training with us, whether his ankle is not giving him any more problems.”

This is a huge boost to Arsenal, which has had to rely on some youngsters and have made some lineup changes to accommodate not having Lacazette on the field. Tierney meanwhile could step into a position where there’s already a decent starter, Sead Kolasinac.

Lacazette’s return also couldn’t have come at a better time. In Premier League action, Arsenal’s high-powered offense has been stymied, scoring just two goals in the last two league games. Meanwhile, against weaker defenses in the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, Arsenal has bagged a total of 12 goals.

The veteran Frenchman has scored two goals in three appearances so far this season, including a big goal just before halftime in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. However, he suffered a long-term ankle injury in that match that has kept him on the sidelines for more than a month.

“[Tierney is] ready to play,” Emery later said. Now we have two options in that left-back role with Sead Kolasinac and him. We’re going to play a lot of matches after Monday. We will need every player. It depends how he comes into the first training with us, Sead, after his international matches. We now have two players in that position and we can use one on Monday, it depends how they are, one or the other.”

Tierney, the 22-year-old Scottish left back, has made two appearances for the Arsenal first team since recovering from a double hernia operation over the summer. Signed from Celtic for around $32 million, Tierney adds a skill that Kolasinac has struggled with – expert crosser of the ball into the box, where the likes of Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score when given a decent chance.