Premier League Playback: Grades for season, so far…

Leave a comment

With 11 games of the 2016-17 Premier League season gone, we are now over a quarter of the way into the season.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

The top dogs have started to separate themselves from the chasing pack, a few strugglers are getting cut adrift at the bottom and the rest is, well, a bit of a mess.

There are plenty of teams who’ve started slow and finally got going, plenty who came flying out of the traps and are now struggling and others who are up and down like a yo-yo.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Taking all that into account for the first time this season we dish out grades. 11 games in, we now have a pretty good ideas what lies in store for all 20 Premier League teams.


Liverpool
Grade: A-
How is the story unfolding? Top of the table, Liverpool have smashed in 30 goals in 11 games. Defensive issues still a problem but Mane, Coutinho, Lallana and Firmino are ripping teams apart. They are legit title contenders, with wins against Arsenal and Chelsea, plus draw against Spurs and Man United, proving that. Jurgen Klopp is are from “the normal one” and everyone knows that now.
Quote which sums it up…

Jurgen Klopp after their 6-1 win against Watford – “I know in the past a lot of things happened here and the story two, three years ago when it was really close, but this is not the team two or three years ago. This is not the team 25 years ago. We’re completely new. We stay cool. It’s the best position I can imagine but nothing else has happened.”


Chelsea

Grade: B+
How is the story unfolding? It started very well, then there was a big dip with defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, and now Antonio Conte‘s side are flying again. The switch to 3-4-3 after the defeat at Arsenal could be crucial. Since then, Chelsea has won five-straight and kept five-straight clean sheets. Diego Costa and Eden Hazard are back and the Blues are looking ruthless.
Quote which sums it up…

Antonio Conte to following a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal – “I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum. For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”


Arsenal
Grade: B+
How is the story unfolding? The Gunners struggled early in the season but as soon as their international players returned, they looked more solid in the back with Koscielny and Mustafi bonding. Going forward Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have been the go-to men. Still, some doubts creeping in once again about their ability to deal with injuries to key players.
Quote which sums it up…

Arsene Wenger after the win at Hull in September – “We are a bit more mature, which I have said many times, but it is early in the season and it is very tight everywhere. At the moment Man City is in front but let’s just continue to improve and continue to win our games and see where we go. We are ambitious, we have a good attitude and good spirit and we’ve gained a bit of confidence now we’ve won a few games.”


Manchester City
Grade: B
How is the story unfolding? Pep Guardiola‘s men looked like they’d sweep all before them early on. Yeah, not so much. After six wins on the spin in the PL to open up, City has won just one of their last five with multiple defensive mistakes the issue. Still, they sit two points off top spot and beat Barcelona in the Champions League. The project is ongoing and there is clear progress despite it still being early days.
Quote which sums it up…

Pep Guardiola after the disappointing 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough – “The balance is what we want to see but in the boxes we are not good enough. But do you think it is a problem that we concede two chances a game and create 10? I have no regrets about that.”


Tottenham Hotspur
Grade: B
How is the story unfolding? Spurs remain the only PL team unbeaten but they’ve drawn six of their 11 games. Without Harry Kane for almost two months, Pochettino’s side have coped with his absence rather well. UCL struggles haven’t carried over into the league but with Kane now back, they’ll be expected to kick on.
Quote which sums it up…

Mauricio Pochettino after Spurs’ 2-0 win against Man City in September – “It is too early in the season to talk about aims but it is important to be consistent If we can play like this, how we played today, why can we not be consistent throughout the season? That is a big effort but that is the way that we work and we want to play. I think today was a good example that we want to follow and to build our pressure.”


Burnley 

Grade: B
How is the story unfolding? What a start for the Clarets. Sean Dyche‘s side have had some huge wins at home against Everton, Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace and their form at Turf Moor will keep them up. Looks like they’ve learned from previous PL campaigns and they have 14 points already.
Quote which sums it up…

Sean Dyche after the thrilling win over Crystal Palace – “It’s fantastic to be ninth in the table for a club like Burnley. There are questions asked of us in the Premier League but we’re enjoying the ride.”


Watford
Grade: C+
How is the story unfolding? A really decent start for the Hornets under new manager Walter Mazzarri. They sit in the top 10 and look much more solid (the hiding at Liverpool aside) than last season. Deeney and Ighalo yet to really fire, which will be a slight worry.
Quote which sums it up…

Walter Mazzarri after the home win against Hull City – “At the end we are very happy that we got the result, it’s difficult to go 90 minutes the way we played in the first five. They are a team who play tough football, they usually play very well. Today they had five at the back, and it’s a team we did not allow to play, and that is because of us.”


Everton
Grade: C+
How is the story unfolding? Ronald Koeman‘s team sit six points off the top four, which is where you would think they would be at this point in the season. They 5-0 spanking at Chelsea showed some of their limitations though. Tough run of games coming up in December too but Romelu Lukaku is looking hungry for goals.
Quote which sums it up…

Ronald Koeman on the win against West Ham: — “I said to them; ‘Why we are nervous? We are at home. If we press well and play well we get always the support of the fans.’ I saw too many doubts in the first half and I was saying to them, ‘Come on. Go for it. Football needs to be enjoyable. The second half, the start was different, the way we like to play and like to press the opponent and the fast first goal helped.”


West Brom
Grade: C
How is the story unfolding? Tony Pulis‘ side are a funny bunch. They beat Leicester away after a five-game winless run and they manage to grind out draws against the big boys. Steady start for the Baggies and Nacer Chadli has been a revelation.
Quote which sums it up…

Tony Pulis following the win against Leicester – “Obviously the result is fantastic. We played four top teams and we got four points, a point a game. When you think it’s Tottenham, Liverpool, Man City and now we’re at the champions. We get a point a game and for me, it is fantastic.”


Southampton
Grade: C-
How is the story unfolding? Its been an up and down start for Saints. It took them five games to win, then they went five unbeaten and now they’ve lost their last two. Under a new manager in Claude Puel, perhaps inconsistency is to be expected. With Europa League progress on their mind and a tough month coming up, they’ll be a little worried. Charlie Austin and Virgil Van Dijk remain red-hot.
Quote which sums it up…

Claude Puel following the shock defeat at Hull – “When you win after a game like Inter Milan and you come back in the Premier League against a team with good preparation, with one game a week, it’s important to keep the good concentration and the good attitude. It is always difficult and I think we learn for the future. It’s a good lesson for the future.”


Manchester United

Grade: C-
How is the story unfolding? It has been an eventful start to life at Old Trafford for Jose Mourinho. Did we expect anything else? From calling out his own players to being sent to the stands, Mourinho has his work cut out. Still, his side is six points off the top four after a run of just two wins in eight games following three wins from three to start the seaosn. Europa League struggles have added to the intrigue as Pogba, Zlatan and Co. find their feet. Plenty of work to do for Jose.
Quote which sums it up:

Jose Mourinho after a 1-0 EFL Cup win against Man City – “It is real passion that doesn’t depend on results or the moments. It is easy to be a Man United fan when you win the Treble, when you win five titles in seven years. But it is not so easy when you lose 4-0 and this is incredible. The only thing I can say is that I couldn’t be prouder than I am to be Man United manager.”


Middlesbrough
Grade: C-
How is the story unfolding? Aitor Karanka‘s side are getting used to the Premier League. After going unbeaten in the first three games of the season, they went on a bad run and had to wait until Week 10 for their first home win. That came in-between away draws at Arsenal and Man City as Boro are showing a renewed defensive stability.
Quote which sums it up…

Aitor Karanka after the 1-1 draw at Man City – “It was an amazing result. Because in the first half we went on to the pitch with too much respect for them. I told them at half-time we weren’t just there to defend and that we could play like we did in the second half. I was pleased with our performance. Two weeks ago at Arsenal was more difficult than today because Arsenal didn’t score and we were organised. Our reaction was really good and it is a big step to showing how good we are.”


Stoke City
Grade: C-
How is the story unfolding? Mark Hughes‘ side once again started the season slowly but now they’re five games unbeaten, Joe Allen is an offensive machine and Wilfried Bony is scoring goals. Despite a few injuries, this looks like the Stoke of last season now.
Quote which sums it up…

Mark Hughes to ProSoccerTalk after the 1-1 draw at West Ham – “A lot was made of our so-called difficult start. We have come up against decent teams and haven’t quite hit our levels. But we are now fully into our stride and where we want to be.”


Bournemouth
Grade: D+
How is the story unfolding? Some worrying signs starting to creep in for the Cherries following defeats at Boro and then at home against Sunderland. Eddie Howe‘s young side have blown hot and cold and they have a knack of dominating games but not putting the opposition away.
Quote which sums it up…

Eddie Howe after the home defeat against Sunderland – “In the last two games we’ve had some gilt-edged chances. We scored six against Hull, but it’s frustrating when you have a hatful of chances and can’t put them away.”


Crystal Palace
Grade: D+
How is the story unfolding? Crystal Palace may be the streakiest team in the history of the PL. They went on a superb three-game winning run early in the season but are without a win in five now and have lost four on the spin. Alan Pardew must try and get the best out of Christian Benteke. When Palace do, they’re unplayable at times.
Quote which sums it up…

Alan Pardew after the 3-2 defeat Burnley – “This defeat is a big blow for us because we have some tough games coming up. We’re going to have to be strong after the international break and get some results. We dominated and actually played some good football today. We don’t look like a team that has lost four games, it’s been fine margins. We need to cut out these mistakes, and get ourselves to a position where we can see out a game.”


Hull City

Grade: D+
How is the story unfolding? After winning each of their opening two games Hull were in dreamland. They then didn’t win any of their next eight as Mike Phelan‘s got the job on a permanent basis. A big win against Southampton steadied the ship though. They’ll battle hard all season to stay up.
Quote which sums it up…

Mike Phelan after the 2-1 win against Southampton – “We’ve got 10 points from 11 games with a couple of big games coming up after the international break. It’s important that we stay level-headed and composed. We performed well in defeat at Watford last weekend but didn’t get anything from the game. This week we have got something against a very good Southampton team”


Leicester City
Grade: D
How is the story unfolding? Claudio Ranieri‘s side are not replicating their title-winning form of last season… at least in the Premier League. In the UEFA Champions League they’re unbeaten and all but through to the Round of 16, but the Foxes are in real danger of being dragged into a relegation battle. Jamie Vardy is struggling for goals and they miss N'Golo Kante badly.
Quote which sums it up…

Claudio Ranieri after their 1-0 defeat at home to West Brom – “It is a pity because we were unbeaten for 20 matches and I am very sad, sad for the fans but it is okay and we have to react. Now we have to be calm and work together, but of course it is difficult because 80 per cent of my players go off on international duty. I will see my players now just two days before the next match at Watford.”


West Ham 
Grade: D-
How is the story unfolding? Slaven Bilic‘s men had a horrendous start, particularly with troubles in their new stadium, and the Hammers only have 11 points on the board with some very tough games coming up. Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini have shown only flashes of brilliance and it’s all a bit disjointed at the London Stadium.
Quote which sums it up…

Slaven Bilic on the tough schedule ahead – “It is a very tough schedule. But we have seen how we played against top teams last year. We beat Chelsea, one of the top teams, here in the cup. On paper it is very tough. Four games plus one cup game against Manchester United, but we have to get ourselves ready.”


Swansea City
Grade: F
How is the story unfolding? Nightmare start for the Swans who are joint-bottom after their worst-ever opening to a PL season cost Guidolin his job. American coach Bob Bradley has arrived but has no wins in four, yet there is hope on the horizon with a favorable fixture list in December. Still, the Swans always look like conceding right now, which is never good.
Quote which sums it up…

Bob Bradley on fan unrest after the defeat to Man United – “We understand very clearly where we are. There’s no hiding from the situation,” Bradley, the league’s first American coach, said after the game. They (the fans) have every right to be angry at halftime. We have to be honest about the work that needs to be done. There’s only one way to win the support of fans, and that’s to play better and take points… Once we get a result or two I think everyone will say ‘Okay, we have finally turned this thing around.’”


Sunderland

Grade: F
How is the story unfolding? Okay, so there are some signs of improvement, but David Moyes has a heck of a job on his hands. Sunderland’s squad resembles a bunch of misfits, chucked together at the last minute and although they got a big win at Bournemouth, it papers over the cracks. The Black Cats need to become tough to beat and hit teams on the counters and at set pieces. So far, just one win in 11 says it all.
Quote which sums it up…

David Moyes following the win against Bournemouth – “It is only one win, we need two now. All you can do is win the next game and pick up the points as you go along. We don’t get anything for winning one game, that’s for sure. What it will do is show people there is great spirit and commitment among the players and a great desire to do well.”


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

U-20 World Cup preview: Ramos to make history

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The United States U-20 side is set to begin its 2019 World Cup campaign on Friday when it begins Group D play in Poland.

Tab Ramos will make history in the process, equalling the FIFA record of most championship tournaments participated as a player or coach. The 52-year-old will officially take part in his 11th FIFA championship event, matching the record held by Germany’s U-20 women head coach Maren Meinert.

United States

The United States side is one of the best ever on paper, with a mix of emerging domestic talent alongside youngsters from the best clubs in Europe. They will take on Ukraine, Nigeria, and Qatar in high-leverage group stage play. Riding on the result of group play is a place in the knockout phase, with a massive gulf in difference between finishing first and second in the group. The first-place finisher in Group D draws the strongest third-place side from Groups B, E, and F – possibilities include the likes of Mali, South Korea, Panama, or Italy. Meanwhile, the second-place finisher from Group D takes on the winner of Group E, which will almost definitely come in the form of championship hopeful France.

An exciting group of young American players with more well-known names including Timothy Weah and Paxton Pomykal mixes with supreme talents like Barcelona youth product Konrad de la Fuente in attack and Bayern Munich teen Chris Richards who will look to anchor the defense. While the U.S. isn’t exactly a favorite to win the tournament, they are a strong contender looking to reach at least the quarterfinals if not further.

US U-20 squad

GK: CJ Dos Santos (Benfica), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Brady Scott (Koln).
DEF: Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Gloster (Hannover 96), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew/Richmond Kickers), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich).
MID: Edwin Cerrillo (FC Dallas), Chris Durkin (D.C. United), Richard Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), Alex Mendez (Freiburg), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas).
FWD: Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Konrad De La Fuente (Barcelona), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg), Justin Rennicks (New England Revolution), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain/Celtic FC)

Potential breakout players

Aside from the United States squad, there is a host of young talent at the tournament in Poland. These are the players you should keep a close eye on.

Diego Lainez (winger, Mexico) – Mexico’s 18-year-old winger has been a fixture for the national team at every youth level, playing every minute for the U-17 side in the 2017 World Cup. He has since earned a quartet of senior side call-ups and looked electric in his time on the field.

Radoslaw Majecki (goalkeeper, Poland) – At just 19 years old, Majecki has been the starting goalkeeper for Champions League regulars Legia Warsaw since he won the job in November. While he has yet to make his CL debut (having earned the starting job after Legia Warsaw was eliminated from the competition in the qualifying stages), he is as experienced as they come for players in this competition and a huge asset for his country.

Jackson Porozo (defender, Ecuador) – The 18-year-old was an absolute monster in the South American U-20 championships back in late January and early February, helping Ecuador keep five clean sheets and finish the competition on a stunning 298-minute streak without conceding a single goal as they shocked the continent by winning the tournament. Porozo, who joined the Santos youth setup last summer, was a man among boys in the South American championships, and long with his goalkeeper Moises Ramirez – who also has high expectations for a solid future – this Ecuador side has a shot at making it out of an absolutely loaded Group B.

Interesting storylines

Group B – The most loaded group in the tournament sees Mexico, Italy, Ecuador, and Japan all come together for a brutal battle. While the top two teams are guaranteed to advance, it could also be a factor for one of the coveted third-place spots, of particular interest to the United States, who would take on a Group B third-place qualifier should they win Group D. Mexico won the CONCACAF U-20 championships, Ecuador stunningly reigned supreme in CONMEBOL over traditional superpowers Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, while both Italy and Japan performed quite well in their own tournaments, each reaching the semifinals. This is easily the most fun early storyline.

France as favorites – Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, and Argentina are all firmly in the mix, but France is considered the favorite according to most oddsmakers. Bernard Diomede will have a challenge as Lyon’s young star Amine Gouiri will be missing as he takes part in the U-21 UEFA championships this summer, but he does have Borussia Dortmund youngster Dan Axel-Zagadou leading the back line. While the French senior side is on top of the world, the youth team has plenty of talent coming down the pipeline.

Can Argentina bounce back? – The six-time champions slipped a bit at the CONMEBOL championships earlier this year, falling to both Ecuador and Brazil in the final stage while beating Uruguay and Colombia by just a goal. The traditionally dominant South American powerhouse has proven fallable over the last year or so, and while they most certainly have a squad capable of placing in this tournament, they will need more consistency. The squad sports Atlanta United winger Ezequiel Barco, who has four goals in eight MLS appearances this season and is in good form. Other big names include Atletico Madrid defender and youth team captain Nehuen Perez, Boca Juniors goalkeeper Manuel Roffo – who trained with the senior team earlier this year – and midfielder Santiago Sosa who has dabbled in the River Plate senior squad at just 19.

FIFA scraps 48-team expansion for 2022 World Cup

Getty Images
1 Comment

FIFA has confirmed the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will remain a 32-team tournament, abandoning plans to expand the event to 48 teams.

The world football governing body made certain to cite that Qatar’s implausibility to host such an expanded tournament as the sole reason for the decision, essentially confirming that the 2026 World Cup – joint hosted throughout North America – will remain expanded as confirmed back in January of 2017.

FIFA and Qatar have jointly explored all possibilities to increase the number of participant teams from 32 to 48 teams by involving neighboring countries at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” FIFA said in a statement. “Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now.”

Qatar has been criticized for its lack of infrastructure and relative inability to host a tournament of the World Cup’s magnitude, and the FIFA statement hinted that nearby options in the Persian Gulf were severely limited. Along with the country’s own limitations, there is political strife between Qatar and many of its immediate neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, making a joint expanded effort nearly impossible.

“A joint analysis, in this respect, concluded that due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June,” FIFA said. “It was therefore decided not to further pursue this option. The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will therefore remain as originally planned with 32 teams and no proposal will be submitted at the next FIFA Congress on 5 June.”

FIFA clearly made certain to cite Qatar’s inability to handle such an expansion as the sole reason for the status quo, not a blanket desire to keep the tournament at 32 teams permanently. FIFA has come under fire after announcing the expansion of the 2026 games, with widespread critics claiming the move would water down not only the tournament itself but also qualification, lessening the amount of high-leverage games both at the event itself and between tournaments in qualifying. The governing body had looked to speed up expansion for 2022, but today’s news ended that idea.

16-year MLS veteran Chad Marshall retires

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Stalwart defender Chad Marshall, who spent his entire 16-year career in Major League Soccer, retired on Wednesday at 34 years old. The announcement confirmed that Marshall’s decision was made largely due to a knee injury that has kept him out of action for most of the last month.

Marshall split his career between just two MLS teams, drafted second overall out of Stanford by Columbus and playing 10 years for the Crew before being traded to Seattle in 2013. He spent five full seasons with Seattle and began the current campaign as a significant part of the squad, but made it just two months in before the injury took over.

“After more than 15 years of living my childhood dream, the time has come for me to hang up the boots,” Marshall said in the official team release. “I’d like to thank everyone that has played a part in my career. To my teammates, support staff and coaches: you’ve been my second family. The locker room is what I’ll miss the most.”

Marshall was named MLS Defender of the Year three times throughout his career, winning it in his first professional season, again in 2008 just one year removed from concussion problems, and most recently with Seattle in 2014. He won the Supporters’ Shield four times – three with Columbus – and also racked up two MLS Cups and one US Open Cup. Overall he made 458 professional club appearances, 272 of which came for the Crew.

“Thank you to the fans of Seattle and Columbus for supporting me throughout the years, as well as the Sounders FC and Columbus Crew SC organizations for giving me a chance to represent them on the field,” Marshall said. “Most importantly, I’d like to thank my family. I’m forever indebted to them for the sacrifices they’ve made in allowing me to pursue this dream. From heartbreaking losses to MLS Cup wins, own goals to cartwheels, it’s been a blast.”

While Marshall was a rock at the back of the Columbus and Seattle defensive units, he was also an imposing force in the air, scoring 26 goals in his career. Marshall also earned 12 caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team, debuting in 2005 with a goal against Colombia and playing in the 2009 Gold Cup, and he was called back into the squad for a 0-0 friendly draw with Serbia in 2017 after a seven-year absence.

Why Aston Villa deserve Premier League promotion

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 27, the richest game in soccer will see one of Aston Villa or Derby County promoted to the Premier League.

[ MORE: Latest Championship news ]

Which club deserves a spot in the English top-flight more? You can use metrics such as fanbase, stadiums, players, historical success and quality of coaches to try and sort this out, but the fact of the matter is, the playoffs are always a complete, and utterly brilliant, lottery.

The path Villa and Derby took to get to the final this season proves that.

Here’s a look at why Villa deserve to return to the PL after a three-year absence, while tomorrow we will focus on Derby…


Everything about Villa is a Premier League club.

Their incredible home at Villa Park is among the most historic and boisterous in England when it gets going and the Holte End is the jewel in its crown.

European champions in 1982, Villa are the biggest club from England’s second-city, Birmingham, and their fanbase is loyal, if not overly pessimistic as most Brummies are. The fact that there are no PL teams from Birmingham is astonishing. It is like having no top level sports teams in LA.

For three years they’ve now fought to get back into the top-flight after several seasons of struggle as former American owner Randy Lerner cut costs wherever he could. Under manager Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, they now play wonderfully attractive soccer and have youngsters like Jack Grealish, Andre Green and Tammy Abraham leading the way.

Villa would be fun to watch if they were promoted to the Premier League. That much is sure. They’ll concede a lot of goals, but they would score a ton too.

There is also the potential for Villa to emulate Wolverhampton Wanderers. Seriously.

Their ownership group has strengthened in recent months with Chinese businessman Tony Xi selling 55 percent of his stake in the club to Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire Wes Edens.

If Villa come up the financial fair play shackles which restricted them in the Championship in recent years will come off. The potential for them to spend big is there, but they have a team full of players on loan from PL clubs who have formed a bond and could likely be kept together and bought permanently this summer.

Quite simply, Villa are a top 10 team in the Premier League. They have suffered due to Lerner’s decision to pull out his investment but they have now rebuilt themselves with a strong core of young talent and have a manager in place who is progressive and ambitious both with his style of play and where Villa can get to in the PL.

Under Steve Bruce, Villa lost to Fulham in the playoff final last season at Wembley. But with local lad Grealish leading their charge there is a sense that failure last year was a blessing in disguise. This Villa side are young and hungry and they are exciting to watch.

That is why Villa deserve to be promoted to the Premier League for the 2019-20 season.