Premier League Playback: Ranking toughness of festive schedule

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JOLLY OR JEALOUS?

It’s that wonderful time of the year again.

Of course, I’m talking about the heavily congested Premier League fixture list which has each team playing five games in just under three weeks. Madness. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[ MORE: PL standings | schedule ]  

As clubs prepare for the busy festive season, the midweek slate of games coming up over the next two days signals the start of an incredibly hectic period which is usually critical in determining where each team will finish in the table this season.

Will they challenge for the title or fall off? Can they drag themselves out of relegation or be embroiled in the battle against the drop until May? The next few weeks will be crucial in deciding all of that.

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With that in mind, let’s take a look at and rank the strength of the schedule for each Premier League team (a score of 10 signals the toughest schedule, with 1 being the easiest) between now and Jan. 3 when the break for the third round of the FA Cup arrives.


Chelsea – 6/10

Wednesday at Sunderland
Saturday at Crystal Palace
Dec. 26 vs. Bournemouth
Dec. 31 vs. Stoke City
Jan. 4 at Tottenham Hotspur

Arsenal – 6/10

Tuesday at Everton
Sunday at Manchester City
Dec. 26 vs. West Bromwich Albion
Jan. 1 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 3 at Bournemouth

Liverpool – 6/10

Wednesday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 19 at Everton
Dec. 27 vs. Stoke City
Dec. 31 vs. Manchester City
Jan. 2 at Sunderland

Manchester City – 7/10

Wednesday vs. Watford
Sunday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 26 at Hull City
Dec. 31 at Liverpool
Jan. 2 vs. Burnley

Tottenham Hotspur – 5/10

Wednesday vs. Hull City
Sunday vs. Burnley
Dec. 28 at Southampton
Jan. 1 at Watford
Jan. 4 vs. Chelsea

Manchester United – 3/10

Wednesday at Crystal Palace
Saturday at West Brom
Dec. 26 vs. Sunderland
Dec. 31 vs. Middlesbrough
Jan. 2 at West Ham United

Watford – 8/10

Wednesday at Man City
Saturday at Sunderland
Dec. 26 vs. Crystal Palace
Jan. 1 vs. Tottenham
Jan. 3 at Stoke City

West Brom – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Swansea
Saturday vs. Man United
Dec. 26 at Arsenal
Dec. 31 at Southampton
Jan. 2 vs. Hull City

Everton – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Arsenal
Dec. 19 vs. Liverpool
Dec. 26 at Leicester
Dec. 30 at Hull
Jan. 2 vs. Southampton

Southampton – 6/10

Wednesday at Stoke City
Sunday at Bournemouth
Dec. 28 vs. Tottenham
Dec. 31 vs. West Brom
Jan. 2 at Everton

Stoke – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Southampton
Saturday vs. Leicester City
Dec. 27 at Liverpool
Dec. 31 at Chelsea
Jan. 3 vs. Watford

Bournemouth – 8/10

Tuesday vs. Leicester City
Sunday vs. Southampton
Dec. 26 at Chelsea
Dec. 31 at Swansea
Jan. 3 vs. Arsenal

Burnley – 7/10

Wednesday at West Ham
Sunday at Tottenham
Dec. 26 vs. Middlesbrough
Dec. 31 vs. Sunderland
Jan. 2 at Man City

Leicester City – 5/10

Tuesday at Bournemouth
Saturday at Stoke City
Dec. 26 vs. Everton
Dec. 31 vs. West Ham
Jan. 2 at Middlesbrough

Crystal Palace – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Man United
Saturday vs. Chelsea
Dec. 26 at Watford
Jan. 1 at Arsenal
Jan. 3 vs. Swansea

Middlesbrough – 8/10

Wednesday vs. Liverpool
Saturday vs. Swansea
Dec. 26 at Burnley
Dec. 31 at Man United
Jan. 2 vs. Leicester

West Ham – 6/10

Wednesday vs. Burnley
Saturday vs. Hull City
Dec. 26 at Swansea
Dec. 31 at Leicester
Jan. 2 vs. Man United

Swansea City – 4/10

Wednesday at West Brom
Saturday at Middlesbrough
Dec. 26 vs. West Ham
Dec. 31 vs. Bournemouth
Jan. 3 at Crystal Palace

Hull City – 8/10

Wednesday at Tottenham
Saturday at West Ham
Dec. 26 vs. Man City
Dec. 30 vs. Everton
Jan. 2 at West Brom

Sunderland – 9/10

Wednesday vs. Chelsea
Saturday vs. Watford
Dec. 26 at Man United
Dec. 31 at Burnley
Jan. 2 vs. Liverpool


MAN CITY A DEFENSIVE MESS

A lot was made about Pep Guardiola‘s comments after Manchester City were drubbed 4-2 at Leicester City on Saturday as two late goals sparred the expensively assembled side from being embarrassed too much by the scoreline, even though they had their trousers pulled around their ankles on the pitch.

Leicester City got at Man City from the start and their increasingly shaky defense just can’t cope with high-pressure and then long balls in-behind. Guardiola’s side has now conceded seven goals in their last two games, yet he doesn’t believe his team needs to be more adept in tackling and winning the ball back.

“I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles,” Guardiola said. “What I want is to try and play good and score goals and arrive more [in the box]. Yes the duels you have to win that’s true. But normally when you play good you win a lot of tackles but after four minutes 2-0 in the mind of the players [they say] ‘what’s going on, what happened’ and it’s not easy for them. That’s why it’s another aspect of the football but in the end we’re not going to win or lose for the tackles.”

Guardiola went on to admit his defense must improve and he is currently analyzing why they are conceding so many goals and why his tactics of playing out from the back aren’t having the desired impact in the Premier League as it did in Spain and Germany. The experiment to play three at the back isn’t working right now and you can argue the personnel isn’t suited to this system with full backs often asked to play as a center backs and John Stones given no cover when he takes risks.

It’s highly unlikely Guardiola will change his philosophy but surely he should tweak his formation to improve results in the short-term as he now has a big challenge of handling the intense festive fixture list.

With City sitting in fourth place and now seven points off Chelsea in top spot, Guardiola needs to figure out the answer to his defensive headache fast. Simply put, injuries haven’t been kind to him in defense but even if Vincent Kompany or Bacary Sagna had been available all season, you’d think they could still be having the same issues. Pep is trying to force his philosophy on the players to the nth degree and it will take time for them to adapt and trust it.

Right now, the weaknesses of his total football approach from the back is being exposed ruthlessly as teams press Man City high and are forcing mistakes from John Stones, Claudio Bravo and others. Going forward, City always look like scoring. At the back, they always look like conceding. This issue has been around for a few seasons now and it’s not something that can be fixed by buying one or two defenders.

Guardiola’s philosophy adapting to the Premier League is the big issue here and it is unlikely the Spanish coach will ever change his outlook on the game. Sure, he will tweak it and he’ll have to if City is going to challenge for the title not only this season but in the future. He created a slower paced team at Bayern Munich compared to his teams at Barcelona because the Bundesliga and their opponents demanded it. At City, he may have to do something similar or they’ll risk not only dropping out of the title race but also put their top four spot in jeopardy.


GOAL GALORE

Saturday broke a record in the Premier League for the most goals scored in six or fewer games.

There were 29 goals overall, coming in at a whopping 4.83 per game.

We had a 3-2 win for Watford against Everton to kick things off, then a 3-3 draw between Hull City and Crystal Palace as goals flew in late on. We also had a 3-2 win at Turf Moor with Burnley beat Bournemouth and Arsenal beat Stoke City 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium. Swansea’s 3-0 win against Sunderland further inflated the goals figure and it all finished up with Leicester stunning 4-2 win against Man City seeing Jamie Vardy breaking his scoring drought to notch his first-ever Premier League hat trick.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

For the neutral, it was perhaps the best-ever game day in the PL in terms of flat-out entertainment. However, for defensive coaches and those who love to see tight defenses thwart the opponents, it was a nightmare.

There’s been a growing trend of more goals in the Premier League each season and right now we are on track for the highest-scoring season ever if this rate keeps up. Much of that has to do with defenders now being asked to be ball players and more attack-minded first, and then worry about simply defending second. See: Man City, Liverpool, Everton.

With five games coming up for each team a hectic three week period, expect plenty more mistakes and plenty of more goals as the festive season usually delivers high drama and scorelines.

Defenders and goalkeeper usually do not sleep well around the holiday season and this season in particular they may resemble the Grinch more than most.


SWANS FIGURING IT OUT

Bob Bradley‘s Swansea City sealed a massive 3-0 win against Sunderland on Saturday, briefly lifting the Swans out of the relegation zone after beating their rivals against the drop.

Swansea slipped back into the relegation zone (on goal difference) by the end of Week 15 of the Premier League but the performance showed that Bradley’s influence is slowly having an impact on his team.

At the back they looked solid defensivley and going forward they had a cutting edge in Gylfi Sigurdsson, Modou Barrow and Jefferson Montero when he came on, plus Fernando Llorente grabbed another two goals to show he can justify his transfer from Sevilla in the summer and deliver the goals the south Wales club desperately needs.

Of course the win was important but the fact that Swansea grabbed just their third clean sheet of the season, and second in eight games under Bradley’s guidance, will have been even more pleasing for the New Jersey native. Especially after conceding 19 goals in seven games before Saturday.

With the next five games coming up against direct relegation rivals, this display provides not only a blueprint of how to get past fellow strugglers but also belief that they can do it. Winning games breeds confidence and going into a crucial stretch of the season the Swans seem to have it.

Put aside all of the talk of unrest behind-the-scenes with the new owners and an internal review being called for. If Swans can get three wins from the next five games, they’ll enter January as a much more attractive proposition for prospective players as new defenders, and probably another striker, are needed to aid their relegation battle.

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

Minnesota United host special guests for Aston Villa friendly

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Thousands of Minnesotans and others from the Midwest will flock to St. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday to see Minnesota United take on Aston Villa. But one group of soccer players and staff in attendance will have traveled from thousands of miles away to enjoy the match.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Minnesota United is hosting the Girls Under-15 team from the LEAD Monrovia Football Academy in Monrovia, Liberia while the team plays in the USA Cup. While the team of 14 players and three staff members are hosted in Minnesota, they’ll also be watching the Aston Villa game from Allianz Field.

“As a club, we’re always looking for ways to connect with our diverse community through the world’s game,” Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright said in a statement. “Our ownership group has worked tirelessly with LEAD Africa to make this trip possible for these girls and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome them to Minnesota. We know it will mean a lot to the more than 35,000 Liberians living here in the Twin Cities and to Liberia’s president, soccer legend George Weah.”

This week, the U-15 team got to attend Minnesota United training and had some fun with Designated Player Darwin Quintero.

The USA Cup is taking place this week in the Twin Cities, with other clubs from all over the world jetting in to play in the tournament. In addition, the organization LEAD Africa, of which the Monrovia Academy is under the umbrella of, is a group that works to empower the future of Africa through sports and education.

For Aston Villa, Wednesday’s match represents the beginning of a season back in the Premier League, and the chance to test themselves against decent opposition. It’s a quick trip to the U.S. for Aston Villa, which finishes up preseason back in England before one last game in Germany at RB Leipzig.

Premier League Friendly Roundup: Leicester, Norwich in action

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Ayoze Perez got off to a great start for his new club on Tuesday, as Leicester topped Scunthorpe United, 1-0.

Perez, who arrived earlier this month from Newcastle in a $38 million transfer, scored on a first-time strike in the box that proved to be the difference in the game.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Brendan Rodgers side got a chance to get minutes for plenty of first-team regulars. Johnny Evans, Jamie Vardy, Perez and Youri Tielemans all started. Wes Morgan, new signing James Justin, Rachid Ghezzal all came off the bench.

An interesting note was that Harry Maguire, the target of serious transfer interest from Manchester United, came off the bench at halftime and played the second half of the game. According to the latest reports, Man United and Leicester City are still very far apart regarding a transfer fee, so Maguire looks set to remain for the time being.

Elsewhere, Norwich City continued its preseason tour of Germany with a friendly match held behind closed doors. Norwich beat Bonner SC, 4-1, with goals from Adam Idah, Onel Hernandez and Teemu Pukki.

UCL Roundup: Red Star, The New Saints (Wales) advance to second round

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Second legs are underway in the UEFA Champions League first qualification round, and both Red Star Belgrade and The New Saints from Wales are through to the second round.

Here’s a short roundup of UCL action on Tuesday:


Red Star Belgrade 2-1 Sudova (2-1 on Aggregate)

The Serbian giants advance to the next round with a big 2-1 win over Lithuanian Champions Sudova. Richmond Boakye and former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin both scored in the first half. Red Star Belgrade was set to keep a clean sheet but Sudova scored late.

With the win, Red Star Belgrade moves on to face HJK Helsinki in Finland in the second round.


The New Saints 1-0 Feronikeli (3-2 on aggregate)

Welsh Premier League side The New Saints defeated Kosovan club Feronikeli, 1-0, thanks to a goal from Irish forward Dean Ebbe. Ebbe came off the bench and headed home a lofted ball into the box.

Feronikeli had chances to take the lead early, including twice in the first ten minutes, but blasted shots in the box well over the wall.

UEFA Champions League Second Leg Results

Shkendija 1 – 2 Nõmme Kalju 
Saburtalo 1 – 3 FC Sheriff
Valletta 1 – 1 F91 Dudelange
HB 2 – 2 HJK 

Solskjaer: ‘We just need consistency’

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In a vague, general word, Manchester United manager knows exactly what his club have been missing. Consistency.

More specifically, consistent success.

In a sit-down interview with the BBC, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer mentioned striving for consistency in performances on no less than four occasions, including when speaking about Alexis Sanchez. Man United won eight straight matches in all competitions and 10 of its first 11 under the Norwegian manager.

[READ: De Ligt lands in Turin ahead of Juventus move]

And yet, the consistency wasn’t there late in the season, when Man United faltered down the stretch and won just two of its last ten matches to close the season on a sour note. Man United finished in sixth place, and while Solskjaer said he believed it would be a challenge to break into the top four, he said with some consistent performances, Man United could achieve its goals.

“We have to aim for further up than fourth,” Solskjaer told the BBC. “I would rather be an optimist and be wrong than a pessimist and be right. I am not used to us being fifth or sixth but that is where we are at. That is the size of the challenge. I love that challenge.

“We have to work with the players, sign the right types and gradually make our way to the challenging line. Our players do have quality. They do have a chance. We just need consistency. We have to keep working every single day and not take our eyes off the target. Everyone gets off line at some point but you can’t let it drift too far because then you won’t get to the overall goal.”

Some Man United fans have been mumbling and rumbling due to the slow start in this summer’s transfer window. Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia have both departed on free transfers, while only Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have come in. While it’s not the improvements some fans were hoping for, it’s helped give some of the young players, like James Garner, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and Mason Greenword, some hope that they can get minutes.

Perhaps the push from the young players for first team minutes will make Man United a bit more competitive in training again, which can only help in terms of having success on the field.

The big question remains, which Man United team will we see this season. The one from Solskjaer’s first two months on the job, or the one from his last six weeks.