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.

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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.

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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

DC United back to winning ways with 4-1 rout of FC Cincinnati

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D.C. United hasn’t added too many tick marks to the win column of late, but they got back to victory lane with a 4-1 victory over FC Cincinnati that featured a fantastic second half.

The win is just the club’s second since May 13, and that should give Ben Olsen and company a huge boost as they jump into second place in the East past Atlanta United and move four clear of the fourth-placed New York Red Bulls. With Philadelphia just a single point on top, it’s all to play for despite the nine-match run that saw just one win, now ended by the victory at Cincinnati.

Luis Rodriguez bagged a brace while Wayne Rooney and Paul Arriola added one each to complete the scoreline. The visitors to Nippert Stadium went ahead on the first of Rodriguez’s pair, a curling effort with his right foot that put D.C. United up before halftime.

The home side struck back with a penalty by Emmanuel Ledesma nine minutes after the break, but it took D.C. just two minutes to restore the lead as Rodriguez again came through, this time via a deflection that took the ball into the top-left corner.

Rooney and Arriola were then on hand to put the game away, with the former England international latching onto an exquisite long ball from Leonardo Jara that was presented on a platter for Rooney to split the center-backs and finish cooly for a 3-1 lead. Arriola finished it off with 17 minutes to go, again on the breakaway as the American international burst down the left and finished it himself from a tight angle.

Playing with the lead for most of the second half, D.C. United was happy to let FC Cincinnati hold much of the possession, 57% to be exact. They were deadly on the counter, leading the shot count 17-11 despite the possessional deficit, including 8-3 on target. Up next for D.C. United is a critical date with Atlanta United on Sunday as the two duke it out near the top of the Eastern Conference.

Winks says trophies for Spurs are “round the corner”

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Tottenham Hotspur has just one trophy in the last 20 years, but midfielder Harry Winks says the club is knocking on the door and should be earning hardware in no time.

With the club reaching the Champions League final this season before falling to Liverpool, Winks – who started the big game in midfield – is believing in what Mauricio Pochettino has brought to the squad.

“As long as we keep believing in what we have to do… I’m sure they [trophies] are round the corner,” Winks said after the club’s first training session in Singapore. “Everybody is ambitious in the squad. Of course there comes a time when players want to start winning trophies. But there is a bigger picture at Tottenham.”

Winks signed a new five-year contract at Spurs just over a week ago, rewarding the Spurs academy product for breaking into the first team and earning a significant role throughout last season, only cut short by a groin injury. Winks made 17 starts and 26 total appearances last season and was a consistent presence in the Champions League run as well, starting eight of the team’s 13 matches in the competition.

Tottenham’s only trophy of the last 28 years is a 2008 League Cup victory, when they topped Chelsea 2-1 in the final with Jonathan Woodgate scoring the winner in extra time. You have to go all the way back to 1991 for their previous trophy, when they won the FA Cup by beating Nottingham Forest 2-1 in the final on a stoppage-time own-goal.

Spurs has come closer in recent years, with last season providing a legitimate title chase until Liverpool and Manchester City pulled away at the turn of the calendar year. They reached the Champions League final before falling to Liverpool, and fell to Chelsea in the League Cup semifinals as well.

Big things have taken place for the club this summer, with Winks’ contract extension plus the addition of Tanguy Ndomele on a club record fee. Spurs is also rumored to be in for attacking midfielder Giovani Lo Celso in what would be a quality addition to the squad. Christian Eriksen has not yet made a move to depart despite heavy interest from the top Spanish clubs, and Toby Alderweireld has also not yet departed despite his low release clause sparking rumors. Meanwhile, Danny Rose has not made the trip to Asia for preseason and the 29-year-old is reportedly on his way out.

Europa League: Rangers, Aberdeen, FCSB advance in first qualifying round

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The first qualifying round of the 2019/20 Europa League wrapped up Thursday as the competition pairs down teams en route to the group stage.

A couple of notable teams lived to see another day, including Steven Gerrard and Scottish side Rangers who passed its test with flying colors, hammering Gibraltar side St. Joseph’s 6-0 for a resounding 10-0 aggregate win. Jermaine Defoe scored a late brace but Colombian international Alfredo Morelos was the man of the hour, bagging a hat-trick including a stunning rabona at the doorstep that probably wasn’t necessary but still found the back of the net.

Fellow Scottish side Aberdeen who topped Finnish club Rovaniemen Palloseura – or RoPS – 2-1 for a 4-2 aggregate victory. English striker Sam Cosgrove put Aberdeen in front from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, and 19-year-old Scottish youth international Lewis Ferguson picked up the late game winner in the 94th minute with essentially the last kick of the game.

FCSB, previously known as Steaua Bucuresti, knocked off Moldovan club FC Milsami Orhei 2-1 for a 4-1 aggregate victory. FCSB, who finished second in the Romanian top flight last season, got the winning strike from 21-year-old Romanian youth international Razvan Oaida in the 42nd minute to give FCSB the victory.

Danish club Brondby advanced despite a 2-0 road loss, topping Finnish side FC Inter Turku 4-3 on aggregate thanks to their 4-1 victory in the first leg. Turku struck twice in quick succession after the break, scoring in the 52nd and 56th minutes, but it was too little too late.

Legia Warsaw shook off a 0-0 first leg draw and secured a 3-0 win over aptly-named Gibraltar side FC Europa. A brace from Spanish striker Carlitos led the way, with goals in the 7th minute and 60th minute to set the pace for the Polish side.

Irish club Shamrock Rovers advanced over Norwegian side SK Brann on a late winner by new signing Gary O'Neil who bagged an 87th minute strike to secure the 2-0 win and lead the Irish side through 4-3 on aggregate. O’Neil only just joined Shamrock Rovers from UCD this summer, and he came off the bench for the final 10 minutes and found the winner.

Swedish club Malmo, famous as Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s boyhood club, finished off Ballymena out of Northern Ireland 4-0 for a 11-0 aggregate bashing. Malmo featured four different goalscorers, including American international Romain Gall, who picked up his only international cap with a late bench appearances against Italy back in late 2018.

Croatian side Hajduk Split was upset by Maltese club Gzira United 3-1 at home, which gave the visitors the win on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate tie. Gzira striker Ben Hamed Kone struck for a pair, including the game – and matchup – winner in the 97th minute that sent the Maltese side through. The two goals were utterly spectacular, with the first coming in the 69th minute on a bicycle kick from all the way at the top of the box, while his second was a flick from nearly the same position that sent them through.

All Europa League scores (bold team advances)

Rangers 6-0 St. Joseph’s
Ballymena 0-4 Malmo FF
Legia Warsaw 
3-0 FC Europa
FC Milsami 1-2 FCSB
RoPS 1-2 Aberdeen
FC Inter Turku 2-0 Bronby
Apollon Limassol 
4-0 Kauno Zalgiris
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Hajduk Split 1-3 Gzira United
Kilmarnock 0-2 Connah’s Quay
KR Reykjavik 0-0 Molde
Shamrock Rovers 
2-0 SK Brann
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Tobol Kostanay 1-1 Jeunesse Eche 
FK Makedonija 0-3 Alashkert FC
Kairat Almaty
2-1 Siroki Brijeg
KS Teuta 1-0 FK Ventspils
FC Levadia Tallinn 3-2 Stjarnan
Rigas Futbola Skola 0-2 Olimpija Ljubljana
Universitatea Craiova 
3-2 Sabail
Dinamo Minsk 1-2 FK Liepaja
Levski Sofia 2-0 MFK Ruzomberok
Cracovia 2-2 Dunajska Streda
FC Vaduz 
2-1 Breidablik
Haugesund 5-1 Cliftonville
Neftchi 6-0 Speranta Nisporeni
Petrocub-Hincesti 0-1 AEK Larnaca
Torpedo Kutaisi 0-2 Ordabasy Shymkent
Zalgiris Vilnius 1-1 Honved
Zrinjski Mostar 
3-0 Akademija Pandev
Progres Niederkorn 1-2 Cork
UE Engordany 0-1 Dinamo Tbilisi
B36 Torshavn 2-3 Crusaders
FK Kukesi 1-1 Debrecen
Hibernians 0-1 Shakhter Soligorsk
IFK Norrkoping 
2-1 St. Patrick’s
NS Mura 2-3 Maccabi Haifa
Vidi 0-0 FK Zeta
FC Vitebsk 1-1 KuPS Kuopio
Shkupi 1-2 Pyunik
Buducnost Podgorica 4-0 JK Narva Trans
FC Spartak Trnava 2-0 Radnik Bijeljina
NK Domzale 1-0 Balzan FC
Radnicki Nis 2-2 Flora

Report: Barcelona logs bid for Neymar

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According to a report by Sky Sports, Barcelona has officially submitted an offer to Paris Saint-Germain for Brazilian superstar Neymar that includes a $113 million cash component as well as a two-player offer that PSG can choose from.

The report states that Barcelona submitted a six-player list to PSG which includes Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo, and Malcom. PSG can reportedly pick two from those six players, and the deal would be complete. Sky Sports did not know the identity of the sixth player at the time of the initial report.

Neymar has become unsettled at PSG after his time in France has been marred by suspensions and disappointing results in European play. He was involved in an altercation with a fan after PSG fell to Stade Rennais in the Coupe de France final in May, and has been accused of rape this summer by a Brazilian girl he flew to Paris late last season. Neymar was also suspended for three upcoming Champions League matches for critical comments made on his Instagram page after PSG was beaten by Manchester United this past spring.

Neymar has reportedly told PSG sporting director Leonardo that he wishes to leave the club in a recent meeting following the Brazilian’s late arrival to PSG preseason training. He missed the Copa America this summer thanks to an ankle injury suffered in a pre-tournament friendly against Qatar.

Over the last two years at PSG after joining from Barcelona via a world-record $250 million transfer fee, Neymar has made 58 appearances, scoring 51 goals and assisting 29 more. However, he’s been eliminated from the Champions League Round of 16 both years, finding himself injured for at least the return leg of the knockout matchup in both years.