Premier League Playback: Winners, losers from festive period

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WHO EXCELLED IN FESTIVE SPELL?

Winners

Tottenham Hotspur – Yep. They’re back. Dele Alli is on fire (seven goals in four games over the festive period) and Kane looks sharp. They scored 12 goals and conceded twice. Spurs now look like Chelsea’s biggest challengers for the title.
Manchester United – Six wins on the spin in the PL, plus Zlatan and Pogba on fire. What more could United ask for? Mourinho’s defense looks mean and the game against Liverpool on Jan. 15 will be a huge test of where they’re at.
Liverpool – It could’ve been so much better for Jurgen Klopp had they not conceded two penalties at Sunderland. Still, 10 points from 12 is a great return. Liverpool firmly in the title race.
BurnleySean Dyche is working wonders at Burnley and has turned Turf Moor into a fortress. All seven PL wins have come at home and they had narrow away defeat at Spurs and Man City.

Losers

Arsenal – Okay, so they lost at Man City and their comeback 3-3 draw at Bournemouth felt like a defeat. Sandwiched in-between were two laboring wins against West Brom and Palace. Stuttering.
Southampton – Oh dear. Claude Puel‘s side beat Bournemouth on Dec. 19 but he gave the team time off. Then they crumbled with three-straight defeats and two red cards. Sucked into a relegation battle?
Hull CityMike Phelan was fired after the defeat at West Brom on Jan. 2 and Marco Silva is in. Hull needs new players but doesn’t have much money to spend. Should’ve beaten Everton but same mistakes costing them points. The struggled is real at the KCOM as ownership issues continue.
Crystal PalaceSam Allardyce is already getting booed as he drew at Watford, lost at Arsenal and lost at home to Swansea. Not ideal after Alan Pardew‘s firing as Palace sit one point above the drop zone.
Watford – Six defeats in eight PL games has Walter Mazzarri‘s side hurtling towards a relegation battle in the second half of the season. Just like last season. Buckle up, Hornets fans.


MIDSEASON AWARDS

All this week at Pro Soccer Talk we’ve been rolling out our midseason awards.

[ MORE: PST’s full midseason awards

Here’s a full list of the categories below, plus we had some fun with our revised PL standings at the halfway point. 

Enjoy scrolling through the story of the season so far…


NORMALITY RESUMING

When you look at the PL table as we enter the second half of the season everything looks about right.

After the madness of last season, normality is slowly but surely resuming.

[ MORE: 3 things learned from Spurs’ win vs. Chelsea

The perennial top six are back where they belong, while the likes of Leicester, West Ham and Southampton are back in midtable or worse rather than the top seven where they all finished last season.Of course, Leicester cruised to the PL title last season, finishing 10 points clear of Arsenal in one of the greatest upsets in sporting history.

Things are back to normal this season, though, as Chelsea boss Antonio Conte confirmed following the end of his teams 13-game winning streak as they lost 2-0 at Tottenham on Jan. 4 to breathe new life into the title race.

“I think the situation is very clear. There are six teams that can fight for the title or for a place in the Champions League,” Conte said. “I am sure one of these six teams will be champions.”

That’s not to say this normality is boring. Far from it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings  | schedule

The top six have separated themselves from the pack with sixth-place Manchester United now nine points ahead of Everton who are in seventh.

Yet, there’s a real sense that even though United is 10 points off leaders Chelsea, the surging Red Devils (Mourinho’s men have won six-straight in the PL) are part of this six-way struggle for the title and there isn’t much between each team. Star players and managers clicked through the gears and proved their worth over the festive period.


3-MAN DEFENSE ALL THE RAGE

In the whole of the 2015-16 Premier League season teams started with a three-man central defense 22 times.

After 20 games for each side in the 2016-17 campaign, three at the back has been deployed 61 times from the start.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

That’s a big difference and that tactical trend owes a lot to the success of Chelsea using a 3-4-3 to dominant in recent months.

As we saw in their 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, Chelsea’s wing backs had competition as Spurs switched to a similar 3-4-2-1 formation and matched them like for like.

This system is getting the best out of attacking full backs in the PL, of which there are many, and it also allows attacking midfielders who don’t want to defend, of which there are also many, to express themselves in the final third and support a central lone striker. There are of course downsides to using this system and we saw that for Chelsea against Spurs as their midfield was overrun and the holding players of N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic lost the midfield battle as they were pushed out wide to deal with Spurs’ galloping wing backs.

Like every system, it has its flaws but with full backs more eager to play an attacking role this 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 trend suits many PL teams.

With Spurs, Watford, Everton and obviously Chelsea deploying this system often, expect other teams to try it out in the second half of the season as managers try to snap losing streaks, reinvigorate their players or simply try to copy Chelsea.

Conte has started something here…

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.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.