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.

Josef Martinez scores 2 more in win, including sensational solo work

AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Josef Martinez scored his 25th and 26th goals of the MLS season, and if he challenges his MLS record of 31, he may also stare down soccer royalty.

The Venezuelan striker scored two more on Wednesday in a 2-0 defeat of FC Cincinnati in Ohio to give him goals in 15-straight league contests.

He now has 76 goals in 80 MLS games, which is good.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

On the season, he’s six goals shy of matching the Major League Soccer record he set with last season’s 31 regular season goals.

According to MLSSoccer.com, he’s six games shy of tying Lionel Messi’s world record for consecutive league matches with a goal.

Even that’s a little tricky: Messi scored in 21-straight games in which he was eligible for selection, but 19-straight before missing two matches for injury. In that remarkable run of 21, he also had a run of six-straight braces.

It’s not really worth it to attempt to compare the two streaks: If Martinez gets to 21 (or even 19), it’s amazing stuff and worth celebrating on a worldwide level. Everyone has a bad game every now and again, but Martinez still finds the score sheet in ’em.

Look at the magician’s tricks he used for this one, including a back heel first touch and two freeze-frame cut moves. That’s not even mentioning the finish.

USWNT announces final matches of World Cup-winning year

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CHICAGO (AP) The Women’s World Cup champion U.S. team will wrap up 2019 with matches against Sweden and Costa Rica.

U.S. Soccer announced Wednesday that the U.S. will face Sweden in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 7 and Costa Rica in Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 10.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

The team is wrapping up its World Cup victory tour next month with matches against South Korea on Oct. 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and on Oct. 6 in Chicago.

Coach Jill Ellis is stepping down following the match in Chicago after leading the team to a pair of consecutive World Cup titles.

The United States is 15-1-2 this year and currently riding a 14-game winning streak.

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

Report: Mane to get big raise, Liverpool contract through 2025

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Liverpool’s Senegalese sensation looks set to stay at Anfield deep into his 30s.

Sadio Mane is in talks with the Reds hierarchy over a new deal that will run through 2024-25, and pay him more than $15 million per season.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

Mane, 27, currently has a deal through 2023, but surely wouldn’t mind a raise. And Liverpool will be happy to tie him down on Merseyside a bit longer.

He’s scored six times in seven matches this season, also grabbing an assist. That’s on a better pace than his 26 goals and five assists over 50 appearances in 2018/19.

Mane has 70 Premier League goals at the moment. Do you tip him to eclipse 100 while still at Anfield? 125?

Europa League preview: Man Utd, Wolves, Arsenal begin group stage

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The Europa League begins its group stage on Thursday, with the three Premier League combatants taking on clubs from Kazakhstan, Portugal and Germany.

Manchester United’s kids are gonna get some playing time when Astana visits Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Teenager Mason Greenwood and 21-year-old Axel Tuanzebe will start, and Sergio Romero will be between the sticks.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

And the Manchester Evening News notes that Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes could also start at Old Trafford, meaning the veterans in the fray will be quite important.

Enter Fred, the forgotten $68 million man from Shaktar Donetsk. The 23 minutes he played last week versus Leicester City account for his lone time on the pitch this season.

Here’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer:

“I’m sure we’ll see more and more of Fred. We spoke about it earlier, he’s had some great games in midfield with Scott against PSG and Arsenal, for example, and we’re just waiting for that to flourish.”

Fred had an odd record under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season, barely in the squad when the team started hot but trusted against PSG and Barcelona in the Champions League.

Speaking of little-used midfielders, Arsenal boss Unai Emery is getting a little grief for leaving Mesut Ozil behind for the Gunners’ trip to Germany for a big match with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Ozil made his first start of the season in Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Watford at the weekend, playing 71 minutes and departing with the club up 2-1.

So why not even bring him abroad? Rest.

“Because we are going to play another match on Sunday,” Emery said, via The London Evening Standard. “My decision is because he played and also I’m thinking tomorrow the focus and the first 11 and after that I decided who are the players who can be the best for tomorrow and also the players not and that is Sokratis and Mesut.”

Sokrastis Papastathopoulos is also out, having played a big role in the embarrassing performance at Watford.

There have been tough times for Wolves as well, who sit in the relegation zone after five matches of the Premier League season.

They’ve been quite good in Europa League, though, dispatching a pair of minnows before winning both legs against Serie A side Torino.

Why the inconsistency? It’s not fixture congestion, according to Ruben Neves:

“I don’t think fatigue has anything to do with it, Neves said, via The Birmingham Mail. “We’re all top players, we’re used to it, we’re used to playing a lot of games in quick succession. I don’t think the Europa League has (anything) to do with our position in the Premier League. Obviously, we haven’t had the start that we’ve wanted, but it’s been a beautiful journey into the Europa League. This is a historic moment for Wolves and we’re going to do our best in this competition.”

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men are in Portugal to meet Braga, one of three tricky opponents in Besiktas and Slovan Bratislava.

Full slate

12:55 p.m. ET
CFR Cluj v. Lazio
LASK v. Rosenborg
Getafe v. Trabzonspor
PSV Eindhoven v. Sporting Lisbon
Basel v. Krasnodar
APOEL Nicosia v. Dudelange
Copenhagen v. Lugano
Standard Liege v. Vitoria SC
Qarabag v. Sevilla
Eintracht Frankfurt v. Arsenal
Rennes v. Celtic
Dynamo Kiev v. Malmo

3 p.m. ET
Wolfsburg v. Oleksandriya
Espanyol v. Ferencvaros
Rangers v. Feyenoord
Porto v. Young Boys
Slovan Bratislava v. Besiktas
Borussia Monchengladbach v. Wolfsberg
Partizan v. AZ Alkmaar
AS Roma v. Istanbul Basaksehir
Gent v. Saint-Etienne
Manchester United v. Astana
Wolves v. Braga
Ludogorets Razgrad v. CSKA Moscow