Premier League Playback: Themes of the season

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3-4-3 REIGNS SUPREME

If it’s good enough for Chelsea and Tottenham, it should be good enough for the rest of the Premier League. And it started to get that way.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

With Antonio Conte using a 3-4-3 formation from September onwards, Chelsea took the PL by storm with a three-man central defense and Spurs followed suit in the second half of the season.

We started to see teams like Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham, Stoke and many others use it.

Nobody could do it quite as well as Chelsea and Spurs, though.

[ MORE: Detailing Chelsea’s title parade at Stamford Bridge

The thing with systems is they come and go. Like fashion they follow a leader and then eventually something fresh arrives to take over.

With 4-3-3 formations taking over from 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 over the past few years, plenty of teams have invested in exciting wingers but are finding it tough to get them in dangerous areas. That is the main reason why 3-4-3 works so well.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings ]

Whether they are stereotypical wingers like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Pedro, or the likes of Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli at Spurs, you can create space for your most creative players to roam free out wide and then you don’t have to worry about losing defensive shape.

Both Chelsea and Spurs had full backs capable of attacking and also tracking back and with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Spurs arguably had the better wing backs over Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso who were square pegs in round holes. With Walker and Rose injured often in the second half of the season, Chelsea’s wing-back duo took over.

[ MORE: How Chelsea won the PL title in September ]

Alonso covered for Hazard and Moses covered for Pedro and Chelsea looked balanced. Conte had found the right system by switching to default after a demoralizing loss away at Arsenal where he furiously slammed the table and demanded better. He got it.

Conte had used the 3-4-3 with Juventus and the Italian national team with fine results and like every great Italian designer, everybody is now copying him…


LONDON (THE SOUTH) CALLING

With all three north east clubs from this season relegated, the south dominated in the Premier League. For just the third time in PL history two London clubs sat in first and second place in Chelsea and Tottenham, but this is about much more than that.

For next season Newcastle are the only team guaranteed to be north of  Burnley and the PL will have a very southern feel.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brighton have been promoted, while if Reading beat Huddersfield Town in the playoff final at Wembley next Monday (May 29) then 10 of the PL’s 20 teams next season will be from the Greater London area or the south coast. That’s a huge shift when you think back to the days of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all in the PL.

Many believe the north-south divide in the PL is down to economics. Investors, particularly those from overseas, are picking clubs in southern England to pump their money into. Due to London being the main economic and transport hub of the UK, that makes sense. Reports surfacing that some northern teams are contemplating building training bases closer to London aren’t a joke.

[ MORE: A look behind-the-scenes at Spurs’ stunning new stadium

One of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez chose Liverpool over Arsenal was said to be the fact that the Gunners were in London. That happens more often than you think and plenty of PL players travel from London to teams in the Midlands and the far south each day for training just so they and their families can call London home.

These cycles do come in waves but it seems like for the foreseeable future that the power shift in the PL with be in London and the surrounding areas. Just watch out for it over the next couple of years.


GIANTS SEPARATE, BUT STUTTER

This was a season where the top six mostly got their act together as they easily pulled away from midtable.

However, plenty of giants stuttered there way to the top four and two of the biggest didn’t make it.

Arsenal’s late surge of seven wins from their final eight games wasn’t enough as they finished outside of the top four for the first time in 20 years under Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Premier League scoreboard ]  

Man United prioritized their Europa League final in the final weeks of the season (we will see how that works out when they face Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday) as Jose Mourinho gave up on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.

As for Man City and Liverpool, their defensive issues are there for all to see but they had enough in attack to get the job done and finish in the top four.

Spurs were the only challengers for Chelsea throughout the season but in truth the Blues never looked like relinquishing the title after their 13-game winning run. Even that wobble in April with a defeat away at Manchester United didn’t let Tottenham in.

Antonio Conte won the battle of the managers and in his first season in England he won his fourth-straight league title as a club manager. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty of work to do to justify their big-spending and egos. Both have flattered to deceive this season.

Wenger may not be around next season as Arsenal go through a huge transition and with no European action for Chelsea and Liverpool in 2016-17,  they’ll have to deal with new challenges in 2017-18.

The top four is far from settled but the top six looks likely to stay that way for a while with only Everton ever threatening to finish higher than seventh. The Toffees finished 15 points off the top four, which shows just how much the perennial powers of England have stretched away from the rest.


MIDTABLE BATTLEGROUND

At the end of the season there was just five points separating eighth place and 15th in the Premier League table.

The midtable battle was real.

With so many teams now established as Premier League clubs, all are investing wisely and many are seeing their expectation levels rise to try and finish in the top 10.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

That said, Southampton, who finished in eighth place, were just six points off Watford who finished one spot above the relegation zone. This season was a wake up call to the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea — who all flirted with relegation at times — that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

With Claudio Raneri fired less than 12 months after leading Leicester to the title, plus Saints’ Claude Puel under pressure, Palace sacking Alan Pardew and West Ham’s Slaven Bilic maybe on the way out, teams in the middle of the pack know they aren’t as comfortable as they have been.

Newcastle United and Brighton arrive from the Championship next season ready to spend big to stick around and the threat of relegation is very real to this cluster of midtable teams. The parity party is here.


RETURN OF THE TARGETMAN

Look at the top seven goalscorers in the Premier League…

  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 29 goals
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – 25 goals
  3. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – 24 goals
  4. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – 20 goals
  5. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – 20 goals
  6. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – 17 goals
  7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – 17 goals

The only outliers here are Sanchez, who can often play out wide but started the season through the middle, and Dele Alli who chipped in with a Frank Lampard-esque goal haul. If it wasn’t for his season-ending knee injury, Zlatan would have also reached 20 goals easily.

Among that list you have traditional center forwards at each club banging in the goals and that points to the way teams are setting up tactically.

The targetman has returned.

It may not be for good but the growing trend in the PL over the past few is to play with a three-man attack as two wide forwards create space for playmakers and forwards to link up. Spurs do it superbly well with Eriksen and Son pulling out and then Alli allowed to roam to link up with Kane.

An intriguing stat suggests that the days of hopeful efforts from distance may be numbered too, with a lowest ever rate of 11.6 percent of the 1064 goals scored from outside the box. Speaking of stats…


STATS OF THE SEASON

Here are some stats which summed up the season.


ABIDING MEMORIES OF 2016-17

Based here in England, I spend my time traveling to stadiums and training grounds to watch and/or talk to Premier League players and managers.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive

Over the course of the long nine month season there are always a couple of moments which stick out.

Here’s are the top five memories I will take away from this Premier League season, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, tweeting and asking me questions along the way.

We are all in this together. And we all love every single second of it. 81 days and counting until the 2017-18 season…

  • Arsenal 3-4 LiverpoolWhat a wonderful game. On the opening weekend of the season we witnessed one of the best matches of the entire season. Sadio Mane ripped Arsenal apart and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool destroyed Arsenal… only to let them back into the game with some shambolic defending. This match had it all and was an instant PL classic.
  • Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea – Dele Alli scored two headers on January 4 as Spurs beat Chelsea and the Blues’ winning run came to an end at a record-equaling 13. This was the moment when you felt like Spurs would kick on and win the title. In a frigid White Hart Lane the thermostat was cranked up plenty of notches as Tottenham rattled Chelsea early and Pochettino’s youngsters struck twice through Alli. You get the sense that more epic battles will come between these two teams, and managers, in the years to come.
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea – This was a true game-changer for Chelsea. Watching Antonio Conte furiously slam his fist on the table after that defeat in the press room, you just knew he would change things. In came the 3-4-3 formation and the rest is history. At the time it didn’t seem like a big moment, but for me that defeat was the moment of the season. It sparked Conte’s rebuild of Chelsea and got the players on board.

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

USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia

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The USMNT face Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain in their final warm-up game before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in November and there are plenty of question marks around their best starting lineup.

Especially at center back and up front.

[ MORE: Player ratings | What we learned | Reaction ]

Following the shocking defeat to Japan (where a 2-0 scoreline in Japan’s favor heavily flattered the USMNT), Gregg Berhalter has plenty to think about as he juggles his roster around ahead of this final audition.

Yes, this final camp before the World Cup has seen the USMNT without six key players (Weah, Steffen, A. Robinson, Carter-Vickers, Richards and Musah) but the most concerning thing is that nobody took the opportunity given to them against Japan. Will anybody step up against Saudi Arabia and cement their spot in the roster, or even the starting lineup?

Below is our projected lineup, plus analysis on what Berhalter should do for the final 90 minutes he has with the team before they kick off their World Cup campaign against Wales on Nov. 21 in Qatar.


USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia (4-3-3)

—– Horvath —–

— Scally — Zimmerman — Palmer-Brown — Dest —

—- Adams —- McKennie —-

—- Reyna —-

— Aaronson — Pepi — Pulisic —


What should Berhalter do?

It’s clear that Gregg Berhalter will make plenty of changes as eight players (six outfield, two goalkeepers) didn’t have any minutes against Japan last time out. That said, he needs key players on this team to find some rhythm playing together less than two months before the World Cup kicks off. This starting lineup should be a mixture between giving players a final chance to impress and letting star players alongside each other as they look to build momentum ahead of the World Cup.

Goalkeepers

Matt Turner proved he’s the undisputed No. 1 as he excelled against Japan (perhaps the only player to leave that game with any credit) and although Zack Steffen is better with the ball at his feet, Turner appears to have the upper-hand. That leaves Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson to battle it out for the final goalkeeping spot on the roster. Expect them both to get a chance in this game.

Defenders

In defense, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie should both get plenty of minutes to make their final claim for a spot on the roster but it may be a surprise to see them line up together. Perhaps they will have 45 minutes each alongside Zimmerman (a guaranteed starter at CB) to see who fares better as a duo?

At full back Joe Scally should get a run out at right back, while Sergino Dest will likely show off his versatility and play left back. The likes of Dest, and others, need the game time given they’re on the fringes of their starting lineup for their club teams. We now what DeAndre Yedlin can do and he is a leader on this team who is going to Qatar no matter what.

Midfielders

In midfield, I’d start Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie together again. They looked awful against Japan which was very surprising. This duo have to get some kind of partnership going and 60 minutes together here could see things click back into place for them. We know what Luca de la Torre and Kellyn Acosta offer, while Johnny Cardoso and Malik Tillman could both get another, longer, chance to push for a spot on the roster.

Forwards

Gio Reyna playing in a central role as a No. 10 should be something Berhalter prioritizes, while Christian Pulisic is fit and will start (according to Berhalter) so he should start on the left and Brenden Aaronson should start on the right. Getting Aaronson, Reyna and Pulisic used to playing together and interchanging is something that has to be done.

Up top, Berhalter has confirmed that Ricardo Pepi will get his chance to start and his physicality and speed should combine very well with the trio underneath him. Expect Josh Sargent to get a good chunk of minutes too, while Jesus Ferreira is the other option up top but maybe we could see Pulisic or Reyna playing up there as a false nine at some point of the game?

Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

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With the 2022 World Cup fast approaching, plenty of World Cup kits are starting to be released and there are some intriguing looks.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA  

From Mexico’s snazzy away number to Germany going for a solid new look for their home kit and Puma rolling out a very specific and similar look for their national teams, just like they did for their club teams on their away kits, there is a lot to unpack here.

When November rolls around and the World Cup kicks off, which one of these jerseys will you be wearing with pride? And which one will you be wearing because it looks really cool?

Below is our rankings of the World Cup kits which have been released.


Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

1. Mexico

This is a lovely away kit and will become a classic. Expect these beauties to fly off the shelves and be a jersey that neutrals love just as much as El Tri fans. The home kit is very decent too.


2. Portugal

Absolutely sensational work. The home kit is unique enough but still sticks to Portugal’s bold colors, while the away kit is a classic too.


3. Poland

Oh, wow. This is absolutely beautiful. The away shirt is majestic and the home shirt is classic but with some intriguing detail on the sleeves. Nicely done.


4. Japan

Well, this is another classic. Japan’s home kit is inspired by anime and the design is bold and recognizable. The away kit is fantastic too, especially the long-sleeved version.


5. France

The home and away kits are both lovely and the colors just work together. Well done.


6. Argentina

The home kit is classic. You can’t really mess up the blue and white stripes. Again, another lovely away kit. The purple is perfect and this just looks slick and silky. Much like Lionel Messi’s footwork.


7. Wales

These are beautiful. The right color red on the home shirt and just enough going on without overdoing it. The away shirt is also bold and the collar is lovely. Well done.


8. Brazil

Home kit looks like a classic and the away shirt is pretty decent too, but some people may not like the funky print on the shoulders.


9. England

The blue panels on the home kit are a bit meh but the away kit is a retro beauty.


10. Croatia

They kind of ruined a classic with the home kit. It’s still cool but only having the checkered design on part of the home shirt is weird. The away kit is majestic.


11. Saudi Arabia

Pretty nice designs here. They could have gone with the plain white for the home and plain green for the away, but the snazzy designs work. Especially for the away kit.


12. Netherlands

The home shirt looks kind of velvety? Not the usual bright orange, which will upset some. The blue away kit is sleek and the real winner here.


13. Senegal

This is the best of the Puma jerseys, as Senegal’s away kit is very distinctive and the green is lovely. This big panel on the middle of the kit is something we will get used to seeing a lot of during the World Cup.


14. Ghana

Again, another Puma away kit but this Ghana shirt has plenty of personality.


15. Germany

This is fine. Expect a bit better from Die Mannschaft and it feels like they should have an all white jersey for their home kit.


16. Qatar

The hosts have a simple, clean look. The away shirt has a nice golden pattern on it. Not bad.


17. USA

The home shirt has not been received well by fans, and some players, for being too boring. But the away shirt is pretty nice.


18. Morocco

A bit plain, but like the collar and sleeve trims and the circular pattern around the middle is very cool.


19. Spain

Eh, this could have been so much better. Spain’s home kit looks bland and the away kit is just too much with that pattern.


20. Australia

Not quite sure what to make of this. The same velvety style as the Netherlands home shirt on Australia’s home shirt. Just doesn’t work. The away kit is also just very bland.


21. Belgium

These home kits are just a little too plain and the flame pattern on the shoulder isn’t great and looks like a shirt I’d wear to my midweek bowling league. A missed opportunity. The same applies for the away kit. Belgium’s golden generation won’t look golden this World Cup.


22. Uruguay

Again, another Puma away kit which looks very similar. Uruguay’s iconic sky blue could have been used a lot better on this away shirt.


23. Serbia

Lovely gold in the design and makes the white away kit pop a little.


24. Switzerland

Just very bland. Not a lot going on and the panel in the middle is just a bit of an eyesore.

World Cup 2022 rankings: Who are the favorites?

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With less than two months to go until it all kicks off, it is time to update and release the latest 2022 World Cup rankings.

[ MORE: USMNT react to Japan defeat ]

There are a few clear favorites to win the trophy in Qatar but some of the giants have been handed tougher group stage draws than others which will obviously impact their chances of lifting the famous trophy.

Given that some of the favorites have also been struggling in recent Nations League games and friendlies with plenty of heavy defeats and strange results, there remains no real frontrunner to win the tournament. That is great news for neutrals.

[ MORE: Full schedule for World Cup ]

Keep an eye out on a few underdogs too, as there are some real opportunities which have opened up depending on what side of the bracket you’re on.

We will updates these rankings before and during the tournament in Qatar, which takes place from November 21 to December 18, 2022.

[ MORE: Betting odds for 2022 World Cup ]

Let us know what you think of the rankings below.


Schedule, start time, dates, how to watch live

When: November 20, 2022 to December 18, 2022
Group stage game kick off times: 5am, 8am, 11am, 2pm (all ET)
Location: Qatar
TV channel in EnglishFox
TV channel in Spanish: Telemundo, Universo, Peacock


World Cup Rankings – September 26, 2022

32. Tunisia – Down 1
31. Qatar – Down 4
30. Australia – Up 2
29. Ghana – Even
28. Cameroon – Down 3


27. Saudi Arabia – Up 1
26. Costa Rica – Up 4
25. Wales – Down 5
24. Iran – Even
23. Ecuador – Down 5


22. Morocco – Even
21. Canada – Up 2
20. USA – Down 4
19. Japan – Up 7
18. Poland – Up 3


17. Mexico – Up 2
16. South Korea – Down 1
15. Uruguay – Down 5
14. Serbia – Up 3
13. Senegal – Down 1


12. Switzerland – Up 1
11. Croatia – Up 3
10. Denmark – Up 1
9. England – Down 3
8. Germany – Down 3
7. Spain – Even


6. Netherlands – Up 3
5. Portugal – Up 3
4. France – Even
3. Belgium – Down 1
2. Argentina – Up 1
1. Brazil – Even


UEFA Nations League: Schedule, how to watch, stream, TV, standings

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UEFA Nations League champions France will not go back-to-back, and Portugal is behind Spain in its bid to return to the throne room, highlighting the odds that a new Nations League winner will be crowned at the end of third edition of the tournament.

England and Wales are also coming to terms with the concept of relegation to UEFA Nations League B after underwhelming campaigns. Hungary look set to reach the semifinal round, which is a huge surprise as they faced Germany, England and Italy in A3.

France lost to Denmark and just remained in League A as Austria were relegated, with Croatia pipping the Danes to a place in the semifinal round.

[ MORE: European Nations League hub — Scores, stats ]

Group A4 is the opposite sort of fight, Belgium and the Netherlands have both played very well but the Dutch triumphed down the stretch (thanks to a 1-0 win as Virgil van Dijk scored the lone goal in Amsterdam) to advance to the semifinal round.

UEFA Nations Leagues B, C, and D also have drama built into the final days as Ukraine and Scotland are jockeying for promotion in B1; Russia’s punishment has left B2 promotion open to Israel, Iceland, and Albania. B4 sees Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard, and Norway fighting to join League A for the next cycle.

There’s also drama as Kazakhstan and Georgia currently lead their League C groups, with Latvia and Estonia in League D’s best spots.


UEFA Nations League live: How to watch, stream links

When: June 1, 2022 – March 26, 2024
How to watch: Fox Sports Live, Fubo TV


UEFA Nations League A, Group 1

Croatia– 4-1-1, 13 pts [ADVANCED]
Denmark — 4-0-2, 12 pts
France — 1-2-3, 5 pts
Austria — 1-1-4, 4 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
France 2-0 Austria
Croatia 2-1 Denmark

Sunday
Denmark 2-0 France
Austria 1-3 Croatia

UEFA Nations League A, Group 2

Portugal — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Spain — 2-2-0, 8 pts
Switzerland — 2-0-3, 6 pts
Czech Republic — 1-1-3, 4 pts

Next fixtures

Saturday
Czech Republic 0-4 Portugal
Spain 1-2 Switzerland

Tuesday
Portugal vs Spain
Switzerland vs Czech Republic

UEFA Nations League A, Group 3

Italy — 3-2-1, 11 pts
Hungary — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Germany — 1-4-1, 7 pts
England — 0-3-3, 3 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Friday
Italy 1-0 England
Germany 0-1 Hungary

Monday
England 3-3 Germany
Hungary 0-2 Italy

UEFA Nations League A, Group 4

Netherlands — 5-1-0, 16 pts [ADVANCED]
Belgium — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Poland — 2-1-3, 7 pts
Wales — 0-1-5, 1 pt [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
Poland 0-2 Netherlands
Belgium 2-1 Wales

Sunday
Netherlands 1-0 Belgium
Wales 0-1 Poland