PL Playback: London’s burning

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CHELSEA, ARSENAL IMPLODE

London is burning. Well, it is in the red half of North London and in the West. Both Arsenal and Chelsea look set to miss out on finishing in the top four this season as their dreadful recent runs continue with just three points for each from their last five games.

Chelsea’s defensive tactics were hammered by critics as they lost 1-0 at Manchester City, while Arsene Wenger‘s Arsenal reign appears to be coming to an end as they lost 2-1 at newly-promoted Brighton.

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London’s two most successful clubs aren’t quite in ruins, but they’re heading that way. Fast. The London giants are set to both finish outside the top four in the same PL season for the first time in 22 years.

Where has it gone wrong?

Let’s start with the bigger mess: Arsenal. The fact that they lost to Brighton 2-1 on Sunday was just the tip of the iceberg. Arsene Wenger’s presence at the club has once again created a highly toxic atmosphere and the players are underperforming. They have accumulated the lowest PL points tally at this stage of a season since Wenger arrived in 1996 and they’re 13 points off the top four with nine games to go.

“It’s the first time it happens in my whole career, I must say,” Wenger told Sky Sports. “It’s not easy, but I have enough experience and enough desire to turn things around and I must say that, at the moment, when you need to stay in the game we are making a few mistakes at the wrong moments. We have to stick together and focus. We have no other solution.”

He’s right. They don’t. That’s the problem.

Contracted through the end of the 2019 season, Wenger’s decision to sign a two-year contract extension last summer was both inevitable and a damning indictment that Arsenal have no plan for the future. Owner Stan Kroenke and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis both took the easy option in offering Wenger a new deal to extend his stay at Arsenal beyond two decades and now they’re paying the price.

Thierry Henry, Mikel Arteta, Leonardo Jardim, Carlo Ancelotti and Joachim Loew are all said to be on the shortlist to take over from Wenger this summer, with the Henry and Arteta reportedly favored because they may at least get some patience from the Arsenal fans.

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Until Wenger is fired, he deserves respect. Of course he does. He changed the game in England forever when he arrived in the mid 90s and his legacy will remain mostly positive, no matter what happens in the final few months of this season. But he should go in the summer. 100 percent. The problem is, if he doesn’t want to leave, can Arsenal push him out of the door? Maybe not. After a week which saw Arsenal hammered in the League Cup final by Manchester City, then four days later in the league by the same 3-0 scoreline before being humbled by newly-promoted Brighton, there’s a danger of this being a knee-jerk reaction.

But come on. This has been coming for months, if not years.

Kroenke’s decision to hand Wenger the two-year extension show how much he values the Frenchman but even the expensive new signings this season and Mesut Ozil’s lucrative long-term contract have failed to quell the relentless tide gathering around Wenger’s midriff. Arsenal must now focus solely on winning the UEFA Europa League because that is the only way Wenger will save this monstrosity of a season and qualify for the UEFA Champions League again.

Moving west across London, Chelsea’s season hit a new low on Sunday at Manchester City. Yes, Antonio Conte‘s side only lost 1-0 to the champions elect, but the way he set his team up proved how far the reigning champs have fallen.

Like Arsenal, the situation has been unraveling for a while. Conte’s constant digs in press conferences at the Chelsea hierarchy tell its own story as the Italian coach seems to want out at the end of this season.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Five points off the top four with nine games to go, it seems likely that Chelsea will join Arsenal in missing out on the top four. That would be catastrophic given their incredible title win last season, but not unexpected.

The recruitment of new players has been slapdash at best and replacing Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic with Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko hasn’t worked well at all. Adding the likes of Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Antonio Rudiger just seemed like panic buys.

[ MORE: Conte defends defensive Chelsea ]

Conte was a frustrated man when asked about criticism of his team against Man City (it was described as “a crime against football” by pundits in the UK) as they didn’t have a shot on target and had just 29 percent of possession with Eden Hazard skulking around up front in a false nine position.

“I think you have to accept every criticism but I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0,” Conte said. “If I remember well, two days ago, Arsenal played twice against them and then you criticize a lot Wenger because they concede three goals in only 30 minutes. The pundit has to use the head to understand when you speak about tactics because I think you must have knowledge to speak about tactics and not only to speak in a stupid way.”

Right now fans of Arsenal and Chelsea both feel stupid.


CITY PREFER STYLE OVER RECORDS

Manchester City may break every single Premier League record this season.

They’re on course to win the PL title at the earliest ever time with the most goals scored and with the most points and the largest-ever winning margin.

Pep Guardiola‘s side passed Chelsea into oblivion and he seemed more delighted with the style and patience his team showed than the win itself.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about City’s record-breaking 902 passes completed, the highest number by a PL team since Opta started collecting the stats in the 2003/04 season, Guardiola wore a beaming smile as his ideals are now clearly embedded within his players.

“We try to play with the ball. We try with our power like a team. Sometimes it is more complicated when teams are aggressive. They were so organised today, it is like they play against Barcelona in the Champions League,” Guardiola said. “We spoke to move the ball quick, one or two touches, and control the counter attack from Hazard and Pedro because they are so good at it. Now we need three or four victories to be champions.”

But it is that fact, being champions, which seems to resonate the strongest with Guardiola. He seems to prefer winning games playing how he wants to see his team play over racking up team records for goals, points and so on.

“What really matters is to be champions. I never spoke with the players about the records,” Guardiola said. “I never spoke we have to win the two games to achieve something. Against Stoke we are going to try and play like we play all season. After, at the end, we will see. But we are not going to play for the records. Records are always a consequence of what you have done but they are not the main thing.”


RELEGATION BATTLE HEATING UP

With nine games to go, nobody has a clue who two of the three relegated teams will be this season.

West Brom are gone, pretty much, but you can pick two of the following six teams at random: Stoke City, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Swansea City.

Plus the likes of Bournemouth, Everton and Brighton could all still get sucked into the relegation battle. This is madness.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

West Brom have won just three games all season long and Alan Pardew remains in a job for now but as soon as they are mathematically down you will see him fired. They are eight points from safety and time is running out after their narrow defeat at Watford.

As for the rest, Stoke City and Southampton played out a dour, nervous 0-0 draw at the weekend which summed up how scared both of those perennial midtable teams are of going down. Huddersfield and Newcastle were humbled by Tottenham and Liverpool respectively but the newly-promoted duo will be pleased to still be in with a chance of staying up with nine games to go. Crystal Palace are in with a shout of staying up after their terrible start to the season but Roy Hodgson knows he needs Wilfried Zaha back from injury, and fast, if they’re going to have any chance of survival.

Then there’s West Ham. What a mess. Co-owner David Gold, 81, was confronted by fans after their 4-1 drubbing at Swansea City at the weekend as the Hammers’ disastrous season spirals out of control under David Moyes. Their veteran signings aren’t working out and the fan unrest continues to build with the east London club just three points above the drop zone. As for the Swans, Carlos Carvalhal continues to work miracles in South Wales as he’s only suffered two defeats in 15 games in all competitions since taking charge. The Portuguese wordsmith has impressed mightily.

“We moved things around today, rested some players and I am very happy. Our level of intensity is very high and the players are in a very good way,” Carvalhal said after battering West Ham. “There are games where you must listen to the music of the opponent. We made West Ham dance to our music and it was rock and roll.”

Teams in the relegation battle will be listening to a mixture of smooth rock and heavy metal between now and May 13 as they aim to either calm their nerves for the impending battle, or wake themselves up from sleep-walking out of the Premier League and into the second tier.


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

Nothing to separate Portland and 10-man LAFC

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There was entertainment value in Los Angeles FC’s potential playoff preview with the Portland Timbers on Sunday in the City of Angels, but all that arrived was a scoreless draw.

[ MORE: Atlanta 1-1 Seattle ]

Both Giovani Savarese’s Timbers and Bob Bradley‘s nickname-free expansion club remain in the West’s Top Four. PLAFC remains unbeaten at home during their maiden voyage through Major League Soccer.

Adama Diomande came close for the hosts, who finished with 10-men when Lee Nguyen went studs-up on Sebastian Blanco‘s thigh for a pretty easy red card (though it took some time for Silviu Petrescu to produce the red).

VIDEO: France stars projected onto Arc de Triomphe

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If France’s players had any doubt about the level of import their World Cup title had back home, it was erased when their photos were projected onto one of the most celebrated monuments in the world.

The photos of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and company made their way onto the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, hours after France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Arc de Triomphe honors those who died in the French Revolution and early 19th century wars, and sits above France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

How humbling must it be for those players to grace such a heavy monument (both in weight and substance).

Dalic: In one day, Croatia went from lucky to unlucky

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Ante Cacic’s Croatia was on pace to miss out on the World Cup.

Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia rallied the troops to second place in their qualifying group, a playoff defeat of Greece, and a run to the World Cup Final.

Pretty decent stuff.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

And surely the 51-year-old will reflect on that, probably even this evening, but he’s more focused on a letdown after Sunday’s 4-2 loss to highly-favored France.

Key to the match was a penalty awarded to France when a partially-obscured Mario Mandzukic handled a ball inside the 18, leading to Antoine Griezmann’s pivotal goal.

The PK was awarded via VAR, and France went up 2-1 en route to a three-goal lead. From the AFP:

“I never comment on referees but in a World Cup final you do not give such a penalty,” said Dalic.

“It in no way diminishes France’s win. We were a bit unlucky. Maybe in the first six games we were favored by luck and today we weren’t.

“I have to congratulate my players. Maybe today we played our best game at these championships. Against such a strong side as France you must not make mistakes. We are a bit sad but we must also be proud of what we’ve done.”

Croatia had two-thirds of the ball and doubled France’s shot attempts, and Dalic isn’t the least bit controversial in wondering whether the match is much different if that penalty goes unawarded by referee Nestor Pitana.

Atlanta comes back to draw 10-man Seattle (video)

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A scrappy if not downright venomous affair between the lowly Seattle Sounders and high-flying Atlanta United ended in a 1-1 draw in Georgia on Sunday.

The Sounders went ahead through a Nicolas Lodeiro penalty kick, awarded via VAR a la this morning’s World Cup Final, but Atlanta leveled the score with a highlight which show every bit of the game story.

[ MORE: FIFA awards Golden Ball, Golden Glove ]

Just check Josef Martinez’s barking at Stefan Frei, who made an uncharacteristic error on the play, after his 19th goal of the season (Nice cross, Julian Gressel).

Martinez needs nine more goals to break the MLS single season record, and he has 13 games to score them.

Jordan McCrary was sent off for Seattle in the 63rd minute for a second yellow, but Seattle navigated the final half hour or so to scoop up an unlikely point.

Atlanta still sits first with its earned point but opens the door for New York City FC to reach the top of the table when it plays its match-in-hand, while Seattle is now 11 points back of the West’s final playoff spot.