Premier League roundtable: The story so far

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With the Premier League heading into the international break after eight weeks of the season in the books, where do we stand?

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We have a three-team tie atop the Premier League table, some giants struggling and minnows over-performing.

Considering all of that, the staff at Pro Soccer Talk got together to have a little chat about the key storylines in the PL in the opening months of the 2018-19 campaign. Feel free to get involved and answer the questions in the comments section below.


Eight weeks in, three teams sit atop the Premier League table level on points. Who has impressed you most so far: Liverpool, Man City or Chelsea?

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JPW: At the moment I’m going with Chelsea. I still think Man City and Liverpool will be the top two, but the way Chelsea have settled under Maurizio Sarri (who only arrived in mid July) has been astonishing. Of course, it helps when Eden Hazard is in the form of his life, but Chelsea are close to being the most aesthetically pleasing team, just behind City, to watch in the Premier League. Fantastic start and they’ve played Arsenal and Liverpool, but big tests are coming up.

Dan Karell: I’m going to go with Chelsea as well. Sarri’s somewhat “late” arrival, just a few weeks before the start of the season, put the team behind the eight ball, but Eden Hazard has responded to the new manager and is truly living up to his potential as one of the world’s best players. Man City and Liverpool’s starts have been impressive, but in a way, it was expected. The scoreless draw on Sunday was that of two teams who respected each other too much to be too risky.

Nick Mendola: That’s a tricky one. Chelsea of course came out of the gates slowly with a new manager but has looked as consistent as Man City. I mention those two because when firing Liverpool has looked sensational and a cut above even last season’s champions. That said, that’s been a function and a flaw of the Reds under Jurgen Klopp, and Man City has to be considered the most impressive considering that, even with a tame schedule, they’ve done it without Kevin De Bruyne and with several players still finding their paths.

Kyle Bonn: Manchester City has still impressed me the most. As Nick said, Liverpool is the most fun, but they still have too many highs and lows. City remains consistent, and impressively so. Chelsea is there, but I’m still not convinced Sarri’s re-positioning of N’Golo Kante is the right move long term.


Should Jose Mourinho remain in charge at Manchester United? And here’s the key question: can he turn things around?

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JPW: I think he should stay in charge. At least until the January transfer window. If United can hang in and around the top four until early 2019, getting in key defensive reinforcements will be key to how successful this season will be. I think Mourinho has caused his own problems, for sure, but his players are clearly under-performing and there’s only so much you can do as a coach. Not being backed in the summer transfer window clearly upset Mourinho and changes are need at the top of the pyramid if United will get back to challenging for titles each season. Ed Woodward has a lot to answer for and will likely back Mourinho in the January transfer window. The key thing Mourinho needs to do is to let the shackles come off his team. They aren’t a very good defensive team but they can hurt opponents going forward. His style as a coach is often too pragmatic, which is okay away from home against top six opponents. But against lesser teams they need to take games by the scruff of the neck early on. Things change very quickly in this game.

Mendola: Pretty convinced that Mourinho’s job hinges on how he looks against Ronaldo/Juventus in the Champions League and the derby. The whole mess is not entirely his fault but it’s going to rest on his shoulders due to his disposition. In that sense it is of his doing. A side by side comparison of Mou at Man Utd and Klopp at Liverpool doesn’t separate the two by much, but Klopp gets the PR side. He put on Mane and Firmino on blast after losing to Napoli and few cared. Mourinho took a swipe at McTominay and Rashford after a win over Newcastle and took some abuse. Yes the latter two are from the island, but you get the idea.

Karell: I really think it’s only a matter of when, not if, Jose Mourinho is sacked at Man United. He’s lost the senior members of the dressing room and I heard a great point about him in the past, he always had senior or talented players willing to carry the team for him and push the teammates on to work harder. He had that at Chelsea with John Terry and Frank Lampard, had it at Porto with Carvalho and Deco, and at Inter with Eto’o, Zanetti and Wesley Sneijder. But things haven’t been the same for Mourinho since he had a falling out with Pepe and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid, and then again at Chelsea he lost the dressing room. Man United can surely play better than they’ve been playing, and kind of like Arsene Wenger‘s last few years at Arsenal, there’s this air of uncertainty over Man United that keeps everyone wondering when the other shoe will drop. I would be shocked if Mourinho makes it to the end of the season.

Bonn: I’m firmly convinced Mourinho is tearing down Manchester United more than he is building them up. Even if they experience a temporary return to form, he is not the man to take this team forward. The locker room is a mess, and there is no cohesion at all. Paul Pogba’s a world class player, and just like I’m not convinced Kante is being used properly at Chelsea, a manager’s job is to get the most out of their best players, and moving them to uncomfortable positions doesn’t accomplish that. Mourinho needs to be replaced at Manchester United. I predicted before the season he’ll be the first PL manager fired, and I’m sticking to that.


And what about the teams in north London. Both are just two points off the top spot. Spurs have struggled, Arsenal is surging. Who finishes higher in the table this season?

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JPW: It is going to be very tight between these two. Spurs’ eventual move to a new stadium may give them a slight edge towards the end of the season, but there’s no doubt Arsenal is ahead of where we thought they’d be at this stage of the season. Unai Emery is on a long winning spree against teams they should be beating, but I think if Arsenal played Man City and Chelsea now, instead of in the first two games of the season, they would give a much better account of themselves and maybe nick a few points. Spurs’ squad has been stretched and they’ve yet to hit top form, but they’ve had their joint best-ever start to a season in terms of the points tally. Pochettino isn’t happy, but another top four finish would be a great season given the distractions of playing at Wembley again and not signing a single player in the summer. I think Spurs may just pip Arsenal, but I’m not sure if that will be to finish in the top four. Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City are guaranteed, then it’s Man United, Arsenal and Tottenham fighting for fourth. The top four race will be a really tight one this season and if Aubameyang and Lacazette can keep scoring plenty of goals, Arsenal could surprise everyone.

Bonn: I still believe Tottenham is most equipped to handle the full season and will finish higher, but Spurs’ defense has to be sorted out sooner rather than later. The most recent league results don’t tell us much, with clean sheets over Cardiff and Huddersfield Town. The injuries will subside and Eriksen will return, so I’m not terribly worried about the attack. Arsenal looks solid under Emery’s leadership, and the Aubameyang/Lacazette partnership is one the club will look back on fondly, but this season, Spurs will win out.

Karell: Regarding North London (is Watford not part of this convo!? Haha), I agree with Bonn. Tottenham has the talent and has proven it can finish high in the Premier League table, but the injuries to key starters have taken a toll. Meanwhile, Arsenal has taken care of business against less talented sides but is 0-2 against teams that finished in the top six last season (defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City to open the season). We won’t know until December, when Arsenal plays Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United in a 30-day span whether Arsenal is truly back in the top-four picture. 


Which players and/or team has surprised you the most so far this season?

JPW: I’m going with Bournemouth. I didn’t see this coming at all but the belief those players have in their manager and in each other will carry them a long way and young David Brooks looks like yet another bargain buy from Eddie Howe. King, Wilson, Fraser and Brooks are ripping teams apart and they’re sticking steadfast to their high-pressing philosophy. I seriously believe they can “do a Burnley” and finish in the European spot. And the player that has surprised me the most has to be Jorginho. I knew he was good, but I didn’t think he would be this good in the Premier League. He has totally reinvented the way this entire Chelsea team plays and I wonder if that would have been the case had he gone to Man City. Probably not. Smart move from him to stick with Sarri and lead Chelsea’s title charge.

Bonn: I’m with Joe in that Jorginho has impressed mightily this season. It’s so so difficult to come into this league and make an immediate impact like Jorginho has (just ask Naby Keita), and he has done so well, everyone has forgotten Sarri pushed the best defensive midfielder in the world to a new role to make room. It’s quite an achievement, and a big reason why Chelsea is where it is. As for impressive teams, mine has to be Wolverhampton. It was obvious during the Championship last season that they had staying power, but to come out and look this impressive has been a joy to watch. They not only look like they can fight for their lives, but they truly look like they belong, even in matches against the big dogs. Nuno is a manager with no fear and it trickles down to the rest of the group.

Mendola: I’m most surprised by Bournemouth, though I’m opt for Wolves and in particular Raul Jimenez. The 27-year-old is a hold-up man more than a finisher, but he does the job so well (El Tri’s answer to Olivier Giroud). Nuno Espírito Santo has marshaled his unit into a remarkably smooth transition into the Premier League, and I was wrong to doubt it.


Any teams, star players or new signings who have been totally disappointing so far?

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JPW: I’ve been disappointed with Mohamed Salah. I know, I know. It was always going to be tough to replicate his form from last season but he just seems to be getting very frustrated with himself when he misses chances. There is so much expectation on his shoulders and given the offensive struggles of Mane and Firmino, the pressure will only increase in the coming months. I’ve also been a little disappointed with Tottenham, as has their manager Mauricio Pochettino. Somehow they’re only two points off the top but they haven’t played well at all.

Bonn: I’ve been quite disappointed by Harry Kane to this point. Tottenham has been dealing with a number of key injuries, but the one that could hurt them the most is the one they insist isn’t an issue. It’s quite clear Kane’s ankle is not 100 percent, and he has failed to prove as dangerous as he has been in previous seasons. His shooting numbers are wildly lacking, and the goals have fallen off as well. Kane is a player Spurs need to have any kind of success not just this season but beyond as well, and his poor form has to turn around for Spurs’ season to be anything worthwhile.


And which teams are you worried about in terms of the relegation battle?

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JPW: Cardiff City and Huddersfield were the preseason favorites to go down and I haven’t seen much to change my view on that. Both teams struggle to score goals and that is always a recipe for disaster. Fulham and Newcastle also seem very susceptible to going on long runs without a win which can erode confidence quickly. Southampton will also be down there again after their failure to strengthen their team substantially over the summer. The main plus for teams in the relegation battle this season: both Cardiff and Huddersfield are quite bad and will likely occupy two of the three spots.

Mendola: The relegation battle will have a smaller tent this year. Cardiff and Huddersfield need massive reinforcements in January, and Newcastle has to hope its relenting fixture list leads to a number of wins before Boxing Day. Southampton and Burnley also represent concerns.

Bonn: I’m slightly worried about Fulham this year with regards to the drop. Slavisa Jokanovic has been praised for sticking to his guns even with the knowledge that his playing style might not translate to immediate success in the top flight, but it is bordering on stubbornness now. The team is not talented enough defensively to play that way sustainably, and a number of the reinforcements brought in this summer have been massive disappointments – I’ll mention Alfie Mawson and Calum Chambers by name, as the two have just been terrible. As there was last season in the Championship, there will be improvement as the season progresses for Jokanovic’s group, but will it be enough? With the poor matchups against better teams, Fulham has little room for error against sides they should be beating, and every slip against bottom-half teams leave them closer and closer to danger.

Gio Reyna: “A dream came true”

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Gio Reyna, 17, became the youngest American to play in the Bundesliga as the central midfielder, son of USMNT legend Claudio, made his debut for Borussia Dortmund in their 5-3 win at Augsburg on Saturday.

Reyna came on as a sub after a fellow sub making his Dortmund debut, Erling Haaland, had scored a 20-minute hat trick to turn the game on its head as the German giants ended up winning after trailing 3-1.

Speaking about his debut in the professional game, the U.S. U20 captain was utterly delighted and summed it up quite simply.

“A dream came true,” Reyna said. “It was a great game for us. When the coach called my name I was so excited. I was nervous but the guys made me feel comfortable.”

The talented central midfielder was promoted to Dortmund’s first team earlier this month after impressing in training during the winter break and he’s only been at the club since last summer.

“What a night! Extremely happy to make my debut but even happier for the win,” Reyna added on social media.

Safe to say USMNT fans are delighted with the rise of Reyna, while other youngsters Tyler Adams, Lynden Gooch and Josh Sargent all continue to shine in Europe with positive showings over the weekend.

Folks within the Bundesliga aren’t lowering the expectations on Reyna’s shoulders either, as an article on the website focuses on Reyna’s ‘eerily similar path’ to Dortmund as Christian Pulisic, while Dortmund’s assistant coach Jorg Heinrich believes that Reyna has more potential than Pulisic. Think about that. Stop drooling, USMNT fans.

“Gio is a fantastic talent. He has loads of potential along with plenty of confidence. I think his talent is similar to Christian Pulisic, or maybe a little bit better. But we want to keep him grounded because we’ve seen what happens to a lot of the young players,” Heinrich told Goal recently.

Setien rekindles Barcelona’s passing style in first game

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Coach Quique Setién only needed one match to leave his mark on Barcelona.

Barcelona set season highs for ball possession and passes in a 1-0 win over Granada on Sunday, Setién’s first match since replacing Ernesto Valverde six days earlier.

The defending champion’s level of 82% ball possession came close to reaching the all-time Spanish league record of 84% established by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, according to the club. The team’s 1,005 attempted passes smashed its previous season high of 788 passes against Real Betis.

One thing, however, remained the same after the coaching switch: Barcelona turned to Lionel Messi to find the winning goal. The club’s all-time leading scorer scored in the 76th minute after Granada had lost a defender for picking up a second yellow card for fouling Messi.

“You feel much better having Messi because he has been deciding these types of matches for more than a decade,” Setién said.

Setién, a former Atlético Madrid player and coach of several Spanish clubs, is a declared admirer of Barcelona’s passing style established by late Johan Cruyff.

The 61-year-old Spaniard divided fans at his previous two jobs with Las Palmas and Real Betis. He started well at both with supporters enjoying his insistence on imitating Barcelona’s style. But many fans then grew tired of seeing his teams dominate the ball while scoring few goals and proving brittle on defense.

Now with Messi and his talented teammates under his command, Setién’s has passed the first test at Camp Nou. His new side only conceded one shot on goal that, fortunately for Setién, hit the post minutes before Messi decided the game.

Setién did not touch Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation or make any big changes in his first starting 11 compared to Valverde. Ansu Fati, the teenager who was discovered by Valverde, started for the injured Luis Suárez. Arturo Vidal, a key player for Valverde, took the place of the suspended Frenkie de Jong. Despite his reputation of not being a great passer, Vidal set up Messi’s goal with back-heel pass.

Setién insisted on the importance of his players pressing quickly to recover the ball after losing it. They responded and worked several incredibly long possessions, especially in the first half, that ended in attractive chances in the box.

“The fact that we made so many passes? The only thing I need is to have control,” he said. “We we had talked about being brave and going forward to recover the ball in their territory and that helped us to created danger after recovering the ball.”

Setién’s second-half substitution of Riqui Puig for Ivan Rakitic definitely bore his seal.

The 20-year-old Puig had earned his debut in 2018 from Valverde, but at the start of this season Valverde sent him back to the reserve team. Setién’s first move was to call Puig back up to train with the first squad.

Puig proved key to the victory when he stole the ball near Granada’s area. That led to the attack finished by Messi.

“(Puig) was very good,” Setién said. “He showed patience and he read the match well.”

TWO-TEAM RACE?

While Barcelona and Real Madrid won, most of their potential challengers lost ground just past the midpoint of the season.

Fourth-place Sevilla fell 2-1 at Madrid; sixth-place Real Sociedad lost 3-0 at Real Betis; Valencia fell into seventh place after being shocked 4-1 at lowly Mallorca this round.

Atlético Madrid, which finished the past two seasons as runners-up to champion Barcelona, had one of its poorest performances of the campaign in a 2-0 loss at Eibar. The defeat came following a loss in the Spanish Super Cup final in a penalty shootout to Madrid. Before the pair of losses, it had won three in a row in the league and had beaten Barcelona in the Super Cup semifinals- Valverde’s last match.

The defeat at Eibar left it eight points adrift in third place behind Barcelona and Madrid. Barcelona leads Madrid on goal difference.

ESPANYOL’S HOPE

Last-place Espanyol’s chances of staying in the topflight have been revived by a new coach and a new striker.

Espanyol has taken four points from the two league matches manager with Abelardo Fernández in charge. It drew with Barcelona 2-2 two weeks ago and won 2-1 at Villarreal on Sunday for its first win since Oct. 27.

Shopping for a scorer in the winter transfer market, Espanyol reportedly paid Benfica a club-record 20 million euros ($22 million) for Raúl de Tomás, who had joined Benfica during the summer.

De Tomás has made an immediate impact, scoring in his debut against a third-tier team in the Copa del Rey before taking the winner at Villarreal.

“We have been working on boosting our morale for the past two weeks, on recovering our self-confidence,” Abelardo said. “My players hadn’t forgotten how to play, as they showed (Sunday). You have to live the present instead of thinking about what can happen in two or three weeks. You have to play each match like a final.”

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Americans Abroad: Chandler, Gooch score; Reyna, Vassilev debut

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The bar for the best weekend for Americans abroad in 2020 has been set.

After months with the under-19 side, 18-year-old Giovanni Reyna made his debut with Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. In England, Indiana Vassilev, 18, did exactly the same for Aston Villa, becoming the second youngest American to play in the Premier League.

Established Americans abroad like Timothy Chandler scored Eintracht Frankfurt’s match winner, while Lynden Gooch struck from distance for Sunderland in England’s League One.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — The USMNT star continues to recover from an abductor injury.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — Yedlin is also recovering from an injury, and did not dress for Newcastle on Saturday.

Indiana Vassilev, Aston Villa – The 18-year-old came off the bench and played 23 minutes in his Premier League debut for Aston Villa. Villa drew 1-1 with Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.

EFL Championship

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes played 90 minutes in Derby’s 1-0 win over Hull City on Saturday.

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson started and played 90 minutes in Wigan’s 2-1 loss to Swansea City on Saturday.

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old dressed but didn’t feature in Reading’s 2-0 loss to Millwall.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers’ defender started and played for Hull.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender played 90 minutes in QPR’s 1-0 victory ver Leeds United on Saturday.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah and Lille were inactive this weekend.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Jordon-Siebatcheu and Rennes were inactive this weekend. 

Eredivisie

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — Wright came off the bench and played five minutes in Venlo’s 1-1 draw with PSV.

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest dressed but didn’t feature for Ajax over the weekend. It’s been an on-and-off cycle for the fullback in Holland’s top-flight.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback is injured and didn’t feature for FC Emmen.

Bundesliga

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The fullback played 90 minutes and scored Frankfurt’s match-winning goal on Saturday against Hoffenheim. 

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams started and played 86 minutes in Leipzig’s 3-1 win over Union Berlin. The midfielder completed 84 percent of his passes.

Weston McKennie, Schalke — McKennie is still having some setbacks from his shoulder injury. The midfielder didn’t dress for Schalke due to fitness issues over the weekend.

Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen is inactive with an injury.

Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf Morales started and played 71 minutes in Fortuna’s 1-0 loss to Werder Bremen.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  The 19-year-old started and played 86 minutes on Saturday. It’s refreshing to see Sargent back on the field, getting regular playing time after the injury.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson was on Mönchengladbach’s bench but didn’t play.

Honorable Mentions

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland — Gooch has been superlative for Sunderland lately, and on Saturday, he was rewarded with this match-deciding goal:

Ian Harkes, Dundee United — Harkes continues to grind it out in Scotland. On Sunday, he registered an assist in Dundee United’s 2-2 draw with Hibernian. 

Mexicans Abroad: Jimenez makes Wolves history; Guardado assists in Betis win

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On what was perhaps Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s last weekend in Europe, Raul Jimenez made it clear that he is ready to carry on the mantle as Mexico’s marquee striker in the old continent.

The 28-year-old’s double made him Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Premier League all-time leading goalscorer, surpassing Steven Fletcher‘s record of 22 goals in just 61 appearances.

Meanwhile in Spain, Andres Guardado continues to add remarkable chapters to his never-ending European photo book, recording an assist in Real Betis’ 3-0 thumping of Real Sociedad.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers —  Not only did Jimenez boost his league goalscoring tally to the double digits on Saturday, but he also became Wolves’ Premier League all-time goalscorer. The Mexican is indispensable for the Midlands side – well worth the club-record $33-million investment.

La Liga

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Sevilla — Chicharito did not make the trip with Sevilla to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday. On Friday, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that Los Angeles Galaxy have signed the 31-year-old. An official announcement from the MLS side is expected in the coming days.

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera started and played 43 minutes in Los Colchoneros’ rare, 2-0 loss to Eibar on Saturday. Atletico are now eight points behind leaders Barcelona and second-best Real Madrid.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  Guardado played all 90 minutes and recorded an assist in Betis’ trashing of Real Sociedad. The midfielder also earned a yellow card in the 23rd minute.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old dressed but remained on the bench for Betis. 

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and played 90 minutes in Celta’s 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao. The defender recorded 11 clearances, two interceptions, and earned a yellow card.

Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli —  As Napoli’s continues to suffer under Gennaro Gattuso, so does Chucky. The frenetic winger saw just 26 minutes of playing time in Napoli’s 2-0 loss to Fiorentina on Saturday. Gattuso, however, may be on his was out as reports indicated that he’s considering resigning after just 35 days at the helm.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Tecatito started and played all 90 minutes in Porto’s 2-1 loss to Braga on Saturday. The Dragons trail league leaders Benfica by seven points.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven —  Gutierrez dressed but remained on the bench for PSV on Saturday.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez dressed but remained on the bench for Ajax on Sunday.

Jupiler Pro League

Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea started and played 90 minutes in Zulte’s 3-0 loss to KRC Genk.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Pedro Arce, Panionios –  Panionios were inactive over the weekend.

Gerardo Ramirez Alonso, Roda JC – Ramirez Alonso and Roda JC take on Jong FC Utrecht on Monday.