What we learned in the Premier League

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Seven games took place in the Premier League on Saturday and we learned plenty at both ends of the table.

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Huddersfield and Fulham will both be frustrated as their bad luck continued, while Liverpool and Chelsea held their nerve and there were big wins for Watford, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham.

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Here’s a look at the key takeaways from Saturday’s PL action.


Liverpool respond with gritty away win
It wasn’t pretty but Liverpool regained a seven-point lead atop the Premier League table as Mohamed Salah won and converted a penalty kick to beat Brighton 1-0. This was the kind of test Liverpool had to pass if they’re going to win the Premier League this season. After back-to-back defeats against Man City (in the Premier League) and Wolves (in the FA Cup), this was a big statement from Liverpool. Playing at a well-organized Brighton is always tough but Jurgen Klopp‘s side made relatively light work of it as their defensive injuries didn’t hamper their charge towards the Premier League title. Of course, there are bigger tests ahead but they don’t arrive for a while. The next time they play a top six side is the trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United on Feb. 24. Between now and then there are plenty of tricky tests against teams they are supposed to beat sandwiched between their UEFA Champions League last 16 clashes against Bayern Munich. Liverpool were far from their best at Brighton, but they got the job done with minimal fuss as they were back to being ruthlessly efficient, and solid, just as they were at the start of the campaign. That is a very good sign for Klopp after the disappointment of the last week.


Emery’s Ozil problem not going away
Arsenal lost 1-0 at West Ham on Saturday and Unai Emery‘s post-game press conference was dominated by one person: Mesut Ozil. The German playmaker was not in Arsenal’s 18-man squad for the London derby and Emery said that was because “the players who were here are the players who deserved to be in this match.” That is yet another ominous statement from Emery for Ozil, as the highest-paid player in Arsenal’s history is the biggest headache Arsenal’s new manager has. The defending wasn’t as bad as it has been at times this season in the defeat at West Ham, but you could say that Ozil’s creativity would have been handy as Arsenal had plenty of the ball but couldn’t break down a stubborn West Ham defense. They are now six points off fourth-place Chelsea and could be overtaken by Manchester United in the next few weeks, and all of the momentum Emery had from that 22-game unbeaten run has evaporated with away defeats at Southampton, Liverpool and now West Ham, as they’ve had no victories in their last four PL away games. This poor away form is all getting very similar to Arsene Wenger‘s final season in charge…

Talking of Wenger, he oversaw Ozil, 30, signing a new bumper contract in January and he is guaranteed huge sums of cash. Ozil has only appeared in 16 games in all competitions this season and Emery clearly doesn’t trust him, as he’s said before, in away games against feisty, dedicated opponents. Ozil is a luxury player who is excellent, when given the chance, against lesser opponents at home but it doesn’t appear that the high-pressing, more defensive style Emery prefers can carry any passengers against more aggressive opponents. If Arsenal aren’t going to use Ozil, they have to loan him out or sell him in January. With his huge wages that will be tough and an argument can be made that Arsenal needed him at West Ham to unlock a defense and create chances in only the way he can. Emery’s issue with Ozil, on or off the pitch, has to be resolved one way or another as it threatens to derail their season.


Puel’s time at Leicester coming to an end
The boos rang out at the King Power Stadium as Leicester City lost 2-1 to Southampton, with Claude Puel‘s time in charge of the Foxes surely coming to an end soon. After their big wins against Chelsea, Man City and Everton over the festive period, all was well. But three-straight defeats to Cardiff, fourth-tier Newport County in the FA Cup and now an injury-hit Saints (who played over 55 minutes with 10-men) have cemented what many Leicester fans have been saying: Puel is not getting the best out of this team consistently. His decision to play three defensive midfielders against Saints was baffling, as the likes of Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes sat on the bench and made a big difference in the second half. Leicester play extremely well against the big boys as they have less of the ball and their squad of players have perfected the art of counter-attacking. Against the teams they are supposed to beat they just aren’t able to break them down, as Puel’s belief in ball rotation, slow build-up and keeping possession doesn’t play to the strengths of this squad. After a testing year off the pitch for Leicester, Puel has brought some stability. He is a good, honest man who has brought plenty of Leicester’s young players to another level but it looks like he may get the hook soon. There is no chance of Leicester being relegated this season, so now is a good time to bring in a manager who can get the best out of this group and kick them on in their pursuit of Europa League qualification.


Huddersfield, Fulham in danger of being cut adrift
The bad luck continued for two relegation battlers as Fulham scored two own goals to lose at Burnley and Huddersfield had a penalty kick awarded, then overturned at Cardiff. In two six-pointers they both came up short and all of a sudden Huddersfield are eight points from safety and Fulham are five points (basically six points, given their goal difference) from staying up. Given their respective schedules in the next few weeks as they play plenty of the big boys, they are likely to be cut adrift. David Wagner is doing all he can with limited resources at Huddersfield, while the jury is out as to whether Claudio Ranieri was ever the right hire for Fulham. Both teams have shown they can hang in games but the little things are going against them as Saturday proved. Their fortunes will have to change quickly if they’re going to drag themselves out of the relegation zone with 16 games to go. There is almost a resignation among the Huddersfield fans that they are doing down, while Fulham will be at that stage very quickly. 

Study: MLS improves racial hiring, slides in gender hiring

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A diversity report shows improved racial hiring practices for Major League Soccer but also highlighted a continuing decline in gender hiring efforts.

The annual report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at Central Florida on Wednesday gave MLS an A with 93.9 points for racial hiring in 2019 for its highest score in 15 years.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

But the gender score of 72 points for a C grade fell for the third straight time, down from 76.8 points in 2018 and 81 points as recently as 2016.

The overall grade for MLS was a B at 82.9 points, falling from a B-plus and 85 points in 2018.

TIDES director Richard Lapchick, the lead report author, called lower gender hiring numbers across men’s professional sports a “systemic problem.”

Online: http://tidesport.org/

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Medel: Chile players decline friendly over civil unrest

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Chile had already canceled a home friendly with Bolivia this international break, and now the players will not play Tuesday in Peru either due to unrest in their country.’

A nationwide strike and protests against the government, spurred by a rise in metro fares, have Chile on edge.

[ MORE: USMNT-Canada preview ]

La Roja stars Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal both posted lengthy messages on their Instagram accounts, saying that the decision was made “in response to the social moment in our country.”

They urged both protestors and law enforcement to turn away from violence.

From Mega.CL:

“We are soccer players, but above all people and citizens. We know that we represent a complete country and today Chile has other priorities much more important than next Tuesday’s game.”

Chile is ranked No. 17 by FIFA and 22 in Elo Ratings.

Slumping USMNT big favorites v. Canada

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Let’s start with two statements which might be a bit controversial given the tone and tenor of the United States men’s national team program.

  1. The CONCACAF Nations League very much matters to Gregg Berhalter’s era and the program in general, even if the coach’s job is not in jeopardy and the tournament is in its infancy.
  2. The USMNT are the oddsmakers’ heavy favorites to win (nearly +500), even given the current injury problems, and it will be shocking but not surprising if they lose to the Canadians.

Point No. 1 might be a bit surprising, but this is a competition with silverware and Berhalter hasn’t won any of it yet in his tenure as USMNT boss. It’s also relevant because losing to Canada twice in a month after not losing to them since the Billboard No. 1 single was the sensual “One More Night” by Phil Collins.

And even without Christian Pulisic and a raft of injury excuses, plus taking into account Canada’s sincere re-emergence on the CONCACAF scene, the USMNT has no business losing a meaningful match at home to a team that, while improved, has far more holes than the hosts.

If you remember from October, Berhalter didn’t call upon his men to press an inexperienced Canadian back line (I just realized I’m still angry about this). There is literally no way he’ll do that at home.

If John Herdman keeps his backs the same as the one that shut out the Yanks at BMO last month, he’ll have Kamal Miller, Derek Cornelius, Steven Vitoria, and Richie Laryea out there. Three of the four aren’t full-time starters for their MLS clubs (Vitoria is an every week man in Portugal’s top flight). Goalkeeper Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) is capable of stealing a result, but shouldn’t have the chance if the Yanks pressure the ball on Friday.

The midfield and attackers are where the U.S. will have its hands full. Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David beg speedy and/or smart defenders. John Brooks being in the mix should help in both counts, plus he’s the best passing back in the pool right now.

Whether the match is cagey or comfortable will come down to the midfield. Scott Arfield is going to make it difficult on the Yanks, but Alfredo Morales plays with a nasty streak and will not be as bullied as his peers were in Toronto.

The one thing to fear is how bamboozled Berhalter was by Herdman’s plan in Ontario. This isn’t to pile on the coach, who is known for his tactics but hasn’t seen them deliver against too many opponents of quality. Herdman may be the novice in terms of overall club experience, but he’s got a better handle on the international game.

If the Yanks look out-foxed and unprepared on Friday, that’s a big problem.

How will the USMNT line up versus Canada?

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No Christian Pulisic.

No Tyler Adams.

No Timothy Weah.

No Michael Bradley, Matt Miazga, and no Zack Steffen, either.

Ugh.

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Still, the United States men’s national team will be favored to get a home decision over Canada on Friday as the CONCACAF Nations League begins its final two match days of the group stage.

How will Gregg Berhalter line up his team without so many key components?

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan is probably going to get the start here, and he won’t kill the team, but we’d love to see Sean Johnson get a chance to improve on his 100% clean sheet success rate across two tournament caps for the U.S.

Back line: It would be insane if Sergino Dest didn’t start at one of the full back spots given his election of the USMNT over the Netherlands. Also insane would be not starting a finally-healthy John Brooks.

After that, it seems likely Berhalter will opt for Aaron Long to pair with Brooks. If his left back option is Dest, then it’ll be DeAndre Yedlin at right back (or Reggie Cannon). If Dest is on his preferred right side, than Daniel Lovitz may get a look over Tim Ream on account of the speed in Canada’s attack.

Midfield: Might Berhalter pull back an attacker and use a four-man midfield against the Canucks? Weston McKennie and Alfredo Morales will take two spots, and it seems pretty likely Jackson Yueill will get the chance to be a deep-lying playmaker with McKennie and Morales running their shorts off to make his life easier. We suppose Berhalter could opt for Wil Trapp over Yueill. It’s possible. A little too possible.

Attack: Josh Sargent is going to get the center forward spot, and it would be wild if Jordan Morris doesn’t join him. Then it’s down to Tyler Boyd or Paul Arriola, exciting versus a bit safer. And Arriola would give him more of a midfield presence than the forward-thinking Boyd.

Here’s how we think Berhalter starts in Orlando:

Guzan

Yedlin — Long — Brooks — Dest

Yueill

Morales — McKennie

Morris — Sargent — Arriola