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Has the Premier League’s lower tier shrunk?

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The table looks funny, doesn’t it?

Forget for a moment that Liverpool is running away with the Premier League, and that both Chelsea and Man City are double-digit points off the title pace.

Focus instead on Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United, and the legion of teams living within a couple of results of either fifth of 18th.

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Consider that Southampton climbed out of the Bottom Three on Wednesday after beating Norwich City, and is now a Sunday win over Newcastle from rising as high as 12th. That Newcastle side sits 14th but beating Sheffield United on Thursday and Saints on Sunday could have them in the Top Seven (It won’t happen, but I digress).

If it seems odd to you, it’s because it is, indeed, extremely strange. First of all, take a look at the table before we give you a stark contrast of years past.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 15 14 1 0 37 14 23 8-0-0 6-1-0 43
 Leicester City 15 11 2 2 35 9 26 7-1-0 4-1-2 35
 Manchester City 15 10 2 3 43 17 26 5-1-1 5-1-2 32
 Chelsea 15 9 2 4 30 21 9 4-2-2 5-0-2 29
 Wolves 15 5 8 2 21 17 4 3-4-1 2-4-1 23
 Manchester United 15 5 6 4 23 18 5 4-3-1 1-3-3 21
 Crystal Palace 15 6 3 6 14 18 -4 3-2-3 3-1-3 21
 Tottenham Hotspur 15 5 5 5 25 23 2 4-2-1 1-3-4 20
 Sheffield United 14 4 7 3 17 13 4 3-1-3 1-6-0 19
 Arsenal 14 4 7 3 20 21 -1 3-4-0 1-3-3 19
 Burnley 15 5 3 7 21 24 -3 4-0-4 1-3-3 18
 Bournemouth 15 4 4 7 18 21 -3 2-3-2 2-1-5 16
 West Ham United 15 4 4 7 17 25 -8 2-1-4 2-3-3 16
 Newcastle United 14 4 4 6 13 22 -9 2-4-1 2-0-5 16
 Aston Villa 15 4 3 8 22 24 -2 3-2-2 1-1-6 15
 Brighton & Hove Albion 14 4 3 7 16 21 -5 3-2-2 1-1-5 15
 Southampton 15 4 3 8 17 33 -16 2-1-5 2-2-3 15

 Everton 15 4 2 9 16 27 -11 3-1-3 1-1-6 14
 Norwich City 15 3 2 10 16 32 -16 2-1-4 1-1-6 11
 Watford 15 1 5 9 9 30 -21 0-3-4 1-2-5 8

Unless you’re Watford, Man City, Leicester City, or Liverpool, your table position could be wildly different within a week or two.

Let’s focus on that congested group of the bottom half to make the point (Watford’s low total is kinda screwing this up, but we’ll still try to stress the contrast).

2019/20 season after 15 games: Seven teams are within one win of the drop zone, while 11 are within six points (*Arsenal and Sheffield United could cut this figure to nine with Thursday wins).

The gap between 18th and 6th is 7 points.

2018/19 season after 15 games: Six teams were within one win of the drop zone (though all Bottom Three sides are on nine points). The number moves to just seven if you move the margin to six points.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 14 points.

2017/18 season after 15 games: Three teams were within three points of the Bottom Three, and seven within six.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 15 points.

Now perhaps… this is just a weird year. The top of the Bundesliga is incredibly congested, too, and that seems an anomaly. But is there something more to it?

A couple of years ago, I was one of several arguing that the massive money of the Premier League was bound to make more difficult than ever for newly-promoted teams to stay up, and that we were about to see a wildly competitive table from teams outside the so-called Big Six. Call it a shrinking middle class.

That hasn’t exactly happened. Why? Maybe because teams are spending more of that transfer money in the Championship, and thickening up the teams getting promoted.

Perhaps this season is simply down to Spurs, Manchester United, and Arsenal all underachieving, but take a look at 2015/16 when Leicester won the league and both Liverpool and Chelsea turned in woeful seasons: After 15 weeks there were more teams contending for the Top Six, yeah, but also a distinct lower class.

Or maybe it’s down to this just being an unusual year in terms of outcomes meeting expectations; A look at this season’s xG table shows a more familiar Top Four. But it still shows intense congestion.

Still, this could be the start of a new normal for the league, one in which the Big Six will still never sniff relegation but see increased odds of not qualifying for Europe due to squad investment from other sides. And that next tier — Everton, West Ham, etc. — cannot just be presumed capable of escaping early season slides.

Regardless, it makes this season’s congested month of December pivotal. Separation should occur by the time the FA Cup rolls around in early January, and we will return to four classes (Well, three and Liverpool): Relegation candidates, comfortably midtable sides, Top Seven hopefuls, and Liverpool.

That’s not to say the Reds can’t be harmed by their December and slip into a proper title fight, nor that Messrs. Mourinho, Solskjaer, and Ljungberg won’t go on a run befitting their payrolls and reputations to make the Top Seven’s only question where Leicester City will slot.

But this month’s status as the most decisive on the Premier League calendar seems like it has increased importance. Whether that’s a one-year rising of intensity or not remains to be scene, but buckle up.

Christian Pulisic named USMNT Player of the Year

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Who else could it be? Christian Pulisic has been named the USMNT player of the year for 2019.

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The Chelsea star, 21, excelled for club and country over the past 12 months and after taking a few months to settle into life in England, he’s now taking the Premier League by storm on a weekly basis.

Pulisic has now won this award for a second time after first winning it in 2017 and he becomes the youngest player in U.S. men’s national team history to win the award twice.

His achievements over the last 12 months are numerous, as he dragged a struggling USMNT to the 2019 Gold Cup final and also became the youngest player to reach double figures in goals for the USMNT.

MLS veteran Sacha Kljestan signs with hometown LA Galaxy

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Carson, Calif. (AP) Veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan has signed with the LA Galaxy as a free agent.

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The 34-year-old U.S. national team contributor officially returned to his native Southern California on Wednesday.

Kljestan has scored 49 goals over 10 MLS seasons in a career that began as the fifth overall pick by defunct Chivas USA, the Galaxy’s former stadium partners. After a successful five-year stint with Belgium’s Anderlecht, he spent the past five seasons with New York Red Bulls and Orlando City.

The Huntington Beach native also has made 51 appearances for the U.S. team, playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Kljestan will provide veteran leadership for a Galaxy roster in transition after the departures of its top two goal-scorers: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Uriel Antuna.

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

Liverpool in talks to activate Minamino’s release clause

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On the face of it, this move makes perfect sense for everyone concerned. Especially Liverpool, who get a bargain.

Multiple reports state that the Premier League leaders are in advanced talks to sign Japanese winger Takumi Minamino from RB Salzburg.

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Minamino, 24, has a release clause of just $9.5 million and it has been reported that he will move to Liverpool in January with talks going well over a five-year contract.

RB Salzburg sporting director Christoph Freund confirmed talks are ongoing about the transfer, with Bayern Munich and Marseille also said to be interested in signing the tricky winger.

“I can confirm that there are talks with Liverpool at the moment. It is an honor [for us] to see the caliber of clubs who are interested in our players.”

Minamino’s goals, pace and trickery pushed Salzburg to within one game of reaching the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds and he impressed against Liverpool in both games in the UCL group stage as he scored at Anfield and gave their defense plenty of problems in the return game. His skillset would perfectly suit the way Liverpool play with his direct running, pace and nose for goal seemingly perfect for Jurgen Klopp‘s side.

With Klopp and his RB Salzburg counterpart Jesse Marsch hugging on the sidelines after Liverpool’s win in Austria on Tuesday, plus Klopp’s kind words on the job the American coach is doing at Salzburg, it’s safe to say there’s a strong connection between the two teams and their styles of play are very similar.

That’s an even better reason for Minamino to head to Liverpool as the Japanese star would slot in seamlessly and he would become the third former RB Salzburg player at the Reds alongside Naby Keita and Sadio Mane.

From the style of play of both player and the club, to the small transfer fee, this works out very well for everyone involved. Even Salzburg will be happy to become known as a feeder club to Liverpool and Europe’s other big boys as that will help them with their future recruitment.

Raul Jimenez’s future at Wolves uncertain

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Raul Jimenez has been talking about playing for one of Spain’s big boys.

That sound you can hear is Wolves fans everywhere sobbing.

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The Mexican striker was quoted by Spanish outlet Marca saying that he would one day like to return to Spain and play for one of the La Liga giants.

“I would never rule out returning to Spain. I have good memories, and I would like to go back at some point,” Jimenez said. “I want to try out LaLiga once more, as I didn’t get to play much the previous time. Returning is not off the agenda. I have played at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu.”

Jimenez, 28, previously played for Atletico Madrid before moving to Benfica who loaned him to Wolves in the summer of 2018, and he has since made the switch to the West Midlands permanent for $40 million.

However, his manager Nuno Espirito Santo has moved to calm down fears the El Tri star will move at the end of this season.

“What he is doing is amazing – every day of his life is dedicated to Wolves so we are delighted with it,” Santo said. “Being ambitious and dreaming is something all of us have. But our present is very good with Raul here.”

The powerful Mexican striker has been superb over the past two seasons and has proved to be a phenomenal target man in the Premier League. He’s scored 32 goals in 71 appearances in all competitions for Wolves, leading them to an FA Cup semifinal appearance and seventh-place PL finish last season and his goals this campaign (15 in 27 appearances in total) have catapulted them into the top six and the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League. Aside from his goals Jimenez’s hold-up play has been vital to Wolves’ success.

It is worth pointing out that Jimenez revealed he is very happy at Wolves but the fact he is so ambitious and fancies moving on to either Real Madrid and Barcelona is a good thing for the club. This means Jimenez is striving to improve and do all he can to take his game to the next level.

Yes, Wolves will be desperate to keep hold of the Mexican star who is a fans favorite at Molineux. But if he continues to score goals and one of Spain’s big boys, or a title-chasing team in the PL, were to come calling, can they stand in his way?