Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.

Who’s in the running for Premier League Player of the Year?

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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The Premier League Player of the Year is missing its easy winner this go-round.

There’s no Mohamed Salah running away with the scoring record, no Eden Hazard or N'Golo Kante as the clear best player on the champion.

[ MORE: Key games left in the PL season ]

So let’s take a look at where the race stands heading into the final international break of the season.

The contenders

Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool: Like N’Golo Kante before him, there’s a massive underdog status to a non-striker winning the Premier League’s Player of the Year (and you might want to argue that Kante deserved a Ballon d’Or finalist position). Flub against Fulham aside, few Premier League defenders have made their case in the past as well as Van Dijk has this season. Due to his status on a team who has a lot of the ball, it’s difficult to find super gaudy defensive numbers to make his case. Still, when taking into account Premier League center backs to play more than half their teams’ matches this season, no one on advanced stats site WhoScored is close to VVD. He also doesn’t have a “times dribbled past” per-match average on the site.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea: For years, Chelsea has gone as Eden Hazard. The Belgian is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the world, and is effervescent in attack. Sure, Chelsea’s also suffered through periods of head-scratching results and effort — nothing new at Stamford Bridge and he’s one of the only players to be a part of the downfalls of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and presumably Maurizio Sarri — but his 13 goals and 11 assists make him the only player to reach double figures in both categories this season. And imagine how high that assist total could be with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain finishing at an average or above-average clip.

Raheem Sterling, Man City: At Liverpool a few years ago, it would’ve been accurate to call Sterling, “the kid with the abysmal second touch.” But the Englishman has become better and better by the season, and he’s actually the most economical star in the running for the PL’s Golden Boot; His 2.1 shots per game is less than Sergio Aguero (3.7), Mohamed Salah (3.4), Harry Kane (3.6), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2.6), Hazard (2.6), and Sadio Mane (2.4). Only Hazard and Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser have more assists.

Mohamed Salah, Liverpool: His average second-half of the season is going to make it difficult for him to repeat as PL Player of the Year, especially considering he has just one goal with no assists in eight matches since Jan. 30 (and four of those were 0-0 or 1-1 draws). Yet it’d be wrong to discount his 17 goals and six assists through 24 matches, and a strong finish could make him a Golden Boot, Premier League, and Champions League winner. That’s not crazy.

Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: Eighteen goals and six assists make him one of four players to combine for 24 goals of production this season, and the 30-year-old may be get sympathetic votes given his surprising lack of honors during a torrential tenure in the Premier League. His three hat tricks should live in the memory of some voters, too, especially since two came against Arsenal and Chelsea. He’s there when you need him, that’s for sure.

Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur: Right in the Golden Boot race despite missing four matches with torn ankle ligaments, Kane has 17 goals and four assists for Spurs this season. Not that the League Cup should come into play in a PL season vote, but Spurs’ star could well be holding silverware in voters’ minds if he hadn’t been hurt before the second leg against Chelsea. Three matches against Pep Guardiola and Man City in the next few weeks will either help or hurt his argument (again, only one of those comes in league play).

FINALLY, “THE WILD CARD” — He’s not going to win this award, and probably won’t be on any short lists besides this post, but spare a though for Raul Jimenez of Wolves. The Mexican striker has been a part of 18 league markers for Nuno Espirito Santo (12 goals, six assists) during his first ever Premier League season.

He’s scored against Chelsea twice, Spurs twice, and assisted versus Manchester United, and Arsenal. Wolves are 10W-4D-2L when he gets a goal or an assist, and 2W-3D-9L when he doesn’t produce magic.

And let’s be honest: Is one of the key players above leading their team to a title as impressive as what Jimenez has done keeping his newly-promoted side in the race for a Europa League place (even given what Wolves spent around him)?

Honestly, he’s in my Top Three with Sterling and Van Dijk. Hazard is probably fourth, with Kane, Aguero, and Salah a bit behind.

Sarri slams Chelsea, who are at ‘mental limit’

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Maurizio Sarri‘s time at Chelsea seems increasingly likely to end this summer.

The Italian coach has been critical of his Chelsea team on several occasions this season, as he slammed them after a defeat at Arsenal earlier this campaign and has openly questioned the motivation levels of the squad.

Their 2-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday summed up the biggest problem under Sarri so far: inconsistency.

In the first half they were vastly superior, hitting the post through Eden Hazard and creating several chances to score. But in the second half they were extremely poor and Sarri is at a loose end trying to figure it all out.

“It is difficult for the players to explain the change to me. It is very difficult for me to explain the change to you. Probably it is a mental block, I think,” Sarri said. “At the moment, this is our limit. If we are able to play like in the first half with consistency then we are in another position in the table. We have this problem because we lost a similar match at Wolverhampton [in December]. We lost again in this way, for us it is a big limit.”

Sarri is scratching his head right now, but the same old problems keep coming back to haunt Chelsea. The Italian coach has been stubborn with his tactics and personnel choices, and there isn’t that much he has changed throughout the campaign, as there have been severe highs and lows with a League Cup final defeat on penalty kicks and big wins in the PL coupled with heavy defeats to giants and minnows alike.

Jekyll and Hyde displays have littered their season, as Chelsea fail to take chances after dominating and then completely go into their shells. Not knowing their best lineup in attack is holding Sarri-ball back, with Higuain, Giroud and a plethora of wide players constantly switched in and out of the team. There is no rhythm. No consistency. Just flashes of brilliance. Then moments of madness.

When you look at Sarri’s deployment of N'Golo Kante in a more advanced role, the way he was overpowered in the second half at Everton summed up the fact that Sarri just doesn’t have the players to play the way he wants to at Chelsea. And that isn’t going to change.

Despite all of that, Chelsea are just three points off the top four but the way they are playing and how inconsistent they have been all season is the main reason for concern.

The only reason Sarri may stay on beyond this season is if he gets Chelsea into the UEFA Champions League via the top four or winning the Europa League. Right now the latter seems like their best bet. His only saving grace is that with a transfer ban for the next two windows hanging over the club, what top manager is seriously going to step into that situation and want to take over at Chelsea?

If Sarri actually wants to stay, Chelsea may have to keep him to try and steady the ship amid plenty of uncertainty surrounding owner Roman Abramovich and FIFA’s sanctions against them.

Chelsea isn’t a happy club right now, and Sarri isn’t a happy man. Usually, the Blues are the most ruthless club around. They haven’t got that luxury anymore. If they did, Sarri would already be gone.

Hazard rescues point for Chelsea v. Wolves (video)

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  • Wolves score on lone shot on target
  • Jimenez nabs 6th in last seven PL matches
  • Hazard scores beauty in stoppage time
  • Chelsea remains 6th, Wolves 7th

Eden Hazard‘s vicious stoppage time strike gave Chelsea a point against visiting Wolves at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Raul Jimenez’s 12th Premier League goal for Wolves looked to have engineered a season sweep of the Blues.

Wolves take a one-point lead on Watford in the race for seventh in the Premier League, while Chelsea will finish the day at least one point back of fourth.

Wolves beat Chelsea 2-1 at the Molineux earlier this season, with Jimenez and Diogo Jota scoring in the win.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

There wasn’t a lot to write home about in the sluggish first half.

Raul Jimenez was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a handball, and a Wolves handball stopped Diogo Jota’s goal from counting later in the period.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The second half began with more invention, Gonzalo Higuain seeing a shot blocked and Eden Hazard winning a free kick a yard outside the box that David Luiz blazed off the wall for a corner.

Yet that’s when Wolves struck, Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez leading a counter attack down the right which ended with the in-form Mexican hitting a shot that deflected off Cesar Azpilicueta to beat Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Higuain then won a corner with a hard drive that was seemingly headed wide, but N'Golo Kante mishit the resulting chance. Then Pedro was thwarted by Rui Patricio before Higuain couldn’t tap in at the back post.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek won a central free kick a few yards outside the arc, and Willian‘s effort was pushed over the goal by the wall.

Loftus-Cheek’s stoppage time bid to equalize was partially blocked for a corner kick, and the Blues took advantage of the second ensuing set piece.

That’s when Hazard lashed a shot from the edge of the 18 that zipped across goal and inside the far post.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ]

Insane finish sees Man City win League Cup in penalties

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  • Man City wins sixth League Cup
  • Chelsea fails to put shot on target
  • Kepa refuses to sub off before PKs

After 120 minutes of scoreless play, the League Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester City went down to penalty kicks.

A series of penalties with chaos embedded in them due to a bust-up between Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga after the latter refused to sub out of the match in extra time.

Raheem Sterling‘s penalty ultimately clinched Manchester City’s sixth League Cup.

[ MORE: Lineups, play-by-play, box score ]

The start was tame, save a Sergio Aguero shot that was stopped by Kepa Arrizabalaga but headed wide of the goal.

The play lived in Chelsea’s end, but the Blues dealt well with the danger en route to a pair of late free kicks. Nicolas Otamendi nearly turned one inside his own goal, and a corner on the last breath of the half was blocked by Oleksandr Zinchenko.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Liverpool recap | 3 Things from OT ]

Eden Hazard earned a breakaway early in the second half only to be caught and tackled by Otamendi.

Aguero had the ball in the goal but was offside in the 56th.

Hazard blazed down the left wing again in the 66th minute, meeting a Willian and long ball and cooking Vincent Kompany before cutting back for N'Golo Kante. The Frenchman flew his chance over the goal.

Chelsea kept coming. Willian set up Ross Barkley for a curling effort with a bit too much loft to threaten Ederson.

Antonio Rudiger was fortunate to see yellow after a pair of fouls helped Man City to a 73rd minute free kick, the latter a scissoring tackle of the ball.

Hazard cued up Pedro for a prime 76th minute chance, but the Spaniard chose to pass rather than shoot and Zinchenko cut it out.

Ederson stopped a whipped Willian free kick in stoppage time, and Chelsea had a corner kick to avoid extra time. City handled it well enough.

Extra time was tame into the second frame, when Sterling danced down the end line and Chelsea defended desperately to force just a corner kick.

A sloppy sequence in the 117th minute allowed Aguero a shot from 20 yard that Arrizabalaga dove to control.

Then, with penalty kicks looming and Arrizabalaga twice down injured, Maurizio Sarri went apopletic when the keeper refused to come off for Wily Caballero. The sub board was up, but Arrizabalaga wouldn’t leave!

To kicks.

Jorginho‘s tame first effort was saved by Ederson. The next shots were goals.

Arrizabalaga then guessed correctly on Sergio Aguero, but the Argentine’s shot went through his gloves. After Emerson finished for Chelsea, Arrizabalaga saved Leroy Sane’s hit.

Then David Luiz hammered the goal post.