May 16, 2018

FREE KICKS: Our Premier League Best XI + more

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

The marathon that began last August has reached its conclusion and, while we’ve know the victor for a while, the final week of the season offered some intrigue.

We saw Arsene Wenger say goodbye to the team that he has managed for a generation, three Premier League mainstays get relegated and last year’s champion slump into a place in Europa League.

GK – David De Gea, Man United

DDG was unquestionably the best keeper in the league this season and might just be the best in the world right now. He kept 18 clean sheets and could’ve had another if not for being rested on Sunday.

DEF – Kyle Walker, Man City

The former Spurs fullback proved to be worth his big transfer fee. The speedster added even more attacking threat to the champions and played the second-most minutes of City defenders, behind only the next man on this list.

DEF – Nicolas Otamendi, Man City

He was the rock in the centre of City’s back four with a steady rotation of partners beside him. The Argentine defender steadied the line and helped City to the best defensive record in the league, allowing just 27 goals.

DEF – Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea

The champions certainly had a title defence to forget, but the man they call Dave was solid at the centre their back line. Azpilicueta even played some time in his old position at right back and provided some offence, too.

DEF – Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham

Shared the league lead for clean sheets by a defender this season and was the rock at the back for Spurs. Injuries and some changes to their system led to some lapses, but Vertonghen maintained his spot among the league’s best defenders.

MID – Fernandinho, Man City

It could be argued that the Brazilian is actually City’s most important player. Thanks to Fernandinho’s hard work in front of the back four, City’s attackers have more leeway to get forward while knowing that he is there to cover the holes and clean up any messes.

MID – Kevin De Bruyne, Man City

Despite often being dropped deeper into City’s midfield, the Belgian playmaker still pulled the strings in attack with his incisive passing. His 18 assists to lead the league is evidence enough of that.

MID – Christian Eriksen, Tottenham

Had an off season by his standards, with 11 goals and 10 assists, but it can’t be stated how often he provides the pass-before-the-pass to get Spurs’ attack going.

FWD – Mohamed Salah, Liverpool

Is he the Egyptian Messi, or is the Barca star the Argentine Salah? The former Chelsea castoff proved he belonged in the Premier League and more, setting the record for most goals in a season with 32 and added 12 assists for good measure.

FWD – Harry Kane, Tottenham

Scored 29 goals this season to equal his career-high, but it wasn’t good enough for a third-straight golden boot. With 104 goals in his past four seasons, Kane is quickly climbing the all-time charts.

FWD – Raheem Sterling, Man City

The oft-criticized Englishman doesn’t deserve the flak he gets. His numbers speak for themselves: An 18-goal, 17-assist campaign while also sitting a few games due to rotation.

THE NEXT XI

Nick Pope, Burnley – Did an excellent job as a fill-in for injured Tom Heaton.

Antonio Valencia, Man United – The veteran remains one of the league’s most consistent players.

Marcos Alonso, Chelsea – Continues to bring attacking returns on the wing.

David Silva, Man City – The only thing keeping him out of Best XI is the time he missed.

N’Golo Kante, Chelsea – Not as excellent as last year, but still great.

Leroy Sane, Man City – Keeps on getting better and is just 22 years old.

Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City – Will he finally get his move this summer?

Roberto Firmino, Liverpool – It wasn’t all just Salah for the Reds.

Nemanja Matic, Man United – Its best Nemanja since Vidic.

Sergio Aguero, Man City – If not for missed time and rotations, could’ve been in Best XI.

Romelu Lukaku, Man United – Scoring record against top teams hasn’t improved.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Sure, it’s not quite as prestigious as getting into the Best XI, but player of the week is nothing to shake a stick at. For the final gameweek of the season, which saw a couple of big scorelines, we’re actually going with a defender.

Philip van Aanholt ended the season on a three-game scoring streak for Crystal Palace and was a big part of its rise to safety from looking sure to be relegated.

And on Sunday, he did it one better, adding an assist and doing his part to keep a clean sheet against Championship-bound West Brom.

After missing a large stretch in the middle of the season, it might not be too much of stretch to see van Aanholt on the fringes of next year’s Best XI if he can consistently play like this.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Manchester City didn’t just run away with the title, it did so in record-breaking fashion. The Sky Blues set records for most wins in a season, most goals and the highest goal differential. The biggest question for City next season will be if it can find more success in Champions League … West Brom’s Darren Moore won manager of the month on the same day he gets relegated. How’s that for irony? … There wasn’t much funnier than watching Walker simply stand and point at the Premier League trophy on the ground after it was accidently knocked over by Oleksander Zinchenko … Of outfield players, only five played the entire season, 3,420 minutes: Brighton’s Lewis Dunk, Huddersfield’s Zanka, Leicester City’s Harry Maguire, Swansea’s Alfie Mawson and Burnley’s Jack Cork – the only midfielder on the list. Five keepers also played the entire campaign … Jamie Vardy played the most minutes for a forward with 3,248 … What is Burnley going to do about its goalkeeping situation next season? Nick Pope is good enough to start in the Premier League, but Tom Heaton will be healthy again and is even better … Oriol Romeu was the naughtiest player in the Premier League, picking up 11 yellow cards. Jonjo Shelvey and Wilfred Ndidi were the only players to get two reds this season … Spurs yet again finished in the Champions League despite having the lowest payroll of the Big 6 teams. And Tottenham’s 127-milliion pound wage bill is 72 million behind Arsenal, the next lowest … Philippe Coutinho lost his first game of the season on the weekend … Manchester United was the only team in Europe’s top five leagues that didn’t concede more than two goals in a game this season in all competitions … You probably already thought that Salah’s season was pretty amazing, but consider this: He missed the most clear-cut chances in the league with 21. If he even scored half of those, it would’ve brought his total over 40.

THE LAST WORD

If you’re at all worried about missing the beautiful game over the summer now that the season is over, there is no need to fret. While we’re surely not going to gloss over the FA Cup final, the League Championship playoff final and the Champions League and Europa League finals, we’re also just a month away from the World Cup in Russia.

Yes, all (well, most of) your favourites will be on the line in the biggest tournament in sports. While it is sometimes sloppy considering these national teams don’t get the same sort of practice time as clubs, the national pride more than makes up it.

And with the Premier League changing its transfer window and having it open on Thursday, we’re in for plenty of rumours and reports starting even earlier than usual.

It’s going to be one hell of a summer.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

April 24, 2018

FREE KICKS: Which Arsene Wenger will we remember?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

This week, Arsenal supporters had their dream come true: Arsene Wenger announced that he would be resigning from the club the end of the season.

The long-running #WengerOut campaign has spanned years, becoming one of the biggest memes in soccer.

There have been silverware droughts, a string of fourth-place finishes and last year’s ignominy of finally finishing behind rival Tottenham in the standings for the first time in decades.

But what shouldn’t be forgotten is how much Wenger changed this club. Arsenal was in a bit of turmoil, with Wenger becoming the third manager in three years when he joined from Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight.

He installed a more attacking style and brought in several French players that would go on to be club legends, like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry on the cheap. His shrewd business would become his calling card for years, before finally starting to break the bank later on in his tenure.

His biggest accomplishment was the Gunners’ “Invincibles” run in 2003-04, going undefeated for the entire season on their way to the title. Arsenal also finished either first or second in eight of Wenger’s first nine seasons at the club and was the toast of London, this coming before the big-money takeover of Chelsea and with Tottenham never able to measure up to its North London rival.

But shortly after, the major cup drought kicked in, with Arsenal lagging behind the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, as well as new-money clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City.

It was these failures that weighed on supporters, who would be quick to forget the past triumphs. But that’s the thing about sports: It’s more ‘what have you done for us lately’ than ‘thanks for all of great memories.’

While Wenger’s legacy will never be in doubt, let’s hope it’s more for the good than the bad. More ‘Invincibles’ than puffy jackets and memes.

For what it’s worth, the odds-on favourite to replace Wenger is Vieira, currently plying his trade at NYCFC, who is listed at 4-1. There’s also former Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel at 5-1 and Joachim Low at a rather ironic 7-1. Of course, we could see Brendan Rodgers return to the Premier League, but that might cause even more headaches for supporters.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Raheem Sterling, and the rest of Manchester City for that matter, had a great game against Swansea this weekend. For the second game in a row, the English winger chipped in a goal and an assist – and actually could’ve had one more.

If not for Swans keeper Lukasz Fabianski stopping Gabriel Jesus’ penalty, Sterling would’ve had another assist. And considering that Bernardo Silva buried the rebound on the attempt,

Sterling has had one of the quietest 18-goal, 14-assists there has ever been. It seems like we only hear about his misses, rather than his numerous triumphs.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Arsenal didn’t mess around in the first game after Wenger’s big announcement. West Ham did hold strong against its London rival for a while, but the Gunners piled it on at the end for a 4-1 scoreline … Alexandre Lacazette is finally living up to his pricetag, scoring four goals in the past four games. We wonder how Arsenal’s next manager will utilize Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front … West Brom is undefeated under interim manager Darren Moore, but it’s a shame that it was just too late to save the Baggies. Saturday’s comeback draw against Liverpool only delayed the inevitable drop … Mohamed Salah didn’t have his best game, but his goal gave him 31 on the season, tied for the most in a campaign he still has three games to play … It turns out that crappy Monday night football games aren’t exclusive to the NFL. Did anybody really want to watch a 1-0 game between midtable sides Everton and Newcastle? … The final is set for the FA Cup with Manchester United and Chelsea to do battle in a few weeks’ time at Wembley. Both of these clubs desperately need to hoist some silverware to get even a little bit of a good feeling about their disappointing, drama-filled seasons.

THE LAST WORD

Looking below the Premier League, there are a few interesting stories in action.

Sunderland has been relegated for the second consecutive year, dropping out of the Championship and will have to fight its way out of League One next season. A sad fall from grace from a Premier League mainstay for years.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Black Cats were relegated once again:  No Sunderland player has more league assists than Adam Johnson with five since 2015-16. Johnson has been in prison for a variety of sexual offences involving minors for more than two years.

Millwall is fighting for a spot in the Championship’s playoff and doing so without splashing much cash. In fact, Millwall’s record signing remains Paul Goddard, who the Lions signed in 1989 for 800,000 GBP. We’re certain that if it makes the Premier League that record will be broken several times over.

Two former Premier League mainstays – including a former champion – have all but sewn up their moves back to League Championship. Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers are sitting pretty in first and second, respectively, and should gain automatic promotion.

Finally, we’d like to welcome back to the flight, Wolverhampton. This season’s runaway winner of the Championship have a ton of top talent and should be able to keep its spot for a while. Wolves currently has a 12-point lead on Cardiff City and also leads the league in goals while allowing the fewest.

Key midfielder Ruben Neves has already pledged to stay with the club as well, instead of spurning it for a bigger side – which he could surely fit into.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

April 18, 2018

FREE KICKS: City are the champions, but Salah is the real winner

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

A coronation that has been months in the making finally took place this weekend, with Manchester City clinching the Premier League title following Manchester United’s loss to lowly West Brom – more on that later.

There’s not much left to say about City’s dominance of the league this season that hasn’t already been said, but seeing members of the Sky Blues make up half of the PFA player of the year field shows just how good this side is.

Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Leroy Sane are all up for the award, while we’re sure the Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero weren’t too far off from making the cut. The remaining three nominees are no slouches, either. Manchester United’s David De Gea, Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah round out the field.

So, who deserves the honour? There’s only one answer and it’s the Reds’ Egyptian winger. Salah is on the verge of breaking the Premier League record for goals in a season, sitting on 30, which is one shy of the mark. He’s not just a one-trick pony, either, Salah demonstrated that with his goal this week, a marvelous looping header over the keeper off of a brilliant ball into the box by Trent Alexander-Arnold.

When you look at the other nominees, they all have their flaws.

Kane will likely be the runner-up in the Golden Boot race and certainly isn’t the creator that Salah is, with just two assists this season to the Egyptian’s 11.

David De Gea is a shoo-in as the top goalkeeper of the year and has been fantastic, but it’s hard to give this award to the keeper of a team that finished a distant second place — at best. De Gea also has more goals allowed than City’s Ederson.

As for the trio of City players, they’re likely to split the vote, hurting each other’s chances. Of the three, De Bruyne has the best shot, but his numbers don’t compare to Salah’s, either.

Even taking a broader view, Salah’s 30 goals is more than Lionel Messi’s 29 in Spain, Robert Lewandowski’s 27 in Germany, Ciro Immobile’s 27 in Italy and Edinson Cavani’s 25 in France.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Liverpool bought Salah from Roma – its Champions League semifinal opponent — for 36.9 million GBP. With the inflation of transfer fees that followed, he is easily worth at least 100 million.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

When one thinks of an impact sub, the name Olivier Giroud isn’t the first that comes to mind.

But with the Blues trailing 2-0 to lowly Southampton, Giroud came on for Alvaro Morata and the rest was history. Chelsea scored three goals in eight minutes, with two from beautiful Frenchman himself, to come back and beat the Saints, on the road, no less.

That’s a pretty remarkable brace, if you ask me.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a chance that if Man City takes its foot off the gas and punts a couple of games, that Liverpool could complete the season with the fewest losses. Currently, City has two, the Reds have four … Watching the Gunners bottle it at St. James Park is just par for the course now. With an early 1-0 lead, you can never think that Arsenal is going to hold on, even against a midtable club like Newcastle … Even worse for Arsenal, it is just two points ahead of Burnley in the table for sixth. With those two teams set to meet in Gameweek 37, that match could be a decider for a Europa League spot … For the second week in a row, Huddersfield scored a goal! You wouldn’t think that to be too much cause to celebrate against a team on early holiday like Watford, but this was the first time since February it had scored in consecutive matches … What a great first half of the M23 derby. Wilfried Zaha is a special player for Crystal Palace and should get some transfer attention this summer. Also, no, I had no clue that Crystal Palace-Brighton & Hove Albion was a derby game, either … Andy Carroll scored in the 90th minute to ruin Stoke’s day. The Potters really needed the three points in their bid to avoid relegation, but have to settle for one and stay in 19th place.

THE LAST WORD

Jose Mourinho seemingly has his typical third-year blowup starting earlier than anticipated, being his second season at Manchester United and all.

How else can you explain the many reports of players wanting out picking up by the day?

How else can you explain the inconsistency of his team on the field?

How else can you explain the decision to remove his best midfielder before the hour mark when the score’s still tied?

There are far more questions than answers at Old Trafford and this comes just a week after United’s amazing comeback win over City to delay their noisy neighbour’s title celebration.

But after beating the top team in the league on the road, United lost to the worst team in the league at home, getting blanked by lowly West Bromwich Albion.

With Anthony Martial this week saying he wants to leave this summer, Luke Shaw previously stating his unhappiness and this saga with Paul Pogba seemingly getting worse, could it be easier for United to simply sack Mourinho this summer?

The Special One has seemingly been feuding with Pogba for a while now and this week’s sub only makes it look worse. The Frenchman hasn’t been playing up to his standard under Mourinho, either, having scored fewer goals and key passes than Philippe Coutinho, who left the league in January. Pogba returned as one of the best all-around midfielders in the world and his talent is being squandered.

Whether the board decides to tolerate another season (or less) of Mourinho’s antics will be a huge storyline heading into this summer.

Oh, and if you want some context on how bad this loss to the Baggies was, West Brom’s win was its first since January 13 against the Gulls and its second since August 19 — when it had beaten Burnley to bring its record to 2-0-0.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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