August 14, 2018

FREE KICKS: So much has changed, yet so little has changed

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

If you look at the Premier League table, you’ll see very few surprises after the first round of games.

The top five teams from last season all won, each looking fairly impressive doing so. Of those five teams, only Manchester United and Tottenham even conceded a single goal.

While Liverpool sits on top after demolishing West Ham, you can’t help but be impressed with Manchester City’s dismantling of Arsenal at the Emirates. Hard to believe, but over the past three seasons, City has more clean sheets on the road than at home.

City wasn’t even playing with its full compliment of stars, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne coming on as a second-half sub and David Silva not even making the matchday roster.

Liverpool’s attack continues to look fantastic and could build on last season’s success. Even more impressive is how the defence held together, anchored by Virgil Van Dijk – looking like he is worth the exorbitant fee that was paid for him – and how Naby Keita has made an immediate impression in the midfield.

It’s hard to give Chelsea too much credit for waxing Huddersfield, but a sturdy 3-0 win on the road is nothing to shake your stick at. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the game was watching N’Golo Kante play as more of a box-to-box midfielder while Jorginho played further back. Kante certainly has the energy to make runs into the box while maintaining his strong defensive presence. If he can score a few more goals this season, that only increases his value to the Blues.

Manchester United topped the table for the first day of the season, but we’re wondering if it will return there before season’s end. Red Devils fans have to be frustrated after watching the team score so early and then sit back and allow Leicester to keep possession and attack at will. Sure, it ended with three points, but seeing a team this good play so passively is an incredible letdown.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been worried about Spurs to start the season with a bunch of their players coming back late from the World Cup. Dele Alli played 80 minutes, Harry Kane the full 90 and Tottenham picked up a tough away win at Newcastle. As for Alli, could we see a return to form after some struggles at times last season and a lackluster Cup? He was playing fairly far forward and could be this side’s top attacker if needed. He’ll never be as consistent as Christian Eriksen, but he’ll have some big games.

As for the lone member of the Big Six, well more on them later.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

There was no shortage of standouts in the opening round of games, but we’ll give the award Richarlison for the degree of difficulty.

In his regular-season debut for Everton, the Brazilian winger bagged a brace in 85 minutes before being subbed off due to a cramp. But what makes it impressive is that he scored his second while his team was down to 10 men after Phil Jagielka was sent off.

And while Wolverhampton is a newly promoted club, this is a team that has some serious players in it and was playing very well at home.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

What is up with the schedule-makers for the Premier League? Why doesn’t the new season open its slate with a game featuring the defending champions? Even worse, why was City opening the season on the road? There should be a big ceremony to celebrate the previous season, similar to how the NFL does it with its Thursday night opener … Welcome back, Daniel Sturridge. The former stud scorer who has been derailed by injuries the past few seasons only needed a mere minute to score after coming on as a sub. We wouldn’t expect this often, but it’s nice to see … Southampton-Burnley was always going to end in a 0-0 draw. The hard part to believe was that Joe Hart was involved … Crystal Palace has potential to impress this season and did so against Fulham. The Cottagers had the lion’s share of possession, but it was the Eagles that fired an impressive 10 shots on target in their 2-0 win … Watford also got off to a good start, thanks to the stellar connection of Roberto Pereyra and Jose Holebas, who hooked up for the Hornets’ two goals … In case you missed it, Wayne Rooney showed he still has it. This weekend the former Manchester United captain made a game-saving block with the net empty, then made a brilliant cross field pass to assist the game-winner by Luciano Acosta. Check it out.

THE LAST WORD

We hate to judge a team off of one game, but we’re going to go right ahead and do that for Arsenal.

If anybody is going to argue that this club is in the same league as a team like City, they’re crazy.

The Gunners were playing at home, yet were still dominated in possession, shots and shots on target. This is supposed to be a team with Champions League ambitions – which it should certainly compete for – but it’s clearly a class behind.

Expensive new goalkeeper Bernd Leno was benched for Petr Cech. While there has been praise for Matteo Guendouzi, who led Arsenal with 72 touches, Lucas Torreira probably should’ve been in the starting XI.

Tactically, what’s the point of playing a press while also employing a player like Mesut Ozil, who is never going to go out of his way to pressure a defender. Heat maps show that Aaron Ramsey actually had the furthest-forward average position of any Gunner, simply because he was pressing City’s backline more than Ozil or starting striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

There is plenty for manager Unai Emery to fix at this point. The only thing is that he doesn’t have much time to do it with a date at Stamford Bridge next on tap.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

August 8, 2018

2018-19 English Premier League preview: The 10 contenders

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

It’s called the best league in the world for a reason: The teams that make up the top of the table are some of the most talented out there, ready for the 10-month grind towards potentially hoisting the trophy come next May. Here are the Premier League’s 10 best teams.

Manchester City

2017-18: First place, 100 points.

The skinny: The defending champions had a record-setting season last year and only got better over the summer. City set EPL marks for wins, points, goals and differential while also going on an unheard-of 18-game winning streak. This is the strongest, deepest club that the league has seen in years – City’s backup XI could be a top-six team in the Premier League. A repeat seems to be in the offing, unless the Sky Blues takes a serious step backwards.

Biggest news: Broke its club transfer record once again, signing Riyad Mahrez for $101 million from Leicester City.

Big question: How will City fare in Champions League, the one title that has eluded the club?

Key arrivals: Riyad Mahrez.

Key departures: Yaya Toure.

Key player: Kevin de Bruyne

Prediction: First place a spot in the Champions League semifinals.

Liverpool

2017-18: Fourth place, 75 points.

The skinny: A whirlwind season for Jurgen Klopp’s charges ended with them falling just short in the Champions League final to Real Madrid. Led by Mohamed Salah’s record-setting 32 goals, the Reds were an offensive juggernaut that were too often undone by mistakes at the back. The Reds’ five losses were second-fewest in the league, but draws against teams below them in the table scuttled any chance of a realistic run at the top of the table.

Biggest news: Solidified its biggest weaknesses by bringing in goalkeeper Alisson and midfielders Naby Keita (who had agreed to join last summer) and Fabinho.

Big question: Can Salah approach that level of greatness again, or was he just a flash in the pan?

Key arrivals: Alisson, Naby Keita, Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri.

Key departures: Emre Can, Danny Ward.

Key player: Mohamed Salah

Prediction: Second place and an honest run at City atop the table.

Manchester United

2017-18: Second place, 81 points.

The skinny: If it weren’t for its noisy neighbours, United would’ve had a decent chance at winning the title. After all, 81 points is what it took for Leicester to become champs in 2015-16. It was a good result considering the inconsistency in the lineup and reported turmoil behind the scenes. There was even visible on-pitch strife between manager Jose Mourinho and star midfielder Paul Pogba. Whether or not the team is fed up with The Special One remains to be seen, but this is one of the most talented squads in the world.

Biggest news: His name might not inspire much creativity, but new-signing Fred is no joke in the midfield.

Big question: Will United fall into the third-season woes that usually come along with the eccentric Mourinho?

Key arrivals: Fred, Diogo Dalot, Lee Grant

Key departures: Daley Blind, Michael Carrick.

Key player: Paul Pogba

Prediction: Third place and a lot of tabloid fodder from Mourinho.

Arsenal

2017-18: Sixth place, 63 points.

The skinny: Club supporters got their wish after years and manager Arsene Wenger is finally out, resigning in May after 22 years at the club. Replacing him is former PSG boss Unai Emery, who will look to right the ship at a club that should look to finish in a Champions League spot. The Gunners won just one away game in 2018 – on the final day, no less – and will need to improve that mark, as well as its organization on defence, to return to Champions League.

Biggest news: Saw controversial playmaker Mesut Ozil retire from the German national team while levying accusations of racism.

Big question: With such a bloated squad, how will Emery use all of his midfield and attacking pieces?

Key arrivals: Stephan Lichsteiner, Bernd Leno, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lucas Torreira.

Key departures: Santi Cazorla, Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere.

Key player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Prediction: Fourth place and a lot of gloating over Spurs.

Chelsea

2017-18: Fifth place, 70 points

The skinny: Last season’s title defence went only slightly better than the Blues’ previous attempt, falling out of a Champions League spot while reports of discontent were widespread. A lack of hunger – typified by consecutive three-goal losses to midtable teams Bournemouth and Watford – and manager Antonio Conte’s not-so-secret disdain for the club’s transfer policy weighed heavy on the team that also had European competition to deal with last year.

Biggest news: Hired Maurizio Sarri who was followed by midfielder Jorginho from Napoli to Stamford Bridge.

Big question: Will star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois get his reportedly desired move to Real Madrid?

Key arrivals: Jorginho, Robert Green.

Key departures: None.

Key player: Eden Hazard

Prediction: Fifth place and some growing pains learning Sarri’s system early on.

Tottenham Hotspur

2017-18: Third place, 77 points.

The skinny: Despite lagging well behind the rest of the top six clubs in wages, Spurs have done a marvelous job in keeping its very talented squad together. Tottenham finished above North London rival Arsenal for the second year in a row thanks in large part to the stellar play of striker Harry Kane – who has scored an astounding 105 goals over the past four seasons – and Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen, among others.

Biggest news: Watched Kane captain England to the World Cup semifinals and win the Golden Boot.

Big question: How will Spurs cope in the early season with no transfers coming, so many key players returning late from the World Cup and Son Heung-min playing for South Korea at the Asian Games?

Key arrivals: None.

Key departures: None.

Key player: Harry Kane

Prediction: Sixth and there’s some real buzz about some key players and manager Mauricio Pochettino possibly leaving.

Everton

2017-18: Eighth place, 49 points.

The skinny: The Toffees have fallen well behind their Merseyside rival, seemingly settling into the midtable more than making an honest run at a European place as they had in years past. Several injuries did have an impact on the team, especially losing Seamus Coleman to a broken leg. The one thing that Everton did lead the league in last season was fouls, picking up an astounding 448, five more than Watford.

Biggest news: Everton finally got its man, Marco Silva, who brought along standout winger Richarlison with him from Watford.

Big question: Has the team improved enough to make a return to Europa League?

Key arrivals: Richarlison, Lucas Digne.

Key departures: Wayne Rooney, Davy Klaasen, Kevin Miralles, Ashley Williams.

Key player: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Prediction: Seventh place and a decent run in one of the two Cup competitions.

Crystal Palace

2017-18: 11th place 44 points.

The skinny: The Eagles started last season with the worst opening run in Premier League history, losing seven straight games while failing to score a goal. This led to the dismissal of manager Frank de Boer and the start of a turnaround under Roy Hodgson. It was a change in system that allowed Wilfried Zaha to carry the team to an 11th-place finish that should’ve shocked many, considering the club’s awful start.

Biggest news: Signed talented-but-petulant German midfielder Max Meyer on a free transfer from Schalke 04.

Big question: How high will the club do climb under Hodgson without a massive hole to dig out of?

Key arrivals: Max Meyer, Cheik Kouyate, Vicente Guaita.

Key departures: Yohan Cabaye, Bakary Sako, Damien Delaney.

Key player: Wilfried Zaha

Prediction: Eighth place and a lot of interest in Zaha when the window opens in January.

West Ham United

2017-18: 13th place, 42 points.

The skinny: The first half of last season was a disaster for the Hammers, sitting in the relegation zone for much of the first five months of the season. A change of management in November from Slavan Bilic to David Moyes didn’t have an immediate impact, but eventually turned things around. The defence and goalkeeping left a lot to be desired, with the Irons conceding 68 times – tied for most in the league with relegated Stoke.

Biggest news: Brought in Premier League-winning, ex-Man City gaffer Manuel Pellegrini to manage. He spent the past two seasons working in China.

Big question: Can former Arsenal prodigy Jack Wilshere actually stay healthy for most of a season? He has played more than 20 games just four times in 10 seasons.

Key arrivals: Lukasz Fabianski, Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko, Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop.

Key departures: Cheik Kouyate, Patrice Evra, James Collins, Reece Burke.

Key player: Marko Arnautovic

Prediction: Ninth place and some rare optimism in East London.

Newcastle United

2017-18: 10th place, 44 points.

The skinny: In the former champions’ first season back in the top flight, the Magpies did well to settle back in to the midtable. While Newcastle’s defence played well despite a spate of injuries, the club’s form was inconsistent, much like its offence. A nine-match winless streak sank the Magpies into the relegation zone, before reaching 10th place with a run that saw them lose just three of their next 15 games.

Biggest news: Signed Martin Dubravka on a permanent transfer after the Slovakian keeper impressed during a six-month loan spell.

Big question: Can overqualified manager Rafa Benitez find some consistency while improving the attack?

Key arrivals: Martin Dubravka, Yoshinori Muto, Fabian Schar, Ki Sung-yueng.

Key departures: Aleksander Mitrovic, Mikel Merino, Chancel Mbemba.

Key player: Jamaal Lascelles

Prediction: 10th place and some questions about Benitez’s future at the club.

August 7, 2018

2018-19 English Premier League preview: The 10 pretenders

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Not every team has a chance at playing for a European spot in the Premier League and many will be happy to just survive in the top flight for another season. Here are the teams that should be closer to the relegation zone than the top of the table.

Burnley

2017-18: Seventh place, 54 points.

The skinny: Manager Sean Dyche’s defensive system has worked wonders for the Clarets, who allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the league and had the seventh-best goal differential last season. After losing England keeper Tom Heaton to injury for most of the season, the backline remained strong with Nick Pope stepping in. With an improvement in attack, Burnley could move even further up the table.

Biggest news: Lost Pope to a shoulder injury that will keep him out up to three months.

Big question: Can the Clarets cope with the added rigors of Europa League competition – if they do qualify?

Key arrivals: Ben Gibson.

Key departures: Scott Arfield.

Key player: Tom Heaton

Prediction: 11th place after the defence holds strong, but the attack can’t turn good performances into wins.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

2017-18: First in League Championship, 99 points.

The skinny: This isn’t your average promoted team. After an ownership takeover in 2016, Wolverhampton has seen some big investment in the team. Among the players brought in, Ruben Neves has been the star – a Champions League-calibre player anchoring the midfield. The moves have paid dividends thanks to its lucrative return to the Premier League and sights should be set on the midtable.

Biggest news: Longtime goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was forced into retirement after a year-long battle with acute leukemia.

Big question: With the signings of Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio, are there any other Portuguese players left for Wolves to get?

Key arrivals: Willy Boly, Rui Patricio, Diogo Jota, Joao Moutinho, Benik Afobe, Jonny, Raul Jimenez.

Key departures: None.

Key player: Ruben Neves

Prediction: 12th place and possibly some more good transfer signings coming in January.

Bournemouth

2017-18: 12th place, 44 points.

The skinny: Eight years ago, the Cherries were in the fourth tier of English football; now they’ll be looking to clinch a fifth season in the top loop. The little club that could struggled to begin last season, failing to win its second game until Oct. 21, 2017. A stellar January solidified a spot in the midtable, as Eddie Howe was awarded manager of the month.

Biggest news: Signed Diego Rico after the Spanish fullback turned down a bigger contract at Germany’s Borussia Dortmund.

Big question: After going 2-0-10 against the top six clubs, can Bournemouth improve against the league’s top competition?

Key arrivals: Diego Rico.

Key departures: Benik Afobe, Max Gradel, Lewis Grabban.

Key player: Joshua King

Prediction: 13th place and Howe earns one manager of the month award to go with plenty of praise.

Leicester City

2017-18: Ninth place, 47 points.

The skinny: This isn’t the same side that shockingly won it all just a few years ago. Of the core players that captured the sporting world in 2015-16 only Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel remain while playing at a high level. Former Southampton manager Claude Puel will try to right the ship, but will be in tough without the likes of Riyad Mahrez. In short, we’re not expecting any miracles from the midlands this season.

Biggest news: Sold Mahrez to Man City, but have held off Man United’s interest in World Cup standout Harry Maguire.

Big question: Is there any way to rekindle the magic or are the Foxes doomed to fight for midtable scraps?

Key arrivals: Rachid Ghezzal, James Maddison, Jonny Evans, Ricardo Pereira.

Key departures: Mahrez, Ahmed Musa.

Key player: Jamie Vardy

Prediction: 14th place and we wouldn’t be surprised if Puel doesn’t make it to January.

Watford

2017-18: 14th place, 41 points.

The skinny: Watford started the season strong, sitting as high as fourth in the table in October, before starting to slide. Manager Marco Silva was fired in January amid reports of him being distracted due to tampering by a rival – he eventually joined Everton, the team in question, this off-season. From there, new manager Javi Gracia brought the team home with an uninspiring 4-3-8 record.

Biggest news: Sold Brazilian winger Richarlison to former manager Silva at Everton for $68 million.

Big question: Can the Hornets repeat their hot start from last year, or will they struggle again under Gracia?

Key arrivals: Gerard Deulofeu, Ben Foster, Adam Masina, Marc Navarro.

Key departures: Richarlison, Nordin Amrabat, Mauro Zarate, Costel Pantilimon.

Key player: Gerard Deulofeu

Prediction: 15th place and some uncomfortable days in or around the relegation zone.

Brighton & Hove Albion

2017-18: 15th place, 37 points.

The skinny: The Seagulls survived their first Premier League season in unspectacular fashion. Apart from some good performances from Pascal Gross and Jose Izquierdo, their offence was often lacking and the team was especially poor on the road, finishing with a league-worst 11 away points. The only thing that kept BHA up was gaining the eighth-most home points in the league, losing only four games at Falmer Stadium.

Biggest news: Broke its club record transfer fee, buying Iranian winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Akmaar for $22 million.

Big question: Can manager Chris Hughton find a way to bottle up his club’s solid play at home and bring it on the road?

Key arrivals: Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Percy Tau, Bernardo.

Key departures: None.

Key player: Pascal Gross

Prediction: 16th place and some calls about Gross in the January transfer window.

Fulham

2017-18: Third in League Championship, 88 points.

The skinny: Once a Premier League mainstay, Fulham is back in the top tier after spending four season in League Championship. The Cottagers were the hottest team in the Championship from Christmas on, winning 15 matches in a 19-game undefeated streak before securing promotion in a playoff win over Aston Villa.

Biggest news: Swooped in to steal Ivory Coast midfielder Jean Michael Seri from under the noses of Chelsea and Arsenal.

Big question: How will 18-year-old winger Ryan Sessegnon fare against the big boys of the Premier League after racking up 15 goals last season?

Key arrivals: Aleksandar Mitrovic, Alfie Mawson, Jean Michael Seri, Andre Schurrle.

Key departures: Ryan Fredericks.

Key player: Ryan Sessegnon

Prediction: 17th place and a fight to the end to avoid relegation.

Southampton

2017-18: 17th place, 36 points.

The skinny: Once one of the top academies, the Saints well might be running dry. After years of selling off its top players – mainly to Liverpool – a lack of talent has seemingly caught up to the South coast side. Manager Mark Hughes was able to save the team from relegation in the final days of the season and was rewarded with a three-year deal.

Biggest news: Signed Mohammed Elyounoussi from Basel as a replacement for Dusan Tadic, who left for Ajax.

Big question: Can Hughes return the club to its roots and starting building it back up with homegrown talent?

Key arrivals: Mohamed Elyounoussi, Stuart Armstrong, Jannik Vestergaard.

Key departures: Dusan Tadic, Sofiane Boufal, Jordy Clasie.

Key player: Charlie Austin

Prediction: 18th place and a focus on rebuilding their youth in the future.

Huddersfield Town

2017-18: 16th place, 37 points.

The skinny: After two wins to start the season, the Terriers were sitting atop the table. It was all downhill from there and Huddersfield barely survived the relegation battle. In fact, it was tied for the fewest goals scored at 28 and had the second-worst goal differential at -30. If the Terriers want to survive another season, they’ll need more bite than bark.

Biggest news: After barely surviving relegation, it gave manager David Wagner a contract extension through the 2020-21 season.

Big question: Where are the goals going to come from? Aaron Mooy is a solid playmaker, but the team lacks finishing up front.

Key arrivals: Ramadan Sobhi, Juninho Bacuna, Adama Diakhaby, Erik Durm.

Key departures: Tom Ince.

Key player: Aaron Mooy

Prediction: 19th place and a spot near the bottom of the goals for chart.

Cardiff City

2017-18: Second in League Championship, 90 points.

The skinny: The Bluebirds are back and they’re actually wearing blue this time around. Cardiff returns after a disastrous 2013-14 season saw it finish last in the Premier League. A marked improvement in defence saw it climb from the midtable to second in League Championship, tied with Wolves at 39 goals conceded in 46 games.

Biggest news: Signed top scorer and Canadian international Junior Hoilett to a contract extension, keeping him at club for three more seasons.

Big question: Will owner Vincent Tan be able to stay out of the limelight after causing controversy during Cardiff’s previous EPL stay?

Key arrivals: Josh Murphy, Bobby Reid, Alex Smithies.

Key departures: None.

Key player: Junior Hoilett

Prediction: 20th place and another quick trip back to the Championship.

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