March 12, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Who’s the best of the rest heading down the stretch?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

On Formula 1’s subreddit, there’s a tracker for something that is called ‘Formula 1.5.’

The idea is that, after the top three teams in the competition – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – there’s a big enough gap in performance that it’s nearly a separate league all together.

While it’s not nearly as severe in the Premier League, there is a wide margin between the top six sides – colloquially known as the ‘Big Six’ – and the rest of the table.

Considering that there is little to fight for below the top six spots, which are awarded spots in next year’s European competitions, there’s no shortage of strong and entertaining sides.

Much like the winner of Formula 1.5 last year – Niko Hulkenberg – the top side in our adapted, not-quite-Premier League (NQPL) table also wears yellow and black. Wolves have looked nothing like your typical promoted side so far this season, even claiming a point at Chelsea on Sunday – a match it could’ve won considering it led 1-0 going into injury time. Wolverhampton isn’t your typical midtable team, either. It doesn’t just feast on teams marginally below it in the table or in terms of talent – Wolves actually have the best record against the top six teams of teams outside of it, picking up 10 points from nine games and going 2-4-3.

Watford now trails its yellow-and-black rival after losing to City, but is certainly a contender for finish atop the NQPL, although their fixtures are a bit tough down the stretch.

After those two sides, you have a group of three teams that can only be described as different levels of disappointment: West Ham, Leicester and Everton.

These three sides have certainly spent money on talent and have the names on their rosters to prove it, but haven’t gotten the results. How a team like the Toffees, which splashed so much cash in the summer, can sit on 37 points from 30 games is mind-boggling. You have to feel for Richarlison, who left Watford for Everton in hopes of breaking through into Europe and is now trailing behind his former team in the table.

West Ham has dealt with injuries and inconsistency all season while the Foxes are now onto their third manager of the campaign. There’s a lot to be said for stability and neither side has it.

The two darkhorses in our NQPL are Bournemouth and Newcastle, but that’s where the similarities end for these teams. The Cherries can put the ball in the net but are often poor defensively while the Magpies have allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the league (38), but can struggle to score.

While these seven sides aren’t as exciting as the six above them in the table, there’s no shortage of talent in them. And while the race to be crowned king of the NQPL doesn’t actually exist, putting it in your head-canon only adds to the excitement of the stretch run.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Hat tricks and Manchester City: Can you name a more iconic duo?

This week it was Raheem Sterling doing the trick, scoring three goals in the span of 13 minutes to start the second half against Watford. It was the English winger’s first hat trick of the season, but City’s sixth. Gabriel Jesus has two while Sergio Aguero has an astounding hat trick of hat tricks.

The opponent here is also somewhat significant – Watford was the previous team to have a player score a hat trick when Gerard Deulofeu did so just two weeks ago.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suffered his first Premier League defeat on Sunday, falling to Arsenal. The loss also snapped United’s eight-game road undefeated streak in all competitions … Romelu Lukaku might be on a hot streak, but that certainly doesn’t apply against top-tier opponents. The Man U striker has just one goal in 18 games against top-six opponents since joining United … The Gunners’ win was also it’s first against a Big 6 side in the past five years. Their record in that span before Sunday: 0-7-16 for seven points from a possible 69. Not so nice … Fulham have now averaged a new manager every 11 games in the Premier League since Shahid Khan bought the team, with six in 67 games. The latest victim, Claudio Ranieri, quickly found a new job, returning to Roma just over a week after the Cottagers cut him loose … A bit late, but Feb. 28 marked the 20-year anniversary of the most recent time a Premier League side started 11 English players. Aston Villa lost that day 4-1 against Coventry City and I’m pretty sure we may never see a starting XI like that again, considering the globalization of the league.

THE LAST WORD

It’s still early for this discussion, but after Sterling’s performance on the weekend, it should be asked: Who’s up for player of the year?

With a two-team title race, it’s pretty plain to see that the winner will undoubtedly come from either Manchester City or Liverpool.

Of the Citizens, the two main candidates are Aguero and Sterling. With the amount of rotation that manager Pep Guardiola uses, few other players have even gotten the chance to make as big of an impact as those two attackers. Their numbers speak for themselves, too. Aguero has a league-leading 18 goals to go with nine assists in league play while Sterling’s hat trick has him up to 15 goals and 13 assists.

Liverpool, just a point off the pace, has a few more guys that will be in the mix and could dominate the team of season.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have 17 and 16 goals, respectively, giving the Reds a one-two punch up front similar to City’s duo. Both will surely get mentions for the team of the season and rightfully so with their production.

But behind them are couple of standouts. Defenders Virgil Van Dijk and Andrew Robertson are shoo-ins for the end-of-year team, both part of a back line that had more clean sheets than goals allowed before Sunday’s 4-2 win. Robertson has also been dynamite in attack with nine assists this season while VVD has been a terror in the box on set pieces scoring three goals and setting up three more.

If you’re looking at contenders from other sides, Eden Hazard has had several incredible runs of form for an oft-disjointed Chelsea side. Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has 17 goals and could win the Golden Boot. And Paul Pogba has been tremendous for Manchester United since OGS took over, but that likely happened too late in the season.

Right now, our money is Aguero if City wins it all – which would actually mean, somewhat incredibly, his first EPL team of the season inclusion.

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