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.


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.


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.


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.

February 26, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Blues fading to black?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Oh, did you think things were bad at Chelsea when we wrote about the Blues two weeks ago?

Things have only gotten much worse.

The latest boiling point came on Sunday, when Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be subbed off after suffering from some apparent cramps in extra time of the Carabao Cup final.

Maurizio Sarri was so furious that Kepa wouldn’t come off that the manager nearly left the sidelines for the locker room before thinking better of it. The keeper just kept on gesturing to the sidelines that he was fine and that he could continue while Sarri fumed before eventually relenting.

The real shame of it is that, tactically speaking, it was also a good idea by Sarri. Willy Caballero, Chelsea’s backup keeper, is a former Man City player and would presumably know player tendencies better than Kepa. He also a better career save percentage against penalties than the starter, 44%-34%.

Making the matter worse is that it was David Luiz, not the club’s captain Cesar Azpilicueta, that was standing with Kepa and telling the keeper to “respect the manager.”

This is exactly the spot where the captain should be the ultimate go-between for a player and manager. It shows a complete lack of leadership and the Spaniard was rightfully ripped for it.

For what it’s worth, Kepa has been fined a week’s pay, as if that will make things right.

This incident and the loss – despite playing much better than the 6-0 drubbing at City’s hands a few weeks ago – marked the end of yet another terrible week at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea received a one-year transfer ban last week for violations regarding contracts for underage players. It’s a similar penalty to those served by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

The timing really couldn’t be worse. With Eden Hazard almost certain to leave this summer, Chelsea won’t be able to bring in any replacement(s). That’s a rather large hole in its lineup that would be difficult to fill in the best of times. The club could appeal the ban, but even if it’s just one window that it sits out from, it would still mean a half-season of suffering.

As for Sarri, what’s next?

Literally, it’s Wednesday’s clash with London rival Spurs. After that, who knows?

Even the fans are revolting against so-called Sarri-ball. Sunday’s opposing manager, Pep Guardiola, said he felt bad for the Italian and that his side’s 6-0 win for causing is actually regrettable for accelerating this mess.

The smart money is that, sooner rather than later, we’re going to see yet another new manager patrolling Chelsea’s sidelines, trying to get this entitled, unruly group of players to function and play like the unit they are capable of being.

Who that poor soul will be is the big question now.

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The first big performance of last week turned out to be the best.

Gerard Deulofeu started the weekend’s games off with a bang, netting a hat trick against Cardiff City on Friday. The Hornets completely destroyed the hosts, scoring five goals before allowing a consolation marker to Sol Bamba.

The hat trick was the Spaniard’s first, finally showing some of the promise and potential he was thought to have while coming through the Barcelona system. While we’re pretty certain that he’s not going to be the next Lionel Messi – who also scored three this weekend – if the man called ‘Gerry D’ can play with consistency and score a bit more, he could quickly make people forget that he has played for five clubs over the past six years.


VAR couldn’t come fast enough for Fulham. After watching Javier Hernandez score with his hand, the Cottagers had to be furious. West Ham would pot two more to get the win, but this most feel like a screw job to the visitors … Chicarito became the first Mexican to score 50 Premier League goals in his career and all 50 came from inside the box. The man’s a true poacher … Harry Kane is back, but it didn’t matter much. The English captain scored in his return, but Spurs couldn’t hold off red-hot Burnley – which hasn’t lost since Boxing Day … There’s so much American interest in Newcastle these days that NBC flexed in the Magpies game against Huddersfield Town over the much more interesting Bournemouth-Wolves tilt. With U.S. fullback DeAndre Yedlin and MLS import Miguel Almiron both starting, we could see Newcastle on North American TV more often going forward … Those tuning in for the Newcastle game got a rare sight: The Magpies went up a man! With Tommy Smith being sent off for a studs-up lunge, a Newcastle opponent was down to 10 men for the first time in five years … Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken 26 points from his first 10 games as Manchester United manager. That’s more than any other manager in Premier League history … Claude Puel has been relieved of his duties at Leicester City but the most intriguing news is his replacement: Brendan Rodgers. The former Liverpool and Swansea manager had been leading Celtic for nearly three years before getting the call back to the Premier League.


So, just who exactly does a Manchester United fan root for in this title race?

On one side, you have Liverpool, United’s biggest rival which has yet to win a title in the Premier League era.

On the other, you have so-called noisy neighbours, Manchester City – the defending champs who like to rub it in the noses of their cross-town rivals.

This was a question brought up during Sunday’s lackluster United-Liverpool tilt which ended 0-0 to the excitement of nobody.

The answer is actually surprisingly simple: Despite City’s dominance of Manchester over the past five years, the hatred for the Sky Blues doesn’t come close to comparing to that for the Reds.

Hating Liverpool is ingrained in the souls of United fans. Being able to gloat about having the most top-flight championships in history and that Liverpool always slips up when it matters most is what drives United fans. They see City as a recent fad, only spurred to greatness thanks to the petro dollars its Sheikh owner has splashed on the club.

If you think that City-United is the fiercer rivalry than Liverpool-United, that’s like saying that the Leafs and Sens hatred goes deeper than Leafs-Habs. And that’s just wrong.

February 13, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Stamford Bridge is falling down

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We thought things were getting better, but it’s the blues for the Blues.

After a week of feeling good about itself, coming off a big 5-0 win over Huddersfield and seeing Eden Hazard and new arrival Gonzalo Higuain thrive, Chelsea was quickly brought down to earth with a confidence-shattering 6-0 defeat at Manchester City. It was the biggest Premier League loss in the club’s history.

This wasn’t the first time that City has scored six in a game this season, but the previous two occasions came against relegation battlers Huddersfield and Southampton.

This was Chelsea, a team that’s sixth in the league and had nearly gone into December unbeaten.

Now, it has lost three out of its past four, with the aggregate score of the losses 12-0.

Manager Maurizio Sarri was understandably upset after the game, refusing to shake hands with City counterpart Pep Guardiola. Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger stayed on the field after the game to apologize to travelling fans.

After a display like this, it’s no wonder that Eden Hazard has reportedly made his decision to leave the club in the summer, eying  a big-money transfer to Real Madrid. Who exactly Chelsea would replace him with is a tough question, considering the Belgian’s immense talent.

There should be plenty of questions about whether Sarri is the right man for this club. After that long unbeaten run, the team seems disinterested at times.

Jorginho seemingly gets Sarri’s system, but he’s playing in N’Golo Kante’s natural position and the Frenchman is only one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. And there was at least one instance in which the Brazilian wasn’t putting in much effort to track back on Sunday.

David Luiz is capable of making the passes to be a good player in Sarri’s system, but he has been a liability on the back line this season, often being beaten and outworked by opposing attackers.

Speaking of defenders who don’t actually do much defending, Marcos Alonso hasn’t brought in any attacking returns since Gameweek 11 against Crystal Palace. If a defender is going to get forward as often as the Spaniard does, he better be producing on the scoreboard.

Chelsea has a lot of questions that need to be answered. Perhaps the biggest is  whether or not Roman Abramovich will show patience with Sarri – something that the owner has famously eschewed with past managers. And, if Sarri is cut loose after this season gone wrong (or during it), who is next to take the helm?

We hear that Jose Mourinho is available…


For the second time in two weeks, Sergio Aguero scored a hat trick.

More impressive: He did it against a top-six club for the second week in a row. In fact, Aguero has 43 goals against the ‘Big Six’ clubs since 2011-12, which is 14 more than the next highest scorer, Jamie Vardy.

Even more impressive: He did it in just 64 minutes before being subbed off in preparation for a mid-week Champions League tilt.

After scoring three against Arsenal last week, Aguero repeated the feat against visiting Chelsea as part of City’s 6-0 demolition of the Blues.

It was his 11th career hat trick, equaling the record set by Alan Shearer, who did it with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle.

Kun is now tied with Mohamed Salah atop the scoring charts with 17 goals this season, meaning that’s just one more race between City and Liverpool that should be heated down the home stretch.

It also raises a bigger question for another day: Is Aguero the best striker in Premier League history? His 160 goals in eight seasons (including the current campaign) have him ranked eighth overall. That’s 100 behind Shearer, who accomplished that total over 14 seasons. At Kun’s current pace of 20 goals per season, he’ll pass Shearer if he plays five more years in the Prem.


Quite the fantasy turnaround for Saed Kolasinac owners on Saturday. He went from nabbing 13 points with 90 minutes played, an assist and a clean sheet to just two points after scoring an own goal in the third minute of injury time … This might shock you, but Burnley hasn’t lost a Premier League match in 2019. Including a draw against West Ham on Dec. 30, 2018, the Clarets are on a seven-game unbeaten run in league play … After winning the EPL player of the month award for January, Marcus Rashford was given the weekend off by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – himself the winner of manager of the month … Under Solskjaer, Paul Pogba has looked like the player everybody thought he could be. He has racked up eight goals and five assists in 11 games under the new manager, proving to be worth every cent of his record transfer fee and further demonstrating how Jose Mourinho was wasting him in a more defensive role … Ryan Babel, who has looked fairly good since coming back to the Prem with Fulham after some seasons abroad, managed to hit the post from about a yard out. Unsurprisingly, he was subbed off almost immediately after … It has been five years, or 154 matches, since Newcastle have had an opponent get a man sent off in the Premier League.


Perhaps the biggest streak that isn’t garnering much attention right now is what Tottenham has accomplished dating back to last season.

Spurs hasn’t had a draw in Premier League play in 30 games. This season, they have 20 wins, six losses and no draws after finishing the final four games of the 2017-18 season with three wins and loss.

This season alone, Southampton has nine draws while the team with the second fewest, Man City, has two.

The funniest thing about draws is that you never know when they’re going to come. It’s always easier to predict wins and losses, but you’ll rarely see someone call for a draw.

Looking ahead in the league, Burnley is next but then come two big matchups at Chelsea and then home to Arsenal. While any of those three fixtures could end knotted up, all we’re rooting for now is that Tottenham somehow goes an entire season without a draw. That would put some critics in their place.

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