March 8, 2018

FREE KICKS: Which EPL contender is actually doing the best?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

We can examine the table all we want, but that’s not a fun exercise week in, week out.

Instead, let’s look at where the teams in the top six should be, relative to the strength of their squad.

First, let’s just get Manchester City out of the way and say that its huge lead in the league is well-deserved. City has a world-class manager guiding a group stocked with world-class players. Anything less than a Premier League title would surely be a disappointment for this side and now Pep Guardiola’s big challenge is in Champions League.

City’s neighbours, Manchester United, have a class manager and a big, deep squad with a ton of talent in it, but should probably be a bit better off. The addition of Alexis Sanchez hasn’t done much and we’ve seen just how bad Paul Pogba can be at times. If this team was humming and had some consistency at CB, it would likely be a bit closer than 16 points off the lead.

Liverpool sits third and you could argue that it has the fewest world-class players of any team in the top six. When you get past the strike force of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, there aren’t a lot of players that are likely to be lighting it up at the World Cup this summer. Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil Van Dijk are all good players, but will likely never be including in any season-ending best XI lists. It really shows you how that amazing attack is keeping the Reds near the top of the league.

A big question I’ve been wondering lately is if Tottenham is overrated or underrated?

This is a side with world-class talent all over the pitch from the attacking trio Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to the centreback duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, to Hugo Lloris between the sticks, Spurs can put out a starting XI to compete with anyone in the Premier League. So shouldn’t it be higher than fourth place? It’s something to think about.

Then there’s the defending champs, Chelsea. With basically the same side as last season, more was expected of the Blues. Eden Hazard has been good, but not transcendent, and the defence has taken a step back. This is a squad that clearly couldn’t deal with the championship hangover

As for Arsenal, well, we have another category for the Gunners lower down.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

It’s kind of odd that a man that was player of the month twice last season is only the fourth player you think of when talking about Tottenham’s attack.

But behind the likes of Kane, Alli and Eriksen, Son Heung-min is capable of putting on a great show.

The South Korean bagged a brace this weekend to bring his total for the season to double digits with 10. That’s actually better than Alli and Eriksen and fourth among all midfielders.

Never count out Son because you never know when he’s going to crop up and bag a goal or two.

ARSENE’S CORNER OF SHAME

How low can Arsenal go?

This week, it was another pathetic effort in a loss to Brighton & Hove Albion. The Seagulls potted two goals in 26 minutes and Arsene Wenger’s boys looked more like the squad in the bottom half of the table.

The calls of “Wenger out” are getting louder once again, though who knows if the board at the Emirates will actually heed it.

Rio Ferdinand, an English footballing legend who is now a pundit, says this is the worst Gunners team he has ever seen. I’m sure there’s a little bit of hyperbole in that statement, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove him wrong.

Arsenal is now closer to seventh place (five points) than fifth (eight). It’s looking more and more likely that the Gunners will need to win Europa League to get back into Champions League next season. But even that will be tough with a set against AC Milan looming.

So will this be the end of Wenger? Will the fans finally get their wish? Stay tuned.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

How insane is it that only six of 20 teams have a positive goal differential? The only other of the top five leagues in Europe to have that few teams is France. Spain and Italy both have 10 teams in the positive and Germany has eight … Good catch by the ref on Ashley Williams’ red card. It would’ve been very easy for the ref to miss that high elbow in the box on a free kick … Manchester City set a record with 902 successful passes against Chelsea. That’s the most ever in a Premier League match and more than 10 per minute. City had 10 more shots than Chelsea and 71% possession. It also completed the sweep of the defending champs for the season … Ilkay Gundogan also set a passing record, completing 174 in the game. He’s just another piece of Pep’s outstanding squad that could easily start anywhere else in the league … Saed Kolasinac should see a retroactive suspension for his shoulder to the head of a Brighton player that didn’t even get a whistle. What’s the point of looking at games again if we don’t call out dangerous play? … Riyad Mahrez played the hero for Leicester after being the villain during the transfer window. They don’t come much later than the 97th-minute game-tying goal he scored … The Swans got back to their winning ways with a demolition of Irons … In our weekly update on West Bromwich Albion’s hopes for survival, it’s still looking doomed. Another week, another loss … The Saints and Potters got a point each in their 0-0 draw, so neither get help in relegation battle … It wasn’t such a nice return to Anfield for Rafa Benitez. There are still some fond memories for the ex-Liverpool manager, but the Reds didn’t take it easy on him … Minutes after texting a United fan “Mourinho out,” United began its thrilling comeback. Of course, this is a team that shouldn’t need to come back from two goals down against lowly Crystal Palace, but at least we got to see one of the few times that Mourinho’s United side was actually exciting to watch.

THE LAST WORD

Antonio Conte fired back at pundits for criticizing his 1-0 loss to City, and he’s totally right to do so.

While you can criticize his players for their lackadaisical “pressing” of City, Conte’s side played to defend and only lost 1-0. Compare that to Arsenal playing more open an loose – and losing two 3-0 games in a few days – and it’s a better result for the Chelsea.

Conte knew that his side isn’t made to play that type of wide-open football so he parked the bus. It didn’t work, but it was a sound strategy.

He gave his side its best chance to win and that’s what matters. Nowhere in the rulebook does it say you have to play attractive football. If Conte had stolen a point, the praise would be pouring in. Instead, he’s heckled and without good reason.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 27, 2018

FREE KICKS: Guardiola’s first of many pieces of silverware?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Manchester City didn’t have too hard of a time dealing with Arsenal to win the Carabao League Cup on Sunday. The Gunners looked like amateurs against a truly great side.

This marks the first silverware for Pep Guardiola at City after failing to capture any titles last season – a rare shutout for one of the world’s best managers.

Now the questions will begin in earnest: Can this City side capture a treble?

With such a big lead in the Premier League table, sitting on a 13-point with a game in hand on Manchester United. Oh, and that game in hand is on Thursday against the same Arsenal side that City just destroyed.

We’d be remiss to point out that the Sky Blues just suffered a huge upset last weekend, losing their bid for a quadruple by falling to League One side Wigan Atheltic. So that means a domestic treble is out of the question and City will now have to focus on winning Champions League to get that prestigious claim to fame.

Of course, the previous time an English side won the tournament was in 2012, when Chelsea bested Bayern Munich on penalties. No EPL side has even made the final since.

So, with the league nearly wrapped up, will Guardiola focus more on Europe? Will his top players get more rest than usual in the run-up to key games? He’d be smart to make sure of it.

It’s one thing to dominate the Premier League or win the League Cup. It’s something else entirely to be the best team in Europe – and we’re sure the Sheikhs in City’s ownership will feel that way as well.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Romelu Lukaku finally did it: He produced against a top four side.

The knock against the Belgian striker for his entire career was that he couldn’t produce against top opponents, that he was racking up his big goal totals against the lesser teams of the Premier League. Well, for one week at least, Lukaku came through.

He first scored the equalizer against Chelsea and later setting up Jesse Lingard’s winner.

While the Red Devils have lowly Crystal Palace next, we’ll see if Lukaku can come through against Liverpool in a massive match with second place likely on the line.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Harry Kane sure left it late to score the winner against Crystal Palace, but credit to the Eagles for holding the fort against their London rival … Palace is now winless in five games and the absence of Wilfried Zaha is hurting more than ever. His injury may have sunk their season … With another goal this weekend, Mohamed Salah has now equalled Luis Suarez’s best season at Liverpool – and it’s still February … Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have also been in fine form since the sale of Philippe Coutinho. Perhaps the wantaway Brazilian wasn’t as influential as we figured he was … The pain continues for West Brom, which looks more relegation-bound by the week. This week it was fellow relegation-battlers Huddersfield that did the honours and, to make matters worse, the Baggies lost at home, too … Swansea’s solid run of form came to an abrupt end. How does a team that has looked so good in recent weeks lose 4-1 in Brighton? And the Swans only goal was an own goal by Lewis Dunk.

THE LAST WORD

Maybe Jose Mourinho should start a feud with every manager in the Premier League.

The Special One once again got the better of a fellow gaffer he has been firing shots at in the media, Antonio Conte.

We’ve seen time and again how Mourinho has put away Arsene Wenger whenever possible and those two have perhaps the frostiest relationship in football.

So, if it has proven to work against his nemeses, why wouldn’t Mourinho crank this racket up against more of his foes?

Could he not attack Jurgen Klopp before the key clash between United and Liverpool in a few weeks? How about criticizing Spurs’ lack of budget to get under Mauricio Pocchetino’s skin?

The only manager who isn’t phased seems to be Guardiola. Perhaps this is just another aspect of Pep’s style that other managers should look to adapt.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

February 13, 2018

FREE KICKS: How to solve a problem like Mahrez

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

It’s an age-old problem in European football: What do you do with wantaway stars?

They’re capable of derailing a team and can hold their club hostage. It’s something that we rarely see in North American sports because of the way that transfers and player power works in Europe.

There’s much more power on the players’ sides during negotiations with the club and long-term contracts aren’t always played out. In fact, unlike when a player is traded in North American leagues, the contract is renegotiated with the new club.

Just look at the current case of Riyad Mahrez and Leicester City. Mahrez, if you may remember, was one of the key players that helped the extraordinary happen when the Foxes won the Premier League title two years ago. He remains one of the team’s best players and is among the best in the league as well. His team, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to replicate the glory it achieved two seasons ago and now the Algerian international wants out.

If you follow soccer, this is nothing that hasn’t happened before.

With some interest piquing in the winter transfer window, Mahrez put in a transfer request and sat out in hope of a move, with Manchester City being his rumoured top destination.

But with a 50-million pound bid coming in very late – not giving the Foxes enough time to find a suitable replacement – it was rejected and Mahrez remains with the team.

He isn’t happy about this.

So now there’s this limbo the club and player sit in for the rest of the season until the window opens for business in the summer. So, what’s to be done?

There are several options, but most end up being losing scenarios.

You can sit the player, but this might actually be the worst idea, a lose-lose-lose, if you will. The club loses money having to pay a top player to sit at home, the player loses out on valuable playing time to keep sharp, and the club (again) loses because the player’s value drops with each week he sits.

A could transfer him immediately after the player turns in his request, but with potential buyers knowing that he wants out, his value dips and the club loses out on the fee.

Perhaps the most logical path – and the one that Leicester seems to be taking – is bring the player back into the side and then promise to sell him in the next window. Of course, there is some awkwardness between the player and his teammates, as well as the fans, but it might be the closest thing to a win for either side.

Of course, the club could always sweeten the pot by offering a new, bigger contract, but we’re not sure if this all that Mahrez is after, in this case.

So, how do you solve a problem like Mahrez? Apparently it is just by forgetting about what happened, for now.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

We were set to split this award for the first time ever, but Sergio Aguero had to go and score his fourth goal of the game in 90th minute. Otherwise, Kun and Kevin De Bruyne, who had three assists against Leicester City on Saturday, would’ve been co-winners.

Instead, it’s Man City’s top scorer, who now has 21 goals this season – five short of his career high and we’re not even halfway through February. He’s also two goals back of Harry Kane for the league lead, making this year’s scoring race a pretty thrilling one, considering the Spurs striker won the Golden Boot with 29 last year, a mark that should be easily topped this campaign.

And, in case you were wondering, Aguero’s 13 goals in 2018 so far are more than Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford combined (12).

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Pretty funny moment when De Bruyne stole Aguero’s game ball after the match. It’s nice to see guys have a laugh … Jamie Vardy became the first player ever to score against each of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Spurs in the same season … In case you were wondering, City can win the league by beating United on April 7. Could you imagine the scenes if the Citizens clinch against their biggest rival? … Liverpool beats its farm team, Southampton, but the Reds didn’t really need any of its former Saints to do so. After Mohamed Salah set up Roberto Firmino for an early goal, the Brazilian returned the favour later on. That’s 22 goals for Salah this season, on track for one of the best seasons ever by a Liverpool player … Swansea’s amazing run under new manager Carlos Carvalhal continued with another win against a team well ahead of it in the table. The Swans haven’t lost a game since a 2-0 defeat against Spurs on Jan. 2. And that includes matchups with Liverpool, Arsenal and Leicester City … Swansea’s amazing form since Carlos Carvalhal took over: WLDDWWDWDW. That’s one loss since late December … Chris Smalling’s dive was the third time this season that a United player has been booked for simulation, tied for the league lead … How in the world was Antonio Valencia’s boot to the face of Newcastle’s Christian Atsu not a red card? There was no need to go in that high and it was incredibly dangerous … Jose Mourinho has never won at St. James Park. After the 1-0 loss, the Special One is 0-4-3 there … Rafa Benitez has his number, too. The win was Benitez’s sixth against Mourinho and only Pep Guardiola has more (nine) … Antonio Conte was spared the same fate as Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo before him. The previous Chelsea managers were both sacked after losses to West Brom, but the Italian avoided that with a 3-0 win over the Baggies … If Chelsea does want to sack Conte, it will be pricey. The reported cost to buy out the manager is a massive 26.7 million pounds. No wonder they’re in no rush to make a move.

THE LAST WORD

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, but Jose Mourinho is creating some drama.

This week, he again hauled off world-class midfielder Paul Pogba after a goal conceded and brought on Michael Carrick because Mourinho wanted someone “to do the simple things.”

Two games ago, Pogba was subbed off after an argument with Mourinho on the sideline and last weekend the Frenchman didn’t get the start, with Scott McTominay getting the nod.

When healthy, Pogba is one of the best all-round midfielders in the world, but Mourinho seems intent on antagonizing both him and the fans. Why in the world would you take off an incredibly gifted player like Pogba when you need a goal to salvage a point away?  And why Carrick, who we honestly thought had retired.

Usually when Mourinho creates controversy, it’s to take attention off his players and put it on himself. Providing a distraction while his charges work things out. This time, he risks alienating one of the best players in the world and could see his team start dropping in the table if he’s not careful.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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