Tuesday Morning Tea Week 14: Part 2, Weekend Edition

My goodness, what a week.

I proclaimed the midweek slate of games to be the best in the season and, while I still believe that, this weekend sure gave it a run for all of its marbles.

Manchester United and Arsenal played in possibly the most eventful match of the season, seeing 4 goals, 14 David De Gea saves and a Paul Pogba red card – among other things. Manchester City held yet another late show, trailing at halftime before scoring twice in the 2nd half – capped by a David Silva goal in the 83rd minute to snatch their 13th straight win.

Elsewhere, Tottenham lost Davinson Sanchez to a red card and surrendered yet another draw, this time to Watford. Liverpool kept rolling with a 5-1 win over Brighton, while Everton have now won 2 straight in preparation for next weekend’s Merseyside Derby.

At times, this Premier League season has been a bit anticlimactic. Big matches have disappointed in terms of excitement and Manchester City have taken complete control of the title race thus far. This week reminded me, and hopefully everyone else, why we love this league.

Without further adieu, here are your headlines from the weekend that was:

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David De Gea is Superman

So, the Emirates got set on fire last Saturday.

In a barn-burningly wild game that saw 20 total shots on goal, a Paul Pogba red card and Jesse Lingard absolutely body the ‘Milly Rock’ after scoring his first of two goals on the evening, David De Gea comes away as Manchester United’s hero in a crucial 3-1 victory.

By making 14 saves, including an absolutely stunning double on Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez, United’s Spanish starlet put himself in the history books, equalling the Premier League record for most saves in a single game. His being awarded man of the match on Saturday evening is possibly the easiest man of the match award in any game all season long.

De Gea
Photo Courtesy of Premier League Official Photographers

I remember when Tim Howard saved 14 of 16 shots against Belgium in the World Cup and instantly became America’s new ‘Secretary of Defense’ and a national hero in a sport that we didn’t particularly care about at that point in time (things have certainly changed…..). However, just about all of Howard’s 14 saves were routine to the point where he would’ve been ashamed to not have made all 14 stops.

The majority of De Gea’s 14 saves on Saturday were absolutely mental, some defying logic and sense. There was the double against Lacazette and Sanchez, several more robs of Arsenal’s #9, a wonderful diving stop on Hector Bellerin, a phenomenal reaction save off of an inadvertent Romelu Lukaku deflection and I haven’t even gotten halfway into De Gea’s save total from Saturday.

All told, it was an absolutely superb afternoon from the world’s best goalkeeper (yup, I said it….fight me, Manuel Neuer) and he stole a victory for Manchester United in a game they likely shouldn’t have won as handily as they did.

Arsenal out-did the Red Devils in every possible facet on Saturday. The possession numbers ran 76%-24% in favor of the Gunners, Arsenal put up 33(!) total shots to only 8 total Man U shots, while Arsenal also put 16 shots on goal vs only 4 from United. The only difference was the finishing quality, and Manchester United made no mistake in front of goal, converting 3 out of those 4 shots into goals.

Lingard
I detest Manchester United normally, but I can’t deny that this may be the most hype picture I’ve seen all season long (photo courtesy of Getty Images)

While De Gea was possibly the sole reason that the scoreline didn’t finish 7-3 in favor of Arsenal, the rest of the Red Devils deserve a lot of credit for the game they played. Although they only had 25% of the ball, United were constantly moving forward when the chances arose and had a high shot frequency relative to their possession numbers. They finished strongly and did well to exploit the Gunners’ weakness on the right side of defense.

Arsenal fought like hell, but David De Gea gave everyone a reminder of his quality this weekend and Manchester United now roll into a massive weekend derby against Manchester City with momentum and confidence.

Performance of the season.

 

Claude Puel Leads the Midseason Manager Pack

You would have to imagine that being thrust into the managerial job of a professional football team midway through a campaign is possibly the most difficult thing in all of football.

The Premier League is no stranger to the manager merry-go-round, and this season has already seen Slaven Bilic, Frank De Boer, Tony Pulis, Craig Shakespeare and Ronald Koeman sacked from their respective clubs.

For West Ham, Crystal Palace, West Brom, and Everton, there have been varying degrees of success in their post-(insert previous manager) eras. But, for Leicester City, it cannot be denied that new coach Claude Puel has already had an incredibly positive influence.

Puel
Photo Courtesy of Premier League Official Photographers

The Frenchman has only tasted defeat once in his 6 games in charge of the Foxes and now has the team playing at a level we haven’t seen since the title run in 2015-16. This weekend was just another brilliant Leicester performance with Puel’s influence written all over it.

One of the most significant changes that Puel has made with Leicester is that he’s been much more adaptable in his game-planning for specific teams.

For example, in the midweek against Tottenham, the Foxes sat back and let Spurs control 70% of possession before using the pace and creativity of Riyad Mahrez and Demarai Gray to launch lethal counter attacks. Using Tottenham’s penchant for occasionally lazy passing in the midfield against them, Leicester pulled out a 2-1 win.

This weekend, against Burnley, Leicester knew that they could hold more possession and control the attack a little bit more. So the Foxes maintained 53% possession and attacked down the flanks, avoiding Burnley’s exceptional centre back pairing of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski by attacking the much weaker fullbacks. The approach worked well enough and Leicester pulled out yet another victory.

Leicester
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

It seems so simple that the solution for Puel to solve all of Leicester’s woes was just to be more malleable in his game plans, but that’s how it is at the King Power right now, I guess. Riyad Mahrez is back at his world-class best, Demarai Gray is an emerging superstar, the defense is back to its organized and disciplined best and Harry Maguire has been a godsend since coming over from Hull City, scoring once and assisting 3 times this season.

Another complete team effort pushed Leicester into the top 10 for the first time this season and with 3 straight games coming up against Newcastle, Southampton and Crystal Palace on the horizon, the Foxes’ recent run of form certainly appears sustainable.

This is a dangerous team right now and Claude Puel deserves a ton of credit for the job he’s done to get them back on track.

 

Liverpool Are Rolling

With their 13th straight win this weekend, Manchester City have equalled the Premier League record in terms of consecutive victories in a single season. With their exceptional run of form so far this season, it could be easily forgiven if you assumed that the Sky Blues were playing the best football of any English side right now.

But, you’d be wrong.

Liverpool, since losing 4-1 on October 22nd to Tottenham, have yet to taste defeat and their only non-win was a 1-1 draw with Chelsea during match week 13. During that time, the Reds have won every single match by at least 3 goals, including this weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of Brighton. 

Liverpool
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

So, yeah, Liverpool are the best English side going right now. And, with a 7-0 Champions League dispatching of Spartak Moscow today, there don’t appear to be any signs of slowing down.

The biggest change for Liverpool since losing to Tottenham back in October has been a locational alteration in attack. Against Spurs, Liverpool favored the right flank when going forward, attacking from there 51% of the time according to WhoScored.com. This allowed Tottenham to pretty easily funnel the Reds into a corner, taking away the pace and creativity of their wingers and forcing them to try and out-physical the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez and Serge Aurier.

As you can probably guess, this didn’t go well for Jurgen Klopp’s men, so they made a change. In every game since the Wembley loss, Liverpool have attacked through the middle more than 35% of the time, making it their primary focus when going forward.

This change has allowed the Reds to maximize Philippe Coutinho’s creativity while giving him two blazing fast wingers on either side and Roberto Firmino in front. The front 4 of Liverpool has truly turned into a dynamic and interconnected front 4 instead of just 4 wonderfully skilled attacking players that didn’t know how to play together.

The goals are now flowing for Liverpool and they have looked unstoppable at times going forward. Leading the way, Mohamed Salah is as close to unstoppable right now as any player in England and leads the league in goals with 12 and Coutinho is back into his blistering form and earned a perfect 10/10 rating from WhoScored.com against Brighton this weekend.

Liverpool 2
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

With the Merseyside Derby and a visit to the Emirates on the near horizon, Liverpool are raging their way through all comers at the moment and have the look of the most dangerous English team going. The Reds have had their struggles this season but they appear to have sorted them out and are now in peak form.

Look out, everyone else.

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Team of the Week (Part 2): Liverpool

5 goals past Brighton, 7 goals past Spartak in the midweek Champions League, 3 past Stoke in the midweek Prem. Nobody playing better than the Reds right now, fascinating matchup coming up this weekend against a suddenly revived Everton squad. But, for now, Liverpool rule the roost.

Runners Up: Everton, Leicester City

 

Player of the Week (Part 2): David De Gea

When I tell you that I thought nobody would be able to touch Wayne Rooney’s midweek performance, I sure as hell believed that. David De Gea turned in the performance of the season on Saturday evening against Arsenal and has easily bested Rooney’s sublime hat trick. For a goalkeeping display, it doesn’t get any better than what Manchester United’s #1 did.

De Gea Double
Photo Courtesy of Reuters

Runners Up: Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho

 

Moment of the Week (Part 2): De Gea’s Stunning Double Save

Just in case you haven’t gone and checked out what David De Gea did on Saturday, here’s the highlight of his evening. Everything about this sequence is absolutely mental and it doesn’t get any better from a goalkeeper. Arsenal pelted the Man U net with 16 shots and, if either one of these shots had gone in, the game would have been 2-2 and had a completely different feel to it. Instead, De Gea pulled a rabbit out of a hat – twice – and kept United in front. My word, what a player.

Runner Up: David Silva completes another Man City late show

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10 Things I Think

  1. I think I was spot on with my Everton prediction after their midweek victory over West Ham. I said that the good feelings at Goodison would roll through the weekend after a 2 goal victory over Huddersfield and, what do you know. the Toffees won 2-0. Somehow, Everton have dragged themselves up to 10th in the table with these two straight wins. Remarkable turnaround. 

    Everton
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  2. I’ve neglected them recently, but no more. Swansea are the worst team going right now and absolutely deserve to be at the bottom of the table. 8 goals scored all season leaves them at the bottom of the scoring charts with Crystal Palace and there just isn’t any fight in the Swans right now. A 3rd minute Wilfried Bony goal should have been the catalyst for a spirited performance against Stoke. Instead, it caused the team to sit back even more than usual and they had lost that lead by halftime. I don’t know how they turn this around, but they’ve got to find a way. 

    Swansea
    Photo Courtesy of Reuters
  3. Manchester City have powered through several key injuries so far this season to Benjamin Mendy, Sergio Aguero, Ilkay Gundogan and Vincent Kompany. However, the loss of John Stones may finally be the straw that collapses the camel’s back. Ever since Stones went out against Leicester, not only have City not kept a clean sheet but they have looked like a shell of the former defensive monster that was rolling over teams by 5-0 and 6-0 margins. City are struggling on set pieces without their big centre back and his passing influence out of the back is also badly missed. December 30th, Stones’ targeted return date, can’t get here soon enough for Pep Guardiola.
  4. I think Wilfried Bony scored the goal of the weekend with this wonderfully composed and powerful volley. Exceptional control and pace on this ball for the Ivorian to open his 2017-18 goal account. Brilliant
  5. Other notable goals include David Silva’s terrific volleyed finish and an electric Liverpool counter attack finished off by Roberto Firmino.
  6. In a game that finished 1-1, you would have assumed that Watford had hung on over Spurs to salvage a home point while the visitors pushed for a winner. Instead, it was the home side at Vicarage Road that were playing the contest on the front foot. After a 52nd minute Davinson Sanchez red card, the Hornets sensed blood in the water of a recently dismal Tottenham team and pressured hard. Abdoulaye Doucoure hit the post with an exceptional drive, Richarlison very nearly drew a penalty, and 45% of the 2nd half play occurred in Spurs’ defensive half. Strange times right now when you see Watford being the clear aggressor against Tottenham, but such is life. 

    Spurs
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  7. Speaking of Watford, Abdoulaye Doucoure is very quietly blossoming into one of the Premier League’s finest centre midfielders. His performance against Tottenham this weekend included 52 of 56 successful passes, 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, a game high 13 time winning the ball back and his 2nd half shot that rang off the post. The 24 year old Frenchman’s relentless work ethic reminds me of a taller N’Golo Kante, but Doucoure’s thunderous finishing ability can set him apart from the snack sized French midfielder. Between him and Richarlison, Watford have some young superstars in their squad right now. 

    Doucoure
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  8. If West Brom want to survive relegation this season, they have to embrace ugly results and ugly football. Tony Pulis’ biggest mistake this season before being fired was that he tried to appease his fans instead of sticking with his stubborn and frustrating defensive style. West Brom attempted to go forward more and were subsequently opened up on the counter attack, which led to the run of poor form that got Pulis sacked. Interim manager Alan Pardew would be smart to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor and stay true to that defensive style. Yes, it will include some maddening and ugly 0-0 games (like the one this weekend against Crystal Palace) but it will also include the Baggies’ best chance at surviving relegation. 

    West Brom
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  9. I don’t know who came knocking for him this summer, but Chelsea are reaping the benefits of not selling Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan or whoever else wanted the star Belgian. Hazard is back in top form right now, evidenced by the 2 goals he scored against Newcastle this weekend and his perfect 10/10 rating from WhoScored.com. Chelsea have a busy month and a half ahead – between the Prem, Champions League and FA Cup – and keeping Hazard in peak condition will be extremely conducive to the Blues’ success during that period. 

    Hazard
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  10. Folks, we may be witness to the biggest Manchester Derby in history this upcoming weekend. Manchester City have a date with destiny, as a victory over their crosstown rivals would give them 14 consecutive this season and break the Premier League all-time record for consecutive wins. Manchester United have a chance to finally get themselves back in the title race by handing City their first loss of the season. Mourinho vs Pep is a rivalry that dates back to their days at Real Madrid and Barcelona and it always promises fireworks. Paul Pogba, before his red card suspension, had a controversial quote in which he wished injury on sever City players. Vincent Kompany has gone on record saying he “hates” United “with all my blood and guts” and always wants to win the Derby just a little more than any other game. What a game we could be in store for.
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Tuesday Morning Tea Week 14: Part 2, Weekend Edition

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

It’s been a while since I ventured into ‘Ryan Riffs’ territory, but I’m back, and we’re venturing into even more new territory with this venture. This, I’m hoping, will be the first of many articles diving into British Premier League soccer, among other soccer. So, let’s do it.

Traditionally, the Premier League has been a hierarchy, with a certain few teams running a monopoly at the top of the table with only a brief interruption from a random club here and there. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have been the traditional big boys in the British schoolyard. Usually, you would pick one of those teams, and 100% of the time you would be right.

Then, along came Manchester City.

Man City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

In 2011-12, the Citizens became the first club outside the ‘Big Four’ listed above to win the Premier League title since 1994. The very same season, Tottenham broke into the top 4, and a chain of chaos was set in motion capped off by Leicester City winning the Prem this past season.

The Foxes were listed at 5000-1 in the oddsmakers book before the season, but they took those odds rode them all the way to the most improbable title run in the history of sports. Leicester City confirmed, last season, what everyone now knows; the Premier League will be absolute chaos.

Leicester City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

Seriously, any number of 6 teams have a legitimate shot to win the title, with clubs like West Ham and Everton having an outside shot. Never before have traditionally bottom feeding clubs been able to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, we actually have a shot.” It’s beautifully hectic and impossible to predict.

So, now that we’re on the same page – ha ha ha, writing puns….please love me – let’s get into my Premier League thoughts, just two weeks into the season.

……….

Manchester United are back. Following their 2012-13 title win, United have fallen down the table, eventually finishing outside of Champions League contention for the first time since 1995 – along with Chelsea, coincidentally. But, unfortunately, the empire of Old Trafford is back, and in a big way.

Last season, United were a mess of a team. Full of underachieving attackers, old, slow midfielders, a shoddy defense, and a whack-job of a manager, it’s pretty amazing that they even were able to end the season in 5th.

United has addressed all of those concerns during this offseason in astounding ways, and they are as dangerous as ever. Beginning with the signing of manager Jose Mourinho to helm the team, you could make the argument that Man U replaced the incompetent Louis Van Gall with the most brilliant manager in the world – I prefer Pep Guardiola, but that’s a different argument for a different time. And Mourinho immediately went to work hauling in droves of talent.

Mourinho’s first signing was designed to address the Red Devils’ poor 2015-16 defense, and what a signing it was. Eric Bailly has come in and immediately impressed, with some calling him “the perfect Mourinho defender.” Needless to say, Jose really likes him, and he has certainly contributed during the early part of the season.

Next up was the casual entrance of one, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And when I say casual, I mean not at all. In typical Zlatan fashion, he made a grand entrance to Old Trafford and brought all of his traditional style and flair. So far, Ibra has scored 3 Premier League goals in his first two games, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield final. Not too shabby.

Mourinho’s cap to the summer was literally the biggest transfer of all time; Paul Pogba. The former United academy star turned Juventus star returned home to the tune of just over $118 million, breaking the world record transfer fee held by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. Pogba returned to the club that brought him up and, in the eyes of many, catapulted Manchester United to the assumed top of the Premier League’s predicted final standings.

So, in short, United needed better defense, a creative midfielder, a proven scorer, and a capable manager. What they got was Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba – only the most creative midfielder I’ve ever seen – Zlatan freaking Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho. Yeah, I’d say the Red Devils are back to being the football powerhouse we all know them as.

Zlatan and Pogba
Photo courtesy of Zlatan’s Instagram, God bless that man.

So far, United has beaten Bournemouth and Southampton by a combined tally of 5-1, with their next fixture being another away game against upstarts Hull City – we’ll get into them soon.

They will presumably squash Hull and now have 3 dominant Premier League wins to open the Mourinho era. But don’t get too excited, the first major test – and boy, what a test it is – for the new look Red Devils comes in the Manchester Darby at Old Trafford on September 10th. What a clash that should be.

……….

And speaking of the early season Manchester Darby, that game is between the two clear Premier League title favorites. As wide open as I made things sound in my opening riff, the signing of Pogba to United and the impending signing of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City – combined with the new arrival of John Stones – have separated these two from the rest of the pack.

Chelsea have looked good so far, with Antonio Conte’s defensive structure making them look very hard to crack combined with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s early season brilliance. But Chelsea just don’t seem to have the extra gear of talent that United and City can press out onto the field on a consistent basis.

The same goes for Liverpool, who’s opening fixture with Arsenal was a brilliant offensive display that coincided with Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane announcing their arrival with authority, but their offensive arsenal – we’ll get to them in just a second – is limited, and they can’t defend for their lives. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch will be fun to watch, but don’t count on them finishing atop the table.

And Arsenal, what do we even say about them. Another silent summer of Arsene Wenger apparently forgetting that his defense is absolute trash and not making any transfers. That has resulted in a confusing 0-1-1 start, including a thrilling 4-3 loss to Liverpool that exposed every defensive fault you could ever think of, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham that showed every offensive flaw you could ever think of.

Arsenal, as much as their seemingly star studded roster would have you believe, is not a serious title threat. In fact, they are legitimately in danger of finishing outside of a Europa League spot.

Yeah, this is a strange time in football.

Because I feel inclined to touch on the reigning runner ups, Tottenham aren’t title contenders either. As exciting as their offensive talent seemed last season – with Harry Kane’s 25 goal season and Dele Alli’s breakout – Tottenham’s lack of consistency and inexperience will doom them. The top 4 is not in their future, but they should still be a fun offensive club. When Spurs and Liverpool face off? Tune in.

All of that was basically a really long way of me undermining my entire first riff on how unpredictable the Premier League is. Manchester City and Manchester United have separated themselves as legitimate title favorites.

I talked about United at length, and City’s depth and offensive firepower are incredible. Between Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, David Silva and a suddenly remarkable Raheem Sterling, City can and will put up lots of scoring this season.

Man City Squad
Photo courtesy of BBC

The question has always been defense.

New manager Pep Guardiola’s late pre-season addition of John Stones has seemed to fix some of those questions, with Stones playing a very sturdy fullback position. And, to boot, it is expected that former Barcelona #1 Claudio Bravo will join the team on a transfer tomorrow.

If that happens, it would be a huge boost as one could argue that Bravo is the ‘sweeper keeper’ in Europe – an aspect that Guardiola relies on, and is the thing that is resulting in Joe Hart’s saddening and impending exit.

September 10th will be the first day that really gives us an idea of what the Premier League landscape will look like, with the top two title contenders facing off at Old Trafford in a power shifting matchup that will have a lot of eyes on it.

Regardless of the result of that one match, it should be a wild Prem season. Buckle up.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League