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

Tuesday Morning Tea Week 7: International Exodus Part 2

Usually, Tuesday Morning Tea covers the hot topics from the Premier League weekend that was. However, over this past week in the Prem, the weekend was just a small part of the week that was.

The Premier League had just about as interesting a mid-week as I’ve ever seen.

Of the 5 English teams in the Champions’ League, there is a combined 8-2-0 record and 4 out of the 5 teams are currently leading their groups. On Tuesday, Manchester City and Tottenham both picked up shutout wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and APOEL respectively while Manchester United and Chelsea both picked up wins over CSKA Moscow and Atletico Madrid respectively.

No Premier League team has won the Champions League since Chelsea in 2012 and there’s only even been one semifinalist since that year in Manchester City during the 2015-16 campaign.

A positive start to this year’s Champions League campaign for the 5 Premier League teams is an extremely positive sign for all involved, considering the Prem’s desire to be considered the best and most competitive league in the world.

Also occurring midweek were two significant blows to the title hopes of current table toppers Manchester City.

This past Thursday morning, it was announced that a knee injury previously thought much less serious would now need surgery and end up costing Benjamin Mendy 9 months of the season. Pep Guardiola’s new left back that had already integrated himself beautifully and turned himself into a vital part of the City system would not not be available until April.

In addition to that, City striker Sergio Aguero was involved in a car accident in Amsterdam that broke several of his ribs and will cost him 6 weeks of the season. So in the span of merely a day, Manchester City lost two crucial cogs in their title chasing system and suddenly looked vulnerable entering a critical weekend clash against Chelsea.

That clash, along with Crystal Palace’s continued downfall, a Tottenham domination, another Liverpool frustration and more evidence that Arsenal might not be as dead as we think they are highlighted this weekend action.

Here are the headlines.

City Lose Key Cogs, Still Thrash Chelsea

As mentioned in the open, the losses of Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero were devastating midweek blows to Manchester City’s newly blossoming title hopes. But, based on the way City played Chelsea on Saturday, you would have never known those two were gone.

A 1-0 scoreline is highly flattering for the defending champs and doesn’t nearly tell the story of how thoroughly the Sky Blues dominated Antonio Conte’s side.

Stones:De Bruyne
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

In a game that required a tactical shift from the previous games, Pep Guardiola put on a masterclass in football managing. Having blazed past their past three opponents by scoreline of 5-0, 6-0 and 5-0, City’s attack has been rampant recently. But Chelsea was never going to be overawed or unprepared to handle the Sky Blues’ attack, so Guardiola needed to adjust.

Chelsea were able to beat Manchester City twice last season by sitting deep in a 3-4-3 formation, keeping their shape and simply waiting for City to become impatient and make a mistake in attack. Chelsea’s counterattacks were lethal and sliced City open in 2016/17, leaving the Sky Blues’ dumbfounded and defeated.

This game was completely different and showed the full evolution of Pep’s Manchester City.

Instead of growing impatient after nearly 65’ without a goal, City made several substitutions and kept hammering away at Chelsea’s back 3, forcing that group to break down and make the mistake.

The breakthrough finally came in the 67’ courtesy of a Kevin De Bruyne left footed thunderbolt and everything after the City opener was a mere formality. Chelsea knew they were defeated and simply tried to prevent a second and third goal which, to their credit, they did successfully.

De Bruyne
Photo Courtesy of Rex Features

The biggest difference between City last season and City this season has been the consistent brilliance of John Stones and he was on display again Saturday, comfortably repelling away any and all Chelsea counterattacks. With his renewed confidence and class at the back, City know that teams can’t beat them on the counter now and that just makes the Sky Blues’ gaudy possession numbers that much more devastating to opponents.

On Saturday, City needed to prove their strength and resilience without Aguero and Mendy and they did it in grand fashion. If you still had doubts about whether or not City was the best in England, let this victory dispel them.

All aboard the City hype train, it’s for real this year.

Wilfried Bony Scores No Goal for Swansea

Stoppage time losses always suck, and Swansea City – although they probably already knew it – discovered (re-discovered, probably) that fact this past weekend. But, before West Ham’s Diafra Sahko could break all the Swansea hearts in the 90’ minutes of their Saturday tilt, there was another realization that needs to be brought up.

The Swans can’t score.

Since defeating Crystal Palace 2-0 on August 26th, the Swans have scored 1 goal in 4 league matches and have only garnered 1 point from those matches, courtesy of a draw with Spurs two weeks ago. And, considering Crystal Palace’s run of form so far, shutting them out is becoming a Premier League rite of passage more than an actual accomplishment.

Now, any team only scoring 1 goal over the span of 4 weeks is a problem, but when you consider that Swansea City brought in Portuguese and Bayern Munich wonder kid Renato Sanches, as well as old flame Wilfried Bony, at the transfer deadline, it’s especially disturbing that they can’t find the back of the net.

Renato Sanches
Photo Courtesy of Reuters

Those two paired with Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew should be forming one of the most formidable attacks in the whole league, but it just isn’t working right now. For one reason or another, the Swans cannot generate anything going forward.

The trio of Abraham, Ayew and Bony had a combined 3 touches inside the West Ham penalty area between them. I’ve heard great things about Renato Sanches since he’s arrived at Swansea, and he was fantastic on Saturday, but all he really does is dish passes around the midfield and use his outstanding close control to alleviate pressure off the back line whenever things get hairy.

Swansea have no one to provide consistent, quality service to their lethal forward trio and it’s causing a serious dry spell at the Liberty. For the entire season, the Swans have 10 total shots on goal, and unless Paul Clement can figure something out to give his side more bite in attack, Swansea City will be in for another relegation battle completely unbefitting of their talent level.

Burnley win again, Move up to……wait a minute….6th?? Hold on….WHAT??

So, we should probably start paying attention to Burnley.

After pulling out yet another tightly formed defensive masterpiece during Sunday’s 1-0 win at Everton, Sean Dyche has his Burnley side up to 6th in the table and off to their best ever league start. The win gave the Clarets 8 points on the road this season, more than they had all of last season, and those 8 road points have come at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea), Wembley (Tottenham), Anfield (Liverpool) and now Goodison Park

There’s something pretty serious going on with the Clarets and nobody seems to be paying attention to it.

“You know when you go down against Burnley it is tough” Everton manager Ronald Koeman said after the game, “They drop back and are good defensively, organizationally and physically strong.”

Tarkowski
Photo Courtesy of PA

Aside from a week 2 loss to West Brom, Burnley have yet to be defeated in all comps and Chelsea’s 2 goals from their week 1 loss are the most the Clarets have conceded all season. This is a terrific defensive team that continues to frustrate the league’s best on a weekly basis.

This past week, Everton held 64% possession, generated 25 shots, 5 going on goal and also had 9 corners. None of that resulted in a goal and although the Toffees certainly had chances, Burnley didn’t truly feel as though they were going to concede.

These numbers are a perfect representation of what Burnley does defensively to so much success; they remain tightly packed in at the back and frustrate the hell out of opposing attacks. But, typically, when a team looks to pack in tightly at the back, the best way to combat that is with piercing runs and through balls (much like Manchester City does) yet Burnley are solid in defending that as well.

The Clarets’ centre back pairing of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski have more blocks between the two of them (30) than 16 of the other 19 Premier League teams. If Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho can’t break you down for more than 1 goal, you’re definitely doing something right in your defensive shape and Burnley certainly are.

As for the goal they scored, a 24 pass build up to Jeff Hendricks’ 15 net-ripping strike is the most build up passes of any Burnley goal in their Premier League history. It was a clinic in patient midfield passing before a cracking diagonal ball sliced Everton open and allowed the Burnley front three to carve their way through the Toffee’s back four, culminating with the Hendricks goal.

Burnley 2
The 24 pass build-up to Burnley’s goal. Courtesy of BBC

 

Burnley have yet to be defeated on the road this season, a run of 4 straight games which marks their longest since a 6 game unbeaten run in 1966. Now up to 6th in the table at the second international break, this is turning into more than just a cute story of a happy relegation team that was able to surprise Chelsea on the opening weekend.

Burnley are dangerous and we need to take notice.

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Team of the Week: Manchester City

Another week, another Manchester City masterclass, another Ederson clean sheet, another world class Kevin De Bruyne performance, another week that sees City on top of the table at the end of it. Rinse, repeat, get ready for it again in two weeks when Stoke City visits the Etihad.

Runners Up: Tottenham, Burnley

Player of the Week: Harry Kane

There aren’t any superlatives left in the English language to describe the greatness of Harry Kane during this past month. His 13 goals in September equal the best ever monthly totals of Lionel Messi (13 in March 2012) and Cristiano Ronaldo (13 in October 2010). And, in combination with his lethal finishing right now, Kane passed at a 92.9% success rate on Saturday, right in line with his season number of just over 90%. Simply top class right now.

Kane
Photo Courtesy of Reuters

Runners Up: Kevin De Bruyne, Richarlison, Alexis Sanchez, James Tarkowski

Moment of the Weekend: Peter Crouch’s Stoke Winner

I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again, Peter Crouch is an international treasure and my second favorite player in the Premier League (congratulations, Benjamin Mendy). Crouch came on as a sub in the 70’ for Stoke before poking home a fortuitous winner in the 85’ to remind the world that, “I haven’t actually retired yet!” as he would mention after the game. Anything Peter Crouch is just fantastic, and considering that this goal makes him the oldest player to score in the Premier League this season (36 years 243 days) it’s worthy of the ‘moment of the weekend’ tag.

Crouch
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Runners Up: Richarlison’s Watford equalizer, De Bruyne’s wonder strike, Coutinho’s Liverpool opener

……….

Where I Was Right Last Week

Harry Kane is the best striker going in England right now, but that isn’t due to a lack of trying from Romelu Lukaku. Manchester United’s Belgian beast was at his physical best again on Saturday against Crystal Palace and was rewarded with a goal in the waning minutes of another comfortable Red Devils’ victory. As I mentioned last week, Lukaku’s size and physicality make him such a menace to deal with inside the box, and he required two Crystal Palace defenders at all times, freeing up the rest of United’s free flowing attack to pelt Wayne Hennessy and the rest of the Eagles’ defense. There has only been Man U match this season in which Lukaku has not found himself on the scoresheet and his form is a key reason why United are so rampant right now.

Where I Was Wrong Last Week

I jumped the gun last week and incorrectly thought that just because of a solid victory over Bournemouth, Everton were back in form and thus could begin their climb up the table. Saturday’s game against Burnley showed some signs of life, but another problem cropped up for the Toffees. In past games, Everton has sat on the back foot and looked to counter attack, but against Burnley they held 63% possession and played almost the entire second half in the attacking third, which is a very positive sing. However, with only 4 out of 25 shots going on net and none finding the back of the net, Everton seriously lack finishing product or quality. The problems continue to mount and there is still a ways to go on Merseyside.

Also last week, I pointed out that Tottenham’s recent run of form against teams from the bottom half of the table was alarming and that Huddersfield could give them problems if we were to assume that historic trends repeat themselves. Not only did Spurs totally and completely thrash David Wagner’s bunch this past week, but they’ve sent Huddersfield plummeting from 6th in the table to 11th now. So, a 4-0 win over a now bottom half team on the same week I called them our for struggling against said bottom half teams. Fair play, Spurs.

……….

10 Thoughts I Have

  1. Kevin De Bruyne is the best attacking player in the Premier League right now. His season thus far has him in the driver’s seat for the PFA Player of the Year award and he has completely taken his game to a new level in 2017-18. On Saturday against Chelsea, De Bruyne completed more key passes (6) and more passes in the opposition’s end (47) than any other player, not to mention scoring the winning goal. With Eden Hazard directly on display opposite De Bruyne, Manchester City’s Belgian put on a masterclass display that showed his full evolution and clearly set him head and shoulders above Hazard right now and at the top of the Premier League.
  2. Also, the fact that City haven’t conceded a league goal since August 27th isn’t getting enough attention. The attack is scintillating, but my goodness has the Sky Blues’ defense been fantastic as well. And, further, captain and club emotional leader Vincent Kompany hasn’t played in any of those games. John Stones has elevated his game to a superstar level and City have not seemed remotely fazed by any offense they’ve faced since last conceding to Bournemouth. A complete team
  3. What is there left to say about Crystal Palace? No team in the 129 year history of English football (at any level) has ever lost their first 6 league matches without scoring a goal. Palace’s loss to United on Saturday extended that streak to 7 games. With a visit to Stamford Bridge on the horizon, that streak isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Just horrifically bad right now and that joke I made in week 1 about Palace potentially being “the most talented team ever relegated” is looking soberingly accurate. 

    Crystal Palace
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  4. The 10 minute stretch during which both goals were scored on Sunday at St. James Park was Liverpool in a nutshell. After threatening to score for about 5-10 minutes, a superb 25 yard curling effort from Philippe Coutinho broke a scoreless deadlock and looked to open the floodgates for the Reds. But, a mere 8 minutes later, Liverpool’s centre backs pathetically defended a one man counter attack and Newcastle had their equalizer. A magical moment in attack, no urgency following the goal, then a defensive collapse. A Merseyside story in 3 parts.
  5. Kevin De Bruyne scored the goal of the week. Each of his last 5 City goals have come from outside the box and this one was utterly superb.
  6. Philippe Coutinho scored the second best goal of the weekend, followed up by Salomon Rondon’s terrific opener for West Brom and Harry Kane’s second goal of the day against Huddersfield.
  7. Watford have themselves quite the player in 20 year old Brazilian starlet Richarlison. His 95’ equalizer to salvage a point for Watford at the Hawthorns now gives him two consecutive games with a stoppage time goal, last week’s against Swansea being the winner. The 12 million pound deadline signing has proven to be Watford’s most dangerous attacking player thus far with 3 goals in his first 8 appearances and he was the Hornets’ most consistent forward threat on Saturday against West Brom. Considering that Marco Silva beat the likes of Ajax, Manchester United and AC Milan to Richarlison’s signature only makes him all the more special to a middle-market club like Watford.
  8. Alexis Sanchez was back in top form for Arsenal on Sunday against Brighton. After injuries and a long, dramatic transfer spell kept Sanchez sidelined for nearly the first month and a half of the season, this weekend was the first sure sign that the Gunners’ world class Chilean is still world class. Sanchez created twice as many chances as any other player on Sunday (6) and also had twice as many shots (8) as anyone else. Everyone at the Emirates will be pleading with him to stay in January and beyond. 

    Sanchez:Arsenal
    Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
  9. The fact that Kelechi Iheanacho has yet to start a league game for Leicester City serves to explain part of the reason why the Foxes have gotten off to such a poor start this season. Iheanacho was brought in to form a lethal front pairing with Jamie Vardy, especially on the counter attack, yet Craig Shakespeare continues to try and play a 4-5-1 instead of a 4-4-2 that can highlight the strengths of his 2 strikers. A scoreless draw with Bournemouth isn’t a good sign, but Iheanacho should be a positive solution, if Shakespeare chooses to use him.
  10. After the international break ends, the clear top match of week 8 is Manchester United’s visit to Anfield. This one could be a classic case of strength versus strength, as both teams look to get forward and out-score each other. Should be well worth the 6:30 AM Saturday wake-up call.

 

Tuesday Morning Tea Week 7: International Exodus Part 2

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Dortmund vs. Real, anyone? No? How about Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid? Barcelona-Man City?

The annual contesting of the UEFA Champions League is always something to look forward to on the football calendar, and after some lackluster – and, frankly, unnecessary – play in games, the group stage is all set. The 8 pools were set up today, and there are some seriously good fixtures on the slate.

Now, I just want to point something out really quickly. How weird is it to not see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Wolfsburg in the Champions League draw? It’s pretty weird for me. Anyway, let’s get straight into the most interesting group stage matches.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid

Starting off with a bang, the reigning champions draw German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund in an opening matchup that should be filled with enough fireworks to go around.

Real Madrid UCL
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Real need no introduction. They sport a front line that includes the best player in the world and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric – as if he needed any more of an introduction – made some noise at the European Championships with his sparkling play on the Croatian national team alongside Ivan Perisic.

Madrid’s squad last season was as deep and strong as we have ever seen, and the addition of Alvaro Morata and a presumably much stronger and reinvigorated James Rodriguez will make them just as dangerous.

On the other side are my dark horses in this tournament. Dortmund gave traditional juggernaut, Bayern Munich, all they would handle all the way through the Bundesliga season in 2015-16. And, sensing a potential changing of the guard, Dortmund went out and spent over $110 million on 8 transfers.

Highlighting the group is former Dortmund star, Mario Gotze – who was swiped away from the aforementioned Bayern Munich. Alongside Gotze is another German national, Andre Schurrle, and a couple of 19 year old prodigies, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. The new stable of strikers will join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and form an incredibly formidable attack.

Borussia Dortmund Squad
Dortmund Squad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now, all of those glamorous transfers were mostly made out of necessity, as Dortmund lost Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels, but I believe the strong attack will make them an incredibly dangerous team that could potentially make huge waves with an upset here.

Also, remember the last time these two teams matched up in the Champions League with Los Blancos as a heavy favorite? Yeah, watch out for Dortmund.

Group A: Arsenal vs. Paris Saint Germain

On the surface, this matchup seems like a very even matchup between French and English powerhouses, but, unfortunately, this is probably the most predictable of the fixtures i’m going to be highlighting. Does that mean it’s not going to be entertaining? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, this is an offensive GEM of a match. Brilliant players are all over the pitch from both sides. Theo Walcott, Angel di Maria, Granit Xhaka, Adrian Rabiot, Marco Verratti, David Luiz, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Calum Chambers; the quality on the pitch – with regards to strictly offense – is remarkable.

Now, if this match had taken place a year ago, PSG would run away with it. The French champions were firing on all cylinders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading up the attack, but now that he’s gone? I still favor PSG, but the Gunners do have a shot in both legs.

Both clubs will advance to the knockout round – considering that FC Basel and FC Ludogorets round out group A – and that could be the only way this matchup isn’t a spectacular scoring fest. But I’m going to pretend that both clubs go full bore and we get some lovely, high scoring football.

Group E: Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham Hotspur

Here’s the one you disagree with. You can’t agree with me on everything, but I really like this matchup.

Chicharito vs Alderwierld? Yes, please.

I really don’t care what you say, this game is worth watching just to see what kind of magic Chicharito pulls out of his hat against Mauricio Ponchettinho’s bunch.

Chicharito
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Also, who knows, maybe Tottenham regains the form that made them the Premier League runners up from just a season ago and put on an offensive clinic led by Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Maybe not, but still, the offensive potential in this game is too good to ignore. All hail Chicharito.

Group D: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

Holy nuts, whoever put this matchup together clearly wants to cut the riffraff and get straight down to the business of separating the best football clubs in Europe.

A rematch of one of the two semifinals from last year’s Champions League, both teams remain mostly unchanged, with the only significant transfer between the two being Bayern’s heist of Mats Hummels from their German rivals, Borussia Dortmund.

The fact that both of these clubs remain mostly unchanged is reason for excitement because holy wow what a matchup this is.

Antoine Griezemann and Yannick Carrasco have had their coming out parties, and they join Fernando Torres on a club that has silently competed in two of the last three Champions League finals. And guess what, Atletico is set to be just as good as they’ve ever been.

Griezmann and Carrasco
Photo courtesy of ESPN FC

On the other side are the German champions and their stable of ridiculous talent. From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern is almost stupid stacked with talent. Kingsley Coman, Renato Sanches, Arjen Robben (forget about him?), Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Julian Green; it’s almost unfair how talented this Bayern side are.

FC Bayern Munich v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Photo by Lukas Barth for Getty Images

I didn’t need to hype this match up any more than it already was, but Bayern-Atletico twice in the group stage? Thank you, God.

Group C: FC Barcelona vs Manchester City

And now, your main event of the group stage.

Pep Guardiola’s main task at Manchester City has been made crystal clear: win the Champions League. He’s been given all of the money the clubs has to offer, and completely free reign to go get any player his heart desires in the name of winning the Champions League.

Following two squash matches against clearly overmatched Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti, City are through to the group stage where they draw the title favorites, Barcelona.

Nolito and Delph
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Barca return to the Champions League with a vengeance following their failed pursuit of the first back-to-back title win in UCL history. But, while Barca stood pat this summer and didn’t really get any better – in their defense, it’s hard to get better when your attacking trio is Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – Manchester City went out and just about owned the transfer market.

In total, City brought in 9 transfers for just over $240 million, highlighted by Everton defender John Stones, Barcelona starting keeper Claudio Bravo, and Shalke wonder boy Leroy Sane. The talent on the field will be evident, and this will be an extremely tightly contested matchup, but let’s get to the off-field storylines that really make this a game worth watching.

The aforementioned Pep Guardiola has been clear that his ultimate goal at City is to win the Champions League, and to do that he has to go through his former club. The City boss made his name at Barcelona, and knocked them out of the Champions League last season while with Bayern Munich. Revenge will be in the air and Pep will be hungry to prove his side belongs in the upper echelon of elite football powerhouses.

As I mentioned in the transfers section of this blurb, Claudio Bravo is Manchester City’s new keeper, and the former Barcelona #1 will be making his homecoming during the leg of this matchup contested at the home of the Spanish champions. Also, the last time Bravo and Lionel Messi squared off, the Argentinian fired a now infamous penalty shot high over the bar of Bravo’s Chilean goal to give Chile their 2nd straight Copa America title over Argentina.

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile
Photo by Adam Hunger for USA Today Sports

So, on top of the fact that this is as good of a football matchup as you can possibly get, the extra storylines make this fixture as much of a ‘can’t miss’ as the Champions League group stage has to offer.

……….

Considering the madness that football has provided us with lately, we could be staring down the barrel of a Benfica-Leicester City Champions League final. Would you rather see something like a Bayern-City final? Of course you would, but for the first time in a while, I can’t confidently guarantee that we’ll see traditional powerhouses in the semifinals and final. Strap in, this could get wild.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

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