Sunday, April 12, 2015

EPL Season on the Brink: What We’ve Learned

With a mere six games left in the season for most of the 20 teams that make up the English Premier League, there is still a lot to play for. Chelsea may well have all but secured the title over the past 8 days, but a late collapse is still possible and teams at the top and bottom are still jockeying for positions and places in Europe. So with about a month and a half left, I thought I would highlight some of the most important stories for the run-in. Here they are …

1. Arsenal Hottest Team of 2015 (Learning to Win Ugly): Arsenal won their eighth straight game yesterday, the longest streak by any team this year and their best since the days of the Invincibles. The game at Burnley was largely dominated by Arsenals slick passing, but just as importantly by their stout defending. Coquelin was arguably the man of the match, continuing his renaissance into the DM the Gunners have lacked since Viera left and Silva was hurt in 2008. Equally important has been the return to form of Ramsey, who led the Gunners to the league summit last year before being injured and watching his team unravel in blowout losses to Chelsea, Liverpool, City and Everton. His Johnny-on-the-Spot goal in the 12th minute yesterday was the difference in a game that lacked real chances for either team, finishing off a nice exchange that began with one of the countless interceptions (along with tackles) from Coquelin.

It was the sort of resilient display that Wenger’s squad have suddenly developed a taste for, with victories over the two Manchester teams in January setting the stage for a more refined approach to tactics that allows them to sit back and absorb pressure, press up the pitch or play with the offensive abandon that makes them sumptuous to watch. If we look at recent Arsenal seasons, it is far too often the case that they either start strong and fade or drop too many points early before a late run to save their Top 4 place. At the heart of those previous collapses has been an inability to beat teams in the Top 4, and while that trend continued in the first half of this season, Arsenal have beaten City and Liverpool this term, though they did lose to bitter rivals Tottenham 2-1 and to Southampton 1-0 on New Years Day. After the win yesterday, however, some were even starting to dream of an improbable late run to the title, but Chelsea more or less quashed that dream less than 24 hours later when, ironically, Cesc Fabergas scored in the 88th minute to take all three points from a resilient QPR.

2. Chelsea Will Win the Title (Already Old Veterans at Winning Ugly): For the second week in a row, a goalkeeping error helped the Blues secure a win in a game where they looked pretty abject. In the game against Stoke, it was Lois Remy coming on who ultimately slotted in the gift from Begovich, today it was Fabergas, who has seen a second half drop in form that seemed to justify Barcelona’s claim that he is a first half player, who sent the ball past Rob Green and pushed Chelsea 7 points above Arsenal with yet another game in hand to come. Both of those games could have easily ended in a draw, which would have cost them four points and made it a manageable 3 point gap. But Chelsea under Mourinho find ways to win, often with ugly defensive football. That this approach cost them against PSG in the Champions League shouldn’t really detract from Mourinho’s achievement. Yet another domestic title in only his second year back in England. It is too bad that Chelsea play so ugly that many will take little pleasure in that achievement.

3. City Collapse is Startling: Man City looked rampant early against United, and their pressure paid off with a seventh minute goal by Aguero after an excellent Silva cross. 21 minutes later they were behind 2-1 on the way to losing 4-2, a microcosm of the worst 2015 anyone could have ever imagined. The year actually started positively, with a 3-2 win over Sunderland and a 2-1 win over Sheffield in the FA Cup. But both showed a team whose defensive deficiencies were putting them under pressure. Their next game was a 1-1 draw at Goodison followed by the impressive Arsenal 2-0 victory at the Etihad. And things started to really unravel. They lost 2-0 at home again, this time to Middlesboro in the FA Cup. They then drew with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge before drawing with Hull at home. Two big wins on the bounce led some to wonder if they could beat a slightly reeling Barcelona. The 2-1 loss in that game started a complete downward spiral where they have lost 6 of their last 8 games (6W, 8L, 3D in 2015). The startling reality now is that Liverpool is back in the race for a Champions League spot and could find themselves only four points behind last year’s champion if they beat Newcastle tomorrow evening.

It’s hard to believe this is the same team that was tied for the lead with Chelsea at the turn of the New Year. Incredibly, City have not won a game on the road they were losing at half time since 1995 and that streak didn’t end today. Instead serious questions must be asked of a squad that seems to be aging from week to week and who too often take long stretches of games off. There is no longer the siege mentality and stalwart defending that saw them raise the winner’s trophy two of the past three seasons. Rebuilding is in the offing this summer; the question remains whether it will include Pellegrini and whether it will include champions league football next term.

4. United Renaissance Continues: Seventh Place last year was enough for the United board to abandon their traditional Fergie era style of promoting from within and buying quality English players (and foreigners for reasonable fees). This summer they spent 150 million pounds to build a team to again compete for titles along with a manager with a proven International pedigree. Early on, it looked as if the money might have been wasted, blowing a lead against Leicester and looking pretty average week in and out before they went on a long unbeaten streak that few were impressed by but that saw them rise up the table to regain their top four place. A loss at Old Trafford to bitter rival Arsenal in the FA Cup, however, renewed doubts about the team and whether Liverpool would pip them to that lucrative fourth place. Then United transformed their play, ironically in the absence of their most expensive signing ever (Angel di Maria), and with their 4-2 win today have essentially wrapped up the goal for the season – getting back to the UCL.

Among the key players in the recent dramatic improvement have been some unlikely ones, including the reemergence of Juan Mata (who has more combined goals and assists in the last four seasons than anyone else), Fellaini (who many argued was one of the biggest disappointments last season) and most surprising of all, Ashley Young, who Van Gaal seemed poised to leave languishing on the bench all season. The rest of the league will be concerned by the improvement in the perennial champion contenders of the past and the fact they will probably spend big again this summer to add a world class central defender (Hummels probably), defensive midfielder (Gundogan or Carvalho) and striker (unclear who they will go for here, though Bale should be considered a possibility).

5. Tottenham Blow it Again: the annual late fade from Tottenham is on yet again, after they looked poised at the turn of the year to mount a challenge for a coveted Top 4 spot. After a 5-3 win over Chelsea on New Years Day and a 2-1 derby victory over Arsenal on February 7 (with a disappointing loss to Crystal Palace in between), they had a real chance. But as seems to be the case year in and out, with the 2009-10 Redknapp season as an outlier, they consistently drop points down the stretch. The next game after the Arsenal victory, they lost to Liverpool 3-2, drew with West Ham, were dumped out of Europe by Fiorentina over two legs, lost to Chelsea (2-0), to Man United (3-0), drew 0-0 with Burnley and then lost to Aston Villa 1-0 at home. It has been a sad collapse after a promising start to the season and begs the question of whether they are yet prepared to take the next step up the league table in the near future.

6. Pardew’s Revenge: Alan Pardew never seemed to inspire the fans at Newcastle during his four years in charge, particularly after they got scrapped into the relegation battle last term (after overperforming two years before). Yet leaving a job at a mid-table team to take a position at one that was steeped in a relegation battle seemed like an odd choice indeed. A few months later it is starting to look like genius, as returning to the team he played for for years seems to have inspired him and his players into raising their collective games impressively, while Newcastle has dropped down the standings. When he took over, Palace was stuck in the relegation zone and hadn’t won in 8 matches. Since then he has led them to 9 wins (including scalping of Tottenham and Man City), with only 4 losses and 2 draws, in all competitions. Pardew is unlikely to win manager of the year, but he might have my vote after righting the ship at Newcastle after a terrible start and pervasive fan revolt and then taking over a floundering Crystal Palace and raising them to impressive mid-table heights.

7. Languishing Liverpool and Gerrard’s Departure: Steven Gerrard is one of the greatest Liverpool players of all time, and certainly the iconic player of his generation. He is beloved by fans, by pundits and even by followers of other teams that respect his talent and work ethic. Yet as his Meyerside career rushes toward its tearful conclusion, it is hard to ignore the unfortunate role he has played in their fortunes the past two seasons. The slip from last year that probably cost them the title he so coveted (and never won) will be an indelible mark left in the memories of so many. His red card in less than a minute after coming on at halftime in the game against United might well have cost Liverpool securing Champions League football for next year. What an irony that would be from the player who singularly drew them back even with Milan in the 2005 Istanbul final, securing his legacy and more European glory for the Reds.

Liverpool are back in the hunt for the Top 4 now though, possibly at the expense of the most expensive English team ever assembled. What role Gerrard will play in that chase will be interesting, as the Reds have appeared to play better at times with him on the bench this season, particularly with the rise of Jordan Henderson. Even if they fail to sneak into the Top 4, Gerrard will have the chance to add one last trophy to his cabinet, assuming they get past Aston Villa to a probable final against the red hot Gunners. No matter how this season ends, Gerrard is a class act that I have not a bad word to say about, and I think Liverpool and the league will miss him.

8. Relegation Battle is Hotting Up: it still looks likely that the three promoted teams from last season might go right back down at the end of the year, but two wins on the bounce for Leicester City, the startling Burnley win over City a couple of weeks ago and some better recent results from QPR before today, mean that the abject form of Sunderland and the incredible march down the table of Aston Villa puts both long-time EPL regulars in danger of the drop. Hull City, as well, after looking comfortable a month ago, now stand on the precipice of the drop themselves. With many of the teams in the bottom 6 playing each other over the coming weeks, it should be a great finish at the bottom, with one of the newbies looking to procure the latest great escape.

After two tight wins, Chelsea look likely to win the title they seemed destined to before the season even began. Arsenal have improved dramatically after an up and down start, Manchester United have matched them blow for blow over the past few weeks and City have disappointed, as have Liverpool and Everton. With only weeks left in the season, there is still much to play for, and unlike many of the other leagues in the world, you really never do know what will happen from game to game.

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