Five-Horse Race For EPL’s #3

ARSENAL


Starting Eleven: Ospina – Bellerín, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Monreal – Ramsey, Cazorla – Sánchez, Özil, Welbeck – Giroud.

Tactics: Years come and go and Arsenal keeps playing possession-based, passing football regardless of anything. However, after a disappointing start of the season, Gunners actually managed to branch out from their happy, free-flowing, irresponsible football and learned to employ more defensive approach that led them to snipe Manchester City and catch multiple lesser teams on the counterattacks. Because of the injuries, Arsène Wenger had to pretty much create new right-back and defensive midfielder for the team and the likes of Bellerín and Coquelin didn’t let him down. The key man, however is all-around Santi Cazorla, who’s been played deeper in the middle of the park recently and takes an important part in almost every attacking move of the team. He and Olivier Giroud, who caught a second wind recently, are the two players that have most improved since last season.

Leading Star: Alexis Sánchez. For the first couple of months in England, the Chilean has been simply the best player in the entire Premier League. With 17 goals and 10 assists this season, he quickly rose head and shoulders above his teammates and became one of the few players you’d expect to score in every single game he appeared in. Despite him slowing down recently, it’s clear that he has already made more of an impact than Özil did in his first season on Emirates – and more is surely yet to come.

Underperformer: Aaron Ramsey. About 16 months ago, Ramsey used to be arguably the best central midfielder in the world. Some water went under the bridge and it’s it’s all water under the bridge – the Welshman has played a lot of sub-par football these days, including a dry spell of 12 games without a goal or assist and another piece in a string of his endless, nagging, short-term injuries: a hamstring problem he picked up in September, against Spurs. One memorable moment in away game against Galatasaray doesn’t make it much better.

The Weak Link: Surprisingly, none. Arsène Wenger does make tactical mistakes but he’s a top-class man manager and he successfully managed to reduce the playtime of those who used to consistently disappoint him (Arteta, Gibbs, Szczęsny). Even the last-season liabilities like Monreal and Mertesacker have actually improved enough to warrant their presence in Gunners’ starting eleven. And the fact that Jack Wilshere isn’t any close to be relevant anymore? Blame the cigarettes…

Best Moment This Season: Tactical masterclass at Ettihad against Manchester City, where most of the other English teams do receive proper spanking. 2-0 win is even more amazing if you consider the fact that Arsenal had 37.7% possession in that game.

Worst Moment This Season: Home defeat to Manchester United. Arsenal dominated that game as they usually do and conceded a ridiculous own goal out of the blue – as they usually do! Afterwards, it was all downhill. Typical self-destructing Arsenal, if you ask me.

Main Strength: On their good day, they can control the game very well regardless of the opposition – and they had many good days recently.

Main Weakness: On their bad day, they can control the game very well and still concede stupid goals regardless of the opposition – and nobody knows when the bad days will return.

Chance to Finish Third: 30%

Chance to Finish Fourth: 100%

MANCHESTER UNITED


Starting Eleven:
de Gea – Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Smalling, Young – Blind – Di María, Mata – Rooney, van Persie.

Tactics: Louis Van Gaal insists on using the same 1-5-1-2-2 system we saw from him during the World Cup, where he led Netherlands to a bronze medal.  However, playing with two attack-oriented wingbacks never really existed during Alex Ferguson’s or David Moyes’s reign, so it took a lot of time for the team to really accommodate – especially since the player who was supposedly best suited for that role – Daley Blind – is starting regularly as a DM. Another recent weird development is Wayne Rooney playing as a dirty-work type of a central midfielder. Despite all that formation finesse, MU’s gameplan is pretty simple: they pass the ball to Angel Di Maria for a bit of creativity in the middle and if that doesn’t work, they move it through the flanks and hope for a good cross (Fellaini, the irregular starter, is an important player on these occasions).

Leading Star: David de Gea. It’s a miracle that with a defensive line this bad, MU concedes only an average of exactly one goal per game (26 conceded in 26 games). That miracle – is the Spanish goalkeeper, who undoubtedly has the best season of his career and parries many more shots than their teammates really deserve to get away with. De Gea’s impact has been particularly significant in two won games against Arsenal and Liverpool; games that are most likely to matter a lot in a #3 race.

Underperformer: Angel Di María. His star status was short-lived. Once the autumn turned into winter, the Argentinian stopped delivering. Then, the injury made it even worse: after suffering a hamstring problem against Hull in November, Di María was sidelined for three weeks and never really got his game going afterwards. His last ten games were underwhelming, to say the least: he scored only one goal against League One outfit Yeovil and provided two assists – not enough from a player worth £59.7 million.

The Weak Link: Robin van Persie. Where are the times when he could single-handedly win the Premier League title for MU? Currently, the 31-years old Dutchman is soo past it it’s not even funny. He still finds himself a good position in the box and takes multiple shots but his tendency to blast the ball without looking or thinking is simply annoying. If it wasn’t for the fact that Falcao keeps getting injured, Hernandez was loaned out and Wilson needs time to grow, RvP would’ve been benched long time ago.

Best Moment This Season: Beating Liverpool at home 3-0 in a rare display of actually creative and diverse football. It’s also the only game in which both Juan Mata and Robin van Persie were as good as their salaries would suggest.

Worst Moment This Season: That horrible, away 3-5 loss to first-choice relegation candidates from Leicester; all that despite a 3-1 lead. FYI: David Moyes’ teams have never, ever conceded more than 4 goals in Premier League.

Main Strength: Strange ability to win games and collect points despite playing like crap. Apparently, the spirit of Sir Alex is still strong with these.

Main Weakness: Defending set-pieces. United does it worse than any other EPL team. Even Gomis exposed them big time twice in first 5 minutes of recent game at Swansea.

Chance to Finish Third: 30%

LIVERPOOL


Starting Eleven: Mignolet – Can, Škrtel, Sakho – Lallana, Henderson, Lucas, Gerrard, Moreno – Sterling, Coutinho.

Tactics: Last autumn, Brendan Rodgers had to spend months before he managed to sort out the mess of a team he himself authorized to make after Luis Suarez’s departure and  the subsequent transfer frenzy. Eventually, he settled for 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 variants with Alberto Moreno as a left-winger, Lucas providing the extra defensive assets in the middle and Coutinho playing as an inside forward. Due to Daniel Sturridge’s injury odyssey, Liverpool was widely expected to struggle in the final third, but that didn’t happen: instead, The Reds pushed more and more players forward and hoped that they can always score more goals than their backline will let in. Only recently, this trend has reversed and by the virtue of good performances from Mignolet and Škrtel, the team from Anfield Road does not leak three goals like they did against MU or West Ham in late 2014.

Leading Star: Emre Can. Raheem Sterling’s actions may look more impressive there but it’s the German with Turkish roots who’s made Liverpool’s life bearable. Holding the three-man backline together and occasionally reviving the seemingly dead role of libero, Can has matured very quickly and has been a standout player, plugging the holes in LFC’s backline both at his and at other players’ zones. Who would’ve thought that this will come from a man who’s been tipped to play alongside Steven Gerrard in the middle of the park?

Underperformer: Lazar Marković. £20 million for Benfica’s wonderkid didn’t seem to be too much back in the summer. Unfortunately, what happened afterwards was the Serbian getting completely lost out there and registering multiple abysmal performances. If not for the fact that he’s only 20 and should adapt eventually – and that there are other bad signings out there – he would’ve been most likely known as the biggest flop of Reds’ transfer window. And then, there’s that stupid red card against Basel too…

The Weak Link: Mario Balotelli. He’s 24. He’s still young. He has already earned obscene amount of money. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to even like footballing anymore. There are probably many more reasons to say this, but I do sincerely believe that Mario should retire from the game and start doing something else, because apparently, he’s not into his current job anymore. Take a look at the stats: 4 goals for LFC in 22 appearances and a persistent bench-warming from late December onwards. Why always him?

Best Moment This Season: A convincing 3-0 win at White Hart Lane. Good reminder how much easier things are when Sturridge is fit and ready to play.

Worst Moment This Season: All Champions League games. One useless, clueless performance at home in a must-win game against Basel in particular.

Main Strength: Attacking down the wings. With Moreno on the left, new addition Jordon Ibe on the right and Sterling floating here and there, The Reds look super-strong there.

Main Weakness: Individual errors. Sakho, Henderson, Škrtel: they all can have a decent games before screwing up badly and letting the opposition back into the game.

Chance to Finish Third: 20%

TOTTENHAM


Starting Eleven: Lloris – Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose – Mason, Bentaleb – Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli – Kane.

Tactics: Mauricio Pochettino has done an impressive job since his appointment in May 2014. Spurs quickly learned from him and eventually adapted to his playing philosophy, which is based on pressurizing the opponents on their own half of the pitch and one-touch, short-pass play to create the goalscoring chances. Recently, this style was supplemented with Mousa Dembélé starting as an attacking midfielder and using his strength and power to disrupt the opposition in the middle while Eriksen or Lamela are constantly providing the passing quality. Another important attacking asset is Danny Rose, who’s been in a very good shape recently and who loves to go forward down the left flank. Though Tottenham doesn’t like to play the long balls to their lone striker, Ryan Mason is the one who deliver them against teams that are having trouble with rangy passes.

Leading Star: Harry Kane. It’s a breakthrough season for this 21-years old lad – and what a breakthrough it is! Kane has already netted 22 goals in his 34 appearances and he’s been gaining the momentum with every single one of those. Tall, strong, good in the air and thoughtful in his movements off the ball, Kane should be a model of advanced striker AD 2015 – yet, he’s more than that. He also excels at shooting from distance – a trait that’s been quite rare in the Premier League those days. Fear him, EPL.

Underperformer: Erik Lamela. His case is quite curious. He was never a good fit to the Tottenham team – not even when he scored a sensational ‘rabona’ goal against Asteras. The reason for that is simple: he’s either a striker or a central attacking midfielder – yet, he plays down the right wing because there’s nobody else to really pick from and his skill level is one or two classes above Andros Townsend’s. With 34 games played in 2014-15 campaign, all he has contributed so far are 4 goals and 6 assists. Just. Not. Enough.

The Weak Link: There are no obvious, glaring weaknesses but some players really could do better. For instance: whenever Ryan Mason gets pressured, I’m smelling a goal for Spurs’ opponents because that man makes the most dangerous, precarious backpasses way too often. Other than him, Kyle Walker gets exposed by nearly every team that has a decent dribbler down their left wing and Dier-Vertonghen duo have some communication issues even despite both being decent players individually.

Best Moment This Season: New Year’s Eve goalscoring madness and a 5-3 victory over Chelsea in the most entertaining game of the season so far.

Worst Moment This Season: Getting trashed 0-3 at home by Liverpool and two more heavy defeats on Stamford Bridge and Ettihad. When Spurs lose, they often lose badly.

Main Strength: Spurs are the comeback kings: they’ve won more points from being down 0-1 than any other EPL team. Never give up, never surrender!

Main Weakness: Almost no clean, clinical performances. Whenever they win or lose, it’s always a spectacular mess of a game in which one side or another wins just narrowly.

Chance to Finish Third: 15%

SOUTHAMPTON


Starting Eleven: Forster – Clyne, Fonte, Alderweireld, Bertrand – Wanyama, Schneiderlin – Tadić, Davis, Mané – Pellè.

Tactics: Saints are a fairly conservative team. Having lost Lovren, Lambert and Lallana to Liverpool, the team had to do some thinking in the summer. Though Ronald Koeman started his job from a rough spot, he quickly realized that the best he can do is to continue what’s been built there by Mauricio Pochettino: a team that defends in the most tenacious way and attacks down the wings to score one, winning goal and shut the shop at the back afterwards. It’s been almost as easy to be done as to be said because Koeman inherited two excellent, hard-working midfielders and his loan signing, Toby Alderweireld, turned out to be as good of a player as Dejan Lovren used to be. At the back, Saints are playing very responsibly; upfront, a lot is up to the winger Dusan Tadić and the right-back Nathaniel Clyne, who loves forward runs.

Leading Star: Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman is a long-time fans’ favourite player – and for a good reason. Regularly topping league’s tackling and interception charts, Saints’ number 4 is also known for picking up the yellow cards and… being one of the many transfer targets for teams like Tottenham and Arsenal, who both seek a top-class, strong and defensively aware central midfielder. However, if that ever happens, someone should prepare at least £30 million to seal the deal.

Underperformer: Graziano Pellè. His job was never easy: he’s been a striker for a team that barely scores any goal. Regardless of that, for a long time, the Italian has been impressive, netting 10 goals in a 2014 part of this season. Sadly, when 2015 kicked in, Pellè lost his proficiency and bagged only one goal in ten appearances, not posing any threats to teams like Ipswich, QPR or Liverpool, which aren’t particularly known for tight backlines. Can a former Eredivisie top goalscorer turn this all around before it’s too late?

The Weak Link: None. One could argue that the team could use one more attacking midfielder or a striker – but that shouldn’t take anything from the players that are out there.

Best Moment This Season: Performance-wise: 1-0 at Old Trafford. Entertainment-wise: 8-0 annihilation of Sunderland. Tadić will remember both of these for the rest of his life.

Worst Moment This Season: Southampton does not have any abysmal games. However, in December, they’ve lost five games in a row. So, yeah, that’s that.

Main Strength: Composure. Winning games 1-0 thanks to the late goals and hard work is far from easy. Saints already have 8 such victories this season.

Main Weakness: The team has virtually no ability to come back from conceding one goal. Also, their lineup looks shaky should the injuries creep in.

Chance to Finish Third: 5%

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