5 THINGS I AM ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN MIGHT POSSIBLY BE TRUE AFTER WEEK 5
After 5 weeks the Premier League is starting to shift into high gear. Deadline day acquisitions are settling into their sides, new and old managers alike have determined who they will rely on (at least for now), and some teams are starting to realize they might not have done enough to prevent being in a relegation battle all season.
So, let's break down what has happened so far this season and skew it to what I think!
1. STOKE IS IN TROUBLE
Ok, this seems like an obvious one. Just check out the table!
One point, three goals in five matches, and a -11 goal differential are indicative of a season that never got on the rails, much less went off them. While "in trouble" implies dire consequences, which there surely are in relegation, Stoke's biggest issue is not the way the season is going, but rather the ripple effects another poor season would have through the club.
Stoke was promoted back into the Premier League in 2008 for the first time in 23 years!
The proceeded to get a foothold in the league with finishes of 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 13th.
This got Stoke confident. They felt as though they had established themselves as perennial Premier League members and set their sights on loftier goals, including battling for a European spot. They viewed themselves as essentially pulling away from the West Broms of the world, who aim almost solely to stay in the League, and joining the mid-table fracas with teams like Everton, Liverpool and West Ham.
So prior to the 2013-2014 season, the Potters pumped a bunch of money into their squad with the idea of moving up the table, which they did, all the way up to 9th. This was seen as a clear sign that Stoke was on their way to big things. Another influx of money before the 2014-15 season helped them finish..........9th.
So after two ninth place finishes, Stoke decided it was time to go for broke. Bringing in the likes of Xaqiri, Bojan and Arnautovic. These players were meant to compliment the stalwart defenders that were already in place for the Potters and push them up the table. So where did they finish last season??????? 9th.
Now, after appearing to hit their ceiling, Stoke has had what can only be described as an AWFUL season. Even worse, they have the wage bill of a top 6 team, and the attacking players they signed are not....how do you say.....motivated.
If they don't shed Mark Hughes quickly or go on a fantastic run of form, the future will get ugly. I personally believe they won't get relegated, but if they revert back to low table finishes they will find themselves fielding transfer requests from unhappy players and relying increasingly on young motivated players to keep them relevant, and they may or may not get the job done.
Sound far fetched for a team that finished 9th three years in a row? Villa finished 6th, 6th and 9th before two seasons of improbable escapes only delayed their inevitable relegation.
Stoke better get their shit together or they will face a long term restructuring while trying to maintain a Premier League place. Good luck.
2. MANCHESTER CITY ISN'T
Another profound statement, right?? It isn't so much THAT City is winning, but HOW they are winning. No matter what the situation entails it appears City is prepared. Not only are they the most balanced squad in the league, but they are also the most flexible. Unlike the Mourhino Chelsea days, where players were recruited to perform specific duties within a formation, Pep has recruited players based on a mix of creativity and professional ethos.
So he likes talented,professional players, woo hoo.
More than just improve the side's quality, this is has caused is a ripple effect through the team. No one is guaranteed a starting spot, and every minute of every game is being judged and responded to. While this may seem harsh on some players (Navas, Toure), it has raised the level of performance of almost every single player on the field.
KDB and Aguero are the best attacking combo in the league and the balance between midfield and backs means that they won't get run through on an off day in attack. Instead, they can win by scoring a lot, and win by scoring a little.
I wouldn't be surprised if this was the best season by a Premier League team since the Untouchables.
3. LEICESTER IS GOING TO BE OK
When Leicester kicked off their season by losing to Hull City, fans of the League champs were surely surprised. When they played Arsenal to a scoreless draw in week 2, the fans started wringing their hands. A 2-1 hard fought win over Swansea bought the team some time, but they followed up with a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool. Now, with a 3-0 win over Burnley, Leicester finds itself only three points out of a Champions League spot.
More importantly though, is the Foxes transition into Champions League life. They started off their campaign with a resounding 3-0 win over Club Brugge, on the road!
With only three midweek away games in the group stage, the Foxes are sitting pretty. Back-to-back home games versus Porto and Copenhagen await in the Champions League and Leicester is hungry.
The reason I have so much faith in Leicester??? Ahmed Musah and Islam Slimani.
When Leicester picked up Ahmed Musa early in the transfer window, it was a major declaration of intent. Musa might be nominated for Secretary of State the way he terrorized Russian defenses and fits the Leicester counter-attacking model to a T.. Doubt me? Check out his first appearance in the preseason, against Barcelona none the less.
He is a perfect match for the Foxes! Okazaki's work rate is a wonderful attribute to compliment Jamie Vardy's speed, but Musa has the same (better?) technical ability than the Japanese star and a better finishing rate. The ability to replace Vardy like for like, or even ADD speed to the attack is a terrifying prospect for any defense that comes across the Foxes.
If Leicester would have stopped with Musa it still could have been labeled a successful off season for the attack, especially considering Vardy's decision to snub Arsenal to stay with the champs.
Instead, they went for broke and added a player who might lead them in Champions League, and help them qualify next year as well. Islam Slimani.
Slimani joined Leicester from the Portugese side Sporting CP over the summer. In his time at Sporting (2013-2016) he racked up quite an impressive resume, scoring 57 goals in 109 appearances.
That is about a goal every other game, which is the benchmark for world class strikers (Ronaldo and Messi notwithstanding) and does so in a VARIETY of fashions. Check them out yourself.
So what then? Leicester scored plenty of goals last season, more forwards won't help them replace Kante.
VERY true. But what we saw at the end of last season was that teams had started to take pressure off Leicester and the Foxes struggled for offense, not for defense.
They lost their last match all the way back on Valentines Day! In their last 12 matches, the Foxes won 5 by a 1-0 scoreline and won only 2 matches in which they scored more than one goal. They obviously ended up winning the league, but playing as the favorite is a whole different world than being the underdog. Now that the Foxes have a HUGE target on their back, they need to develop variety and guile in their attack, and with their new signings, I am confident they will.
4. I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE LIVERPOOL WILL END UP
Going into the first full season with Jurgen Klopp at the helm, expectations among Liverpool fans were sky high. Klopp had the entire summer to assemble a squad that could adapt to his high pressing style and consistently thrill the fans the way they did with their Europa League comeback against his former club Borussia Dortmund.
Bringing in Sadio Mane and Georgio Wjnaldum to help in the attack, Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip to lock down the troublesome center back positions, and Loris Karius to get Simon Mignolet the fuck out of goal.
Well so far, Mane and Wjanldum (especially Mane) have proven to be worth the money spent on them. They are tireless runners who pop up all over the field, and in Mane's case have the ability to individually change the match when they do appear. Just check out the video of his goal versus Arsenal.
They are currently on a two match winning streak in the league, and sitting in 6th they are in good position to compete for one of the coveted Champions League positions.
Ok, so it sounds like they are moving in the right direction. Whats the worry??
Well first, while the acquisitions in the front have certainly paid off, it's in the back that Liverpool still looks like a mid table side.
Klavan was in the side against Arsenal when the Reds won in a 4-3 shootout, and has a goal against Derby in the EFL Cup, but otherwise it appears he hasn't gained the confidence of his coach or teammates.
At 30, he was not brought in to develop but to push for a spot. If Dajon Lovren is keeping you out of the team??? UH OH.
Matip has been a solid addition, but as Liverpool fans will find out, Matip is built for possession based teams, which Liverpool certainly are against half of the league, but against the other half he will struggle to match up the physical specimens on the Premier League.
Put a better way, if he was so good why would Schalke let a 25 year old centerback walk away on a free transfer unless they didn't see any future for him at their club, or any other major club, for that matter.
Then, to top it all off, the goal keeping savior from Mainz, Loris Karius, was injured in preseason, and didn't make his first appearance until Tuesday against Derby in the EFL Cup. It will be fascinating to see how Klopp handles the GK situation, as both Karius and Mignolet may prove integral this season.
Add in the fact that you have a Central midfielder, James Milner, playing left back (impressively I must admit), and you start to wonder how Liverpool will put up consistent resistance against the top sides over the course of the last 33 matches. I anticipate back line reinforcements in the January window.
With Hull and Swansea on the schedule before the break it will be imperative that the Reds get come momentum, and cohesiveness before the next international break, especially with Manchester United and Tottenham looming when matches do resume.
With 8 goals against in five matches, and no clean sheets to their name, Liverpool might be the most exciting, and frustrating, side to watch this season. The 2-0 loss to Burnley should have scared the team straight, and they haven't lost since, but I am interested to see if this seasons Reds can define themselves by their quality, or risk being remembered for their inconsistencies.
5. NOBODY WANTS TO PLAY WATFORD, FOR GOOD REASON
While a simple glance at the table shows Watford sitting mid table at a comfortable 9th, I don't know if there is another team (outside of Manchester City) that I want my team to play less.
The Hornets started the season with a 1-1 draw against Southampton, not super impressive until you realize that they played the last quarter hour down a player on the road.
They followed that performance up with a VERY impressive home performance against Chelsea, with the Blues snatching the points by virtue of two goals in the last 10 minutes, including the game winner by Diego Costa, who should have received at least two red cards during the match and shouldn't have even been on the field.
A loss to Arsenal left the Hornets on one point out of 9, and the relegation battle murmurs starting.
Heading to face West Ham in their pretty new stadium, Watford looked sluggish. When they fell behind 2-0 to the Hammers 33 minutes in, including this rabona assist by Payet, they were dead and buried.
But a funny thing happened just then, West Ham got cocky and Watford got pissed according to team captain and convict Troy Deeney
You know, they started doing the flicks and the tricks. I just thought after 30 minutes doing that was a bit lively.
"So we need to thank them really, because they stoked the fire and everyone started laying a glove on people.
"We scored two goals just before half time and that really changed the balance of the game.”
Coming out of halftime, the game was in the balance. 18 minutes into the half, the game was over. Watford had put two into the back of the net and West Ham had folded.
Surely their next opponent would be aware of the Hornets tenacity: clawing out a draw down a player, having a result stolen from them late against Chelsea, and against the Hammers taking only 30 minutes to flip a two goal deficit on it's head.
Luckily for Watford they were playing an entirely over confident Manchester United side, looking to take out the frustrations of back-to-back losses on the Premier League low boys.
Ettienne Capoue continued his RIDICULOUS hot streak, scoring in the 33rd for his 4th goal in 6 games. When Marcus Rashford pulled the visitors pulled even early in the second half, it was assumed they would go on to get the full three points, but again, Watford would not cooperate.
Continuing to play on the front foot, the Hornets notched two more goals to walk away with the win, and seven goals in two matches against Europa League sides.
The upcoming schedule will also give the confident side even more opportunities to pick up points. Their next five matches in the Premier League? Burnley, Bournemouth, Middlesborough, Swansea and Hull. If Watford keeps up the momentum and capitalize on this run of games they will find themselves in a European spot come November.
VERY BRIEF WEEK 6 PREVIEWS
MANCHESTER UNITED VS LEICESTER CITY: 2-2
Man U needs a win, Rooney will (should) sit, Leicester have momentum.
LIVERPOOL VS HULL CITY: LIVERPOOL 4-0
Liverpool like scoring goals, and will have plenty to celebrate.
BOURNEMOUTH VS EVERTON: 1-1
Bournemouth are solid, Everton will try and forget their loss to Norwich.
SWANSEA VS MANCHESTER CITY: 3-0 MANCHESTER CITY
STOKE CITY VS WEST BROMWICH ALBION: 2-1 STOKE
Stoke need a win, West Brom just wants a point. Stoke goes off.
SUNDERLAND VS CRYSTAL PALACE: 2-1 CRYSTAL PALACE
Sunderland look like a mid-table Chamionship side, Palace love Benteke.
MIDDLESBOROUGH VS TOTTENHAM: 2-2
Middlesborough is tough (like I said they would be), Spurs finally drop Kaine.
ARSENAL VS CHELSEA: 2-1 ARSENAL
Could have been game of the week. But I hate Arsenal....and Chelsea. Costa finally gets sent off.
WEST HAM VS SOUTHAMPTON: 3-1 WEST HAM
West Ham blow bubbles, and Southampton are floundering. Home crowd.
BURNLEY VS WATFORD: 2-1 WATFORD
Burnley is going down and Watford feel good about themselves.