Premier League Takeaways – Gameweek 31+

In a batch of fixtures that saw Leicester and Sheffield United stumble yet again, Chelsea were able to get the better of Manchester City at Stamford Bridge to move further ahead of Manchester United in the top four race. Oh, and Liverpool also won their first league title in 30 years. Plenty for our writers to talk about then!

Jamie Braidwood – The emotional connection that makes Liverpool’s title win so, so special

I owe my Dad a lot, and my love of Liverpool Football Club ranks pretty highly on that list (YES, here we go, we’re getting personal!). I don’t remember there being a moment where I decided that Liverpool was the club I would support, it just, sort of, happened. Or at least my Dad made damn sure that the love for his team was passed down to his son.

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Liverpool wrapped up their first Premier League title win with an emphatic 4-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday night – City’s loss to Chelsea the following evening confirmed this.

As with any Liverpool fan born in the 1990s, I have spent many hours, days and weeks thinking about the moment Liverpool won the league. Out of the images and scenes I dreamt up over the years, it’s fair to say none of them came close to matching what turned out to be the reality, of Liverpool winning the title with seven games to go, while they weren’t even on the pitch, and during a global pandemic.

But at least there was always one constant in my fantasies. No matter what scenario I would conjure up in my mind, no matter if I was lucky enough to be at Anfield on that momentous day or elsewhere, I would always be with my Dad. Even when Liverpool were at their lowest, and when that elusive title seemed forever out of reach, I was certain of at least that one thing: that if that day came, we would be experiencing that moment together.

Thursday night was a surreal experience for me, as I’m sure it was for many Liverpool fans, of all ages, all across the world. But while the reality of Liverpool finally winning the league following a defeat by their closest rivals, who were 23 points behind them, may not have come close to emulating the ‘dream’ ending of clinching the title on sunny May afternoon at a wild, frenzied Anfield, I at least got my moment.

Because as the final whistle blew, and as I shared that special hug with my Dad as Liverpool’s title was confirmed, that dream became a reality. And it is a moment that will live with me for a long, long time. You see, on one hand, football is about the goals, the wins and, if you’re good enough, the titles and cups. But on the other, football is about the people we experience these moments with. It is what connects us. It is, simply, remarkable.

Will I remember June 25, 2020 for Christian Pulisic’s tidy finish, or Fernandinho’s handball and Willian’s penalty? Probably not. Will I remember that hug with my Dad, shortly after 10 pm? I think you know the answer.

 

Jack Donnelly – Should Chelsea qualify for the Champions League, Christian Pulisic will be one of the main reasons why

While Thursday night’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester City had greater ramifications elsewhere in the league, Chelsea fans will remember the fact that Frank Lampard managed to turn over one of the big boys in his fight to achieve Champions League qualifications. For me, he has one man to thank – Christian Pulisic.

pulisic

Christian Pulisic has been instrumental in Chelsea’s post-lockdown success, scoring two in two and being a constant thorn in the side of opposition backlines.

The American winger has had an odd first season in English football. He struggled for minutes early on in the season, was introduced to astonishing effect in late October, scoring five goals in three games which included a perfect hattrick away at Burnley but fell away again before being injured at Brighton on New Year’s Day, missing every fixture up until football was postponed. Since coming back, Pulisic has looked deadly in every attacking move, using his speed, agility and awareness to get himself into the best possible positions for his team.

His goal against was telling of how he plays his game. In a match that saw Chelsea have less possession than their opponents for only the second time this season (in the league), any goal was going to come from a quick counter attack. The counter attack in question came after Chelsea cleared a Kevin de Bruyne free kick, which found itself at the feet of Ilkay Gundogan. Pulisic pressed the German back to the edge of the centre circle and pounced on a mix-up between Gundogan and Benjamin Mendy. The winger stormed towards the City box, evading a challenge from Mendy with ease before confidently finishing low to the onrushing Ederson’s left. Pleased with himself, Pulisic wheeled away in celebration, with shouts of “let’s f$@&ing go” echoing around Stamford Bridge.

Pulisic has come back from injury with confidence and hunger. Having already recorded his best league goal return in his career (seven in 18), Pulisic wants to push on and, with a player of his quality eager to deliver, Chelsea look like the most likely side to qualify for the Champions League. Without him, Lampard’s attacking Chelsea dagger looked a bit blunter – now, Pulisic has fans (and The Fratellis) believing in Chelsea’s qualification hopes once again.

 

Struan Garvie – Lonely with no Kompany – why City need to improve their defence

“We always believe and try to convince our players here, that as long as the ball is far away from our goal, we are safe.” – Pep Guardiola.

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Fernandinho has had inconsistent performances while deputising as a centre back for City. His performance against Chelsea was a low point, as the Brazilian was sent off for a handball that saw Chelsea receive a penalty which won them the game.

On Thursday night, Manchester City relinquished their Premier League title to Liverpool who currently sit 23 points clear of them at the top of the table. City have still had a good season, including winning the League Cup in March, although in the league they have not been the same side we have watched in awe the over the past two years. 

Scoring goals has been no problem for City this season with 77 in the league, more than any other team in the competition so far. However, defensively they have been very shaky. The club lost French centre half Aymeric Laporte through injury for most of the season. They’ve also failed to replace their former captain Vincent Kompany, who left last summer after a decade at the club in which time he became a legend in Premier League folklore, captaining the side to four league titles. Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho has been filling in at centre half recently in order to fill the gap. This has worked at times but others it has failed miserably. City have lost eight league games so far, compared to only four defeats in the entirety of last season, including defeats home and away to Wolves and local rivals Manchester United. Sitting back and catching City on the break with pace seems to be the way to beat them. 

That was made clear this week, when City lost 2-1 to Chelsea. Frank Lampard set up his Chelsea side to sit back and catch City on the break using the pace of forwards Christian Pulisic and Willian. His plan worked to perfection as City struggled to create many clear cut chances and were always vulnerable when Chelsea won the ball back. Chelsea were helped in part by errors from the City defence but deserved the victory none the less.

With recent reports linking City with a summer move for Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, it is clear that Guardiola knows he must improve his defence and find his Kompany replacement, otherwise there is no chance they will be able to catch this current Liverpool side next season.

 

Jamie Mcintosh – Has Sheffield United’s bubble burst?

Wednesday’s trip to the Theatre of Dreams saw another damaging defeat for Chris Wilder’s Blades. After the second half capitulation at St James’s Park on Sunday, many would have expected some sort of response from a team who, up until this point, have been very difficult to beat. Six goals conceded in the last two games without reply however doesn’t bode well for United’s slimming top 4 hopes.

egan vs joelinton

Jon Egan was shown a second yellow card for this challenge on Joelinton, which led to the first of two consecutive 3-0 defeats for Sheffield United – the Blades had only conceded three goals once before this season, in a 3-3 draw with Manchester United.

I called the 3-0 score line correctly (for once) as, in my opinion, the result at Old Trafford was inevitable. Dean Henderson was ineligible to play against his parent club and John Egan was suspended following Sunday’s red card.  Two huge players missing from this 11 who, presumably, have become so accustomed to playing alongside each other that when two of the usual starters are missing. it was always going to be difficult.

You have to admire Sheffield United for what they have achieved so far in their first season back in the Premier League. However, I can’t help but think this season is going to peter out for them. Their run in seems incredibly difficult on paper, however I’m a huge believer in the fact there is never an easy game in the Premier League anyway.  They still have to play Spurs, Wolves, Chelsea, Leicester and Everton, as well as two challenging away games against Burnley and Southampton.

Ultimately, Sheffield United have some games against the teams around them in the table, therefore wins in these games could very well see them secure a European spot. However, personally, I think they are now a team low in confidence who haven’t quite hit the ground running since the resumption of the Premier League nine days ago.

There is still potential for this Sheffield United side this season. However, they MUST turn their form around quickly.  On one hand, a European spot is still probable however a bottom half finish seems equally likely. There are a few teams creeping up behind them and should they continue to drop points, the five point gap separating themselves with 13th placed Newcastle will very easily be narrowed.

 

Taylor Murray – Is “Mr West Ham” finished for the Hammers?

The 2019/20 season hasn’t been the best for West Ham. Unrest within the dressing room and managerial uncertainty that saw David Moyes return for a glum reunion with his former team. After losing to ‘rivals’ Spurs on Tuesday night, West Ham are teetering on the edge of safety as they sit level on points with Bournemouth, behind 16th placed Watford by a single point.

West Ham have been far from perfect this season, having a very inconsistent run. Their best spell of form began in mid August and ended in late September, in a period that saw them go unbeaten in the league for six games, winning three and drawing three. One of the most instrumental players in not only this run, but West Ham’s last 13 campaigns was Mark Noble, Mr. West Ham himself. Noble has amassed 435 appearances for the Hammers and while 54 goals from midfield isn’t really anything more than average, managers past and present have been able to rely on Noble’s drive, decision making and engine, rather than sheer technical skill. Simply put, he’s a modern legend at the club.

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Noble has been a mainstay in the West Ham starting XI for over a decade, but has seen a gradual decline in his abilities over the past couple of seasons.

That being said however, Noble’s performances have noticeably declined over recent seasons. While he’s hit his average goal tally this season (four), the decline is most obvious when looking at his physical performance. Passes are becoming sloppy and inaccurate, while marking is less tight and less disciplined. While no one expects Noble to be at the same fitness level he was even a few seasons ago, at 33 years old, he can still bring something to a team in the right role. However, manager David Moyes seemingly hasn’t considered that Noble’s physical game is fading and has him deployed as a high-pressing midfielder, having him man mark players for whole matches, limiting his effectiveness. His constant running has him ground down and beaten, with one of West Ham’s most reliable passers of the ball severely losing his touch.

Having given West Ham blood, sweat and tears throughout his entire footballing career, the club have stuck with Noble through thick and thin. However, with his abilities beginning to decline, I could see this being the last season that we see Noble in the claret and blue of his beloved club. If Moyes is replaced before next season commences, Noble may find a new lease of life in a new position, but until then, it’s likely that we could see Mr. West Ham play his final minutes in the London Stadium before leaving as a legend.

Cameron Wanstall – With football being postponed, Leicester see their Champions League hopes looking slim

Leicester City fans were already dreaming of hearing the Champions League anthem back at the King Power next season. An alarming four-game winless streak in February was forgotten after a trouncing of Aston Villa and the Foxes looked back on track.

kasper penalty save

Despite a penalty save from Kasper Schmeichel, Leicester City offered little to nothing going forward and, at times, looked likely to lose this game to Brighton.

COVID-19 stopped Leicester from pushing on and now, after a three-month delay, the club has lost all momentum. The manner of the draw to Watford was devastating. and the goalless draw against Brighton on Tuesday was just as deflating. The team looked error prone and timid, with a total lack of creativity in the final third boring, and worrying, the Leicester faithful watching from home.

Kasper Schmeichel is the only player excused from scrutiny after saving an early Neal Maupay penalty. Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy were scarcely involved; Demarai Gray and James Maddison struggled in the final third; Papy Mendy and Wilfred Ndidi, an untested midfield duo, were poor together. Leicester have been a feel-good story this season but since the restart they have looked a shadow of their former selves.

A late-season collapse is becoming likely as the games only get tougher: Chelsea are next (in the FA Cup) and their final two games are against Tottenham and Manchester United. Those three sides, and Wolves, have looked sharp since the restart and are now all within ten points of Leicester. One more league game without a win could see them drop into fourth – Brendan Rodgers must make sure this is as far as they fall.

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