Wednesday 17 January 2018 / 01:46 AM

BOX-TO-BOX: EPL MATCHDAY 18

Talking points and analysis from Week 18 of the Premier League

The Headlines

From the ashes

The turnaround Crystal Palace have made under Roy Hodgson is downright mind-boggling, truly amazing considering his hiring was widely criticised and remains so in the British media despite the results. No points – or even a goal – through the first seven games before a coaching change and an upset win over Chelsea sparked the revival.

Their form now is a stark contrast to that earlier in the season: they’ve now gone unbeaten in their last seven EPL games, the first time they’ve ever done so in their club’s history — from pointless and hopeless to a franchise-best run. Incredible. Their first away win of the season against in-form Leicester in Week 18 was a new high-mark for the season, a convincing 3-0 rout in which they took control and looked the better outfit from the opening exchanges.

Truthfully, the improvement seems far more drastic than what has taken place. Palace possess more talent than they managed to display through the early stages of the competition, but to drag yourself out of such a deep hole remains worth celebrating. With Swansea next on the docket they can reinforce their new position, a win particularly important with matchups against City and Arsenal looming.

An inspiring breakthrough.

Sweet 16

Strolling through the competition, Manchester City continues to go from strength-to-strength with a glittering 4-1 win over Tottenham. They’ve peeled off yet another consecutive victory in this historic streak, this time rebuffing a perceived contender who many believed had the stylistic components to pose a legitimate threat, with such alarming ease that the title race is quickly becoming more of a majestic victory lap.

A little before the halfway mark of the season, City are 11 points clear atop the League and have won 16 EPL games in a row – their only dropped points this season coming in a draw against Everton (of all teams) in Week 2. Not impressed? City holds a combined score of 15-3 against the other ‘Big Six’ clubs and have looked a class above in all of their high-profile showdowns.

There is little to add to the adulation that City has already received, their consistency to continue to play such high-level football regardless of who is opposing them simply astonishing. One detail worth highlighting: it’s becoming evident that their run of form has inspired a new level of defensive intensity, almost a feeling of disrespect that opponents feel they can hold onto the ball against them.

They pressed with such ferocity that Spurs looked genuinely panicked with possession and felt the pressure for the full 90 minutes. If City can lift their defence to a similar level of their stellar offensive play, this could get out of hand fast.

Collision course

Whether the Liverpool and Arsenal brass meet beforehand to discuss the week’s plans or not is up for debate, but it’s uncanny how their form-lines have followed one another so far this year — through the disappointments and revivals, both struggling from similar problems of defensive fragility and an imbalance that caused a restriction on their talented attack. The only consistency has been inconsistency.

After suffering through disappointing midweek fixtures in which they dropped points in winnable games, both teams came out and took care of business, picking up important wins – Arsenal 1-0 against Newcastle and Liverpool 4-0 at Bournemouth. Sitting on the divide between the top three and the next tier, they’re still separated by only one point for the coveted final Champions League spot.

Thankfully for our sanity, they’ll meet next week at the Emirates to sort things out – but they’ve probably agreed on the draw. Something’s got to give.

Week 18 Winners and Losers

Winner: Leroy Sane, superstar

Quickly emerging as one of the hardest covers in the league, the ceiling on just how good Leroy Sane can be continues to rise with every breakout performance. The Man City winger’s most recent display against Tottenham was another contender for career-best, a constant threat down the left flank causing nightmares for the defence every time the ball was at his feet. What’s most scary? The tools at his disposal makes it easy to believe he’s barely scratching the surface of his huge potential.

Guardiola’s system is designed to create chances through team-oriented movement, but often breathtaking talent like this just needs time and space to work. Sane’s improvement has come within the confines of the team, making the correct decisions and continue to grow as an all-round player, but in individual glimpses of brilliance we get a look at what the final, most beautifully terrifying version of the player he is quickly becoming. Observe:

Using the space afforded by a gorgeous pass from De Bruyne, Sane sizes up his options before using his pace and long strides to drive straight past Kieran Trippier (an astute, international-level defender, no less). Within a flash, he’s found a lane into the box, and despite Trippier recovering well and directing him towards the presence of Dier, Sane still fires off a dangerously accurate shot that forces Lloris to parry the ball, falling at the feet of Sterling. A chance created out of thin air that will, more times than not, result in a goal.

Teams have already begun adjusting to the threat: KDB was afforded extra space to fire off his shot because multiple Spurs defenders tracked the decoy run of Sane, an unmeasured assist that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet but is among the most important contributions possible. The width he provides the attack has a gravity that pulls defenders a half-step away from KDB or Silva, providing tremendous, unquantifiable value. The more he gets to show off his repertoire, the quicker he’ll rise to the league elite ranks.

It won’t be long before he’s commanding attention as one of the Premier League’s best.

Loser: Bournemouth’s defensive record

The Cherries entered the weekend with the sixth-best defensive record in the league. After a 4-0 flogging at the hands of Liverpool, they’ve slipped to equal-10th and looked completely out of their depth attempting to guard the Reds’ attack.

It exposed some concerning flaws in their system, and looking over the season it becomes clear that their previously strong record was forged with performances against some of the league’s weaker teams. Lucky for them, they’ll get a chance to regain some steam when they travel to the Etihad to take on Manchester City. (Breaks sweat.)

Winner: Jesse Lingard, starter

It’s always nice to see a young player progress through the ranks of a club, earn his place in the rotation and force his way into the starting side with a string of great performances. Jose Mourinho rightly rewarded Lingard’s terrific form by continuing to find a spot for him in the starting XI.

Forced to make some untoward changes with moving pieces in the last few games without midfield linchpin Paul Pogba, Mourinho has reverted to a more subdued, deep counter-attacking game-plan whilst his midfield is understaffed. With the team United have run out, they’ve deployed Lingard in an attacking-mid role rather than his usual striker/wing position.

The caveat: Lingard is playing out of position. There’s points on both sides of the argument. In prioritising the counter-attack, Lingard provides the Red Devils another lethal option that leaves defences shook when they get out in transition. His pace is particularly effective at slicing through unsettled defensive lines:

He should have done better to finish here, but the opportunity that opened up is exactly what they’re looking for by putting him in that position.

On the other hand, when forced to make quick decisions and play more of a typical midfield role, the limitations of this look are exposed:

First, he fails to spot the more immediately dangerous run of Lukaku slipping in behind the line, and then puts the ball behind Martial, enough where he has to check his run, killing the rythym — the phase loses momentum and ends up with an offside. Switch him out with a more typically suited player here, say Juan Mata, and there it’s far more likely a scoring chance is created. Pogba is one of the rare midfielders who could polish off both chances here, and situations like these makes his absence sting.

My criticism of United has remained consistent all season, and playing four attacking forwards together is the definition of gimmicky; they’ve steered into the skid, for better or worse. Where Mourinho goes from here is an intriguing watch.

Loser: Form guides

Because predicting results wasn’t already hard enough.

We’ve seen plenty of wild variation in the form of the league’s second-tier teams, with plenty of the early-season form seeming worlds away from where they are now.

Everton were in crisis, tethered to the relegation zone whilst playing some of the dourest, uninspiring football in the club’s recent history. They’ve now broken into the top 10 (currently ninth) and sit only one point outside of eighth. Leicester followed a similar trajectory and are the team sitting above Everton, although find themselves on the slide again after falling convincingly to Palace who are the leaders of the renaissance.

West Ham have clawed their way out of relegation with a string of strong performances, whilst Newcastle has plummeted from the top 10 to the bottom three after taking only one point from their last nine outings. Huddersfield has been as high as sixth and as low as 14th; Watford was pressing fifth just a fortnight ago and are now clinging to the top half of the table by a point. All we want is some consistency.

Thank god for Burnley.

Parting shots

• His goal against Leicester broke a 13-game drought, and he added an assist for good measure, but I remain unconvinced Benteke is the right man to lead the line for Palace’s driving attack. Still not clinical enough in snapping up opportunities that they can’t afford to miss.

• No loss in a big game is ever enjoyable, especially when you fall to seventh and sit 21 points off the lead, but Tottenham shouldn’t get down about falling to City. Very few teams would have been able to match that level; they simply ran into a better team. Better times ahead.

• Jersey watch: Swansea have been on a run of quality alternate options, and their red kit is an interesting, but effective changeup. The choice to wear that against Everton is a nice jab at the Toffees considering their distaste for the colour.

• Speaking of: There is no more frustrating team to watch then Everton. Everything is a grind. They clawed their way back into the match with the Swans by quite literally advancing down the field with free kicks and eventually found their way to the penalty spot. They did this twice, how fun.

• No player comes into an already established line-up and has his fingerprints all over the game quite like Willian. I’ve harped on this for a while, and it’s obviously match-up dependent in terms of how defensive Conte wants to go, but he has to find a spot, or at least more time, for the crafty Brazilian in the line-up. Can’t bury world-class talent on the bench.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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